Hey, that's not funny...here.
April 28, 2020 4:14 PM   Subscribe

Help me settle a debate with a friend: in the way that Russian culture is known for its dark humor and to the degree to which dark humor is acceptable there, are there any places that are the opposite and have a culturally low tolerance for dark humor? Anecdotes and academic studies welcome!

So I want the focus here not to be on a culture's comedy exports or popular comedians, but the ways in which people use humor in everyday life. Also, I'm curious about interactions within a given culture, not cross-cultural interactions. And it goes without saying that I'm not thinking of examples where punching down/otherwise directly making fun of someone is acceptable.
posted by blerghamot to Society & Culture (20 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
dark humor does not go over well among Utah LDS (Mormons), from what I've seen. In general, negativity in all its forms (pessimism, negativity, criticism, complaining, etc) is To Be Avoided in that milieu.
posted by fingersandtoes at 4:29 PM on April 28, 2020 [23 favorites]

Yes, in West Michigan (very Lutheran and Reformed) would be a terrible place in "nice people" culture to be negative or sardonic. Always surprising (although the midwest nice sucks too)
posted by rebent at 4:40 PM on April 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

Anecdotal but I lived in Chicago for four years and would say that bleak jokes do not, on the whole, get a ton of laughs there among natives of the surrounding midwest and sometimes cause mild consternation. (Maybe I'm just not funny.)
posted by less of course at 4:44 PM on April 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

From personal experience, negative humor and sarcasm don't fly well in Japanese culture. Some comedy here is pretty dark, but mostly surface level, unexplored consequences dark. I'm sure someone will have an example showing me wrong, but this has been my experience here.

Can also vouch for rebent's take on West Michigan.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:12 PM on April 28, 2020 [5 favorites]

Gallows humour, in my experience, is often used as a coping mechanism and bonding mechanism which tends to predominate with cultures that are confronted frequently with situations where the individual has no control or cultures where optimism is rarely justified. I come from a Northern Canadian community that has had long periods of pretty bad luck, so for us, gallows humour is a default. I know in some types of work, gallows humour is the norm (many of the first responders, body removal people, nurses and social workers I've met have used gallows humour - a quick search pulls up this paper and this one on the subject). Also I've found that many people I've encountered in mainstream US (but also including some on Metafilter) who do not share gallows humour and in some cases find it deeply disturbing.
posted by Ashwagandha at 5:14 PM on April 28, 2020 [41 favorites]

US West Coast, definitely.
posted by The Toad at 8:56 PM on April 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

It depends on what passes for "dark" and on the topic of the joke. It is also probably very heavily dependent on subculture and the overall background of your audience, which is why I wouldn't generalize about an entire country for example. I was able to make grim jokes about the overall state of the world, or of politics, or of capitalism itself all day long to those I knew and worked with in the US Pacific Northwest, and even if they didn't find it hilarious it wasn't considered that edgy or offensive. I was certainly never told off, and with some friends it was our primary mode and register of self-expression; my family is big on gallows humor but it could be a Catholic thing or related to the culture in which my parents/grandparents were born, which was not the US.

My upper-middle-class, white colleagues and acquaintances in France for the past ~12 years do not seem to appreciate this at all--though as someone else said above I may just not be very funny, and sarcasm translates very, very poorly from one culture to another usually--and I rarely hear them make jokes like this about systemic issues or the general state of the world. I find that pessimism is well-accepted here culturally, and perhaps as a result people are much more straightforward and unironic about expressing it. Frankly the only times I hear this sort of humor are when someone, usually male, is joking about topics PNWers and American lefties in general don't find funny coming from people who don't directly experience them, such as sexual and domestic violence. I am not informed enough to speculate productively on why this may be, though I have a few ideas.

People I know or have known over here who do not belong to dominant racial and socioeconomic groups are another story entirely, and seemed to be much more on my wavelength about things like this.
posted by peakes at 11:22 PM on April 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure exactly what you mean but when I moved from Massachusetts to California back in 2001 I had to quickly learn to dial back the east coast sarcasm.
posted by bendy at 12:55 AM on April 29, 2020 [14 favorites]

As a non-American, our undoubtedly unfair stereotype is that the entire US is like this. New Zealanders are fond of deadpan, irony and understatement, essential components of dark humour, and these play very badly with Americans, we find, Conchords notwithstanding.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 1:15 AM on April 29, 2020 [27 favorites]

As i_am_joe's_spleen said about New Zealanders, this is a stereotype Australians hold about America. The traits of just about the most cardboard cut out American character doing a cameo in an Australian comedy/light hearted drama would be ambition and more or less competence but jarring earnestness and almost total obliviousness to deadpan or dark humour. Sometimes Australians put on an American accent to say something unabashedly not dark.
posted by hotcoroner at 2:51 AM on April 29, 2020 [17 favorites]

Nthing this is the perception amongst Australians about America. I think all of us travelling to the US have at some point experienced the unfortunate silence and faltering smile of a new acquaintance in bewildered horror at what was a perfectly-normal-to-us comment. In the UK on the other hand, it goes down fine. I'd say they are even better than us.
posted by kitten magic at 4:21 AM on April 29, 2020 [6 favorites]

As an American who’s lived elsewhere, I feel I can confirm this is how people in many other countries think of Americans: people who are remarkably impervious to sarcasm and dark humor. (And, on the whole, I don’t disagree).

I also agree that there are regional and subcultural differences within the US on this - speaking, again, as someone who’s lived in a bunch of US regions while trying to get people to laugh at my depressing jokes. Some places are a lot more influenced by “positive thinking” culture and socially-encouraged public displays of good cheer than others.

Utah Mormons are a great example of this, and I’ve found this to be somewhat true among more religious white people in the rural South and Midwest. Californians tend on the whole to be less amused by dark humor than East Coasters. In my experience, the West Coast tech world encourages a certain type of positive, optimistic and confident perspective - you know, VCs who write constant LinkedIn posts about Finding Success - that does not mesh well with bleak humor.

As a warm-weather native who’s just survived another miserable Boston winter/spring, I get it. It’s hard to be cheery when you’re getting pelted in the face with freezing rain.

Finally, I have also observed major differences within industries and professions. I’ve worked in journalism, humanitarian aid, and academic research on disaster response - all fields populated by people who use extreme gallows humor as both a coping mechanism and a way to bond with each other. Most of my friends are in these fields or related ones, too. The kind of humor that works for me in these settings often comes off as horrifying to people who work in other industries, and I have to work pretty hard to read the room when I’m outside of my usual contexts.
posted by faineg at 5:04 AM on April 29, 2020 [8 favorites]

Nthing that this is how I think much of the rest of the world views Americans as a whole, in a horrible simplification of a vast and varied nation.

Also: That explanation about Utah LDS folk rings so true! I spent a semester as a high school exchange student in Utah Country back in the early 90s. As a typically cynical British 18-year-old, I was mightily disconcerted by the way my host mom would blast out a super-jolly-isn't-the-world-happy version of How Much Is That Doggy In the Window on repeat on the family stereo on Saturdays. I'd never come across that determinedly 'Everything is bright and shiny and I will play this bright and shiny music as loudly as possible all over the house to prove it'-ness before.

In fact the only time we came close to falling out was when I watched a chat show where the guest was a woman who'd turned her back on the LDS church and was discussing her experiences in less than positive terms. Which, obviously, was a bit of me being a teenage, ungrateful dick towards my hosts and their beliefs, but was also somewhat them being: "We will conteunance absolutely no darkness or negativity here lest it pollute our children's minds."
posted by penguin pie at 6:01 AM on April 29, 2020 [1 favorite]

I spend a few moments looking for research on humour rather than fluffy articles and the best I could find was the Wikipedia articles on the various different national senses of humour, British, American and Russian.

There is a national sense of humour the way there is a national identity; Different parts of one country will disagree on main themes and implications, especially if it is a large country.

There appears to me to be a strain where those who are optimistic go for a paler humour than those who are pessimistic and that will be reflected both nationally as well as individually. There is no wikipedia article on North Korean humour but I would bet you that the public humour there is many degrees lighter than private humour. I would also suspect that light humour goes with a greater degree of confidence in government and authorities. I see a very different sense of humour among the church ladies than I do the millennials or the heavy metal fans in my friend groups, but they all do innuendo, puns and poking fun at authority. They handle those themes in very different ways but the church ladies are not necessarily more optimistic or pro-social than the heavy metal fans. Obviously church ladies do not specialize in gross out humour but they do enjoy it without the use of dirty or vulgar words, eg. Punchline: "I think I stepped in it."

I've also observed that in liberal churches they constantly make jokes about God, and in fundamentalist churches jokes about God are considered disrespectful to heretical; this completely follows authoritarian lines. The more authoritarian the less joking on a potentially taboo subject is permitted. I've never been exposed enough to an authoritarian group to get contact with their private humour - the kind of joke about God or the church hierarchy that they share only with a trusted family member.

How aggressive someone in my friend groups' humour is seems to related to how hostile they are. When they reach a certain level of hostility towards others they are amused only by insults and slander and strawman attacks which have no elements of classical humour in them. Something like a pun is seen as not funny at all unless it is an attack, and not as funny as a pure attack without a pun involved.

At the opposite end of the scale you get the self deprecating humour which often, but not always seems to go with a greater affection for the living as a whole. I find that listening to someone's sense of humour is an excellent way to gauge how open to empathy they are. There are some people I wouldn't dream of engaging with, let alone debating with, and others that I'll share new ideas with, purely based on a meme they shared.

But there is also self deprecating humour however that is really so ego focused that it covers an interesting degree of narcissism. It seems to me that Woody Allen as an example specialized in, "My faults make me loveable" combined with "Nasty thing happens to a woman," as the basis of his sense of humour and I have learned to watch out for that. Another example of that particular sense of humour is George MacDonald Fraser. Someone who wants you to laugh about something shitty they did to someone else wants you to condone them doing shitty things to other people.

There are two sorts of self deprecating humour, the one where the narrator does something antisocial and we laugh and abet them in their behaviour, and the other where the narrator pretends to be the victim of undeserved misfortune.

You know those facebook quizzes where you get to pick from 12 things and then share your results, as in "What type of dog are you?" and everyone gets to be a loyal labrador, a loving golden retriever or an intelligent border collie? The type of self deprecating humourist I mean is the one who instead of taking the quiz writes themself up as a pariah dog: "Filthy, cowardly and verminous, Jane is a thief who only attacks those weaker than herself..." The humour in the joke is that of course the quiz would never give a result like that. However the joke is also poking fun at the quiz and the people who take it, while ostensibly being the butt of the joke themself. It's a subtle warning about the nature of those quizzes and a suggestion that they are a bait and switch game.
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:49 AM on April 29, 2020 [5 favorites]

I think in the US at least one might also mention a Jewish/not Jewish distinction on reception of gallows humor, relating to Ashwagandha’s point above. Not to lump everyone else together, but I have rarely met a Jew who didn’t enjoy humor about how awful everything is (and have even less frequently been one.)
posted by less of course at 7:23 AM on April 29, 2020 [9 favorites]

In my observation, it’s not that ALL North Americans dislike gallows humour. I observe it most noticeably with white people from non-diverse, less-urban places where everyone values seeming “nice”. I think homogeneity gives a falsely rosy view of the world and it’s too uncomfortable to challenge that privilege by acknowledging that parts of life are difficult or unfair.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 10:16 AM on April 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

This is an interesting question. My parents always called their dark brand of humor "Chicago humor." They are 1st and 2nd generation Americans, descended from Slavic and Baltic immigrants.
posted by medeine at 12:50 PM on April 29, 2020 [2 favorites]

Thanks for the insights so far! I live in the Prairies, and I'd say it's a fair generalization that folks here don't do dark the way that much of big-city Eastern Canada does. Some of that maybe has something to do with what nouvelle-personne mentioned, but I do notice that regardless of ethnicity, people who are from somewhere else in Canada have a very different sense sense of humor than born-and-bred Western Canadians.

Does anyone have good examples from non-North American or non-European cultures? Anecdotally, the no-gallows-humor (and no-deadpan) thing is something I associate with people from some parts of the Caribbean, but I don't know how much of that is country-specific.
posted by blerghamot at 1:44 PM on April 29, 2020

As an American who’s lived elsewhere, I feel I can confirm this is how people in many other countries think of Americans: people who are remarkably impervious to sarcasm and dark humor.

As an American who has traveled a lot, let me say it's not because we don't get it. We get it, we just dislike it. (cf. oblivious american sitcom stereotype). I liked sarcasm and "clever" negativity when I was young. Now I've got no time for that, and prefer to be around people who (generally) prefer to not dwell on things that suck. (Exception: politics threads on metafilter)
posted by ctmf at 9:24 PM on April 29, 2020 [3 favorites]

I'm not sure I'd agree that urban places with diversity are much more open with dark humour. It certainly isn't true from my experience. I deal with clients in Vancouver and I really need to be very careful how I talk because they definitely don't do dark. And what passes for dark in Toronto is frankly kind of cute. Maybe sarcastic but that's not darkness. Coming from a culture where you expect the worse and, at best, just hope to survive I think is a more likely source of darkness.
posted by Ashwagandha at 6:17 PM on April 30, 2020

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