The NY Times had an article today about the subtleties of standup comedy in different languages.
Not only can jokes get lost in translation, but an immigrant from one country may be completely hilarious to an immigrant from another country while falling flat with temporary visitors from his own country.
Sarah Maslin Nir writes, “In a city where a priest, an imam and a rabbi really could walk into a bar on any given day — along with just about anyone from around the globe — what different cultures laugh at is as diverse as the city itself. …
“Cultural stumbles are a theme in immigrant comedy in New York, said Oleg Boksner, a Brooklyn comedian who is preparing a one-man show called ‘From Russia With Laughs.’ In it he has fun with his heritage through caricatures like the transplant from Communist Russia who tries to join in with the American custom of Halloween, but scares away trick-or-treaters with his Soviet-style treats: a raw potato and an onion. ‘I’ve had people from Mexico relate to it as well,’ Mr. Boksner said of his act, ‘because they relate to the difficulties of being an immigrant in one form or another.’
“But when he played before a crowd of Russian visitors at B. B. King Blues Club and Grill in Midtown a few years ago, those jokes bombed. …
“And every foreign comedian must tackle the thorny task of figuring out which jokes just will not translate. Take the Mexican one about the chicken who was the height of foolishness. Why? Because he was looking for a pencil when he was surrounded by pens! ‘Plumas’ in Spanish, means ‘pens’ but also, critical to the joke, ‘feathers.’ ”
Photograph: Yana Paskova/NY Times
Ali Sultan, a Yemeni-American comedian who lives in Minnesota and performed at the Comic Strip in Manhattan last month, claims to have studied at the University of I’ll Just Google It.