Comedy with a Cause

Humour and Laughter

I firmly believe that while laughter is universal, humour is not. Those in the field of medicine can correct me if I am wrong, but laughter seems to be a physiological reaction to something funny, a condition mostly inherent in humans. The question lies in what exactly is the trigger — hence, humour — behind the reaction. In fact, I would put it right up there with cohabitation and traveling to a foreign place as effective ways of gauging one’s true character. The latter sentiment that may or may not be shared by others, depending on one’s level of exposure and liberalism. Or lack thereof.

The type of humour I enjoy is an amalgamation of absurdism, pop-culture references, irony, and puns. Yes, I’m a punisher. (Wahey!) But it is irony that made me deduce the universality of laughter, and not of humour. Some time ago, I browsed through a Catechism booklet written contextually and comprehensively in a level directed for children. Having grown up Catholic, there was very little surprise to me with regards to its contents. Whether or not I found my personal beliefs to align with that of the Church (Read: I’m rather liberal.), I amused myself with the hand-drawn illustrations that flanked every page. Then, I reached the part that stated irony to be a sin. I paused at that page. I disagreed, every moment of disagreement being all the more vehement. It bothered me greatly.

Irony, a form of expression that veers from the literal, involves an extra ounce of thinking in order to grasp. When funny, it is a form of intelligent humour. Those who appreciate its art know how to read into the humour at just the right depth without falling into either trap of overanalyst or fundamentalist interpretation. I shall refrain from stating where the book was written and published, but the illustrations and examples in the booklet catered solely to a culture that does not use much irony in its collective humour. To me, I feel it is the “foreign” impression and misunderstood notions of irony felt by the writers of that booklet that led it to be wrongly demonised. After all, Catholicism is a religion that reaches many parts of the world, including devotees coming from cultures that do see irony as a social reality. As sad as it is, it’s easier to fear what we don’t understand.

Cultural Humour

Having a third cultured upbringing makes one develop an extra sensitivity to people, the fear of offending in tandem with the endless fascination with one’s personal history. Things like death and separation are approached delicately, and as much as possible, not conjured in public discussion. Even in private discussions, that sensitivity is still present. It is an unspoken code, seldom written down but adhered to with the loyalty akin to that of a gladiator.

But within a close circle of diverse personalities, there are times when a certain understanding has been established. It is an understanding that grants the allowance to poke fun at certain aspects of someone, but in a playful and endearing manner. It is no coincidence these people who have such an understanding are also intelligent enough to know how to make fun of themselves. It’s a special bond, or a complicated type of agreement that cannot easily be formed with just anybody. It is also difficult to explain in words.

In the name of explaining this unique understanding, I have compiled a list of YouTube videos of comedians who focus on culture-related issues. Cultural comedy is one of my favourite types of funny. A prime example would be Russell Peters, but I wanted to focus on the other names within that particular comedic ilk. Ranging from recollections of childhood experiences to humour that makes one ruminate long after the punchlines, light-hearted in character or appeals to extra sensitivity to issues, it is comedy with a cause.

Omid Djalili: The “Hasan” Game

If one isn’t familiar with his name right off the bat, it is understandable. But I am sure a barrage of memories and laughter would return if I were to mention that British-born Iranian Omid Djalili portrayed Gad Hassan, one of the central villains in first installment of “The Mummy” back in 1999. For further recollection, Gad Hassan is the constant butt of jokes, particularly at the mercy of Brendan Fraser’s character.

This actor is also an accomplished stand-up comedian, with a show to his own name. The following segment, entitled “The ‘Hasan’ Game”, is taken from one of Djalili’s stand-up bits. He recalls one of the most embarrassing moments he experienced when with his father and uncle when partaking in a tradition specific to his family.

Not only is this five-minute segment brilliantly animated by Djalili’s trademark voices and facial expressions, but with the hilarious absurdity of it all, it is hard to believe the experience — though surely heightened for comedic effect — is based off something real.

Adam Hills: On Language

In this segment, Australian comedian Adam Hills recalls an experience ride a train from London to Paris. Being one of the few people in the train who speaks English, he overhears an English woman speak on her mobile phone, and realises how foreign the language sounds to people who do not speak it natively. He proceeds to make what I believe is hilarious and spot-on impressions of various accents.

What I like about Hills’ comedic style — aside from, ahem, being physically attractive — is that based on his many travels, he touches upon social issues that are in dire need of addressing. He calls bluffs or corrects misshapen thinking. For some of his shows, he has been known to have a sign language interpreter with him onstage as an effort to accommodate both the deaf and the hearing. Hills is a man who builds bridges.

In fact, there is a strong underlying message in his imitation of accents. It is that the concept of foreignness is a matter of perspective. The intensity of feeling foreign depends on where one is and how one feels, and whether one finds being the “different one” a comfort or a burden. For many with a third cultured upbringing, the foreign feeling is pretty much a safety blanket, for it is repatriation that some find profoundly frightening.

Steve Hofstetter: Racism

To echo the sentiment of one of the comments: cerebral humour, this one. New York-born columnist, author, and comedian Steve Hofstetter touches on the futility of racism. While it is true that we all have our own prejudices, Hofstetter focuses on the bigger picture.

His deadpan delivery is genius. Whether not we have an adopted sibling of a different race, Hoffsteter points out that the true eradication of racism does not start with censorship of shameful phrases, but rather with the awareness and education to choose the better and dignified path.

Rhod Gilbert: Luggage

When I first happened upon this Welsh comedian, I had no idea who he was, yet my midsection ached from laughing so hard at this sketch. Modified in accordance to the location of his shows, the following segment parodies the frustrations undergone by a traveler when they lose or receive mangled luggage. His frustrated style is charming, because it is intellectual, descriptive, and… okay, sometimes crass.

In fact, if I were to pick between him and Lewis Black, another comedian who I believe incorporates a rather similar style, I prefer Rhod Gilbert. His articulations when building up a joke is much like that of the lost art of traditional storytelling, images practically coming alive. Besides, Lewis Black constantly looks like he’s approaching a heart attack at every comedy session, and I fear the very day he does actually keel over.

Jotter with a Cause

The too many recent unfortunate events that have unfolded had me ruminating the existence and the damaging effects of racial, religious, and ethnic hatred. For the most part, I kept most of my comments away from social media outlets, but have discussed them at some length with some of my contemporaries — in particular, fellow adult third culture kids. It brought out the third cultured sensitivity — third culture kids technically a minority in itself — seeing groups of people being targeted for being different or are seen as guilty by association. That being said, the one recent event that is closest to home for me would be the Ground Zero controversy in New York.

I was born and raised in a country with a large Muslim population. I grew up seeing churches built next to or across from mosques, and on special occasions, seeing the other provide extra parking for the devotees during feast days and special events. I’ve been included in fast breaking meals during the holy month of Ramadhan, and I do the same by inviting them over during Easter and Christmas. My friends and I give each other greetings during the appropriate times of the year, and we all mourned, unspecific of creed, when New York was attacked in September 2001. As a Catholic, I have long admired the humility of my Muslim sisters and brothers, and I try to incorporate it into the way I live my own life. Reading news of a Protestant church planning to burn the Islam’s holy text in commemoration of 9/11 makes me sick. It is barbaric, too, considering it is currently the holy month. We should overcome the myopic effect of hate, and I firmly believe the moral bankruptcy of a small group of people do not reflect the community — and humanity — as a whole.

What gives me a glimmer of hope is that the previously mentioned fundamentalist group do not represent the sentiments of the general Protestant — and Christian — population. We’re not all soulless cretins, and I’d like to believe that humanity is still inherently good, and the good can be exercised when we are made aware. We just need reminding now and then.

What About You?

What type of humour do you enjoy? Do you believe irony is a sin? Feel free to plug any videos or pages of funnies, and let us unite in the good name of healthy laughter.


  1. papigiulio

    Ahhhh great write up. Have been planning to do one for ages. Yeah Djalili and Ghilbert are awesome. Ill have to make my version of this post then :P stay tuned hehe

  2. Maria Celina

    @Abby: I believe irony is a wonderful thing too, Abby. I guess the ones who are so eager to demonise it cannot wrap their brains around the concept.

    @Gum: Thanks for sharing a small part of your past, Gum. In a previous life, I had a stint at a Catholic educational institution too, and much to my dismay it was quite Islamophobic — amongst other things. It was also my first exposure to such flagrant displays of discrimination that for the longest time, I could not confront my anger over that experience. Thankfully, there is a reason behind good memories and that unpleasant time is almost all but forgotten.

    @Charles Ravndal: I also have a soft spot for British humour too, Charles. You would have appreciated the Omid Djalili video that I plugged in this post.

    @Nikz: Nikz, I think our correspondences in general are proof in itself that humour is not universal, heh! Though we can carry long conversations, I do notice that we laugh at different things sometimes, or interpret various things in ways that connect to our individual calibrations. I found “The Emperor’s New Groove” funny too, but in a superficial way. Unlike you, I personally found its humour slapstick-like, and not that of unexpected twists, because a lot of their gags were choreographed. As is the other Disney productions, really. I do think Disney has to keep that approach, however. They still have to cater to the funnies grasped by the minds of children.

    @Chris: Chris! Thank you! It brings me great joy to learn that you also enjoyed Djalili’s sketch! Out of all the sketches, I believe I laughed the loudest at his, too. It’s really just a question of putting yourself in his shoes. Or Bryan’s/Brian’s shoes, the poor bugger.

  3. Nikz

    :) Man, I tried watching the first vid, but I couldn’t really get the jokes :( So it really goes to show that humour isn’t universal X) I’ve yet to see the last two! *Wonders if she should sneak them at work* XDDDD

    But … irony? A sin? Hmm, I’d like to know the reason behind that :P But I don’t think it sinful XD I’m pretty difficult to tickle, actually O_O In many animated movies, most of my friends are laughing but I’m not. But I like the humour of “The Emperor’s New Groove” though … so maybe something around unexpected twists? ^^

  4. Charles Ravndal

    I do agree that while laughter is universal, humour is not. Different cultures have different humours. I can tell especially when dealing with different nationalities.
    Btw, I have a soft spot for British humour!

  5. Gum

    I like that video of Steve Hofstetter. It’s education and it’s funny at the same time. As for the type of humor I enjoy, it’s usually slapstick humor and satire.

    Politics disguised as religion/faith. How sad, no? As someone who has attended Catholic school(that accepted students of different faith) almost all my life, I don’t understand the hate.

  6. Abby

    I really like that Welsh comedian. So funny! I do not believe irony is a sin. I think it’s a wonderful, wonderful thing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *