Humor is a very different animal from place to place, or so it would seem. Certain brands of comedic endeavor transcend geographical boundaries, to be sure: Monty Python, Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, Inspector Clouseau, to name a few. Some other varieties don’t easily bridge the culture/language gap. Case in point: there is an old chestnut about a horse who walks into a bar. The bartender looks up and goes, “Hey baby, why the long face?” Of course this will be a funny joke only in places where “long face” is synonymous with sadness, thus giving it a double meaning appealing to fans of wordplay. Years later this joke was famously revisited featuring modern-day celebrities sporting long faces, such as John Kerry, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Celine Dion. John Kerry walks into a bar, and the bartender goes, “Hey buddy, why the long face?”
So several years ago I tried this joke out on my Japanese friend, Saki, and she looked at me like I was the beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt unfunniest person on earth. “It’s funny?” she asked, incredulous. The humor is lost if you have to explain it, but she requested that I try nonetheless, as she is eager to pick up American nuance to complement her already reasonably good English grammar skills. So I gave it my best shot (long face = sadness, John Kerry has a lo-o-o-ng face), but it still didn’t elicit even the faintest blip on the laugh-o-meter.
Anyway, a couple of Christmases back, she and I were invited to visit my brother Thane and his wife Carol for the holidays, and I came up with what I thought was a hilarious suggestion for their first in-person meeting. (But first I must make a tiny digression to offer a bit of necessary background: neither my brother nor I have ever been accused of missing a meal, and of all the ways we might meet our respective ends, malnourishment would not likely find a place on the list; this seeming non sequitur will make all sorts of sense shortly. Now, back to the thread of the story.) On the train to Narita Airport I mentioned to Saki that if she wanted to impress Thane with her growing English skills she should try telling him a joke, and the one I immediately thought of was a variant on “long face.” John Kerry and Celine Dion walk into a bar, and the bartender goes, “Hey you two, why the long faces?”
“I’m not going to tell that joke,” she said dismissively.
“Why not? It’s really cute, a little bit of a variation from the norm, and it will really show off your English skills,” I replied.
“It’s stupid, that’s all. It’s not funny.”
“Trust me, it is. If you tell that joke to Thane, it will absolutely crack him up.”
“It’s not going to happen.”
“Oh, come on,” I wheedled.
“I have an idea,” she said. “I will tell him a different joke, but kind of the same. It will be funnier.”
“That sounds good; let’s hear it.”
“Okay. Bruce and Thane walk into a bar, and the bartender says, “Hey you two, why the big bellies?”
Game, set, match.