The Joke’s on You: Differences in American and Chinese Humor

The Joke’s on You: Differences in American and Chinese Humor
Apr 20, 2015 By Trey Archer ,

Joe Wong is a Chinese national who moved to the US—following a brief stint as a chemical engineer in Texas—to become a stand-up comedian. Honing his craft since the early aughts, Wong achieved the funnyman equivalent of the American Dream nearly a decade later, following his performances on Late Show With David Letterman and Ellen in 2009 and at the Radio and TV Correspondents Dinner in 2010. But prior to becoming something of a household name stateside, Wong traveled to Beijing in 2008 to perform the Chinese language version of his act, opening with one of his best-known punch lines: "Hi everybody… So, I'm Irish."

The Joke’s on You: Differences in American and Chinese Humor

While this intentionally ridiculous statement always received big laughs from American audiences, the Chinese crowd was entirely unresponsive, apparently unaware that Wong's comedy routine had begun. Suffice it to say, the rest of his act bombed. Wong learned the hard way that American humor doesn't always translate into Chinese and vice versa—in fact, he published an autobiographical look at the subject, The Tao of Humor earlier this year. Although humor is largely dependent on individual preferences, by examining broad socio-historic development of the United States and China, we can see how these two nations developed their entirely different sensesof humor.

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to "LOL"

The United States is a nation of immigrants, often called the Great Melting Pot due to her citizens deriving from all corners of the globe. With such ethnic diversity, it's no wonder that so much of modern American humor derives from distinctive races, religions and ideologies. One group that became extremely successful was the Jewish community with comic legends like Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Rodney Dangerfield, Woody Allen and Jon Stewart. Another successful minority is the African American community with classic TV shows like the Jeffersons, the Cosby Show and Family Matters; while stand-up comedians like Dave Chappelle, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock are also extremely popular. Particularly in the past several decades, Latino (Carlos Mencia), feminist (Roseanne Barr), blue-collar (Jeff Foxworthy) comedians and countless other sub-genres have all found a niche in modern US society as well. But while each of these cliques have found success within their own community, the commonly-identified Great Melting Pot mentality has allowed their jokes to permeate racial boundaries and appeal to individuals from all different backgrounds.

Another popular style of American humor is slapstick—a broad form of comedy that consists of boisterous, physical and/or mock-violent actions. Though early forms first appeared during the European Renaissance and in comedies by Shakespeare, slapstick really took off in the United States during the Vaudeville era (1880s-1930s). With so many Americans emigrating from different countries and speaking a variety of languages, slapstick, which wholly relied on the use of body language (pies to the face), props (the infamous whoopee cushion) and facial expressions to deliver emotions, was the perfect universal form of humor, as it didn't need spoken language to convey its message.  Some of the greatest comedians of all time, such as the British-born Charlie Chaplain and the Three Stooges, were slapstick artists whose routines are just as popular today as they were nearly a century ago. And if you're still not convinced of slapstick's staying power, look no further than the crew from Jackass who put a modern, vehement twist on the genre.

Confucius says: Man who wants pretty nurse must be patient

While China too is a multiethnic/multilingual nation, 92% of the 1.3 billion are ethnic Han. Due to the homogenization of race and often closing its borders to the outside world, the Middle Kingdom never developed the same kind of racial diversity as the United States. Consequentially, the focal aspect of Chinese humor is its own language deriving from within its own borders. Mandarin is unique since it uses logograms, has many homonyms and homophones, and can be written and read in various directions. The most basic example of this linguistic humor is calling your mother a horse, as the only difference between the two is a slight change in tone (mother is 妈; horse is 马). Another common antidote is of a woman on a bus who stands up at every bus stop because she reads the Chinese sign from right to left ("When the bus stops, stand up") instead of from left to right ( "Stopping at the next bus stop").

Modern wordplay is oftentimes more risqué, such as the initially innocent-sounding grass mud horse, river crab and intelligent fragrant chicken. Grass mud horse (草泥马cǎoní mǎ) is pronounced nearly identically to the Chinese phrase for f*** your mother . Meanwhile, river crab (河蟹 héxiè) is just a few tones off from the Mandarin word harmony, a term used to mock the strict internet regulations that Beijing deems necessary for social and political harmony. And coming in last, intelligent fragrant chicken (达菲鸡 dá fěijī) is just one tone off from the modern slang word for masturbation.

A popular Chinese version of stand-up is called cross-talk, or xiangsheng (相声). Xiangsheng is a mono or multi character performance that's comprised of speaking, imitating, teasing and singing. The character or characters usually talk directly to the audience, wear elaborate clothing, use creative puns/metaphors, and are known to take historic comic skits from the past and put a modern spin on them. Though xiangsheng can be critical at times (especially when subliminally poking fun at governmental policy) most of the humor would be considered rather childish for the average American audience, perhaps since the Chinese have the unwritten rule of saving face. In other words, jokes aimed at one's personal life are not perceived as funny in Chinese xiangsheng because this causes one to lose face. For example, when US comedian Judy Carter opened a gig in front of a predominately Chinese audience by saying, "I just broke up with my boyfriend," the audience didn't laugh—they actually awed out of sympathy since relationships are such a personal matter in China. Moreover, in a nation where pornography is illegal, any remarks—comedic or otherwise—regarding sex or sexually related matters are also extremely taboo and never mentioned on stage. So xiangsheng, unlike the majority of US stand-up acts, stays clear from these touchy subjects, instead opting for a more face-saving and innocent act.

The final act

It's not hard to see why Joe Wong's "I'm Irish" joke and others like it are hits in the US and not in China—it's purely based off the socio-historic development of each nation, just as much as language, customs and religions are. These same cultural differences are what makes Judy Carter breaking up with her boyfriend and the crew from Jackass hurting themselves funny for an American, while an intelligent fragrant chicken and a xiangsheng performance are hilarious for a Chinese. In the age of globalization, however, humor like so many other aspects of contemporary society, is becoming internationalized. As the growing influence of Western and American humor catches on in Chinese pop culture, it's hard to say whether or not the puns, idioms and historic parodies of traditional Chinese humor will disappear, or simply evolve. Let's hope, for the river crabs' sake, that it's the latter.

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Keywords: Chinese stand up comedian Joe Wong funny Chinese jokes differences in Chinese and American humor


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Nothing wrong with my ponderable american fellas, and hope they dont lose it but compared to english humour, american one is very basic... I particularly enjoy the duo R.Shearsmith/S Pemberton (the league of gentlemen, psychoville, inside no 9)

Apr 26, 2015 12:57 Report Abuse



Chinese have humor, when did this happen?

Apr 24, 2015 18:07 Report Abuse



dude you hit the nail on the head, chinese people just laugh at sick stuff that we would pity. When you see a guy get killed in the road or fall down the stairs here, foreigners run to help, Chinese all get their cellphones out… not to call the police but to photo it and video it for their weixin and weibo…….lovely people! My suggestion is Mr wong should shuffle his wong away lol

Apr 25, 2015 23:18 Report Abuse



There's no difference if you have a good sense of humor

Apr 20, 2015 20:17 Report Abuse



Sophistication of Chinese humour is often too much for foreigners. Hence confusion oft arises.

Apr 20, 2015 18:36 Report Abuse



If sophistication is shitting on the sidewalk,smacking your food,slurping when you drink,spitting and blowing snot rockets everywhere. In that case you are correct, I don't understand.

Apr 24, 2015 18:10 Report Abuse




May 20, 2015 06:48 Report Abuse



Repeat article.... WTF?

Apr 20, 2015 00:10 Report Abuse



Yes repeat articles now Robk because echinacities is now controlled and monitored by the CCP and all new articles must go through a rigorous examination before being allowed to post.

Apr 20, 2015 12:00 Report Abuse


family guy

chinese humor is plain dumb.

Oct 10, 2012 22:08 Report Abuse



This is exactly what's driving the "foreign monkey" industry in China. The Chinese staff that teach English teach the "important" stuff like grammar, reading, etc. Meanwhile, foreign teachers must dance and "adopt a slapstick style" to get a couple of cheap laughs out of their students? Congratulations, you've traveled around the world to be a stooge for some rotted-tooth spoiled little emperor.

May 20, 2015 06:47 Report Abuse



Careful now...down with this sort of thing.

Apr 20, 2015 06:53 Report Abuse



Jews? Bah, most "US" comedians are Canadian.

Oct 08, 2012 19:51 Report Abuse



Jew is a nationality?

Oct 09, 2012 03:52 Report Abuse



Hate to say it, but the younger guys here seem to adore Jackass. Their sense of humour may be "evolving", but I'm pretty sure that one's a step in the wrong direction.

Oct 08, 2012 19:10 Report Abuse



Why? Its just slapstick. Not that different from the Stooges or Jerry Lewis really. Now granted, there is quite a bit of artistry in the way that, say, Chevy Chase takes a prat fall but it's not either is incredibly high brow.

Oct 09, 2012 06:12 Report Abuse