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Not just for laughs: 3 new ideas about humour

30 January 2020
Hitler parody, Sydney satire, and Japanese 'sit down' comedy
Funniness is culturally, contextually, and personally dependent, as highlighted in three pieces of quirky University of Sydney research.

‘Führer Humor’ – politically incorrect or fair game?

Dr Benjamin Nickl from the University of Sydney’s Department of International Comparative Literature and Translation Studies has researched Hitler comedy or ‘Führer Humor’.

“There is an argument that one shouldn’t make jokes about Nazi Germany or make fun of Hitler,” Dr Nickl said.

“But even before the end of the Second World War Hitler and Nazism were targets of humour. Isn’t that what Charlie Chaplin did in his film “The Great Dictator” from 1940? Or, post-war, Mel Brooks, when he put together “The Producers” in 1968? 

“Only a couple of months ago I wrote several pieces for The Conversation about these very questions. One was related to the Fair Work Commission, which dealt with a worker being fired over him making a Hitler Downfall meme. Another was a review of Taika Waititi’s controversial Hitler satire film, ‘Jojo Rabbit'.

"It comes down to questions about the use we put our monsters to.”  

A ghost of Sydney's satirical past

Associate Professor Peter Kirkpatrick takes a more lyrical approach: the Australian literature expert from the Department of English has explored the relationships between poetry, humour and journalism via the works of once notorious, now acclaimed Australian satirist Ronald McCuaig (1908-1993).

Vaudeville, an anthology that covers themes including sex, violence, despair, ennui, and tenderness, published in 1938, was so scandalous that McCuaig was forced to print the book himself in his Potts Point apartment,” Associate Professor Kirkpatrick said.

“His satirical poems describe contemporary urban life and lovemaking with a frankness that’s still confronting in the #MeToo era.”

The art of rakugo - 'sit down' comedy

Dr Matt Shores from the University of Sydney’s Department of Japanese Studies has studied the traditional Japanese comic art rakugo, which involves a lone storyteller, sitting on a stage, playing multiple characters.

Bringing added insight from his years as a rakugo apprentice, his project analyses the makura (introductory material) that rakugo storytellers use to warm up their audiences.

“In the West, stand-up comics are often thought of as political, social, and cultural critics, or satirists, but this isn’t the case with Japanese comedians. Many of my Japanese friends and colleagues have fantastic senses of humour, but political and social issues are generally hands-off,” Dr Shores said.

“Laughing at oneself, or one’s own family or in-group is fine – provided it doesn’t threaten the hierarchy. People seem to like joking about incongruencies in daily life situations—again, provided no direct political or social critique is waged. Slapstick and scatology are perennial favourites in Japan, too. Japanese people have a strong affection for wordplay and ‘dad jokes’ as well, though some are more willing to admit this than others.

"Finally, humour and comedy are generally quarantined in ‘laughter safe spaces’ (warai no ba), such as comedy halls, comic variety programmes, and when drinking with one’s in-group.”

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