What’s funny?

Why do suicide bomber jokes tank in Australia, but bring down the house in Pakistan? And which kinds of jokes are funny across different cultures? Comedian Sami Shah reflects on cultural disconnect, and overlap, in comedy.

Photograph of comedian Sami Shah

Comedian Sami Shah. Photo — Nicole Cleary

A journalist here in Australia once asked me what work I did when living in Pakistan.

‘I was a comedian,’ I replied.

‘Oh, that’s so interesting,’ she said, ‘I didn’t realise there was comedy in Pakistan!’

It’s a reaction I’ve grown used to hearing. Our understanding of the world is so shaped by news bulletin narratives that it’s easy to assume a place like Pakistan is all just bomb blasts and flag burnings.

But I did comedy for seven years in Pakistan before moving to Australia. The first time I walked onto a comedy club stage in Perth, I’d only been in the country a week, and hadn’t yet had the time to write any comedy that was Australia-specific. Nor did I have the necessary cultural knowledge. I knew, of course, that jokes about Pakistani politics wouldn’t go over well. (I’d have to spend a lot of time explaining who Asif Ali Zardari was before anyone could understand why it's hilarious that he shares a hairstyle with Zia ul-Haq.) So instead, I told a joke about the one thing anyone, anywhere in the world might find funny: myself.

Just placing the concept of religion in the same sentence as a joke can be seen as disrespectful in itself.

Universal foibles and frustrations

At least part of my stand-up act is about my own foibles, at the time as a husband, even now as a father, mostly as an idiot man trying to figure out how the world works. That is universal comedy. It will elicit laughter here, in Pakistan, in any place in the world as long as the language is understood and the jokes told with any competence at all. The frustrations of the human condition – be they in marriage or jobs or parenthood – are something everyone shares. These are experiences to which everyone can relate. And largely, as long as you don’t get too graphic with the details, these topics are within most people’s comfort zone. One of my favorite stories to tell on stage, which has worked from Karachi to Kalgoorlie, is about my daughter, at the age of five, asking why we die. Every parent, everywhere, has had that experience, followed by the migraine-inducing attempt at an explanation.

Laughing their heads off

Outside of these shared areas of frustration and experience, the borders of taste and acceptability vary a lot, according to location. In Australia, as in most Western countries, I can talk about almost any sexual topic. Violence, however, is usually met with some consternation. Suicide bomber jokes get gasps here, not laughs. In Pakistan, on stage, I used to joke about the phenomenon of suicide bombers’ heads always being found intact after the attack. It’s a peculiarity of terrorism that people who have become normalised to such attacks can usually confirm. When I pondered the possible motivations that suicide bombers might have for leaving their heads behind, Pakistani audiences enjoyed the frivolous details. Suicide bombers, explosions, heads, these things weren’t startling to them.

I think the differences in attitudes around sex, violence and humour have a lot to do with media exposure. Kids in Australia are accustomed to watching a kiss on screen, but not a punch to the head. Whereas in Pakistan, the TV and movies had the kisses censored, and the violence left in. Little Sami, it was believed, can handle a man punching another man’s heart right out of his chest, but not the sight of two lips brushing. (My personal theory is that this is why I’m quick to violence but bad in bed.) So perhaps it’s not surprising that in Pakistan my material about terrorism is met with uproarious laughter, but the well-crafted story about the first time I watched pornography is received with gasps and revulsion.

I tried the terrorism joke here in Australia, many times. Each time, the audience seemed to focus in on the suicide bomber, the sheer horror of such a thing existing in the world, the gory detail of the intact head. For them, the punchline was lost in the onslaught of trauma.

In Pakistan my material about terrorism is met with uproarious laughter, but the well-crafted story about the first time I watched pornography is received with gasps and revulsion.

Religion is a subject that is obviously rich with taboo. In many parts of the world, skepticism towards God is seen as outright blasphemy, with dire punishments for the transgression. Whereas in Australia, it’s such an irrelevance that the audience doesn’t even notice it. If I ever perform outside Australia, I carefully excise all casual mentions to my atheism, just in case. Sometimes, you don’t even have to make fun of religion; just placing the concept of religion in the same sentence as a joke can be seen as disrespectful.

Joke's on you

Many of these differences are to be expected, of course. Cultural norms vary from place to place, and learning to respect them is an integral part of the immigrant experience. Learning to push them is an integral part of the comedian’s experience, however, so when I moved to Australia, I had to find those borders as quickly as possible. Though I knew it could be dangerous, I still did some material about religion and sex in Pakistan. And I’m still trying to find the most palatable suicide bomber joke for Australian audiences.

But, at the risk of sounding like I’m wrapping up a TED talk, humanity has more areas of overlap that disconnect in what we laugh at. Comedians travel the world all the time, after all. I’ve found that people will laugh at largely the same things in different countries. We use comedy to tease out uncomfortable ideas, to heal wounds, and even just to unwind after a long day.

And if you make the joke about yourself, it turns out, everyone will probably laugh.

Portrait of Sami Shah

Comedian and writer Sami Shah has been profiled in the New York Times and ABC's Australian Story, and appeared on BBC Radio 4, BBC Asian Network, TEDx, The Project and the Soho Theatre. 

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