The Universality of Humor – Benjamin Boublil

The Universality of Humor

Humor is something universal. Everywhere around the world, people use it as a way of escaping reality, of breaking the habits of life, in a way similar to the use of fiction. This need to laugh is common to all cultures; after all humor triggers laughter, which is a positive emotion, something very few humans will admit they dislike. Whether it is dark humor, political humor, observational humor, or ethnic humor, the end result is the same. But the fact that it is a universal phenomenon does not mean each of its instances is universal; for example, one person might not laugh at a particular joke, depending on what type of humor he usually likes the most and what audience the joke was aimed at. This is especially true for “national” humor. Even if some types of ethnic humor are appreciated worldwide, such as British humor, with for instance Monty Python’s success beyond the United-Kingdom; it of course does not mean that every British national will enjoy their movies, nor does it mean that people foreign to English culture and more specifically British humor will enjoy them either. Using recent examples, it is possible to obtain some sort of pattern in the types of humor that are universally appreciated and those which are doomed to stay within their geographical borders.

The first thing that needs to be addressed is the audience; even if a comedy show is incredibly well written and extremely funny, if its only target is a very narrow audience, the show will probably not encounter success. If we look for the common denominator in most people’s circle of interest, examples come naturally to mind: interaction with other beings, societal subjects, finding one’s place in the world; those are things that the vast majority of people will encounter, willingly or not, simply by living in a society. The universality of those subjects will explain, in part, the success of the first two examples: the TV shows Friends[1] and The Simpsons[2], both considered classics in their respective genres.

Friends is an American sitcom (a genre of comedy in television) that started in 1994 and ended in 2004. While not the first sitcom (the genre existed in the 1950s), it left a major cultural impact, by being very successful and relatable to, for people of its generation.  It scored an average of 21 million viewers in the United States[3] and a decent 1.4 million viewers in France[4] during the original run of the show, which in audience share represents, in average, 22% for the United States and 11% for France, a very impressive number, as most seasons were first in the charts in the United States. Although its success in France is on a much smaller scale than in the United States, the show is still considered a commercial success in both countries. The smaller popularity of the series in France can be explained in several ways:

  • The series makes a lot of cultural references; the action takes place in New York, hence the interactions between the characters, their cultural background and their environment might be too foreign for the general French public. For instance, there are several episodes centered around Thanksgiving, a typically American holiday which most French people can understand as a “pre-Christmas” holiday.
  • A lack of exposure; even if it aired on a French public channel, the series, being an import from the United States, probably did not benefit from the same publicity it did in its home country. This happens very often when producers are unsure about the potential success of a show, hence spending less money in advertising said show, as it has the risk of tanking in the audience shares.
  • For the same reasons, the producers did not invest so much in the French version. A common criticism of the French version of the show is its unfaithfulness to the original: jokes poorly translated, denaturalization of the humor, and changes of voice actors were issues addressed by the French fan base of the show. For instance; the titles of the episodes always follow the same pattern: the first episode is titled “The one where Monica gets a new roommate” in English, and “Celui qui déménage” in French. The main difference in the two patterns is that in English, “The one” always refers to the episode; it describes one of the things happening in the episode; in French, “Celui/Celle/Ceux” always refer to one or several of the characters. This may seem like a detail, but the English titles are actually very clever, as if one would want to describe which episode he saw, he probably would end up giving the correct name of the episode; and vice versa, the names immediately bring to memory the content of the episodes.

Those factors revolve around the universality of humor. If the show makes a joke that only New Yorkers or Americans can understand, then how can it be properly translated into another language? And, if it cannot, how much impact will it have on the overall reception of the adaptation? It is quite impossible to tell precisely, as even with detailed and thorough market researches and testing, the number of parameters is way too important to have a clear cut answer. The only possibility is to speculate, but in any case, the universality of humor, or lack thereof, and the issue of translating humor seem to be the most likely factors.

As regards The Simpsons, the audience scores are more difficult to interpret; indeed, in the United States, the first season of the series (1989) scored 33.5 million viewers while the latest (2015) scored only 10.62. The general consensus, whether it comes from critics or from fans, seems to be that a drop in quality started to appear during the ninth season of the show. Also, any given media is bound to lose a portion of its audience when it stays too long on air. These two facts, when added together, make the audience score of the show as a whole too unreliable to be talked about, without going in great details. In France, the series aired on Canal +, a private channel, making the audience scores unreliable as well. The interesting factor concerning The Simpsons is that, unlike Friends, its French fan base is quite pleased with the French version of the show. The show is about a typical American family, albeit caricatured, living in a fictional town. Apart from that fact, the two shows share similar subjects, revolving around the daily lives of the characters. The different reception of the show can be explained in several ways:

  • The characters are less fleshed out; in Friends, the story is centered on six relatively well developed characters. In The Simpsons, the characters are more archetypal: Homer is “the typical father”, meaning any father can potentially relate to him, even if only in some specific aspects. Since the archetype of the “father” is relatively universal, as are most other archetypes used in the series, the show may be perceived as more engaging due to that fact.
  • The show is a cartoon, making the whole social aspect more exaggerated in the process. Because of that, the audience’s suspension of disbelief is less likely to be shattered: it is more plausible to see a cartoon character from a satire show do something crazy than a character played by an actor, who is supposed to be realistic. The fact that the show is perceived as the first “adult cartoon”, something that could be enjoyed by people of any age group, also helped its general popularity.

Even if the two shows are of course wildly different, they still share a lot of core characteristics, which make the question of the different receptions from the French audience even more interesting.

As a last example, The Big Bang Theory[5] is (or was) considered one of the best sitcoms of the past decade. Without going into the details of how it is written, with the trademark techniques of Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, the show can be roughly described as “Friends, with scientists and geeks”. This is the core aspect that differentiated this show from the others when it was first aired in 2007; the show was aimed at a geeky audience. It is focused around four male characters, all of them scientists, all of them liking science fiction and comic books, and their general awkwardness in social situations, especially around women. It was, at that time, an interesting take on the sitcom genre, even if it came at the risk of alienating a part of the potential audience; indeed, if real life geeks could relate to the characters, people foreign to that culture would only find the actions and likings of the main characters weird, and would not easily identify with them. During the first few seasons, the main criticism from the geek community was that it pictured them as people full of issues, focusing on their flaws, and caricaturing aspects of their lives. Through the seasons, the show evolved, turning the socially awkward characters into more socially capable people, as most of the group ended up in a serious relationship with a woman, slowly turning their back on their past hobbies and facing the more common issues of relationships. As the show changed, its audience changed; what used to be relatable to for a geek audience and a subject of ridicule for a more general audience turned into a show appreciated by the general audience much more than by the original geek audience, who, during the later seasons, accused the show of turning its back on its roots, and making the geek culture something a lot more casual and more insignificant than initially shown. In the case of The Big Bang Theory, what is interesting is not the adaptation in another language, but an adaptation towards a more general audience. This is shown in audience shares, as the first airing of the first season had only 8.31 million viewers, while the latest season, the ninth, gathered 20.36 million viewers. This indicates that, as the show was catching on and reaching a wider audience, more people got interested in it. The very narrow original target audience has obviously something to do with it; as the show’s jokes started to be understandable by more people, it is only natural that more people started being interested in the show. This series is a prime example of a lack of universality of humor within the bounds of the original country; the initial target audience was too small, so the creators of the show tried to widen it, and it worked. This can of course be studied in relation to different countries; if we imagine a fictional country where there is no geek community, could this show even be adapted and have any success? This is a gross exaggeration in order to make a point: when adapting The Big Bang Theory to another country, that lack of universality of humor in the first seasons has to be taken into account during the process of translation. Since the first season had lukewarm reception in the United States, and the French producers were probably unsure about how important the geek community is in France, it is natural that the adaptation received very low funds, which explains the terrible voice acting and translations. Despite all that, the series was very successful in France, proving that there was a demographic susceptible to be interested in the show.

The subject of the translation and adaptation of comedy TV shows is very new, and yet to be considered as a scholarly subject. Hence the research done on the subject is scarce, especially regarding series as recent as Friends, The Simpsons, or The Big Bang Theory. Most of my analysis takes into consideration factors such as perceived audience reaction, and reactions from fanbases, so the details have to be treated with caution. The general idea stays true, and the speculations I made hold some ground, as long as they are not considered as an absolute, but more as a point of view that may create a debate, that may give a new insight on this very new, but also very promising subject.

Benjamin Boublil

M2 Anglais

[1] Friends. Prod. David Crane. New York: NBC. 1994. Television.

[2] The Simpsons. Prod. Matt Groening. New York: Fox. 1989. Television

[3] According to Nielsen Media Research’s Ratings.

[4] According to France 2’s Audience Scores; The French version originally aired on France 2.

[5] The Big Bang Theory. Prod. Chuck Lorre. New York: CBS. 2007. Television.


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