Czech Culture & Adaptation

Czech humor – SOS

September 23, 2011
scrabble letters spelling SOS

Being funny in another culture and language

I tip my hat to those who can joke in another language. It’s a talent. I’m not sure I’ve been able to cultivate such feats, though I’ve tried. In general, I think if a person is genetically predisposed to be funny, his sense of humor pervades, even when speaking in a second or third language. My husband is one of these “funny” people. He’s as quick to dish out quips in English as he is in Czech, and in social settings in either country his dry humor makes for amusing conversation. Although, when dealing with less-witty people, like myself, the joke’s often on him since I’m so slow to catch on.

Living in the Czech Republic, I’ve learned how helpful it can be to use humor to make light of a tense situation. As Czechs have known for centuries, humor is often the only recourse when caught up in an unwieldy bureaucratic system that praises conformity and rules above individuality and free-thinking. Using humor to “air out” the unpleasant facts of life is as second-nature to most Czechs as the nightly ritual of opening the windows to air a stuffy bedroom. According to my mother-in-law, the window can (and should) be opened before you go to bed, especially in the winter months when the heat is pumping, but not once you’re sleeping in the room. Then the “draft” might give you a cold, and that’s a crime not to joke about. Of course, turning down the heat is another option, but not one as appealing. Czech humor prizes much of the same absurdity in an otherwise rational-thinking society.

When Radek and I first met, one of the things I noticed about him was his ability to take life in stride, “Take it easy” he would tell me, humming Bob Marley’s “Don’t worry be happy.” He encouraged me to shake off my “American” bashfulness and enjoy life in the moment, as he did. Although in many situations, my new Czech boyfriend seemed far more serious than lighthearted. He ordered bubbly water and wine with a concentration I’d never encountered on a previous date in the US, and carefully measured all his options before making any purchase. Still, I hadn’t met anyone with the same ability to make our stern Czech waitress crack a smile with a subtle quip that wasn’t crass or slapstick.

When we met his friends for a night out in Prague, they spent most of the night – when they weren’t on the dance floor – exchanging dry, ironic jokes that flew straight over my head. After a series of these evenings, I began to suspect that Czechs possess an extra inside joke gene that I (and perhaps many of my American comrades) missed out on at birth. Of course, humor is cultural, and the jokes that my American friends find amusing aren’t the same as the ironically absurd jokes that Radek’s friends enjoy.

Czech humor, often known as “black” humor, is a special blend of irony and sarcasm. It’s negative and critical, and sometimes too truthful for my taste, but it has a lauded place as the first-line of defense in a relatively passive society. Czech literature is fraught with such examples. Perhaps the best-known example is Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk, an internationally-acclaimed satire that exposes the absurdities of an unwieldy bureaucracy for a common-place soldier in WWI. As the novel’s centennial anniversary draws closer, Czechs still find comfort in the novel’s anti-conflict themes and depiction of an innocent, albeit arguably incompetent, individual’s struggle to survive in a corrupt bureaucratic structure.

Being able to take a step back and realize the humor in an absurd situation is a talent that I’m trying to learn from my fellow Czechs. Watching Czech movies like Rok Dabla or old serials like Homolkovi gives me a better sense of Czech humor, although even when I understand the language, sometimes I think I’d have to be Czech to fully grasp the cultural implications.

Interestingly, my children are also helping me find my way. Anna Lee has a short repertoire of Czech jokes that she’ll tell anyone who’ll give her an ear. She’s happy to translate them into English, although we’ve discovered that sometimes, as in the case of her babička jokes, the culture, and not the language, is critical to how well her audience receives her. One such joke depicts babička and her grandson Jeníček exchanging banter about finding things on the ground. After admonishing her grandson several times to leave the candy, the money and the key that he’s spotted because, “we don’t pick up things from the ground,” finally little Jeníček has the last laugh. When babička tumbles down, he refuses to help her, parroting her own admonishment back to her. The joke leaves Anna looking sheepish as if she’s afraid she’ll get in trouble just for telling it. Although Oliver is keen on potty jokes, which seem universally adored by small boys, he’s also shown an inclination toward the darker Czech humor that requires poking a bit of fun at his own (and other’s) expense.

One day this summer, I got my just desserts. We’d rushed from the house to make an appointment downtown, and Oliver had screamed and shouted the whole way in the car despite all my efforts to quiet him. Hitting my last nerve, I finally screamed, “You are driving me absolutely crazy!” and slammed the car to a stop. A second passed and while Anna burst into tears at my explosion, Oliver piped up cheerfully, “But that’s not true Mommy, I’m not the one driving, you are.” He chortled in glee at his own cleverness and imitated me holding the car’s steering wheel. Needless to say, he didn’t get a spanking or any other admonishment, simply because I was laughing too hard. He’s quick to tease and provoke his siblings, much as his father enjoys poking fun at my own seriousness when he thinks I need to lighten up.

Laughing and being able to make people laugh is an essential life skill, no matter what the culture, but nowadays I’m growing to appreciate the jokes I’m able to understand in Czech, and hoping one day to offer a few of my own in return. Although up to this point, Radek’s been hesitant to take me to the theater for Czech comedy, I think I’m ready to convince him to give it a try. My neighbor recently told us about a hilarious theater production she’d seen in Czech, and while I might be biting off more culture than I can handle, if I want to better understand my own family’s humor, it’s time to take the leap.

Any Czech comedic production you’d recommend for our Half-n-half audience?

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