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The Value of Humour in the East and the West

The Value of Humour in the East and the West

Psycho‐babblers ranging from talk show host Oprah Winfrey to cabbies tend to draw attention to the health benefits of laughter, which may soothe tension and relieve stress (the Number One Killer in Europe) – giggles can stimulate the organs, facial muscles, improve your immune system, and even alleviate severe or chronic pain. This view of humour seems to ignore the fact that sadistic humour, tendentious jokes at the expense of others (Schadenfreude or pleasure derived from someone’s illfortune or life’s pratfalls) may cause mental pain and suffering, and that laughing at someone is an obvious form of bullying. It also fails to appreciate the socio‐philosophical value of self‐deprecating humour based on introspection and the resulting self‐knowledge and modesty.

Humour can be a way of coping with the absurdities and unfairness of life, especially when extended to the unconscious, so similar to dreams. Expressing opinions or feelings about socio‐political repression (in the shape of a Javanese or Sundanese puppeteer incorporating sarcastic commentary into his performance, or a Bataknese stand‐up comedian making fun of himself as a newcomer in Jakarta) serves to let off steam that would otherwise lead to frustration, lethargy and depression. This is surely the reason why dictatorial types and utterly humourless fanatics generally leave no stone unturned to persecute, imprison, torture, stifle or altogether eliminate humourists, especially parodists who ridicule them or show “the Emperor’s New Clothes” to be non‐existent, as in Andersen’s fabulous tale. Jokes range from the benign, subtle wit of wordplay (puns) to the acerbic comments seen in political satire and caricatures, and from the highbrow literary irony of Jonathan Swift’s portrayal of pseudo‐academic nitwits in Gulliver’s Travels to the slapstick comedy of the Indonesian Warkop trio.

One of my Bahasa Indonesia teachers in Yogyakarta asked my group of English and Dutch volunteers if we felt lonely, estranged or isolated. The unanimous answer was that we felt “out of it” when watching an episode of the Javanese comedy show Srimulat – the local audience would double up with laughter at the rapid‐fire repartees that made no sense to us, even in translation. We did see the comedy in the topsy‐turvy hierarchy (the servant outsmarting his master), but the rest was lost on us. By the same token, our teachers would tell us how disturbing they found the surreal improvised humour of the iconoclastic English comedy troupe called Monty Python, particularly when it kicked against bourgeois and hypocritical shins of the middle class they aspired to. As a Dutchman, I noticed that Indonesian humour often functions as a social leveller, that is to say arrogant , pompous big shots are taken down a peg or two when they get too big for their boots or look down on their own humble origins, “Kacang sudah lupa pada kulitnya”.

In the Dutch Sinterklaas tradition, children receive presents with a highly critical poem, in which the weaknesses and shortcomings of the recipients are highlighted in unforgettable ways, with rhyming nicknames that stick well into old age. In the communal society of Indonesia, there is nothing quite as delightful as causing shared hilarity, for instance when riding the angkot. I recently told a driver that my stop was “Ayam Suharti” on Jalan Cipaganti. He commented, “Isn’t she dead, this Suharti lady?” I replied, “Yes, she is – but then, so are her chickens, I hope!”. The latest form of popular comedy is called Cringe Humour (based on taboo areas and frustrating experiences at puberty) that deliberately makes the audience’s collective toes curl. Its English exponents are Ricky Gervais and Sacha Baron Cohen (as the buffoon Borat) and the American Larry David. An earlier generation of comedians like Woody Allen and the late, great Gene Wilder made rather more sophisticated comedies, excelling at a kind of observational humane humour that tends to appeal to both East and West, of which Rudyard Kipling famously said that “never the twain would meet”. Keep smiling!


Frank Landsman, MA is currently Academic Advisor in the Foreign Language Section of Parahyangan Catholic University’s Career Development Center (PPK/Unpar), where he has taught Toefl preparation courses and Academic Writing and Presentation Skills, written and compiled Toefl Tests, coursebooks and teaching materials, and edited and translated academic papers/theses. Hailing from Amsterdam, Frank studied English Linguistics and Literature at the University of Amsterdam (BA, 1984) and won a scholarship to the University of Exeter in Devon, England, where he specialized in American and Comparative Literature (MA cum laude, 1988).

He first came to Indonesia as a Teacher Trainer/English lecturer under the auspices of Voluntary Service Overseas London/The British Council, and has taught English on Java for two decades, in Tuban, Jombang, and Bandung. He has been married to a lady from Surabaya named Widiyastutik (who joined him in the Caribbean for 3 years) since 1996, and has been blessed with two delightful Eurasian children, Anna Bella and Alexander Agung. His hobby is making music, and he has made over 330 music videos for YouTube as the neoPresleyan crooner Frankie Paradiso and the Renaissance Bard Francesco d’Amstelredamo, garnering 70,000 views so far.

Sumber : Majalah Parahyangan, Edisi 2016 Kuartal IV/ Oktober-Desember Vol. III No.4