If you are reading this, and you don’t speak Icelandic, you probably don’t believe that it could be enjoyable to watch something in a language you don’t understand. I’ve invited English-speaking friends to comedy shows and many times they can’t focus or they give up and leave. It is definitely a different experience, and requires a way more active approach to watching the show. At first it’s overwhelming, or underwhelming, you’re not sure exactly what to focus on or what’s happening. You’ll always be slower and laugh less—you don’t get the luxury of knowing what the comedians are saying—but your awareness shifts and you begin have a connection with the performer. The intonations are universal. The body language. The emotions. Then it happens, your first guttural non-controlled laugh. It seems out of place, like burping underwater. How did it happen?
“It’s called the ‘Family Guy’ experience,” said Ari. “I think 90% of the laughs ‘Family Guy’ gets are from rhythm and timing and nobody gets the references—usually obscure 80s television or a country star from the 60s.”
Eddie Izzard more than any other comedian would have insight into comedy in different languages. He performs stand up in German, French and English, with plans to do it in Spanish, Russian, and Arabic. Izzard doesn’t believe in German humour or French humour. He believes humour is at base universal. I had the opportunity to ask him about this after his Force Majeure Show at Harpa on March 28, 2015.
“I found that in English punchlines tend to be nouns,” said Izzard. “I hit him with a kettle. I hit him with a kipper. It’s all something that’s at the end of a sentence and it’s a noun. The example I gave on stage today was, ‘Caesar, did he ever think he’d end up as a salad?’ Salad is the silly item, so salad releases the laugh. In German it goes, ‘Caesar, hätte nie gedacht (“did he ever think”), dass er einmal (“that he one time”), als Salat enden würde (“as salad end up would have”).’ The verb comes right behind the noun and so you don’t have time to go, ‘well, what are you doing with that noun then?’ It’s a split second behind it. I thought there would be a whole trick to doing different languages. There isn’t. It’s just timing.”
Izzard did his Martin Luther-nailing-complaints-on-the-church-door bit entirely in German, but the audience, including me, was still laughing the whole time. His delivery was flawless.
Dóri does a great joke that is both in Icelandic and makes a reference that I don’t get. The timing is the trick to its effectiveness, though, and the rhyming triple-noun punchline.
“Ég vil gera sjónvarpsþáttaröð um tvo sjónvarpsmenn sem fara saman í meðferð. Þátturinn heitir Bógi og Logi á Vogi.” (“I want to make a TV series about two news anchors who go to rehab together. It’ll be called Bogi and Logi at Vogur”).
If you write this out phonetically it’s:
Yeahgh wihl gyerah shownwarpsthauttaruh-th uhm twoh shownwarps-menn sehm fah-rah sah-mahn eee methferdh. Thowttuh-rinn hayetir Boh-yi ohg Loh-yi ow voh-yi.
While you’re reading it out, add timing to it, which is broken down like this:
Ég vil gera sjónvarpsþáttaröð (Duh duh duh da da da), um tvo sjónvarpsmenn sem fara saman í meðferð (duh duh dadada da da da da duh duh), Þátturinn heitir (duh duh), Bogi og Logi á Vogi (DaDa a DaDa a DADA *punchline rhythm*).
If you listen to the rhythm, you can tell it’s meant to be funny. Like Eddie Izzard said, it’s just timing.