Transcultural Humor

by Silvia Anastasijevic | last updated 30 December 2019


Many cross-cultural interactions and texts in the broadest sense provoke laughter, create amusement and use various forms of humor to deconstruct stereotypes, for instance. Nevertheless, the topic is relatively unresearched: Neither a general and universally accepted definition of humor (Smuts n.d.) nor its transcultural form exists. Therefore, this entry will approach the latter by outlining the most prominent humor theories before discussing the concept of transculturality. With this background, the potential of a transcultural lens in connection with humor will be delineated, before the possible limits of humor will be discussed.

Although there is an abundance of humor theories, researchers of the matter such as the members of the International Society for Humor Studies (ISHS)[1] neither agree on a common definition nor on “single theory of what makes things funny” (McGraw and Warner 2015: 6). What is more, the wealth of material inevitably leads to inconsistencies and contradictions (Reichl and Stein 2005: 4): “One woman’s humour is another’s laughter; one man’s wit is another’s joke” (Reichl and Stein 4, emphases in original). While the complex nature of humor has not been clearly pinpointed or explained, a few major theoretical branches have been developed within this field: superiority theories, incongruity theories, relief theories, and play theories. Whereas the first branch views humor as a form of powerplay with amusement being created by someone or something gaining superiority over another, incongruity theories are concerned with amusement induced through contradiction and inconsistency (Smuts n.d.). Relief theories revolve around the release of “pent up energy” through laughter (Smuts n.d.). Finally, play theories regard “humor as an extension of animal play” (Smuts n.d.).

When it comes to transcultural English studies, humor is a relatively unexplored phenomenon. This may come as a surprise, given that humor “often touches upon social and moral boundaries” (Kuipers 2015: 10) and in some cases, even renegotiates them. Accordingly, humor and, thus, “[c]omedy, a form which itself embodies transgression, lends itself to the study of the cultural hybrid” (Dunphy and Emig 2010: 7). An extensive discussion of hybrid identities and states of culture can be found within what has been termed postcolonial studies. Yet, in this field, humor is an “uneasy bedfellow, […] an abomination” (Reichl and Stein 2005: 2), despite its use “being a vital textual strategy of postcolonial practice” (1). As a reason for this lack of discussion of humorous material, Susanne Reichl and Mark Stein bring forth the compelling argument that laughter (and by extension humor) is frequently misunderstood as lacking seriousness due to the presentation of its subject matter (2). However, as the two postcolonial scholars would agree, “[c]omedy is simply a funny way of being serious” (Ustinov in Breuer 2008: 118).

The following working definition of transcultural humor is based on Wolfgang Welsch’s understanding of transculturality, which stresses the mutual influence and permeation of cultures and problematizes conceptions of cultures as isolated and separate entities. In humorous entertainment, there is a large body of material which takes on such a perspective of cultural isolation. This results in the repeated use of ethnic, national or cultural stereotypes, often coupled with superiority/inferiority humor. With a focus based on fostering the in-group by excluding an outsider, such approaches are prone to present flat characters, create a backlash and neglect the various real-world entanglements and mutual influences present between cultures. A transcultural use of humor, on the other hand, plays with the instability of cultural boundaries and transgressions, combines elements from different cultures or shows them in a different light. Accordingly, the focus also lies on the representation of transcultural identities and border-crossing conceptions of belonging. In this way, ideas of clear cultural separation and single identities are questioned, tested or altered.

In contemporary media, a variety of comedians and (digital) influencers draw on transcultural content for their material in an increasingly connected world. Trevor Noah is a comedian who utilizes such a transcultural form of humor not only in his stand-up specials but as the host of the news satire program The Daily Show on Comedy Central as well. Having been “born to a black South African mother and a Swiss father”, Noah grew up during apartheid as an “illegal” hybrid (The Late Show with Stephen Colbert 2016: 01:32-01:50). Hence, cultural hybridity and various forms of identity politics are issues which are frequently broached in his comedic performances.[2]

What is important to note, however, is that transcultural humor or comedy can not only be used and performed by people with a transcultural heritage. According to Native Canadian author and playwright Drew Hayden Taylor, the topics of humorous expression available to a person change with the size of his or her “spheres of knowledge” and are not permanently determined by a certain place of birth or culture:

Within your sphere of knowledge is your life. Everything you have learned, […] everything you have come to understand lies within your sphere. […] In relation to cultural appropriation, it can be argued that you should write only about something within your own sphere of knowledge. Otherwise, you’re intruding on another person’s (or culture’s) sphere. […] The same principle can be applied to the world of politically correct humour. […] Yet there are exceptions. When people take the time to acquire additional knowledge, do their research […] then their spheres of knowledge can grow. (Taylor 2005: 73-74)

Not only knowledge but power relations also play a large role when it comes to humor and issues such as political correctness or cultural appropriation. After all, humor “is often at somebody’s expense […which] makes it a potentially ‘oppressive’ medium” (Taylor 2005: 70). In order to evade this risk, those who are in power would have to avoid making fun of those with less power. Accordingly, “[s]uccessful jokes are filled with helium, not lead (Taylor 2005: 71). Of course, in reality, this ideal is not always followed. Furthermore, the jury is still out on whether policing humor is actually a sensible idea. In the words of Taylor: “What do you call a politically correct comic? Boring” (Taylor 2005: 70, emphasis in original). Yet, cultural sensitivity can be an important ingredient in the making of humor, especially when diverse cultures are involved, since there may be “times when humor, or attempted humor, is not only inappropriate but also disastrous for the various social identities and relations that are drawn into it” (Lockyer and Pickering 2009: 1).


Silvia Anastasijevic is a doctoral researcher at Goethe-University Frankfurt.




[1] Humor researchers have been discussing humor at international conferences since 1976 ( In 1989, the ISHS was founded “as an outgrowth of an earlier organization, the World Humor and Irony Membership (WHIM)” (McGraw and Warner 6). The first conference by the ISHS was held in the same year at Brigham Young University in Laie, Hawaii (USA). To this date, annual conferences have taken place around the world. For more information, visit

[2] Some of Noah’s material can be found on his YouTube channel at




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Dunphy, Graeme and Rainer Emig. 2010. “Introduction.” In Hybrid Humor: Comedy in Transcultural Perspectives, ed. by Graeme Dunphy and Rainer Emig. Amsterdam, New York: Rodopi, 7-35.

Kuipers, Giselinde. 2015. Good Humor, Bad Taste: A Sociology of the Joke. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Lockyer, Sharon and Michael Pickering. 2009. “Introduction: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Humour and Comedy.” In Beyond the Joke: The Limits of Humour, ed. by Sharon Lockyer and Michael Pickering. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1-26.

McGraw, Peter, and Joel Warner. 2015. The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Smuts, Aaron. N.d. “Humor.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed 12 May 2019.

Taylor, Drew Hayden. 2005. “Whacking the Indigenous Funny Bone.” In Me Funny, ed. by Drew Hayden Taylor. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 67-84.

The International Society for Humor Studies. N.d. “International Society for Humor Studies: International Humor Conferences.” Accessed 28 June 2019.

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. 2016. “Trevor Noah Was ‘Born a Crime’ in South Africa.” YouTube. Accessed 30 June 2019.

Reichl, Susanne, and Mark Stein. 2005. “Introduction.” In Cheeky Fictions: Laughter and the Postcolonial, ed by Susanne Reichl and Mark Stein. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1-23.

Welsch, Wolfgang. 1999. “Transculturality – the Puzzling Form of Cultures Today.” Spaces of Culture: City, Nation, World, Mike Featherstone & Scott Lash. London: Sage, 194-213.