Back when Bill Clinton was President of the United States, Al Franken (formerly a Saturday Night Live comedian, now a US Senator) gave him lessons in comedy. He needed these lessons because the press corps expected a certain Borscht-Belt-ish style of self-deprecating humor from a president, but this was not the kind of humor that Clinton, as a Southerner, was familiar with.

This story haunts me, because I’m familiar with Jewish humor, and as a long-time fan of BBC comedy I think I’ve picked up English humo[u]r... but if I have a character who is neither Jewish nor English and I want him or her to say something funny or even slightly witty, how do I come up with wit (sarcasm, irony, hyperbole, etc.) that is appropriate to the character’s background?

(And this is even before worrying about whether or not the joke is funny.)

  • ever seen Goodfellas (limited Jews) or The Departed(nearly all characters are Irish or Italian)? what about Snatch? all Brits (some are Jewish)
    – Tapper7
    Nov 3, 2015 at 5:57

5 Answers 5


Jokes have been extensivle researched by folklorists, linguists, ethnologists etc. If you need to write about humor in China, go read a book or journal article on humor in China.

Really, writers need to learn to research like scientists and journalists. Don't think like a writer ("How can I make this up?") but like a researcher ("Where can I find this information?"). If you don't know how and where to search and which tools to use, take a research course for any science at the university library near you.

  • 1
    In fiction, the writer can also "cheat" by having the character use humor foreign to the native culture (e.g., a Chinese character fond of Australian humor may inflict it on [Chinese] friends) or by claiming that the translation strategy was for emotional impact over literalism--translation of humor (like poetry) can be challenging (explaining a joke reduces its impact)--or even taking a less caring attitude to accuracy (as long as such does not violate the intended tone/audience expectation [cf. tech. inaccuracy in SF]). I do agree that research is often a good idea (given the Internet).
    – user5232
    Nov 25, 2013 at 15:25

The two thoughts that come to mind are ask someone of that ethnic background if it exists, and for fictional backgrounds think about how the back story affects humor. A great example is where Teal'c tells a joke on Stargate SG-1. Tea'lc coming from a very alien background appears to have no sense of humor prior to his attempt to tell his joke, and only he laughs. You also might look at Reader Digest's contest to find the world funniest joke. It is a great short survey of jokes of the world.

  • 2
    Although Teal'c's joke appears to be a bizarre alien kind of humor, it's actually a genuinely funny joke that's lacking one crucial bit of context: what a Setesh Guard's helmet looked like. This makes it an even better example, though, as a lot of times what seems like different styles of humor are just the same kind of humor with a different context.
    – BESW
    Nov 26, 2013 at 3:15

Humor is notoriously difficult to translate. To take an extreme case, I saw an interview once with an American woman who had written a humor book. The publisher decided to produce a British edition, but they found that the book was filled with American cultural references and words that are different between the two countries, and so they added footnotes in the back of the book (okay, endnotes if you want to get technical) to explain all these references. For example, one of her jokes made a reference to a "cloverleaf", and so they dutifully footnoted this and explained it as, "an interchange on a motorway in the shape of a cloverleaf". And the writer commented, "By the time someone has read one of my jokes, and then finished flipping back and forth to the back of the book to look up all the references, I'm sure they're just going to say, 'Oh, I wonder why someone would do that.'" I say that's an extreme case because we're talking about the cultural barrier between two English-speaking countries.


Do you enjoy the story you are writing? If your readers like the same story as you then they will most likely like the same humour as you do. If the readers don't like the joke then they may imagine the character as someone with a bad sense of humour. Is having a character with a bad sense of humour really going to destroy the rest of the story?

Most quips are spur of the moment and relate to the current surroundings or recent events. The reader of your book is the one that has to like the humour and should bear more influence than characters origin.

As long as the jokes don't have a strong violent, racial or hateful twist that would be considered in bad taste or vulgar by many you should be fine.


As I understand it, "funny" depends upon the unexpected. Jokes get told different ways, and the object of the joke changes (self-deprecating, racist, blonde, yo' mama, etc.), but the unexpected is what always gives the punch line its punch. The unexpected can be unexpected for various reasons: time, space, juxtaposition/comparison of two very different things, etc.

Ex 1: "Yo' mama is so fat, she weighs 800 pounds." That's not funny. You expected an exaggeration of your mother's weight, and that's all you got. So the joke is stupid. It is the kind of joke that a 5-year-old or a Vulcan might come up with.

Ex 2: "Yo' mama is so fat, she has her own climate." That's funny because you didn't expect the fat woman to be compared to an entire continent. Your mind tries to picture a woman that fat, and it can't because there are too many ridiculous things about it, and that makes it funny. (However, a 5-year-old would not find this funny, because he doesn't know about climates and continents.)

My point is that foreign/alien humor would work the same way, but it would operate under a different set of expectations. Unless you understand the culture and/or language and/or history, you won't get the jokes.

Your foreign/alien characters can still MAKE jokes, though. You will just have to explain them to your readers, at first. Make the explanations funny. "Suggesting Princess Suzie might enjoy rock moss was Gryznak's idea of a joke. (I found this out later. There's a hideously ugly creature in the Plains of Gxyap that eats rock moss.)"

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