Recently my teen-aged daughter and I were watching TV, an old sitcom from the 1970s (one of the mixed blessings of cable networks is old TV programs.)
In this story, the situation had the head of the household relegated to the spare bedroom due to a swarm of unexpected guests. In his fitful tossing and turning, he accidentally ripped off the mattress tag. He looked at it and then threw his arms to the sky, exclaiming, “Come and get me!” I burst into laughter; my daughter was merely puzzled, having no idea what the character meant or why it was funny. That’s because she is of a different culture than I—generational differences are really cultural differences in societies that undergo rapid change. My daughter did not grow up in the 1970’s, as I did, and when the show was set—when a generation of young people lived in fear of the police kicking down their doors at night over the mattress tags, which read something like: Remove Under Penalty of Prosecution. They still may read that, for all I know; I haven’t checked. I still have no idea who would be prosecuted and why—I have to think it was directed at dealers, not consumers. After I explained this all to my daughter, and at some length, she only looked slightly less confused and not at all amused. This incident hit home for me how humor is so dependent on culture, on a shared context, and why jokes that have to be explained are probably not going to be funny. Someone from that cultural context makes the connection immediately between the torn-off tag and “Come and get me!” and the humor is partly in making that immediate connection. ESL students don’t share the same cultural context as their instructor in most cases, making humor in the ESL class dicey.
Issues of Humor in the ESL Classroom
Culturally and context specific
There is the old apology, “You had to be there” when a “funny” story falls flat. Most of the humor of stand-up comedians is on very specific cultural phenomenon. I watched a comedian once do a hilarious routine on the mundane task of trying to pay bills late at night when tired and either forgetting to put the check in the envelope or putting the address slip in backwards, and then having to rush to open the envelopes before the glue dried to correct the error. This is very culturally embedded and may not make much sense now to those used to paying bills online. Again, someone I have to explain this to probably won’t find it funny; much of the humor is recognizing oneself in the poor comedian’s plight.
So is there any humor that is universal? Yes, there is, or near-universal. In one of my reading classes, the text had a reading about the lifework of movie actor/writer/director Woody Allen, who, not surprisingly, the students were not familiar with. So to give a sense of Allen and his work, I explained the synopsis of one of his short films, “Oedipus Wrecks,” which involves the middle-aged Allen character’s overprotective mother, through some magic, appearing in the sky over Manhattan to follow him around and tell him to wear his jacket and so forth. The students were able to see the humor in this as overprotective mothers are a cultural universal.
Reasons for Including Humor in the ESL Classroom
So there appear to be numerous barriers to humor in the ESL classroom. Why include it at all?
Language learning, adjusting to a new culture, and returning to school can be tense matters. If the teacher can lighten the mood with humor, some of the tension dissipates, leaving students more ready to learn.
When you laugh with someone, even a stranger, you bond with that person, if only momentarily. You’ve shared a small but significant experience with him or her. This goes for students as well. A class that laughs together develops a feeling of goodwill toward each other and can work more productively together.
Language and Cultural Learning
When you learn a society’s humor, how it conveys humor and what it finds funny, you’ve learned quite a lot about its culture. Generally speaking, the sources of humor are also sources of anxiety; the laughter is to dispel anxiety. For example, the classic butts of American humor—mothers-in-law, bosses, coworkers, police officers, cars, fast food restaurants—all reveal something about the anxieties of an urban, individualistic society.
Sometimes culture and language itself can be sources of humor. For example, a favorite short play I like to teach students is Kaufman and Hart’s “The Still Alarm.” It is written in one scene in a hotel room and has numerous roles for students. It is hilarious in its use of overly polite, inappropriate language, as in the hotel manager knocking and announcing something like, “Pardon me for intruding, but the building is on fire.” It continues on like this, with the main characters calmly packing to leave, the firemen knocking for entrance, etc. Students are able to see the humor—it is possible to be too polite—and discuss more appropriate language for the situation, such as “The building’s on fire. Get out now!”
Methods for Including Humor in the ESL Classroom
Include humor from the beginning
Use humor during such tasks as going over the syllabus with its myriad rules and policies, with such observations as “Certainly you may miss class for family emergencies, but if your grandmother dies three times during the semester, I may begin to suspect something amiss.” This gives a lighter approach to rule enforcement while not taking away the importance of the rule.
Lighten the mood
Use humor to lighten the mood. On test days, making a small joke can lighten what may be a heavy mood.
Call attention to humor
Call attention to humor and discuss what makes it uniquely American and what seems more universal. Sometimes humor you thought was truly “American” turns out to be more universal and easily accessible.
Share a joke from their cultures
Invite students to share a joke from their cultures. Have them explain it and why it is funny within that culture. By the time we reach this step, student will have seen me go through the same steps. And if they can do this, explain a joke and its humor within a culture, they have advanced significantly linguistically and cognitively.
Humor is a tool
Humor is a tool for the class, not the class itself, nor should it be used as a weapon. Once my class was next to another that seemed to spend the majority of its sessions in gales of laughter. Although I’m glad they were enjoying themselves so much, I have to wonder how much they actually got done. Humor is a tool in the class, not the class content itself. And needless to say (I hope), humor, especially sarcasm, should never be directed at students. Sarcasm can be hard to understand, even from someone within one’s own culture, and “mean” humor becomes a barrier to, not a tool for, learning. Direct humor at inanimate objects or situations, not people.
Using humor is not without potential pitfalls.
However, if done appropriately, it yields many rewards in language and cultural learning as well as classroom bonding.