By Mark Taylor
I’ve often heard it said that when you understand the sense of humour of a nation, then you understand it completely, as if it were the final piece in a puzzle. So with that thought in mind, is it possible to understand the Brazilian sense of humour? What forms of comedy do Brazilians enjoy? What programmes do Brazilians like? Is the Brazilian sense of humour any different from elsewhere?
It was as an English teacher several years ago that I first had these thoughts in mind. I was attending a pre-semester meeting at the school I worked at. All the teachers were gathered around the table, and I was the only non-Brazilian and native English speaker there. One of the teachers was criticising a book used to teach advanced English: The content isn’t particularly great”, she said, “even the jokes are rubbish, listen…”, and she thumbed to a page of the book and read. “What do you call an elephant with a machine gun?… Sir.” It was at this point that I burst out laughing. It wasn’t just the joke though, it was the rather surreal setting and the surprise. The co-ordinator beamed and said “well, it made Mark laugh, so I think the book’s OK.”
I was more fascinated by the reaction to the joke than the joke itself. Why was it that nobody else found it funny, did they simply not get it, or was it something deeper. We spent a few minutes discussing the joke, and explained the sense of “sir”, which most teachers didn’t quite understand. Even so, the joke simply wasn’t funny to the others even when translated to Portuguese.
When out with my wife’s family and friends the topic of conversation frequently turns to telling jokes, and I often wheel out the elephant joke to test their reaction, albeit translated to Portuguese: Como voce chama um elefante com uma metralhadora?… Senhor. Without fail the joke doesn’t get any laughs, but then I tell the story of the joke, which does get some laughs (also I finish the story off with the one and only Portuguese joke I can remember: “O que um peixe faz?… Nada”, particularly if folks aren’t that amused by the story).
In terms of other comedy, what is it that Brazilians enjoy? Of some interest is imported TV and film, which gives a clue that there is some overlap between Brazilians, and at least some of the rest of the world. I was bemused to discover that my mother-in-law, and many other Brazilians, love Mr. Bean (or “Meester Bin” as she calls him). For those who haven’t seen him, Mr. Bean is a childlike but adult character played by the British comedian Rowan Atkinson. The character gets into all sorts of odd situations, mostly self inflicted e.g. trying to use a paint can and a stick of dynamite to paint his living room. One advantage with Mr. Bean is that more or less there is no talking, as the comedy relies on visual situations. But here is one clue, that Brazilians seem to enjoy this style of slapstick comedy. This is reinforced by the extremely famous Brazilian comic, Didi, who relies on a lot of slapstick in his performances. From what I’ve seen of his films and shows I’m reminded a lot of another famous British slapstick comedian, Benny Hill.
One of the sharpest and funniest comedy programmes made for Brazilian TV is Casseta & Planeta. This features a core of comedians, who write general sketches, as well as sketches centred around current affairs. Not so different from programmes that are seen in North America and Europe. Casseta & Planeta relies on comedic forms like satire, particularly for its political comment. Whereas the other sketches rely on a mix of slapstick again, as well as anarchic and alternative styles. The Portuguese language often comes into play, where words are taken and modified to give some amusing meaning. This is something that’s particularly easy to do with Portuguese, and not so easy or often seen with English. An example that springs to mind is that of a sketch which centred around the word “cofrinho”. The word “cofre” means safe, in the sense of somewhere you lock away money and jewels. But the meaning had been perverted to refer to the cleft of someone’s buttocks, that can often appear when you need a belt for your trousers (so called “builder’s bum” in the UK). The idea was that you could keep things safe in your little cofrinho. I’m not doing a great job of explaining this in an amusing way. It would be much better to watch the sketch.
So these are some examples, but are there any overall conclusions to be made about understanding the Brazilian sense of humour? Well for starters slapstick is in. Other styles like anarchic, albeit close to slapstick, and parody are also popular, the latter particularly with politicians. What don’t tend to be as popular though are styles such as stand-up and improvisational. I’ve yet to see a stand-up comic on Brazilian TV, or some equivalent of the Comedy Club in São Paulo city at least. Ultimately though the devil is in the detail, and there are still situations and circumstances that Brazilians may not find funny. I certainly recommend avoiding anything involving elephants with machine guns.
What are your views on Brazilian comedy, do you think it’s markedly different from the rest of the world, or much the same? What are your favourite Brazilian comedians and programmes, or do you just have a good joke in Portuguese to tell us?
I really enjoyed reading your article, and generally agree with your observations. I think the Brazilians do have a good sense of humour, though sometimes it is seems a bit formula-like. What causes a lot of laughter is usually similar comedic contexts, situations… whether this be over a few beers laughing at the footballing antics of your fellow “pelada” friends or “A Grande Famlia” on the TV. Humour which is more, how can I put it, of the individualistic, bluff, or subtle variety (“stand-up” would fit here) such as sarcasm often fails to hit the mark. At least that is my experience! Humour is a significant part of that whole cultural dis-location which is part of many people’s experience of living abroad. I find I am sometimes quite misunderstood by a failure on my own part to modify my “style/humour”… e.g. people think I am being serious when I am joking (albeit, possibly in an acute/cynical/sarcastic way!) However, this “style” is, I guess, a part of my (more British?) personality… and hence humour is at the core of the quest of integration into another culture and understamding of it.
Well, my favourites are “A Grande Famlia” (though everyone seems to give me the impression it used to be better. Another friend cruelly says I only enjoy it because I can understand it, and in fact he makes an important point, it is very gratifying that I am now able to get a great insight into Brazilian culture through humour as locals enjoy it), and “Sob Nova Direão”, both on Globo.
Sorry I cant do jokes.
Great Article. You have put into words what I have always felt about Brazilian humor. Their humor is much more physical than ours (in the USA) and they play on words quite a bit as you mentioned.
P.S. What did the elephants say when they saw Tarzan coming through the jungle? Nothing. They didn’t recognize him. He was wearing sunglasses!
You are so right in your article! l’m a Brazilian living in London for the past 10 years. Married to an English guy with a very sharp sense of humour. This is where I learned the English sense of humour, which l’m very proud to have achieved.
Been back to Brazil to visit my family a couple of times, the English humour didn’t work. My mum thought I was serious, even with a smile on my face as a clue, and only ended up in tears trying to explain it was a joke!!
Anyway, love your article and good luck in Brazil.
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Previous articles by Mark:
Brazil: The “Turistas” Storm in a Teacup
Understanding Brazil: Christmas and New Year’s Traditions
Brazil: A Guide to Fernando de Noronha Part 5
Brazil: A Guide to Fernando de Noronha Part 4
Brazil: A Guide to Fernando de Noronha Part 3
Brazil: A Guide to Fernando de Noronha Part 2
Brazil: An Interview with Marcia Loebick
Brazil: 14 Bis Centenary Part 2
Brazil: Google Maps Gets an Upgrade
Brazil: A Guide to Fernando de Noronha Part 1
Brazil: 14 Bis Centenary Part 1
Brazil: Daylight Savings Time
Brazil: Carjacking and Theft
Brazil: Airport Delays Grow Among Crash Speculation
Brazil: São Paulo’s International Film Festival (and The Fountain)
Brazil: Single Gringo Beware!
Brazil: The House of Coffee Comes Home
Brazil: Film Review
Brazil: The Portuguese Language Museum
Brazil: Election Time! Part 2
Brazil: Election Time! Part 1
Brazil: Torrent TV
Brazil: Book Review
Brazil: Whistle-stop Salvador Part 2
Brazil: Whistle-stop Salvador Part 1
The PCC Shows a New Level of Organisation
Brazil: Trading Places
Brazil: São Paulo’s Pinacoteca
Brazil: Don’t Forget, You’re in Another Country!
Brazil: PCC Violence Returns to São Paulo
Brazil: A Recycled City Part 5
Brazil’s World Cup Defeat Party
Brazil: A Recycled City Part 4
Brazil: Japanese Standard Chosen for Digital TV
Brazil: NET Petition Feedback
Brazil: A Recycled City Part 3
Brazil: Football Love
Brazil: A Recycled City Part 2
Brazil: A Recycled City Part 1
Brazil: 100 Things To Do in São Paulo Part 3
Brazil: 100 Things To Do in São Paulo Part 2
Brazil: 100 Things To Do in São Paulo Part 1
GPS in Brazil
Brazil: PCC Attacks in São Paulo
Brazil: Tips on Buying or Renting an Apartment or House
Brazil: A Critical Sensitivity
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Brazil: No Change, No Sale
Brazil: Professional Children
Brazil: We deliver… everything!
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