“Every nation ridicules other nations, and we are all right.”
German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

Painting of Arthur Schopenhauer; via Wikimedia Commons

It’s interesting that one of the largest branches of humour is making fun of those that are physically close to us. The oldest and most obvious may well be the European definitions of Heaven and Hell:
“Heaven has English police, French cooks, Italian lovers, German engineers and Swiss organisers. Hell has English cooks, French engineers, Italian organisers, German police and Swiss lovers.”

An Armenian fresco depicting Heaven, Earth, and Hell; Author: 六龍幻天; via Wikimedia Commons

Or even the story of the Europeans stranded on a desert island where there are 2 men and one woman of Italian, French, German, Greek, English and Irish extraction.

After one month one Italian man has killed the other for the Italian woman, The 3 French are in a ménage-a-trois, the 2 German men have a strict schedule with the German woman, the Greek men are sleeping with each other and the Greek woman is cooking and cleaning for them, the English men are still waiting for an introduction to the English woman and the Irish have divided the island in two, have built a working distillery and don’t recall ever seeing an Irish woman on the island.

This humour is not just limited to other nationalities, but also extends to those within our own national borders.

In New Zealand the butt is Southland “100,000 people and only 7 surnames”.

In Australia it is Tasmania “The toothbrush was invented in Tasmania as if it had been invented anywhere else it would have been called the teethbrush.”

The Canadians have Newfie jokes, the English have Irish Jokes, Germans laugh at the Bavarians, and it all seems to be considered fairly acceptable that we laugh at each other. Doing so does not necessarily brand us as being prejudiced or as racists, as long as it pokes fun at national quirks rather than just being offensive.

We also have literally millions of religious jokes. We can laugh at Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Buddhists, Taoists and all other religious group. The only exception is Islam, which cannot be a subject of humour without resulting in death threats. In accordance with Islam, Muslims must abide by some basic rules on making jokes, such as humour being within the limits of Islamic tolerance, and not going beyond the bounds of truth. These restrictions immediately create a situation where any humour that does comply will actually be unlikely to be very funny.

Religious symbols; via Wikimedia Commons

Ruling out jokes that are specifically meant to be racist or offensive, and these are unacceptable at any time and under any circumstances, most ethnicor cross border jokes are not done out of hatred.
Germans don’t hate Bavarians and mainland Australians don’t hate Tasmanians, and the actual differences between these groups are indiscernible, even though there are some obvious quirks and differences, whether it is lederhosen in Bavaria or a static, isolated population in Tasmania, that make it easy to single out a source of humour.

Guy in traditional Lederhosen; Autor: Sanchristobal76 (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

Australians love new Zealand sheep jokes and Kiwis love Australian criminal jokes, but the two countries share close ties at all levels and any aggression towards each other tends to be reserved for sporting events.

The reason that we love to make jokes about those around us is that it enables us to establish that we belong to our own “in-group” that is sharing this humour as compared to those we are making jokes about. It helps to establish our right to belong to our specific group and strengthens our right to claim membership.

I believe that it is not necessarily a sign of prejudice nor unhealthy as, for example, I have heard more Kiwi sheep jokes from New Zealanders, more Bavarian jokes from Munchners and more Jewish jokes from Jewish friends. This ability to laugh at ourselves is important, and finding humour in our own national, religious and ethnic foibles is healthy and a sign that we are comfortable with our own identity. This ability to laugh at our own cultural quirks is actually at the heart of great European literature, from Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Bunels’s Vindiana, Fernando de Roja’s La Celestina to Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado.

I have noticed that in Western countries at least, there has been a fairly recent arrival of Muslim comedians in stand-up comedy clubs. Their humour at this stage tends towards the western view and fear of Islam, with humour around situations like airport security checks and dietary habits. American comedians like Ahmed Ahmed, Tissa Hami, Dean Obeidallah, Azhar Usman, Maysoon Zayid, and Shazia Mirza the only female Muslim comic in the UK, are challenging the stereotypes, though they are incurring some anger from their own communities.In self-preservation they tend to keep away from actual religious humour, but I am thrilled to at least see that this birth of Muslim humour has started.

As Alan Alda, American actor, director, screenwriter and author, says “When people are laughing they are generally not killing each other”.



  1. Roisin says:

    Thank you for my laugh- out- loud moment this morning, Les. You can probably guess which joke I liked best. Marvellous!

  2. Frank says:

    loved it..lol
    rgds, Frank (Aussie Jew with Kiwi girlfriend..always laughing at each other and ourselves)

  3. Bruce Rankin says:

    Very good Les. Try this one, just received……….

    Apparently it’s no longer politically correct to direct a joke at any
    racial or ethnic minority, so try this one:

    An Englishman, a Scotsman, an Irishman, a Welshman, a Latvian, a Turk,
    an Aussie, a German, a Yank, an Egyptian, a Jap, a Mexican, a Spaniard,
    a Russian, a Pole, a Lithuanian, a Swede, a Finn, an Israeli, a
    Romanian, a Bulgarian, a Serb, a Swiss, a Greek, a Singaporean, an
    Italian, a Norwegian and an African went to a night club.

    The bouncer said, “Sorry, I can’t let you in without a Thai”

  4. Pingback: Weening the Mutaween « When The Elephants Fight

  5. CharlesMartel says:

    “The only exception is Islam”

    Not quite. One may very well lose employment for telling a Jewish joke. It just depends on who hears it.

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