That Wacky Foreigner Said WHAT? The Comedy of Culture Clash

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When cultures collide, hilarity often ensues. So too, often, do one-dimensional stereotypes. Speaking of often, it is with a similar frequency that I use this Comedy Tourism series to explore intercultural communication through humor — to try and understand laughter from the angle of others. But it’s also a popular choice in comedy to turn that which makes us different into the joke itself.

This culture clash trope is a pretty old entry in the joke book, but not necessarily antiquated. Most people know what it feels like to be the oddball, the fish out of water or at the very least left out. I know my fellow comedy nerds are nodding knowingly. But for all its relate-ability, the culture clash punch line is a delicate one to walk. Portraying colliding cultures comically offers a perfect opportunity for social commentary or biting satire. Then again, emphasizing the odd man out versus the “normal” group can play for cheap laughs — cheap laughs that might perpetuate racism, sexism and all those other “isms” that Ferris Bueller deemed “not good.”

We live in a world of consistently shifting global powers and perceptions. The connectivity of the Internet and social media has increased our exposure to a variety of new viewpoints and cultures. It doesn’t change the joke of cultures colliding, it just causes the terms of the humor to change and shift more rapidly. At one point in the not so distant past, Russians were the bad guys and there seemed to be carte blanche in lambasting those pinko commies. Nowadays, harping on the oddness of former Soviets might be less offensive than just plain anachronistic. There are much more egregious examples of racial and ethnic stereotypes that may have elicited uproarious laughter 50 years ago, but would today muster groans and disapproving glances of the politically correct variety.

So, it isn’t so much that relying on this comedic device is outdated, it’s just that the use of the culture clash trope puts a comedic work at an immediate risk of becoming quickly outdated.

And yet, no matter how un-PC or old-fashioned a comedy may seem in today’s context — there still exists that relatable sentiment of feeling different somehow and it’s easy to sympathize with both sides in this situation. Communication is difficult, even when you speak the same language. Throw in an inherent mutual misunderstanding, and you have yourself a fresh bowl of piping hot comedy. For better or for worse.

Do You Understand the Words That Are Coming Out of My Mouth?

It’s one of the most famous lines from a classic example of culture clash comedy, Rush Hour. Chris Tucker shouts these words into Jackie Chan’s face very early on in their relationship. It’s a little too on the nose, but of course Brett Ratner is not known for his subtlety. Nonetheless, it sums up a sentiment and scenario quite common in comedic cultural collisions. Not only is there a cultural barrier, there’s a language barrier. Sometimes it’s meant to expose the un-worldliness of the dominant culture’s representative, and sometimes it’s a joke purely at the expense of the bumbling foreigner. There could be an entire sub-genre for Jackie Chan — who has repeated the formula for all three Rush Hours, and also in Shanghai Noon and its natural successor Shanghai Knights.

It does not always have to be a lowbrow joke. After all, who among us hasn’t found themselves, at home or abroad, boxed into a corner of frustration by the walls of language? But in addition to this frustration being a joke unto itself, it can also be played for nuance, broad comedy or clever wordplay. In Lost in Translation, Bill Murray’s character sits on his hotel bed bewildered and helpless as a woman of the night begs him to “lip her stockings.” The situation is already absurd; it’s not a joke on the strangeness of the Japanese language, it’s the addition of the characters’ inability to understand each other that makes the whole thing madcap.

The Stupid American

We’re so wonderfully self-deprecating when we want to be, aren’t we? While the mind immediately goes to Coming to America or Crocodile Dundee when we think of culture clash comedies, it’s also very common to see a big, stupid American dropped into a strange new culture (egads, France!) and must fight his/her way to common ground. Sometimes this manifests itself as a broad big dumb American who must learn a lesson, or more nuanced self-deprecation, other times it feels much more like a neurotic Woody Allen-type navigating the sharky cultural waters. And sometimes it is just Woody Allen.

I only say stupid American, because generally it is — but really I should say stupid cultural imperialist from a privileged Western nation. An Idiot Abroad may just be a cruel prank Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais are playing on Karl Pilkington, but it distinguishes itself by making Pilkington’s xenophobia the butt of the joke and the countries he visits the accomplices. It’s a clever reversal of the typical travel shows that ooh and ahh at the exotic otherness of a different culture. In An Idiot Abroad, Karl is very much the other.

Before it was bafflingly green lit as a sitcom, Outsourced was actually a decently well-received film starring Josh Hamilton of With Honors and other forgettable 90’s movies fame. Hamilton plays a corporate suit sent to India to train his replacement; he is both the big, dumb (slightly-racist) idiot and the self-deprecating American. This duality is illustrated around the 30 second mark of the trailer where he tells a group of call center trainees “basically you people need to learn about America.”

After uttering the ubiquitous condescending generalization of “you people,” he proceeds to do some light regional humor for the group — thereby also acknowledging the shortcomings of his homeland.

A moment like this early in a film also indicates an extremely common third act device in these culture collision comedies:

Oh wait, I’m just like “you people” after all.

This is the overarching message, moral realization, and voiceover epilogue in 95% of these types of films.

The Relationship Divide

If communication is difficult, relationships are next to impossible. Leave it to comedy (and melodrama, but what’s the difference, am I right Melinda and Melinda?) to throw in cultural difference for good measure. Men and women might not be from Venus and Mars respectively, but if you want your romantic comedy to have a good culture clash, one of them better be from France.

July Delpy’s 2 Days in Paris borrows heavily from the aforementioned school of Woody Allen — neurotic New Yorker swimming in a sea of self-loathing surrounded by a beautiful European city s/he finds both arousing and terrifying. But the stupid American from above must navigate the sexual waters of Paris in order to meet his French girlfriends’ family without getting turned into a croissant at midnight.

The Relationship Divide + Family

Not only is unsuspecting mate dating someone from a different culture, now s/he is forced into the whole family due to marriage or some other major life event. Wacky, cultural idiosyncrasies ensue before overall acceptance and togetherness in the end. See: My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Unless you already have, which let’s face it, you probably have. That movie made over $368,000,000 worldwide. The show based on it didn’t last a season. I’d say we all got out relatively unscathed.

Intentional Confrontational Collision

Sacha Baron Cohen might have invented this category. The film Borat is just one big cultural clash, a giant stunt exposing the hypocrisies of Americans by manufacturing these collisions with one ballsy interview after another. Bruno is much of the same, though far less funny. His upcoming film The Dictator takes a more traditional narrative approach — a pastiche of Middle Eastern dictators gel into one made-up one arriving at the threshold of America for whatever clashes and misunderstandings that will result in the most laughs. This film looks like a vehicle for Cohen to take dual potshots at Americans and buffoonery in the Middle East…And poor Megan Fox.

These are just a few examples of themes in the comedy of culture clash, specifically in the arena of international cultures. There can also be culture clashes played out for comedy within one’s national borders. You could easily put Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles into that broader pool. There’s also the whole alien/human divide played for comedic effect in a show like Mork and Mindy or the film Paul or the Coneheads sketch. Or how about cultural collisions courtesy of historical transplants and time travel? Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court or the equally literary film Encino Man certainly would qualify as gainful employers of the culture clash trope.

What I find particularly interesting about looking at it through the international lens — aside from that being how I tend to look at things anyway — is it tells us not only how we as Americans and Westerners perceive cultures different to ours, but it also tells us about ourselves. What we find frustrating in other cultures, is telling about our own.

In his documentary Exporting Raymond, show creator Phil Rosenthal portrays his battles with obstinate Russian TV executives and production staff while he struggles to preserve his creative, American vision. He wants we the viewers to sympathize with how hard it is for him to work with obstacles like these people and this country. But the movie paints a much clearer picture of the egoism of Americans, than the stubbornness of the Russians.

Though, we all agree Russians are stubborn right?

Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.

That Wacky Foreigner Said WHAT? The Comedy of Culture […]