We’ve all been there: close circle of friends, someone makes a joke, everyone laughs. Except…someone didn’t get it.
This was somewhat the case for me growing up. Except I felt that way in my home. My parents watched Colombian stand-up comedy with our family, and my generation would laugh once for every five times they did. Nothing made sense. This sense of humor referred to a daily life of which we were not a part.
Laughter is supposed to be universal. Many times, however, we find ourselves outside of the joke, unable to understand why something is funny to someone else. Some of us are into darker humor; some into classic jokes, laughter as a phenomenon is universal without a doubt. A sense of humor, however, shows to be very particular.
Frank “El Flaco” Martínez helped me with my questions about Colombian humor. Frank got started in comedy with the well-known TV show Los Comediantes de La Noche, on which he was the winning representative of Medellín.
I was curious about what topics come up constantly during stand-up comedy (Frank’s specialty), how Colombian humor differentiates from others, the role that laughter plays in Medellín society and which shows he’d recommend for someone looking for an introduction to paisa humor.
Exaggerations, Lies and Everyday Life
When it comes to topicsnon-acceptablethere is no official “off-limits.”
Stand-up comedy is about expressing the things that exasperate or affect us. Everything is up for grabs: sexuality, money problems, the always popular “puns” — my personal favorites — the list is endless.
Martínez says censorship comes from within the comedian. Limits lie in personal discomfort, be that about politics, religion or any other subject the artist doesn’t feel can be touched.
One of the most popular topics is the exaggerations of simple things, take Martínez’ recent tweet (my translation):
“Buying gum at éxito and being given a receipt as if I’d bought groceries for three months.”
This is a line that he incorporated into a new stand-up routine and, what seemed like effortlessly, got the entire house laughing.
Another topic is lies, which can derive to digression on cheating on your partner, acceptable lies vs. non-acceptable etc.,
Finally, the third topic, and probably the most common: everyday life. Almost every comedian will resort to this because it is the most relatable topic.
High class or low, everyone waits in line at the bank, has to go to the city center sometime, and can, at the drop of a hat, imitate their neighborhood aguacate (avocado) salesman’s call.
Medellín is particular in its sense of humor, so deeply embedded in its inhabitants.
A paisa tends to break the ice with a joke, be spontaneously witty, find a laugh in every situation. This is what makes Colombian humor different. It is omnipresent, it starts the conversation, then keeps it flowing and finally, ends it with a chuckle.
Humor has no link to social status. Topics like poverty can entertain those that live it every day and those that only see it on the streets just the same.
What Martínez considers to be the particular outcome of this is that the link between delicate subjects and jokes relieves society of stress and creates a very different attitude toward everyday life.
The key for a comedian is to not fall into easy topics like sex or to overdo the cursing.
Laughter: A Social Catalyst
For a Colombian, laughter is the doorway to everything you need. A smile sends a good vibe and can ease contact with the person next to you. Sometimes smiling can get you into some trouble, but, in general, we take the risk.
Making a joke while negotiating may improve the result, smiling at a bus driver, says Martinez, can get him forget he’s having a bad day.
Laughter allows people to take things less seriously, to re-think priorities, to relieve stress.
“Underground” Comedy Club
From my personal experience, laughter is very much the heart of every Colombian home.
My father always jokes with the waitress before we order, my mother turns half of our conversations into funny storytelling, my grandfather writes down his favorite jokes in a planner, long-distance family phone calls start with an exchange of one-liners.
When I was a waitress, I got a lot of people who joked with me as a way to break the ice, to make the fact that I’m serving them less ceremonial and more personal. This, and when customers asked for my name, were some of my favorite things: they made me feel like a human.
With time, I’ve learned enough about Colombian culture to understand a lot of the jokes my friends and family make but there’s one thing that sticks out about what I’ve learned.
Not only is the sense of humor here particular, but it is also one of the society’s most important tools for everyday exchange with others.