Comedy enthusiasts know how important the subversion of expectations can be to a joke’s pay-off. To inspire the formation of these then-subverted expectations, writers of course must draw on a pool of shared assumptions. You can watch one of my favorite demonstrations of this in a scene from “The Other Guys”. The clip will be funniest to someone (with perhaps a slightly morbid sense of humor) who has watched a few too many American action movies…
Although some humor is universal, some is very culture-specific, drawing from different shared pools of knowledge and experience. One pool that varies greatly from one culture to the next is the one containing idioms, which can lead to all kinds of communication confusion.
It’s obviously very hard to translate any wordplay-based humor into another language because it relies on a certain level of language fluency, but this is especially a challenge when the play involves idioms, figurative expressions that may or may not have an equivalent term. I had an experience that highlighted this challenge one day while a German roommate and I watched an episode of a comedy series that loves a bit of wordplay: “Arrested Development.”
The idiom used for the big pay-off in this episode is “there’s always money in,” which is just a way of expressing that a thing is lucrative or a way to make a living. For example, “there’s always money in cars” translates to “the car industry is a good way to make money,” despite its literal meaning being a bit different. In other words, a user of that expression does not mean to say that there is actual cash inside of the car cushions or stuffed into the glove compartment.
Here’s an extremely compressed edit of the joke running through the episode, which at its core is a play on words: a miscommunication in which one character interprets “there’s always money in the banana stand” figuratively when it was actually meant literally. In not recognizing that there is actual cash stashed in the banana stand, Michael has no compunction burning the actual, non-lucrative family stand down to spite his father.
“There’s always money in” presumes knowledge of what that phrase means, as well as of the double meaning, literal versus figurative. My German roommate, whose English was pretty good but who didn’t have much experience with idioms, had only half the equation.
Long before the pay-off, as Michael sets fire to the stand, she turned to me and said, “but there’s money in there!”
Well, she wasn’t wrong.