Many Maltese admit, at least amongst themselves, that they belong to a specific category of people known as ‘Maltese Gemgem’ – (English equivalent: a grumbling lot) just because they seem to perceive and react to life’s occurrences with a humourless eye. It is as if they always need to find something to grumble about. Were it to be a sunny day in January, with a predominantly blue sky, they still feel they should complain, because in the opinion of many, the weather should not be that bright at that time of year. Others, on the same archipelago on the same day, will complain that the chilly breeze in the air is making them shiver as it penetrates through every hole in their body. People will probably also complain if during the dry month of April, on a particular day, Malta is blessed with a rare and brief shower of rain, just because the lady of the house wants to bring out her washing on the terrace to dry. There will even be those who complain when attending Sunday mass, if the celebrant prolongs the homily by two minutes
Where is the sense of cheerfulness and the humour that we Maltese are supposed to have inherited from the British? Try to remember the last time you heard someone crack a hearty chuckle! At the work-place perhaps? Or is it that at our place of work we must wear a serious mien while going about our chores, just to show how serious we are at our job? Amongst friends or with family at a restaurant or bar? Despite these provocative and self-effacing remarks from my side, meant to be said in good humour of course, there are surely those amongst us who have the desire and ability to take life more lightly and ready to cheer themselves and others around them.
How do we identify Maltese humour?
One will have to understand that people around the world perceive humour in different ways, for different reasons. Most Maltese seem to walk around with a perennial poker face, perhaps so as not to reveal their inner emotions to others. In spite of this, they are more than ready to vent their feelings in moments of distress, such as when angry or morose. Which reminds me, there is a Maltese proverb that warns: Wara d’daħk jiġi l-biki! ‘After joking, weeping follows!’ But this does not bar the Maltese from bursting out into a hearty laugh whenever it is deemed appropriate. Perhaps the Maltese in their own mannerisms do not seem to laugh out loud most of the time, but they would still be appreciative of a funny remark or joke. Sometimes I suspect that some (mostly men) are afraid to break into laughter as they feel that they do not want to lose their ‘macho’ and tough appearance.
Apart from the above, one must admit that when the Maltese laugh, they do so in a noisy and often boisterous manner, as if they have just heard the best joke ever. Like all other people, the Maltese may laugh at a personal joke shared between friends or else, when s/he attends a comic theatrical production whether on screen or on stage. On an individual level, many poke humour at one another simply to tease (this is called bantering in English). Then there are those who make use of their humour to express themselves in an ironic if not cynical manner. Ironic humour, often refers to such silly remarks as, ‘Do you like my haircut?’ said when the teller of the remark is most obviously and completely bald-headed; or, ‘nice weather today Joe isn’t it!’ said when the heavily clouded sky is about to unleash a mighty storm. Cynical humour is suspected when one passes an untoward remark in the presence of someone to hurt his feelings, such as, ‘I heard you are going to be awarded the George Cross for bravery’, if the person being victimised happens to shirk off from a dare-do. Cynicism is meant to mock and denigrate somebody or something, just like sarcasm.
Many laugh at unexpected happenstances that are not meant to be funny. For instance, we laugh if we see someone walking down the street who slips on a banana skin as he flails his arms in the air and ends up on his back as if an upturned tortoise. The laughter in such a situation is really uncontrollable, because the onlooker has been taken by surprise and s/he needs to release his emotions somehow. Will that be ticked off as an appreciation of humour when it is not meant to be? Similarly, let’s say, a waiter while serving his customer with coffee loses balance of his tray and the cup full of coffee tilts and drops on the client’s lap scalding his thighs and staining his trousers in the process. That might prove amusing, at least to the onlookers. However, the coffee-drenched customer, as the victim of the mishap will not see any humour in that.
Again, how can one resist a smile if, say, while in church attending mass, the solemnity of the occasion is broken, literally, by someone seated a couple of metres away who breaks wind? Surely all devotion will be blown away (excuse the pun) and all will burst out laughing. Any unwanted noise in a church is considered as breaking a taboo. Breaking taboos is one way to make people laugh, though not always.
The whole world is able to chuckle or laugh out loud when watching funny situations as presented in say, a Charles Chaplin film, or a Buster Keaton or Laurel and Hardy movie. Not to mention laughing at Mr Bean. In the world of entertainment, such as when watching a movie, comedy or theatre show, Maltese audiences tend to laugh more at facial gestures, body language and by the charisma of the comedian, rather than by his words. It is as if slapstick is more easily appreciated by the Maltese than witty quips. The British and Americans produce lots of theatre shows, TV sitcoms and movies where verbal jokes outweigh if not exclude gestures completely. The main fare nowadays as seen on television or films are no longer well planned comedy plots as much as a series of one-liners that produce instant laughs that are forgotten a few seconds later.
The Maltese, like many others, also go for ‘vulgar’ jokes. More so as the Maltese are traditionally and predominantly Roman Catholic and therefore are not supposed to indulge in vulgar language, especially those of a sexual nature especially in public. Such jokes are often shared amongst a few close friends, or else transmitted by comedians on stage or on television. The double-entendre is laughable because the phrase or sentence when delivered, has two meanings, one which is factual and easily recognisable at face value, while at the same time, it contains a hidden meaning, understood a few milliseconds later. Vulgarity in jokes can be softened by euphemisms that are meant to hide glaring obscene remarks.
Obscene humour goes back hundreds of years. Take the case of the rhyming verses in the Qarċilla (a farcical monograph recited by a man characterising a notary). This was a long set of rhyming verses written by Dun (yep a priest!) Felic Demarco, that was acted in the streets during Carnival, way back in 1760. The Qarċilla refers to a list of contractual obligations made by the parents on behalf of their daughter who is about to be married off, as well as another set of promises made by the groom towards the bride’s parents. The list is full of queer and funny gifts such as agricultural land and house furniture, as well as numerous obligations, some of which are described in very vulgar wording. Its recitation to the public goes a long way to inform the modern reader as to what made Maltese people laugh in those days.
In our time, the Maltese, use various euphemistic terms to describe sexual connotations. It is interesting to note that the Maltese have found some euphemistic terms related to sexual body parts in the sphere of edibles, namely, ‘sausage’, that stands (no pun intended) for the male organ, the stuffed puff pastry (Maltese: pastizz) a reference to the female sexual organ and figs or potatoes for the hind parts. Just in passing, as an aside, it should not go unobserved that even the British have their own equivalent euphemisms. Only, they have chosen to term the sexual body parts in animalistic terms, viż’, cock, pussy and ass, respectively. Euphemisms for vulgar terms, therefore, are universal. Euphemisms are useful tools to make us laugh.
When attending a theatrical show, the laughter from the audience show has a binding effect on the general psyche as the degree of it will indicate how much the audience is approving and enjoying the fare being delivered on stage; this albeit the fact that those present are strangers to one another. But what if, as in the case of a Maltese audience, the jokes are related to a political – (may also read partisan) matters? The sphere of politics is a great taboo that one has to treat with caution when chosen as a joke. The individual in the audience will have to decide whether to accept the joke and laugh it out, or else refuse to do so as it might be insulting to his sentiments depending on who the butt of the joke is intended to be. Some would not laugh, others would.
Humour is always a matter of personal tastes. What tickles one person may have no effect on the other. I remember, once, when attending a Christmas pantomime in one of Malta’s theatres. I could not understand why the audience was so appreciative at the humour or rather lack of it that was being presented on stage. There were lots of silly jokes to which the audience warmed up, and laughed at. In pantos, there is often barely a plot and laughter increases mainly when one of the male actors cross-dresses as a woman. This alone would make pantos a popular fare for children but adults seem to enjoy that too. Sometimes I feel that in Malta, witty jokes in comic theatrical presentations are by comparison not well appreciated.
Indeed, one will note that in order to laugh, the Maltese need to have the actor present himself on stage with ‘funny’ or exaggerated character qualities. For example the actor must be dressed in the guise of say, an old man, has a particular physical build, such as being a fat guy, or else act as if he is a retard. There is a lesser following of mainstream stand-up comedians, the ones who come on stage acting as their true self. Away from Malta, such stage comedians attract huge audiences, their forte being their own natural charisma. I have in mind Kevin Bridges, the Scottish stand-up comedian who attracts thousands to his shows each time he performs. It’s not that Malta doesn’t have its own charismatic comedians. Take Hector Bruno, Joe Demicoli, Ray Calleja and Pawlu Borg Bonaci. Only, they all need to be costumed on stage in the guise of a comic character as already mentioned.
In today’s world, thanks to the widespread use of the Internet, we have come into daily communication with all sorts of humour. Humorous clips are are easily accessed at the click of a button. The humour dished out may be in various forms, such as professionally conceived videos, pranks amongst friends, or simply incidental mishap shots filmed as they unfold by a mobile phone.
Most Maltese I guess will laugh at these and other kinds of humour, according to their preferences and the mood they are in.
February 18, 2022
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