I suspect your Chinese friends were having trouble 'getting' more subtle, complex, or allusive jokes in the English language, simply because their facility in that language was weaker. You would be hard put to catch many of the more sophisticated and ironic Chinese-language jokes too, and even Chinese puns (of which there are many more than English ones) would leave you cold if your vocabulary isn't up to it!
Sarcasm and irony are often the hardest forms of humour to appreciate in a language that is less familiar to the hearer, since so much of their effectiveness depends on the flavour and nuance of the language and the tone of the voice. Simple and even corny puns, in contrast, are easy to catch despite being impossible to translate. Slapstick, being mostly physical and visual humour, is probably close to universal. A tourist guidebook to my country Singapore (I think it was Lonely Planet) claimed that Singaporeans do not appreciate ironic humour well, and seem to prefer slapstick. I found that claim to be both patronising and parochial. The thing is that Singaporeans do not use English at the same level of style or nuance as Americans or Brits do, but we are perfectly capable of ironic humour in our own native languages: the hybrid local lingo known as Singlish, and the various south Chinese dialects. I wonder how good an American tourist would be at appreciating a Singlish or Hokkien joke?
I would agree in part and add the French
to that category as well. There's definitely a comprehension gap at work here. But it's not so much about English language comprehension. I think it's more about the cultural background. For example, I believe that Westerners can appear to behave like fools in public more often to a Chinese person than a Chinese person will appear to behave like a fool to another Chinese person. This is because certain modes of behavior that seem appropriate to a Westerner may be unacceptable to a Chinese person. It doesn't take much reasoning to establish the link between just that one distinction and how characters' behavior in a joke may be perceived. And that's just one distinction--there are, of course, others that will come into play.
So, not just language, but cultural norms are at work here. And, obviously, not just the Chinese. However, as fireball pointed out, I do have Chinese friends with whom I've discussed this. And they have mentioned they don't care for British humor. When I asked them for examples of humor they really liked, it was--to be blunt--very obvious stuff I didn't find to be funny.
Edited by XL5, 18 January 2008 - 10:52 PM.