Report Humour in Europe (8/10)

Belgian punchlines – split personality

Direct in Flanders or oblique in Wallonia, the different forms of Belgian humour are a reflection of a complex and multifaceted country. But their dominant characteristic continues to be a healthy mix of self-deprecation, modesty and mockery.

Published on 29 August 2012 at 10:48

There are several forms of humour in Belgium. However, with its split Flemish-Walloon personality it is best to avoid the term “Belgian” humour, especially in articles like this one.

First and foremost, the daily grind is enhanced by a certain involuntary humour. We have the privilege of living in a country whose disappearance can be announced on primetime television — as it was by the spoof television programme Bye Bye Belgium, which aired on RTBF in 2006 and announced that Flanders had declaration independence.

We also have politicians like Prime Minister Yves Leterme, who, when asked to sing the national anthem in 2007, launched into La Marseillaise, and royalty like Queen Fabiola, who appeared at National Day celebrations wearing an apple on her hat shortly after she had received death threats from a would-be crossbow killer.

Duel identity

As you might expect, we also have voluntary humour, which is practised in two styles: one Flemish and the other Walloon. The former, which is more direct and “combative”, involves such activities as farting duels, and often features in frontal attacks on religion and the monarchy. The latter, which relies on synonyms and circumvolution, is often good natured, and marked by self-deprecation — an essential component of Belgian identity, which, as comedian Bruno Coppens explains, is first and foremost the reflection of a lack of collective pride.

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A Francophone born of Flemish mother who specialises in wordplay, Coppens claims that his complicated relationship with his origins is at the root of his verbal genius. As for Belgian humour, he points out that it is not easily defined, but remarks that it is "absurd, off-beat, naturalistic and marked by the influence of Tati and British humour".

According to the lawyer, novelist, newspaper columnist and Tintin specialist, Alain Berenboom, whose latest book La Recette du pigeon à l'italienne [The Italian Recipe for Pigeon] is available from Genèse éditions, there are a lot of parallels between "Belgian" and... Jewish humour, which are both “the evolved expression of people who feel oppressed, but who prefer thumbing their noses to bloodshed."

For Berenboom and others, there are two unifying forces in our country that are not holding together very well: "King Albert II and zwanze.” Not easily defined, zwanze is characterised by mockery, self-deprecation, a wariness of power and an incredulous response to all types of authority, which on occasion is too forgiving of official blunders.

Sudden death

"Zwanze is a bit like gueuze (a Belgian beer) and grenadine,” remarks Berenboom. “It is a combination of bitter beer and sweet syrup, two apparently incompatible products Belgians like to mix to make a drink called Mort subite [Sudden death], which is only fatal for cranky people... "

If the Belgians harbour a certain bitterness against the French — or more specifically [the French comedian] Coluche — and their jokes at Belgian expense [Belgian jokes in France are similar to Irish jokes in the UK], it is because they are convinced that they should have a monopoly on acid humour.

The actors François Damiens and Benoit Poelvoorde are true champions of the brutal mockery which is occasionally misunderstood by our near neighbours. They are also delighted with their status as WCs, "Walloon celebrities", an expression that distinguishes southern Belgian stars from their northern peers, the BVs — "Bekende Vlamingen".

So what about a “Belgian” joke for the road? "How many positions are there in the Walloon Kama Sutra? Just two: on and off".

Read the other parts of the series:

Lampoon culture thrives in Iceland

Deadpan comedy – a UK staple

Romanian jokes that got around the censor

Spain’s bawdy smash hit

The series that sends up the middle class

In Italy, the joke is on them

Tickling Germany's funnybone

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