This semester, I had a Spanish language class for which we had to research certain aspects of Spanish culture. I researched its humor and wrote this essay for that class. I publish the translation here after some edits.
In fact, Spanish stereotypes are strong.
According to my friend from Extremadura, the Andalusian is “someone funny and lazy.” — After saying it, he laughed. — “About the Catalans, it’s said that they’re miserly, and the Basques, perhaps, that they’re a little brutish.” Regarding the Madrileños, the model of my own Spanish development, “I can say one […]. In Extremadura, we say that they’re finolis, which is to say that they speak pronouncing every word correctly.” It could be worse.
A minute passed. “Well, we also say that they’re headstrong.” Alright.
An article published by ABC in 2014 titled, “Why the Madrileños have the reputation of being chulos,” used almost identical phrasing as my friend (“miserly,” “brutish,” and “lazy”). (Possibly because he sent me the article.) It also adds the additional Madrid stereotype of being chulos, or affected in clothing and behavior, because of the characters traditionally played in zarzuelas, or operas.
I wanted to investigate Spanish humor more profoundly. I watched the emblematic movie Eight Basque Surnames, which portrays an unexpected pairing: a Sevillian man and a Basque woman, in the context of the Basque independence movement. After her wedding falls apart, she pretends that the Sevillian is her Basque boyfriend, due to her father’s pressure to marry. The hilarity ensues in their efforts. I also watched this season of Big Brother VIP (the Spanish edition), a reality show in which various celebrities unite in an isolated house to compete for money. The contestants argue and receive “votes” from the public that permit them to remain in the house. The last man (or woman) standing wins.
Eight Basque Surnames directly leverages the Spanish stereotypes as its humor. The plot revolves around the improbable event that an Andalusian and a Basque would marry, given their regions’ differences. The first scene portrays a public argument between the two — with critiques and ridicules of each stereotype. In fact, before we began the movie, the parents of my homestay explained the political and social context of the humor to me, and they proceeded to bellow with laughter during the movie with each example of the stereotypes. They are pure Madrileños. I can’t know that they would react as such if they were Basques or Andalusians. But given the record-breaking popularity of this movie in Spain, the answer is probably yes.
In Big Brother, the stereotypes are subtler. For the most part, the humor arises from fights between the contestants, who suffer the house’s isolation. They argue over trivialities and provoke each other for the entertainment (and to receive votes). But occasionally stereotypes underscore the conflicts. In the final episode, the ex-contestant Alejandro confessed to the finalist Laura, excusing his inappropriate language, “It’s true that I have a big mouth. I apologize for my expressions because I’m from Andalusia, and, well, we Andalusians are not all the same […].” Regardless, my host parents laughed throughout the entire program, whether the jokes were stereotypical or not.
Spanish humor doesn’t rely solely on its stereotypes, but they play a central role. They underlie the very tension of Spanish existence: a nation of nationalist conflict, of regionalist and extremist political parties that would rather dismember it. And what reaction does such threatening tension produce? Humor. The media utilizes the unifying power of movies like Eight Basque Surnames and shows like Big Brother, in which Spaniards that represent the regions in conflict unite. They’re universally popular in the country (that is, popular in all regions). But in both examples, what results? What dominates the humor? The conflicts between the participants.
The Spanish humor that I’ve seen is a nervous one. It attacks the nation’s internal conflicts and ridicules their absurdity, but it does so with caution, conscious of the grave risks and the reality. I could never predict the nation’s future, which has never been predictable, but its humor provides us a clue: The fact that Spaniards can still ridicule each other’s differences suggests that Spanish humor will continue being Spanish humor — that is, of the Spanish nation intact.
Jose Chávez Moreno, a student at the Polytechnic University of Madrid, contributed corrections to this text.