Why you should care
Because they’re not laughing with you, they’re laughing at you.
Part of an occasional series on unusual words we wish we had in English.
He’s the most powerful man in the world, addressing the country on a sacrosanct national holiday. It’s a frigid day in Washington, and President Obama is commemorating centuries of American prosperity and our humble beginnings. Eloquent as always, Obama can hardly believe it’s his seventh Thanksgiving at the White House. What better way to honor the moment than with this lyrical one-liner? “Time flies, even if turkeys don’t.”
Our condolences to Malia and Sasha for that cornball quip. But you knew your father would never give up his dad jokes cold turkey. Ba-dum-bump! Cheesy jokes aside, you’ve heard these poor puns, weak wisecracks and dad jokes before — all so poorly told that you can’t help snicker out of reflex. In Indonesia, there’s a tidy word for these Michael Scott moments.
Jayus (jai·yoos): a joke so unfunny that one cannot help but laugh
On the Indonesian archipelago, jayus jokes that fall cataclysmically flat are “black and white and read all over” — in other words, you can’t escape them. They’re cringeworthy and uninspired, the kind that would get you ostracized from the stage or kicked out of a junior high cafeteria. In fact, rumor has it that Jayus was the nickname of Djayusman Soepadmo, a high school boy infamous for his crappy jokes — decades later, his deadpan humor became enshrined in Indonesian slang.
Often, jayus-esque jokes are devoid of a punchline — the climactic zinger that makes everyone laugh — and the silence that follows is so awkward that you must force up a laugh just to fill the dead air, says Sakdiyah Ma’ruf, a stand-up comedian from Indonesia. The lack of a punchline is the punchline, straddling “somewhere between stating the obvious and trying too hard to be funny,” adds Ma’ruf.
However, the lowbrow comedy may be more a relic of Indonesia’s checkered past than a lazy attempt at humor. From 1967 to 1998, when censorship reigned during the authoritarian Suharto regime, comedy was heavily stifled, along with other creative professions like music and journalism, in an attempt to stamp out any and all criticism against the government. As a result, comedy in Indonesia focused on slapstick humor and relied far more on being expressive in both gesture and language, just to get a rise out of a heavy-lidded audience, says Tifa Asrianti, a former reporter with the Jakarta Post. Now, Asrianti says, it’s high time Indonesia gets its funny bones from sitcoms like Friends with smart, witty banter, rather than Charlie Chaplin films chock-full of lampshade-on-head, falling-down-stairs absurdity. “We need to educate [the] public to have a good laugh, and not just laughing at other people,” says Asrianti.
Of course, we know you’re guilty of cracking a lame jayus joke from time to time too. “There’s no shortage of them,” says Dr. Peter McGraw, founder of the Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder. But for the love of comedy, no one cares why the chicken crossed the road. Quite frankly, I don’t give a flip if you “knock, knock” on my door. And, dadgummit, screw the skeleton who had no body to go with.