What’s funny in Bali?

Inferring the inextricable relationship

between Observer, Space & Time through Balinese Humour

A 3rd year undergraduate essay from Khalil Betz-Heinemann 2011

“The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.”

Albert Einstein

This essay is about Humour in Bali. It is an experiment in using eHRAF to see whether a cross-cultural comparison of humour can be made. Using the only two ethnographic documents that span Balinese culture and mention Humour, I am looking at any references to it as defined and inclusive of; “Conception of humour; sources of amusement (e.g., mishaps); types of humour (e.g., wit, puns, practical jokes); expressions of amusement (e.g., smiling, laughter); droll stories; coarse humour (e.g., anal, pornographic); humourists (e.g., wits, jesters, comedians); special elaborations of humour (e.g., comic strips)” (eHRAF 2011).

I will be looking at each situation of humorous occurence in turn, and the documents that they are based on. I will use every reference or suggestion to humour found in each and summarize them and their context, rather than just picking references I particularly like and biasing the selection. I will do this using the help of direct quotes and some extra material outside of eHRAF. In light of this I will reflect on what the role of humour is in these situations. Then I shall I shall see what the overall ethnographic comparison of humour in each situation reveals about ‘What’s funny in Bali’ and see whether this reveals anything about the nature of relationship between observer, space and time. Conclusively I intend to briefly reflect on the SpaceTime continuum and Quantum Theory and see whether this brings up any interesting insights into Balinese humour and my own observable existence in SpaceTime.

Wayang and Dalang

Illustration 1: Dalang

Context: As part of festivities there is often a dalang, or shadow puppeteer. He is a insired story-teller, an artist and a spirtitual teacher. He will do -on average- nine hour stretches through the night squatting continously behind his screen, where his puppets will enact and recite from ancient literature with his foot tapping a continous rhythum with a rattle. His required knowledge and moral understanding of the ancient texts -to do this- is a highly respectable attribute of being a dalang. To enact all this requires that dalang be both physically and mentally sharp, with plenty of creativity (Discover Indonesi 2011). For the audience a dalang’s reputation conclusively rests with his sakti, his magic power. Additionally the dalang must be in touch and aware of the local populations current circumstances. The renumeration for a wayang (shadow puppet show by a dalang) is usually nominal, making it accessible to most. (Belo 1966)

These wayang are interwoven with details of local events and make the ancient texts more accessible to the mainstream audience, providing a spiritual education. They use the characters of servants to humourously express the audiences grievances with the current form of governance they live under. The dalang himself tends to be diplomatic in these dialogues and uses ‘ribaldourous salty’ humour to create this blend of theatre, social commentary and spiritual education. (Belo 1966)

Vistors to Bali get bored fairly quickly and do not get or cannot get a wayang. Hence they usually do not undertand why the Balinese sit until dawn in front of a screen with vague shadows bobbing about on it. But for the Balinese there “prevails the curious mixture of mysticism and of slapstick humour that the Balinese love so. Every object and every move of the marionettes has a symbolical significance aside from the purely entertaining aspect of the show” (Covarrubias 1937: pp. 237).

Reflection: The use of culturally and locally specific references by the dalang add a uniqueness and sense of personal connection between the audience and the spirituality of ancient texts. The continous artful blend and relationship created between tit-bits of local news, the wider cultural and politically distant underscored by a moral storyline is something only a local person can really appreciate. Perhaps a longer term resident such as an Anthropologist might come to start appreciating it also, once the pieces of knowledge that the dalang draw on are known.

The humour through slapstick and ribaldry plays the inaccessibility of those in power against the inaccessibility of ancient texts. The accesibility that a dalang brings to ancient wisdom in the texts, informs and empowers the mainstream audience in their contentions with those in power, whilst the humour allows him to be seemingly ambigous in the criticisms he voices for the audience. The humour may act as an alleviant from being bogged down in the feeling of powerlessness that an unhappy relationship with those in power can bring. Therefore the wayang can bring realization in people that they indeed are not in such a dire situation that there isn’t some hope for changing the situation. Or perhaps the ‘salty’ humour is more about seeing those in power as less omnipotent than they may seem. The dalang almost acts as an intermediary between power and people, using humour to deal with the contentious elements that could not be respectably and acceptably voiced head-on in normal circumstances.

However the dalang is obviously not primarily a go-between; politics-people, spiritual-mundane. That is more a characteristic that is made available by the wayang, as the dalang plays with these themes to provide humourous entertainment. It is conclusively his ‘inspirational’ quality at performing such a continous and extended story that imbues him with sakti, magic power. The audiences sense of awe and lack of understanding at how someone can conduct such a story; its magic. In particular it is the magical ability to weave together a story with so many elements and make it funny. As it is the timely meshing together of the weave that is the humour.

What’s funny: Partly the public ‘taking the mikey’ out of those in power without having to worry about those in power retailiating. A subtle sense of increased freedom can be shared with others. Overall the situating of people, places/context in a certain order of time that is magical in achievement and hilarous in observing.

Tenganan scarf

Context: Food that newly wed bride and groom have cooked together is brought out to them on silverware whilst their necks are bound together with a scarf. They the feed each other whilst being restricted by a tenganan scarf, causing them to be clumsy and shy (Covarrubias 1937). Guests find this situation hilarious, “making the couple turn red with embarrassment”(pp.152).

Reflection: The literal bonding representing the ritual bonding by marriage, causes the married couple to encounter the literal reality of their being together, and the clumsy eating, that it does not always go smoothly. Alongside the fact that they have accomplished a literal joint effort in both preparing the food and consuming it.

There is a suggestion that the guests are communicating two main things to the couple in this ritual. That they are proceeding in a joint effort in their lives now and that this will inextricably result in difficulties. The first suggestion by the guests laughing is to show the couple that when they encounter such situations of difficulty between themselves, that aren’t necessarily so literal, they should gain the perspective of the guests and realize that there is always humour in such situations, which may help alleviate the difficulties. Secondly, in the inevitable difficulties they face in the future together (which will literally come from being in a joint-relationship) they can expect to face embarrassment if these are exhibited to the community. So either don’t exhibit them, or get used to being embarrassed and don’t take it to heart. However the learning is not only one way, the guests can also reflect on their own marriage or marriage to come.

What’s funny: Seeing the difficulties of being married and affirming the clumsiness that they inevitably entail, whilst also being able to laugh at the fact that it isn’t just yourself that experiences relationship problems. Again it is a performance, in this case a ritual, in which an appreciation of a situation of particular people, place/context at a certain time, come together to create something special and observationally humorous.

Karang astí

Illustration 2: Motifs: Covarrubias 1937

Context: These are motifs that are carved in stone and found on temples in Bali. The motif on the left is a variation on karang motifs, it is based on an elephant. However it has no lower-jaw whereas other variation of karang do, such as the one on the right. The jawless one is called a karang astí. “Karang means a reef, a rock, but it also is the word for setting jewels or for a flower arrangement” (183). The author points out that previous visitors “have attempted to give these ornaments an esoteric religious meaning, the representation of the souls of inanimate objects — rocks, mountains, plants — of which they form a part.” (pp.183)

The Anthropologist asked a Balinese why the motif on the left had no lower jaw, he replied “because they did not have to eat solid food! This is, in my opinion, a typical Balinese wise-crack and not an indication of any such symbolical meaning.” (pp.183)

Reflection: The indication, as expressed by the Anthropologist, is that the Balinese found such a question funny because the questioner was trying to invoke a meaning where there wasn’t specifically any; the lack of a jaw was not salient. The informant seems to suggest hat any person can see that a motif is representational, so intrinsicially there is no need to even consider the literal functionings of the symbols outside of their context e.g. how does an actual elephant eat. However there is an importance in this question as the Anthropologist demonstrates that that we should check with informants and not place our own salience on an artefact abstracted from its context, as previous visitors had in this case.

What’s funny: The Anthropologist, because their questions can be nonsensical in a different cultural context. Someone being so silly as to ask about the obvious. Its funny to see their grappling at the ether or the child-like clumsiness of someone not understanding the basics.

a Hold-up: an additional note on Balinese motifs in light of Karang astí

Illustration 3: Motifs 2: Covarrubias 1937

Context: “The North Balinese take their temples lightly”. Though I would suggest that this does not mean that they are less important, their significance is perhaps slightly different. As they “outline the decorations with white paint to make them even more conspicuous, and in [some] villages… the overpowering decoration is painted in bright blue, red, and yellow, giving as a result the wildest and most unrestrained effects.” ( pp.185)

Illustration 4: Motifs 3: Covarrubias 1937

They “often use the wall spaces as a sort of comic strip, covering them with openly humorous subjects: a motor-car held up by a two-gun bandit, seen undoubtedly in some American Western in the movie house of Buleleng; a mechanic trying to repair the breakdown of a car full of long-bearded Arabs; two fat Hollandersdrinking beer; a soldier raping a girl; or a man on a bicycle with two great flowers for wheels. Fantastic pornographic subjects are always a source of hilarious comedy and in many temples in both North and South Bali such subjects are found as temple decorations.”(pp.185).

Reflection: This ethnographic example does not come with any context beyond what has been included. I have no access to ethnographic material describing better the socio-economic-religious-etc context in which these images have been created, so I do not wish to speculate. However in light of the Karang astí example previously, we can denote two things. Firstly, we cannot assume humour does not come into religious ceremony – it is a common misconception1. Therefore I cannot say whether these have any underlying “esoteric religious meaning”(Nieuwenkamp in Covarrubias 1937: pp.183).

Secondly though, we can look at the list of humorous motifs identified and see that they mostly reflect more recent events in Balinese experience; whether filmed in Hollywood or having taken place in Bali. So what we can say, not about religion, but about the subject of Humour, is that it is particularly useful in learning what was salient, within what space and context, at the time they were made. This is not just a reflection of the comedian/artist who made them, but also of Balinese people in general, as the author has described them as “openly humorous” (Covarrubias 1937: pp.185) and not hinted at any sorted of feeling by people that they are a negative graffiti2.

However, Balinese may not be their primary audience, it may be visitors and tourists that find these comic-strips explicitly funny, as I do. Conclusively this further points to the fact that a better knowledge of context of this humour would help us understand the relationship between space/place, time and the people involved.

What’s funny: There is no need for explanation, it is “openly humorous “(pp.185) within Image 4 and 5.


Illustration 5: Bebanyolan: Covarrubias 1937

Context: The topéng is a very popular entertainment that takes place in the afternoon. It is particularly popular with the “ more serious type of men”. A topéng is a play about the adventures and achievements of“local kings and warriors, episodes of the wars and intrigues of Balinese history”. (pp.246-248)

It is a performance usually done by 2-3 actors, usually old men. They are highly skilled at switching between roles “from half-witted servants and petulant prime ministers, to the heroic kings and cultured young princes”. All the roles requiring have specific techniques the actors learn and use. Conspicously only the bebanyolan (clowns) roles have “no special technique and no program. Personality and the spirit of surprise are expected of them”.(pp.246-248)

The bebanyolan are the only characters that speak in a topeng. ”They wear half-masks that leave the mouth free, while the other characters use pantomime”. The absurd clowns are clumsy, with stiff wild hair and bulbous noses, whilst the other characters are more refined and delicate.(pp.246-248)

Both Bali and Java have topéng, however a contrast helps reveal something interesting in Balinese style that makes it more humorous. In topéng, Javanese actors can only express emotion with “the most conventional gestures, and [their] faces remain fixed and mask-like”. The Balinese in contrast are “gay, exuberant, and fond of gestures and slapstick comedy. Javanese masks are stylized, with long, sharp noses and slit eyes that eliminate all sense of the realism frowned upon by Islamism. The Balinese make masks of amazing expressiveness, often realistic in character, studies of standard types”. Consequently “Balinese think the dances of Java are meaningless, dull, and dead, but the Javanese are shocked at the “noisy” music of Bali and look upon their dancing as the product of rude and primitive peasants”. The bebanyolan only come out in there fullest and are humourous in a Balinese topeng, opposed to a Javanses one. (pp.219-221)

On top of this part of a Javanese and Balinese princes’ education is to “learn dance, act, and play musical instruments”, Balinese princes also”organize a theatrical group, mingle with the common people and perform for [the peoples’] amusement”. (pp.219-221)

Reflection: In terms of this essay’s topic of humour, the interesting note to make is the relationship between history and humour. The non-clown characters have a predefined set of bodily scripts, that represent the kings, princes and those in power, whereas the slap-stick comedy is invoked by the bebanyolan clowns, who rely on their individual personality to improvise and play with the static characters of history. Humour is very ‘in the present’ but bounces off a past time that is representative of an ancient context and place. The masks over-emphasis certain characteristics, and are remade to reflect ‘the times’ making their characters represent an increased salience of the present, that is accessible to the observer. Importantly it is only the clowns that can speak and change the part of their role in the story.

Furthermore we see from the contrast with Java, that in Bali humour correlates with accessibility to power by the common people (e.g. The intermingling of the prince and the quick switching of roles between powerful characters and clowns etc.). It also places emphasis on the reality of the world they live in (e.g. the realism of the masks, their exaggeration of present salient types of people etc).

It is the “lisping and idiotic clown” (pp. 246) that people can relate to, whilst seeing how he hilariously and often unknowningly the one who can interfere and change the continuation of the past into the future.

What’s funny?: Evidently the Balinese don’t find Javanese topéng funny! I think what is funny in Balinese topéng is similar to that found within the section on Wayang. In addition to this it is the “bawdy….rude and primitive peasants” (pp.219)- exaggerations of themselves performed with artistic timeliness – that is funny.


Illustration 6: Patih Mask

Context: The patih is a specific character that goes hand-in hand with ardja stories (Balinese Opera). “The ardja stories are romantic episodes of memorable love affairs of princes and princesses, generally full of fantastic situations and with a distinct erotic flavour. The distinguished characters speak and sing in kawi, which is translated into common Balinese by the comedians for the benefit of the unscholarly crowd. The comedy is incredibly funny and rough slapstick, sprinkled with all sorts of bawdy jokes”. I will provide no more context on the ardja here as it is far more complex and not of any more particuar significance to humour than mentioned. (pp.250)

Prior to the ardja stories being performed though, the patih and clown(s) take centre stage to perform. The patih character is not techniqually a clown or comedian, but does ‘clown’ with clown characters. Clown characters can be identified by their “faces [being] crossed with dabs of white paint over [their] nose and upper lip”. ( pp.250)

The patih is the prime minister to the ratú (great prince), who is the hero of an ardja story. The patih character is pompou and self-important, laughing, strutting and picking on a clown character. He holds “long dialogues [with the clown], giving hints of the [ardja] story to follow”. The patih uses the lisping and stuttering clown to make “off-colour” jokes, whilst evidently is himself a pitiful character in his exaggerated self-importance and ensuing treatment of the ratú. It is significant that it is the women and children who enjoy them most, whilst the patih’s jokes embarrass the men. (pp.249-251)

As the time for the ardja approaches the patih welcomes the ratú to the stage, with great flattery and self-demeaning speech. When the ratú finally emerges in his splendid outfit he is”singing in kawi, dancing in the refined style”. The patih and the clown(s) imitate all this, but “succeed only in a burlesque” caricature. The patih’s piece “has gone on late into the night”, and this final stage signals the ardja, where the refined characters take centre stage, whilst comedians translate and enact in a ribaldourous way the dances and kawi songs. (pp. 249-251)

Reflection: There are two main catalysts of comedy here, the ardja comedians and the patih. The ardja comedians functionally act as an interface to both translate the verbal and body language of the refined performers. Yet the author refers to the already “fantastic situations and … distinct erotic flavour” of the ardja, therefore the addition of comedy in the translation cannot be primarily for entertainment purposes. This suggests that the humour is something more. I would suggest that it both reflects the Balinese character refered to in the bebanyolan section; that of indulging in bawdy jovility, but it also represents Balinese relation to time and space. They enjoy maintaining performative events, as something that isn’t simply ‘high art’ rescued from history. They synthesise this idealised past with the actual present through balancing it with an exaggerated depiction of their present. Humour is perfect for this, as it holds a quality that is very temporal, of the now. This is further shown in the patih’s performance. ( pp.250-251)

The patih character also extends to commentary on positions of power. The representation of the patih as abusing his power on those lower ranked than him in contrast with the pathetic way in which he submits to those of higher rank, followed by him joining the clown in his inability to imitate the finess of the ratú, tells a whole story. It is almost a moral lesson, chiding those that think themselves higher than others (even if they have the rank), without being able to actually achive actions that reflect a higher status.

What’s funny: Appreciating the history of one’s past, whilst being able to jest about it. It is in the Balinese not taking something precious so seriously , that they show in their ability to enjoy humourising it, that they can engage with what is precious about it. So what is funny is taking an old artefact off a shelf and dusting it off, rather than leaving it in an airtight exhibition cabinet. What is also funny is seeing the farcical aspect of the relationship that exists between a higher ranking patih and his subservient, where it is the misuse of the higher ranking of the patih that signifies him as the least morally respectable; he is laughed at. In conclusion the particularly different aspect of humour in this section is that it is also about the women and children having the explicit opportunity to particularly laugh at the pathetic inabilities and embarrasing nature that can exist in power-play between, and by, men. So men are the butt of the joke here!

Further analysis and Conclusion: I have reflected through-out and concluded for each section. But ‘What’s funny in Bali?’ overall? Each section stands happily on its own, but I have carried through and expanded on them consecutively through sections. I don’t think I can make a smaller statement that would do them justice, however some themes that run through the essay are mocking those in power, recognizing the funny side of marital difficulties, the over-analysing Anthropologist, men. The biggest theme running through is Balinese laughing at themselves. Seeing the funny side of life.

There is also a specific type of character the Balinese use in clowning, that in his prevadence of comedy and the context of audiences reactions, can be seen to be the a partcularly poignant source of wisdom and respect. To highlight this character I would like to use a Turkish historical folk character that in someway resembles this. It is Nasreddin Hodja. He is read to children and used infrequentely in adult conversation and is perhpas the mosty widely known folk-character in Turkish countries. He is a good example as he demonstrates wisdom in his stupidity and humorous approach to life. To call him stupid within an English context would be incomplete. It is the stupidity of being honestly positive and humorous in Nasreddin’s actions that does not make him a role-model, but a respected source of wisdom in his positivity of life in the present. This character, though less colourful correlates with the theme of character I am pointing to in Bali. Here is an anecdote to perhaps better demonstrate this; “Nasreddin Hodja’s fellow villagers were always trying to baffle him with abstract questions. `How long will people continue to be born and to die?’ they asked one day. Nasreddin Hodja was unruffled. `That’s an easy one.’ he said, `Until, of course, heaven and the hell are completely full.’” (Eskicioglu 2011) Turkish people find these short stories both funny and educative. He also tends to unknowingly circumvent retribution by those in power, when he gets himself in a fix with them; again something similar to Balinese humour and clowning.

Humour has demonstrated itself as a particlarly good tool to comparatively analyse, acting as a comparative category in the case of Observer, Time and Space (Bird 1981: pp. 146). Carty & Musharbash (2008) analyse humour as the “strangely nebulous heart of understanding, and belonging, within social relationships” (pp. 209) correlates to teh Balinese example here, however they go on to say that “Laughter is a boundary thrown up around those laughing, those sharing in the joke. Its role is to demarcate difference, of collectively identifying against an Other, is as bound to processes of socia exclusion as to inclusion”. This is undoubtedly a part of Balinese humour but I would say that the analysis of Bali made here demonstartes that Carty & Musharbash’s weigh too heavily by designating laughing’s “role” as being primarily about the Other, rather than seeing it as a precipitation of ” intimately and often elusively localised… nuance” (pp. 213). Humour need not be primarily about the contrasting with the Other, which is an incorrect over-emphasis on a dualistic approach inhereted from Levi-Strauss. Humorous moments, in Balimese performance in particular, can be seen not exclusively but more positively as the temporal interweaving of pasts and presents, of Time and Situation (space). It’s not so much about excluding the Other, which perhaps more the quality of a side-effect, as about including (seeing yourself) in history and in present, and laughing.


(for those who don’t mind reading outside the normal format)

It is in this relation to themselves through the particular case of humour that Balinese create a fusion of ancient texts, dances, songs and legends from the past,

with the contexts and particular spaces of performance, places in history, situations in space, creating morals and lessons to carry into the future,

enacted through an exaggeration and knowledge of the present,

meshed together through the magic of the comedian,

experienced by people, persons, audience perspectives,

to create humour.

And the particular quality of sequecing the bits-and bobs that make it up

in whatever magical order is temporaly right.

Time and Contextual SpacePlace are reshaped

but only for the specifc SpaceTime in which it happens.

Like a quantum particle, humour is the relationship

between the observer and the oberved values of the particles in Space and Time.

When you look away the probability of its location is almost everywhere.

Laughing is not the cause or the result, but IS the reshaping and experience of the present.

Then its gone. Until you observe it again.


  • Belo, J. (1966) ‘Bali: temple festival’ University of Washington Press: USA.
  • Bird, J. (1981) ‘The Target of Space and the Arrow of Time’. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series, Vol. 6, No. 2, pp. 129-151
  • Carty, J & Musharbash, Y. (2008). ‘You’ve Got To Be Joking: asserting the analytical value of humour and laughter in contemporary anthropology’. Anthropological Forum, Vol. 18, No. 3, pp. 209-217.
  • Covarrubias, M. (1937) ‘Island of Bali’ Periplus Editions HK Ltd: Singapore. pp. 150-239.
  • Discover Indonesia (2001) ‘Dalang’. http://discover-indo.tierranet.com/wayang1a.htm.
  • eHRAF (2011) Humour definition, OCM 522.
  • Einstein, A. (1879-1955) Quotes DB, http://www.quotedb.com/quotes/2309.
  • Eskicioglu, L. (2001) ‘One day the Hodja…’ http://www.readliterature.com/h010418.htm
  • Nieuwenkamp, J (1910) Bali en Lombok. Edam.


1: Dalang: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Wayang_Kulit_Indonesia,_Yogyakarta.jpg

2: Covarrubias, M. (1937) ‘Island of Bali’ Periplus Editions HK Ltd: Singapore. pp. 150-239.

3: Covarrubias, M. (1937) ‘Island of Bali’ Periplus Editions HK Ltd: Singapore. pp. 150-239.

4: Covarrubias, M. (1937) ‘Island of Bali’ Periplus Editions HK Ltd: Singapore. pp. 150-239.

5: Covarrubias, M. (1937) ‘Island of Bali’ Periplus Editions HK Ltd: Singapore. pp. 150-239.

6: Patih Mask: http://www.masksoftheworld.com/Bali/Bali%20mask%20PatihKeras2.htm


1 Here I will appear to speculate and take a slight detour, but due to my own experience rather than assumptions, I will posit that the first denotation above is due to many reasons. These may include Secularisation’s villification of religion and some Religious institutions’ feedback is to emphasis the seriousness of religion e.g. the absence of humour, or perhaps its the portrayal of a stern god that some aspects of religion seem to over-emphasis.

2 I wish to point out here that these comic-strips and reflection on them highlights an interesting comment that is generally made upon seeing such artefacts, and is unknowingly ethnocentric; ‘it’s Western influence’.This type of comment sees the West as affecting Others and linguistically places the West in the position of power and the Other in the position of passivity. Whereas in most cases, as perhaps seen here so far, people have hijacked, hacked or blended cultural influences on their terms.