Many commentators have remarked on this concept, some explicitly, some implicitly. Freud, when discussing the differing roles involved in joking, touched upon it.
The third person cannot be ready to laugh at an excellent obscene joke if the exposure applies to a highly respected relative of his own; before a gathering of priests and ministers no one would venture to produce Heine’s comparison of catholic and protestant clerics to retail tradesman and employees of a wholesale business; and an audience composed of my opponent’s devoted friends would receive my most successful pieces of joking invective against him not as jokes but as invective, and would meet them with indignation and not with pleasure.
The concept of permission has been more foregrounded in anthropological studies of African tribal joking relationships. Radcliffe-Brown, who is commonly seen as one of the initiators of such studies, was direct about the notion. For him the joking relationship
is a peculiar combination of friendliness and antagonism. The behaviour is such that in any other social context it would express and arouse hostility; but it is not meant seriously and must not be taken seriously. There is a pretence of hostility and a real friendliness. To put it another way, the relationship is one of permitted disrespect.
(1952:91 emphasis added)
Of further interest here is Griaule’s criticism of Radcliffe-Brown. Griaule questioned the whole notion of joking relationships when he said that what the Dogon tribe exchanged were not jokes but insults. That is, not only was there no permission, there was no joke to be permitted (in Douglas 1975:92). This problem is at the heart of the discussion in Section 8.
It was Douglas herself who made the concept of permission central to the joking act. According to her it is not merely enough to perceive the joke, recipients must also permit it. Both aspects involve ‘the social dimension’. As for perception:
If the Kagura think it witty to throw excrement at certain cousins or the Lodagaba to dance grotesquely at funerals or the Dogon to refer to the parents’ sexual organs when they meet a friend, then to recognise the joke that sends all present into huge enjoyment we need not retreat into cultural relativism and give up a claim to interpret. The problem has merely shifted to the relation between joking and the social structure.
To understand these jokes we need what she calls ‘the full pattern of relationships’, that is, if we don’t have the whole social context we won’t get such jokes. For Douglas, ‘[t]he social dimension enters at all levels into the perception of the joke’ (p.97). (Indeed, the original title of her essay (1968) is ‘The Social Control Of Cognition: Some Factors In Joke Perception.’) But the process does not end there; she is equally firm on the point of permission: ‘[T]here are jokes which can be perceived clearly enough by all present but which are rejected at once. Here again the social dimension is at work’ (p.98). We can also see here some parallels with Carrell’s notions of ‘joke competence’ and ‘humour competence’ discussed above in 5.1. And this signals that it is time to take a look at some concrete examples to help illustrate these claims. We will consider four examples from a variety of sources: two involve recourse to law, one involves (possibly) a cross-cultural misunderstanding, and the last one is a comedic performance.
The first involves an incident of African joking relationships. Pedler reports a case involving utani joking relationships in Tanganyika in 1934. A Zaramu tribesman was accused by a Sukuma woman of assault when he grabbed her by the arms and pushed her to the ground in a beer hall. The man’s defence was that the custom of utani existed between their tribes and this permitted such behaviour. He produced witnesses to support this view. The woman claimed no such joking relationship existed, though under cross-examination she admitted she had indulged previously in utani with the defendant but only verbally not physically. The magistrate found that, in law, assault had taken place but, as Pedler notes, ‘the plea of utani was admitted as a very strong extenuating circumstance, and the sentence inflicted by the court was accordingly a light one’ (1940:172). (The problem here would seem to be not simply about the existence of joking relationships and what they entail, but also about the conflict between tribal custom and colonial law.)
A harsher sentence was passed in Burma when the popular comedians
U Pa Pa Lay and Lu Zaw, associates of the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi,
were sentenced to seven years’ hard labour, ostensibly for joking about
the generals (Pilger 1996). Comment on this reaction is perhaps best left
to comedian Mark Thomas, who, in an investigative television programme on
Burma, remarked: ‘That’s a fuck of a heckle’ (Thomas 1999).
We can also note in passing that this is a helpful comment on comedian/audience
relations generally, more details of which will come below in 5.3.3.
It should be further noted that it is not rare for comedians to fall foul of various political regimes around the world as evidenced by a special edition of Index On Censorship (Vidal-Hall, ed., 2000).
The next example comes from a television interview. New Year’s day of the year 2000 (CE) occurred at the same time as the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. On that day, the first of the new Christian millennium, BBC TV sought to cover the UK in a wide social and geographical sweep. To cover the Muslim event they went to Glasgow, where Fred McCauley, a white Scottish comedian and chat show host, interviewed a leader of Glasgow’s Islamic community in a large hall where many Muslims were eating a communal meal after sunset. The interviewee was a middle-aged man in smart Western dress and his accent and physical features identified him as someone originally from the Indian sub-continent. The short interview was mainly about Ramadan. McCauley also ate and commented on the spiciness of the food. The piece ended with the following brief exchange (reconstructed immediately after viewing):
McCauley: Do you do carry-out?
Interviewee: I’m a GP. I’m a general practitioner.
Here McCauley seems to be jokingly reproducing his side of a familiar social situation in which, when presented with spicy food and a middle-aged Asian host, he immediately thinks of the context (‘script’) of an Indian restaurant, most of which provide a take-away (‘carry-out’) service. His host’s reply can be interpreted in at least three ways, the first two in which he assumes the question is in the serious mode, and the other, which interests us here, in which he takes it to be a humorous communication. Taking the question seriously, his reply could be an indirect ‘No’ or it could be an attempt to clarify the situation: ‘You’ve made a mistake, I’m a doctor.’ However, it could also be a recognition that McCauley (a comedian, recall) is constructing a humorous meaning in which he (the host) is a caterer but he refuses to play this role and asserts his proper professional position and so denies McCauley permission to make the joke. Nevertheless, this would not prevent any viewer from perceiving and permitting the joke and being amused (or not) by it. Similarly, it may also cause other viewers to see the doctor’s response as amusing, in that it creates the incongruity of a comedian having his punch line rebuffed and, thus, tables turned, his role demeaned. It is also a situation at least mildly reminiscent (though much less aggressive) to the one above (4.2) concerning Dr. Poussaint and the Southern US policeman, though here, significantly, the white figure of (a much less threatening) authority is rebuffed.
The last example comes from the Channel 4 comedy series ‘Jam’. This series was described in Radio Times in the following manner. ‘Reality-bending comedy as the ever unpredictable Chris Morris dredges up more nightmare scenarios and turns them into twisted jokes’ (15-21 April 2000). Each episode would begin with a warning about strong language and sexually explicit images. In short, it can be described as dark, adult comedy. What follows is the transcript of an entire scene. It should also be noted that each scene in the series was acted ‘straight’ or even underplayed, and accompanied by a kind of ambient muzak. Sometimes film speed and soundtrack were slowed. Further, there was no laughter, either canned or from a live audience. All of these combined factors often gave the show a sombre, uneasy feel. The following scene was shot from outside through French windows into what looked like a kitchen. It was shown in negative. A man and a woman enter arguing.
Simon: I did nothing!
Lucy: Oh, fuck off, Simon!
S: I love you.
L: I bet you said the same thing to her.
S: I don’t give a fuck about her.
L: Do you expect me to believe that?
S: It was just a spur of the moment thing and it meant nothing.
L: Nothing!? Ohhh!
S: Yes. I didn’t even know her name, for God’s sake.
L: How come Marlin saw you snogging [unclear]?
S: Oh, she said that, did she?
S: Well that’s bollocks, Lucy, cos I had my hand over her mouth.
S: So I didn’t even get one kiss off the woman. I was bloody raping her. [Pause]
L: [Pause, and then unsurely] Really?
S: I’d never even met her before. I mean, I was out of there as soon as I’d done it.
I’m not going to see her again, am I?
S: What am I, a nut?
[Woman moves to man and they cuddle and moan contentedly]
What we have here is a lovers’ tiff, during which it is revealed that the man’s infidelity was, in fact, a rape, for which his partner forgives him. We saw earlier, even in a situation where there was the custom of utani, how a participant was found guilty in a court of law of assault for indulging in what he claimed was traditional joking horseplay. Clearly, the crime of rape is a much more serious matter and an extremely delicate subject for verbal joking in a society in which there is a tradition of highly public struggle around gender relations, further details of which will come in Section 7. Thus, some people watching this performance might not have accepted this as comedy and therefore would not even begin to find it funny. Rather, that such a topic was chosen to amuse at all would not only have been unamusing but also offensive. de Sousa would call this an example of phthonic humour (‘malicious’, ‘evil’ - he borrows the word from Plato) and claims that enjoyment of such jokes makes the amused person complicit in the breach of the moral code:
In contrast to the element of wit, the phthonic element in a joke requires endorsement. It does not allow of hypothetical laughter. The phthonic makes us laugh only insofar as the assumptions on which it is based are attitudes actually shared. Suspension of disbelief in the situation can and must be achieved for the purposes of the joke; suspension of attitude cannot be.
(1987:240, original emphasis)
Hay (2001) makes a similar point when discussing humour support strategies. In addition to the three implicatures discussed above (recognition, understanding, appreciation) she adds a fourth: agreement. She argues that an unqualified show of humour support ‘implicates agreement with the message including any attitudes, presuppositions or implicatures contained in the humor’ (p.72) and that certain types of humour –she cites ethnic and sexist humour – depend on the recipient sharing a certain attitude, without which ‘the humour may fall completely flat’ (p.76). That is, in such cases there is a dependence between appreciation and agreement. However, she also notes that it is possible for someone to be simultaneously offended and amused so that they support the humour but express disagreement e.g. ‘laughter followed by an explicit cancellation such as “that’s cruel”’ (p.76). (There is a detailed discussion of such an occurrence in Section 8.) Such ambivalent attitudes to humour are not uncommon and can be found in studies of the subject, amongst performers, and in audiences, as we will now see.