Certain degrees of ambivalence are expressed in studies of ethnic humour. Davies has studied this area in great detail and is something of an authority. He maintains that this humour emanates from the centre and is aimed at groups ‘living on the social or geographical periphery of the country where the jokes are told’. The essential point of such jokes is that ‘they reflect a deep-seated need that people have to tell jokes about a group of stupid outsiders’ (1988:2-3). It is not, though, an area that is easy to delineate. He spends most of the introduction to his comparative study on ethnic humour around the world carefully trying to describe the boundaries of the object of his study. So problematic is the area that when he suggests excluding jokes about religion per se, jokes about people of particular towns or villages, or about groups such as Aggies, aristocrats and apparatchiks, he finds this ‘futile’ and ‘senseless’ (1996:2). Yet he is hostile towards those who see ethnic humour in terms of conflict, saying it is ‘pointless to analyse jokes in terms of their practical consequences’ as jokes are ‘not important because of their consequences but as a phenomenon in their own right, as a favourite pastime of many people and a great source of popular entertainment and creativity’ (p.9). Those that would deal with ethnic humour in overtly political terms ‘deserve all the extra derision they incur for they are indeed fools’ (p.9).
Such a view would tolerate Oshima’s study of Hawaii, where, according to her, ethnic humour is ‘used to lubricate local people’s everyday communication in Hawaii’s multi-ethnic society in accordance with a matrix of specific and unspoken rules’ (2000:41). These rules involve being able to laugh at and tell jokes about one’s own ethnicity. An example:
- What do you get when a Yobo [Korean] marries a Buddha head [Japanese]?
- Four angry parents.
However, she points out that ethnic humour in Hawaii differs very greatly from that on the mainland (she does not say how or why), and that what she calls ‘a healthy ethnic joke’ should be ‘harmless’. Further, ‘a positive ethnic joke creates laughter through recognition of ethnic characteristics in a respectable fashion, not to promote the notion of lesser comparative races of people’ (p.45). She gives no indication of the socio-economic or political backgrounds of the ethnic groups she talks about nor does she say what happens when such cleansing of ethnic jokes is not adhered to.
We can now look at some examples of jokes which Oshima would not find healthy or positive. Kuipers (2000) comments that in the Netherlands from the 1960s onwards the arrival of several immigrant groups saw a rise in ethnic jokes. ‘These “foreigner jokes” were, and still are, highly offensive and are not usually made public’ (p.141). An example:
- What’s the difference between a Turk and a bucket of shit?
- The bucket.
Dundes & Hauschild studied the persistence of Auschwitz jokes in Germany. This example was heard in Mainz in 1982.
- How many Jews will fit in a Volkswagen?
- 506. Six in the seats and 500 in the ashtray.
A more recent group of economic migrants also feature alongside Jews.
- What’s the difference between Turks and Jews?
- The Jews have behind them what the Turks now have before them.
Dundes and Hauschild note that while it could be healthy for Germans to openly acknowledge the significance of Auschwitz in their history, it is ‘disturbing to think that the recognition of the grim reality has not ended centuries-old anti-Semitic sentiments in Germany’ (p.64).
However, Dundes has been criticised for his collecting of such jokes and commenting on their purported cathartic effect. Billig (2001), for example, points out that ‘merely collecting these jokes in no way provides evidence about the nature of their communication nor about any “cathartic value” that they might possess for the tellers’ (p.270). Davies (1991), in a reply to a criticism by Oring (1991) that Davies’ 1990 study (in this dissertation cited as 1996) overlooked aggressive use of ethnic jokes, also refers to the need to study such jokes in actual performance to be able to decide on their racist intent. As he did not have such resources to do this, he explains, it was not a main feature of his study.
But this is precisely what Billig (2001) does in his study of the humour and hatred of the Ku Klux Klan as exhibited on three joke websites. In this work Billig stresses the importance of the context of utterance and what a speaker is actually doing with words, communicative features which are also central to this study. To show what these sites are doing with words, it is sufficient to give their names: ‘Nigger Jokes KKK’, ‘Nigger Jokes’, and ‘Nigger Joke Central’ (pp.273-4). These sites provide not only racist jokes but also games in which the player can kill black people in various ways. Billig concludes that there can be strong connections between hatred and humour and that such jokes bring pleasure to the bigot. Further, ‘[n]ot only can the targets of hatred be savagely ridiculed but, by using the discourse of humour, the bigot can simultaneously mock the demands of reason’ (p.285). Jacobson, though, would not agree. In the earlier-mentioned criticism of Griffiths’ play ‘Comedians’ (3.2), which he combines with a defence of Bernard Manning, Jacobson comments:
Once accept that a joke is a structured dialogue with itself, that it cannot, by its nature, be an expression of an opinion, and you have conceded its unalikeness to racist discourse, which by its nature is impermeable and cannot abide a contradiction.
Clearly the KKK jokes investigated by Billig, as well as those from the Netherlands and Germany cited above, are not dialogues with themselves, nor are they simply about stupidity and neither do they serve as social lubricants, but they are ‘ethnic’ and they are intended as ‘jokes’, yet they are significantly downplayed in Davies’ 1996 work, and those that would highlight them are pilloried by him for doing so. However, there are other students of humour who see ethnic humour in much more inclusive terms, as we have seen. Apte is one such, and it is perhaps fitting to draw this discussion to a close with a definition from him:
Ethnic humor mocks, caricatures, and generally makes fun of a specific group or its members by virtue of their ethnic identity; or it portrays the superiority of one ethnic group over others. In addition, its thematic development must be based on factors that are the consequences of ethnicity, such as ethnocentrism, prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination. Such a broad-based definition of ethnic humor subsumes many types within it…’
But one group disparaging another, to whatever degree, is not the only manifestation of ethnic humour. The fact that societies become more multicultural and integrated over succeeding generations also finds its expression in humour. A prominent example of this in the United Kingdom is Ali G, a comedic character so complex that he at first caused confusion. The comedian Sacha Baron-Cohen, a white, middle-class, Cambridge-educated Jew performs as Ali G, a foul-mouthed, inarticulate, white, working-class young man pretending in his dress and speech to be a street-wise, black gangsta rapper. Some blacks find this offensive. Curtis Walker, a radio presenter, comments, ‘I don’t like the concept of a white guy playing a black guy anyway, and when he is playing a stupid stereotype it’s even worse’ (Eboda 2000). However, Michael Eboda, editor of black magazine New Nation feels differently: ‘Ali G works because he is a white guy trying to be black who gets it terribly wrong’ (Eboda 2000). He also notes that the name ‘Ali G’ suggests that the character might even be an Asian who wants to be black, which further complicates matters.
But Walker is not the only one who is uneasy when humour is created about someone’s ethnicity by a performer who is not, to use Lawson’s words (2000), ‘wearing the team shirt’. The comedian Shazia Mirza believes that in such situations the ethnicity of the performer is paramount. When asked what makes comedy material racist she replied:
I don’t think it’s the material, although sometimes it can be. I think it’s more the person who’s telling the joke. I mean, I would never do jokes about black people cos I’m not black, you know. I as a Muslim woman I feel I have the right to do Muslim jokes cos I’m giving you first-hand information about what it’s like to be a Muslim woman. A white laddy bloke telling that, telling Muslim jokes, is second-hand information and I think in the back of my mind would always be the question: ‘Does he really find that funny or does he really not like Muslim women?’ You don’t know, you know, if he’s making jokes at us or with us.
This is just one of a whole variety of views held by comedians about what is and what is not acceptable in performance, ranging from the desire for complete freedom to the acknowledgement of certain limits. Gerry Sadowitz insists on being allowed free rein. ‘Doesn’t [it] make you sick? That jokes and opinions should be censored? It’s absolutely ridiculous. Why the fucking hell can’t I say whatever I want? I’m a comic…’ (Hind 1991:70). Elsewhere he states that he is misogynist and that he sees it as his job to cause offence (Sadowitz 2000). Shazia Mirza is equally forthright concerning limits: ‘ It’s good to offend people, it makes them think…I think there’s nothing that can’t be joked about’ (Bakewell 2001). Rich Hall was criticised at the Edinburgh Festival for singing a country and western ballad about child abuse (this was at a time – summer 2000 – of widespread public and media concern about the topic) and defended himself thus: ‘The purpose of comedy…is to take people where they are not sure they want to go. There is no unchartable territory’ (Lawson 2000). Lee Mack also claims he has no problem with taste, commenting, ‘There are things that are very sick that can be very funny, so I’ll tell a joke about almost anything’ (Naughton 2001), although his use of ‘almost’ is notable.
Others also express reservations. John Cleese recounts an experience he had with the Monty Python team in Germany. On arrival they were told by their hosts that they would be immediately be taken to see a concentration camp. When they reached the camp their hosts became involved in an argument at the gate and it became clear that it was too late to gain entry, at which point Graham Chapman shouted out, ‘Tell them we’re Jews’ (Hind 1991:158). Cleese comments, ‘It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard…But it’s a joke which still leaves a nasty taste in the mouth’ (p.158, original emphasis). And a similar ambivalence is expressed by Paul Whitehouse when asked if he found any subject unsuitable for comedy. ‘Yes…but I don’t want to sound wet, so, no.’ (Driver 1995:83) And finally, a comment from Rowan Atkinson. One of the many effects of the attacks in the USA on September 11th and the subsequent attacks on Muslims was an attempt by the British Home Secretary to introduce legislation to outlaw incitement to religious hatred. This spurred Atkinson to write a letter to The Times in which he states, ‘I have always believed that there should be no subject about which one cannot make jokes, religion included…comedy takes no prisoners’. He goes on, ‘I believe it is the reaction of the audience that should decide the appropriateness of a joke, not the law of the land’ (2001).
Audiences do play a crucial role in this interpretation of meaning – is this funny or is it offensive? Ross makes a point concerning this ambivalence in relation to sexist and racist jokes, which, she says, ‘can be told with an element of mocking allusion’ to those very genres (1998:57). However, this cannot guarantee that such jokes will be perceived in the way intended. She cites Johnny Speight’s creation of the racist bigot Alf Garnett in the television sitcom ‘Till Death Us Do Part’ as an example; Garnett’s racist comments were enjoyed both by people who saw the intended mockery of Garnett and those who didn’t. So we can say that there were those who laughed at Garnett and those who laughed with him. Those who laughed at him need not have suspended their anti-racist attitude, but clearly the object and the motive of their amusement differ from those of the recipients who laughed with him. While this conflicts with de Sousa’s notion of phthonic humour, it adds support to the point being made here – that different audience members will assign different meanings to humorous texts. Some may express their approval through explicit displays of amusement, while some may express their disapproval through, among other things, verbal abuse or the use of violence, as we shall now see.
The comic figure who is sometimes seen as the modern-day equivalent of Alf Garnett, Al Murray’s character ‘The Pub Landlord’, has had unexpected responses from his audiences: ‘I can hardly believe it when people take the Pub Landlord seriously – during one of my stage shows, somebody stood up and shouted: “You’re racist and xenophobic!”. You think: “Come on, work it out”’ (Murray 2002). Jacobson (again) is one who feels he has it worked out when he comments:
We know when we listen to a joke that we are entering, of our own volition, a world of dramatic make-believe, that we are lending ourselves to a fiction, that the I of the comic narration is not the I of the actual comedian’s private life.
These comments on audience response involve once again the ideas of audience dis/attendance (2.4) and comic identity (3.2), but this situation, though often unremarkable, is not as clear cut as theses commentators would like to think, for some audience members clearly do not disattend the nature of comedic performance utterances and hold the person on the stage (in whatever guise) socially responsible. Andy de la Tour, talking of the early days of alternative comedy, recalls that when he made a joke in performance about Airey Neave’s death (Neave was assassinated leaving the House of Commons’ car park by an Irish National Liberation Army car bomb) there was almost a fist fight. ‘So I brought my act rapidly to a close and got off the stage double quick’ (Deayton 1999). Elsewhere a joke about an IRA bomb which killed members of an RAF band playing to the public in a London park resulted in the teller, comedian Keith Allen, being knocked unconscious by a military audience member (Littlewood and Pickering 1998:298). And Gerry Sadowitz, a deliberately provocative performer, has also been assaulted, his ‘physical heckle’ coming at the international comedy festival in Montreal. (Sadowitz 2000). However, it should be noted that this is not the same as attacking the comedian because he ‘has no punch lines’ or his act does not meet other minimum performance requirements, as was the case with, for example, Lee Evans in his early days (Cook 1994:219-20). In these examples the comedians were attacked for the topic of the humour, a topic for which (at least some) audience members would not grant permission. This again raises the question of ‘licence’ which was part of the discussion of the ‘comic figure’ in Section 3.
Another kind of attack worthy of mention is that made on
Shazia Mirza, merely for daring to perform comedy in public. Appearing in
Brick Lane in London, a predominantly Bengali area, she was manhandled backstage
by three Asian men who told her, ‘You shouldn’t be doing this.
You’re a woman, you’re a disgrace to your religion’ (Bragg
2002). (Further details of women’s exclusion from comedy are included
in Section 7.3.)
A less extreme form of the denial of permission comes in the letters column of TV listings magazines such as Radio Times. Two letters (out of many) are given attention here. The first concerns the sitcom ‘Heartburn Hotel’, which is set in a seedy hotel, most of whose guests are sent there by the local social services department. One viewer saw it as follows: ‘Congratulations and thanks to BBC1 for giving me one of the best laughs from a sitcom I’ve had in years. The writing, actors and timing of ‘Heartburn Hotel’ are all brilliant’ (Oldfield 2000:4). In the same issue the TV reviewer comments on the same show as follows:
Jokes about people in community care and those seeking asylum aren’t funny. And giving asylum seekers “funny” things to say in subtitles does not make up for the show’s sheer offensiveness. How many more times – foreigners aren’t funny just because they’re foreigners.
Here the dispute concerns the role of foreigners and the socially vulnerable, the former commentator wholly accepting their use in the series, the latter offended.
The next letter is from an offended viewer but it is not only the offence that is to be focused on here but also the idea of place. The viewer had watched the chat show ‘Patrick Kielty Almost Live’, during which Kielty made jokes about the then recent disasters involving Concorde and a Russian submarine. In both disasters all aboard had died. The viewer considered such jokes ‘disgusting’ and ‘a disgrace’ (White 2000:4-5). He then added, ‘If you see a cutting edge comedian late at a smoky comedy club then you expect these jokes, but not on national TV’ (p.5). Here, then, such jokes are seen as offensive but only in certain performance spaces. At a club specifically arranged for comedy, jokes about mass accidental death are ‘expected’; in your living room, ‘a disgrace’. That is, comedic licence to transgress is subject to certain social and spatial constraints, both of which are concerns of this study. The latter was dealt with in detail in Section 2, the former has been the general concern of this subsection and will be treated in greater detail in Section 8. We can pause for a moment here to add a few more details of the social consequences of struggles around humour.
Double (1997:175) notes that as a result of the change in the targets of jokes after the emergence of alternative comedy (in short, a move away from sexist and racist humour) a leading British holiday firm, Thompsons, banned from their resorts comedians who used such material. A recent survey of 700 office workers in the UK found that 54% were worried about causing offence when telling a joke to colleagues at work, and 63% censored their jokes to avoid causing offence (Pertemps 2002). Indeed, jokes at work can have legal consequences. In February 2002 a senior barrister, Gordon Pringle, was called before a Bar Council disciplinary hearing accused of racially abusing a solicitor’s clerk; he was suspended for a year and fined £1,000. Pringle asserted he was merely ‘jesting in a postmodern, ironic, anti-PC way’ (Metro 13.2.2002). Given the increase in pressure groups over the last few decades – according to Grant the number runs into tens of thousands in the UK (2000:18) – each making a case for its membership, thus making public those social groups and issues that were previously marginal and voiceless, such disputes about who or what can be the butt of public humour are likely to continue.
With all of this we find ourselves back again with Powell’s idea of ‘constructed meanings’ (5.1), meanings based on recipients’ attitudes. If this is the case, and it is the view of this dissertation that it is, then this again questions Raskin’s notion of a ‘humor competence’ that is identical for all. Once again it would seem to be unable to make the assignment of funniness of texts coincide with the native-speaker’s judgements of texts. As the above examples show, we cannot avoid asking: which native speaker experiencing what, where, and when? The abstract concept of humour competence as outlined by Raskin would seem to have little or no practical application, which for such a social event as humour is a significant limitation. However, there might seem to be some implicit, partial support for his view from de Sousa in some of the further details of the above discussion of the phthonic (where the amused person is complicit in any breach of the moral code). He says that we cannot find a joke amusing simply by imagining we share its phthonic assumption. ‘Nevertheless we intuitively know that sharing these assumptions is what would enable us to find it funny...[and furthermore] the butt of the joke is someone who typically does not find it funny but knows only too well what’s funny to those who do’ (1987:240). This indicates a shared competence but still not an identical competence which would enable each to assign funniness to a given text. That is, sexist assumptions, for example, might well be in the general knowledge script of the overwhelming majority of adults in a given society (and most certainly in the scripts of those struggling around gender relations) and thus what could be funny to sexists would be known to almost all, but this is not the same as all assigning funniness to, for example, a rape text.
Another point needs to be made here, and that is that there is a significant difference between the first three examples given above in 5.2 (Tanganyika, Burma, Ramadan in Glasgow) and the last one (the rape sketch): the first three are taken from social life and the last one is a comedic performance. This is important for meaning because comedic performance, like all performance, occupies a special space within which the contextual constraints of social life either do not operate or operate in different ways. Thus, utterances and behaviour which might have serious social consequences were they carried out in social life e.g. being punished in court for assaulting a woman, even ‘jokingly’, would not have the same consequences in performance e.g. raping a woman. (The obvious fact that the rape did not actually take place underlines the point being made here.) This is not to say that social life and performance are two completely separate worlds. We saw above how the two merged when the comedian Fred McCauley was given the task of carrying out an enquiry into one aspect of social life in Britain, and, more gravely, how the Burmese comedians’ performance of jokes about the generals landed them in prison. Social life, broadly defined, encompasses performance but as we saw in Section 2 this does not preclude the fact that performance occurs in a special space which gives performers a greater freedom of expression, the meaning of which is constructed and perceived differently from similar expression outside that space. The situation is further complicated by the fact that there is a multitude of possible responses to humorous material wherever it might take place, as this section has clearly shown. This is because we have a humour competence which not only allows many to be amused by the same material (a shared competence), but also allows people to have extremely divergent responses to the same material (a differential competence). Both of these aspects of our humour competence, it is argued here, are grounded in what we believe and practise in our social lives. All of this brings us closer to a lengthy analysis of a disputed utterance by a comedian that occurred in performance space. But before that we need to give greater attention to the general problems of assigning meaning to utterances in context, particularly those of an indirect nature.