In the previous section the discussion started with a treatment of language and humour and it soon became apparent that the social aspects of language simply cannot be ignored. This section will now consider in detail the different possible interpretations of humorous cues; what one person finds funny, another person may not. The lack of an amused response can be due to various factors: incomprehension, the recipient simply doesn’t ‘get’ the joke; style, the joke is not in a form which amuses the recipient; offence, the topic and/or content of the humour upsets rather than amuses the listener; environment, it may be inappropriate to show amusement at the present event, and so on. We now turn to some models which explore this area, and in doing so assume we are dealing with adults with undamaged brains. A number of neurophysiological studies have shown that people with right hemisphere brain damage (RHD) have certain problems processing humour. Brownell & Gardner (1988) note that such damage ‘affects patients’ abilities to process one of two major components of humour: the ability to revise an initial interpretation in order to integrate a sentence (or final frame of a cartoon strip) back with what has come earlier in a discourse’ (p.30). Winner et al, when considering theory of mind deficits, also note that ‘a comparison between RHD patients and normal controls demonstrates clearly that for RHD patients the ability to distinguish lies from jokes can be fragile and unreliable’ (1996:14). And McGhee cites a study he carried out in 1974 into children’s development and humour in which he found that ‘children were neither able to discriminate humorous from non-humorous riddle answers, nor to create their own humour based on word play’ until around the age of six (1980:132). Similarly, a study by Lefort (1992) showed that when two ‘fake’ jokes were presented with eleven actual jokes to three groups of children aged between six and eleven, only 35% of the youngest group detected them, rising to 88% in the oldest group. Such neurophysiological and developmental concerns are not given attention here.
Related to the idea of competence is the notion of ‘permission’
– which jokes are or are not permitted, by whom, and for what reasons?
Central to this is humour’s ambivalence, which is manifested in, among
other things, studies of humour, comedic performers’ attitudes to their
work, and audiences’ reactions to humorous material. This section will
consider these features also.
5. Competence, Permission, Ambivalence