8.1 The Performers,
The Audiences And Space

Bell (1991) notes that mass communication is structurally different from face-to-face communication not only because the former involves a disjunction of place and, often, time (p.85) but also because, for example, in television debates there is what he refers to as an ‘embedding’ or ‘layering’ of audiences. He offers the diagram below by way of explanation (Figure 10).

In the discussion under review we have the host and panellists in the centre surrounded by the studio audience, outside of which there is the mass broadcast audience watching the show on television. The situation can actually be a little more complex when a panel discussant addresses a remark to a particular individual; at that point the rest of the panel becomes the first layer, outside of which is the studio audience and so forth. This point will be significant in the discussion below of different types of floor. As for the larger audiences in the studio and at home, there can be some significant differences in their perspectives. The studio audience can see all of the panel and thus can see actions – facial expressions, gestures – that happen off-camera, things the broadcast audience are not aware of. However, the studio audience is usually some distance from the panel, so these actions need to be of some strength to be clearly perceived by the studio audience.

audience layering in mass communication

Fig.10. Audience layering in mass communication (Bell 1991:96).

The broadcast audience only sees the images selected by the producer for broadcast, and thus misses off-camera events. The studio audience, too, have a view of many monitors and sometimes a large screen so they too can see what the broadcast audience see. While these differences can be significant in the different perceptions of the studio and broadcast audiences, they are not considered to play an important role in the extract under review. (We can also mention in passing that such spatial arrangements themselves can be used as a resource for humour. The comedy chat show ‘The Kumars At No. 42’ involved the talk apparently taking place in the host’s own home – actually a stage set in the television studio - with his family – actually other actors - also present and taking part, while a live studio audience sat and watched.)

It needs to be kept in mind that a special feature of this discussion is that it is TV talk deliberately designed to be overheard as opposed to, say, everyday talk between friends in private. Here the guests – relative strangers to one another – are briefly and individually introduced to the audience before taking their seats in the performance space (see diagram below) where they are expected to discuss topics nominated by the host (or arising from such nomination) while the studio audience looks on live and the mass broadcast audience looks on at home, in this case at a later time. However, while the host has the power to nominate topics, and can nominate next speaker if he so wishes, the turn-taking system is largely extemporised as in everyday informal talk, and so what occurs is, as Alaoui notes, the private putting its imprint on the public ‘thus generating talk which is halfway between talk that is produced as private and that whose design exhibits its production for overhearing’ (1991:388-9).

Alaoui also remarks (p.7) that on chat shows the arrangement of space ‘is an attempt to simulate ordinary conversation in a living-room between friends or close acquaintances’ (Cf. ‘The Kumars At No. 42’). The setting here fits this description reasonably well. Whereas some chat shows favour a sofa for situations involving more than one guest, in PI there are four individual chairs, which may be a shade more formal. The chairs are in pairs either side of a low table, at the head of which is the host. Thus all discussants can clearly see one another. We note that the one male panellist, RB, is seated next to the male host, BM, and that RB is seated diagonally opposite JK. These are points which will be returned to. It is worth noting also that the panellists all remain in the same seat throughout, unlike in a chat show where a series of individual guests take it in turns to occupy the seat next to the host, a spatial arrangement which temporarily gives that guest greater speaking rights. There are two books on the table which are never referred to throughout the show, so it is assumed the table has a primarily decorative function, thus giving the set some semblance to a living room. The studio audience is arranged around three sides of the stage (see Fig. 11) so that the panellists are also facing at least part of the audience. This spatial arrangement is not like that in, for example, a discussion programme such as ‘Question Time’, where the panel is arranged on stage in almost a straight line facing the audience who sit in tiered rows directly ‘opposite’ them. That is, the space on such shows is arranged to facilitate panel-to-audience interaction as much as, or even more than, intra-panel interaction. Here on PI the spatial arrangement is clearly designed to encourage talk among the discussants sitting in performance space, with a greater interactive distance between them and the studio audience.

This brings us to the format of ‘Politically Incorrect’. It is not a chat show in the mould of, say, ‘Parkinson’, where celebrity guests are brought on separately, and in question and answer sequences are expected to inform the audience about their careers, often with a series of anecdotes. Nor is it a serious discussion programme like, say, ‘Question Time’, where a mixture of politicians and politically-minded celebrities answer questions on current affairs put to them directly by the studio audience. Mulkay (1988, Chapter 9) notes that certain situations can be more (or less) conducive to humour. He discusses a range of social events from a marriage ceremony, which (barring mistakes) provides no room for humour as all the words are rigidly laid down, through a formal ceremony like the Nobel Prize awards, where in his 1987 study he counted just three humorous items per ceremony, on through a workplace setting such as a formal staff meeting in a hospital (Coser’s 1960 study, referred to in 1.2), where humour is hierarchically distributed, to informal situations such as dinner parties, in one study of which (Tannen 1984) over two hundred humorous or ironic instances were freely contributed by all participants. ‘Politically Incorrect’ is towards the informal end of such a spectrum and so occupies a rather more ambivalent position than ‘Question Time’. While it has an element of the discussion of weighty topics just like ‘Question Time’ it also shares with chat shows the injunction that an important function of guests’ talk is to entertain, not simply to inform (Alaoui p.6). Talking of such developments in the chat show format from the 1980s into the 1990s, Tolson remarks on the ‘mixing of genres’ so that chat ‘may still be serious, or it may be comic, but more often than not it has now become a complex and entertaining mixture of the two’ (1991:187). This is underlined by the fact that the host, Bill Maher, is a comedian, and it is the role of the host to act as ‘mediator between the realms of stage, studio audience and viewer’ (Morse 1985:10).

It should not be thought, though, that as mediator he is some empty vessel, a mere medium of transmission. As Lindstrom notes: ‘When people come together to talk, they arrive endowed with different conversational rights and resources’ (1992:102). As host, Maher is the most powerful figure in this event (he starts the show alone, during which time he has a brief humorous monologue, he introduces the guests to his show, he nominates the topics for discussion etc.) with the panellists, who are also endowed with speaking rights throughout the show, a close second. A point to note about the panel members in terms of power is that they are formally on an equal footing. They are all introduced at the same time at the beginning of the show and, as we have seen, they maintain the same place for the whole length of the show. Their role as ‘guest’ creates no significant formal power imbalance among them, though we cannot forget the imbalances and inequalities that can occur in cross-sex conversation which were discussed in 7.1.

The studio audience also are not without power, as the manner of their reception of the fare provided is key. We may recall what King earlier said (2.4) about the use of space and the semantics of a performance: ‘it is the audience’s laughter which defines the joke, and failure to laugh can determine the level of comedic performance’ (1987:47). Thus, an utterance from the panel intended to amuse which is met with their silence will be seen as a failure. Indeed, to ensure their receptivity, it is common practice for the audience of such shows to be ‘warmed up’ by a comedian before recording. (Landes (1999) would call this being ‘semiotically aroused’.) In contrast, audiences at serious broadcast discussions are not warmed up in this way. This does not, however, prevent them from expressing amusement in a manner which underlines the point being made here concerning the power of audience response in determining how utterances of discussants – formally a more powerful group – are perceived. A strong example of this can be taken from Thomas’ discussion of ambiguity in which she reports the case of the Liberal MP Cyril Smith’s involvement in a radio discussion about immigration in the 1980s. (It should be noted that Smith was better known for his obese proportions and blunt manner than his political views.) He remarked that people’s racist attitudes were not to be changed by tinkering with the language and signalled his credentials on such matters by saying he spoke as someone who ‘does a very great deal of work amongst the immigrant population – I had sixteen of ’em for lunch at the House Of Commons last Thursday’ (Thomas 1986:153-4). The audience’s amused laughter was so strong that Smith had to stop speaking and, not recognising the ambiguity of his statement, he became angry at what he saw as the audience’s doubting of his sincerity concerning immigrants. Though such a choice of reaction is a powerful weapon all audiences have, it is a rather blunt instrument and not always useful for articulating a detailed response. Also the fact that PI is a talk show on which they have no speaking rights (unlike the limited speaking rights enjoyed by the studio audience on ‘Question Time’, for example) is a further constraint on their power. These are also further points to be borne in mind in the discussion to follow.

Before moving on to a more detailed description of the discussants, we can summarise the foregoing with a quote concerning space and television from Scannell: ‘Considerations of the spaces from which broadcasting speaks…is a precondition for understanding the communicative character of broadcasting and the talk it produces’ (1991:2). It is the host and panellists who do the talking and here we show their places in the performance space.

arrangement of theatre space in 'Politically Incorrect' TV show

Fig. 11. Arrangement of theatre space in ‘Politically Incorrect’

8 Humour in Context: The Thatcher Joke>

8.1 The Performers, the Audience and Space

8.2 The Discussants>

8.3 The Collaborative Floor vs The Single Floor>
8.4 Negotiating The Serious Import of Humour> 8.5 Two Psychological Perspectives on Joking> 8.6 Preference> 8.7 Politeness>