8.4.4 Three Possible Positions A Joker Can Adopt When Challenged

Emerson provides three positions for the joker who is challenged (p.176):

(a) a belief that a response to an act will be within the same framework as the act itself
(b) the actor will not be held responsible in the serious realm for an act in the joking realm
(c) retrospective definitions of the framework are frowned upon.

It needs to be immediately made plain that these points of Emerson’s are based on an understanding that the serious realm and the joking realm are always clearly distinguishable. In many cases this can be so. But in ambivalent situations such as the one delineated here, these distinctions are not so easily applied and these points are undermined to a certain degree. It has been noted that equally important is the question of power, which once again does not feature in this part of Emerson’s formulation, and which is the decisive factor in relation to these three positions a joker can adopt when challenged. Because after 59 BM, JK, and EM collectively have more power than RB, the actions they take seriously challenge these three points. There is ample evidence that for many people in the studio 53 was a joke and, indeed, this majority response is in the same framework as the act, thus conforming to Emerson’s point (a). But the more powerful and detailed response from the rest of the panel (LL excluded), which is in a different framework, holds sway. This further means that, contra point (b), RB is held responsible in a different framework. As Buttny has observed, ‘How an actor or event is described is crucial for understanding what happened and who is culpable’ (1993:18). BM, JK, and EM, the latter two after a little hesitation, describe the utterance as ‘sexist’, and determine that RB is culpable for this act.

As for point (c), it is clear that RB is angry at the way he is suddenly held accountable for what to him is simply another joke, and he may feel that this shift in attitude amounts to a retrospective redefinition of the framework, a situation which accords with Emerson’s point. He may also feel, like Davies in the examination of the study of ethnic humour in 5.3.1, that it is ‘pointless to analyse jokes in terms of their consequences’ (1996:9), or, like fellow-comedian Bernard Manning, that you should never take a joke seriously (Duncan 2002). However, RB is no innocent and is presumably aware of the pitfalls of being a comedian. We saw in Section 4.2 that certain linguistic choices are loaded and it is to be expected that someone who makes his living from the precision of his verbal selection will show a marked degree of accuracy. But, as this study has underlined, social encounters do not simply require linguistic competence but also communicative competence. As Perinbanayagam notes when discussing the perils of joking relationships: ‘In creating this [joking] act the articulator needs to calibrate, with varying degrees of precision, the cautions, liberties, and licenses that he or she can take in the relationship’ (1991:130, original emphasis). Thus, given the indeterminate mode of much of the exchange, it can be argued that there is no clearly-defined framework up to that point (hence RB’s faux pas) and that these objections to 53 are, in fact, the first explicit definitions of the framework of the entire extract, within which sexual banter is acceptable but sexist banter is not. Calling a powerful female politician ‘a man’ is deemed to be sexist by those with more power and RB is therefore held accountable. Worth noting here also is that this judgement is not simply a matter of automatically imposing a set of antecedent rules on a particular type of behaviour. Buttny again:

The social control function involves more than simply matching conduct to social rules and invoking accountability for deviance. Instead, social control is seen as an emergent feature of interaction which arises from how persons orient to and actively respond to the regulative function of the rules.
(p.23, emphasis added)


8 Humour in Context: The Thatcher Joke>

8.4 Negotiating The Serious Import of Humour>

8.4.1 Negotiating Prior Permission To Joke>

8.4.2 The Interactive Establishment Of Meaning>

8.4.3 Taking A Joke Seriously Adds To Its Import>

8.4.4 Three Possible Positions A Joker Can Adopt When Challenged