8. HUMOUR IN CONTEXT:
THE THATCHER JOKE

This leads us now to the analysis of an exchange involving an utterance seemingly offered as a joke and the responses to it. It comes from a television show ‘Politically Incorrect’, which is a hybrid between a chat show with celebrity guests, and a discussion programme, with the host, Bill Maher, nominating the various topics. Before looking at it a few words are in order.

In various ways the main points of the preceding discussion are brought together in the following analysis. The disputed utterance is seen by some as a joke (that is, something amusingly incongruous), by others as an insult, an act of aggression, but, as we shall see, it may also be seen as a kind of release, all matters touched upon in Section 1. In Sections 2 and 3 it was seen that within performance space, and its attendant roles for performers and audience, a certain leeway is given to utterances and also that the comic figure is a person with a certain licence. This means, as we have seen, that in performance comedians frequently transgress social norms without censure; indeed, some would argue that such performers and performances play an important and necessary therapeutic role in society (Holden 1993, Jacobson 1997). The nature of the perceived insult in this exchange is described as ‘sexist’, and it was seen in Section 4 how speakers’ use of language can be ideologically charged and disputatious. But the utterance is also greeted with amused laughter and this recalls the discussion of shared and differential competences in Section 5. Section 6 demonstrated how pragmatic ideas and methods assist greatly in understanding how participants in talk interactively construct meaning. Finally, in the previous section, the relevant aspects concerning gender were surveyed. It will be seen that all these factors play an important role in the discussion to follow.

The show in which the following talk occurs occupies an ambivalent space in which the participants are expected to amuse and entertain but also to engage in serious discussion. This can cause a certain tension, as this extract demonstrates. As pains have been taken in the preceding discussion to underline the significance of sequential placement in determining meaning in talk, the whole extract is reproduced here in full at the beginning. The reader is also reminded of the discussion in the Introduction of the problems of transcription.

‘Politically Incorrect’ is a regular chat show in America, hosted by the comedian Bill Maher. On its short run in the UK it ran for five consecutive evenings on Channel 4 from 10.00-10.30 p.m. As its name implies, it sets out to discuss topical issues in a way which may not always consider the sensitivities of a complex pluralistic society. One half of the audience consisted of Americans and one half of British members. Similarly, the panel of guests usually consisted of two Americans and two British. The topic of this particular extract is ‘sex in this country’ and the participants are: Bill Maher (BM), the male American host; Richard Belzer (RB), a male American actor/comedian; Julie Kirkbride (JK), a female British Conservative Member of Parliament; Lynda La Plante (LL), a female British writer; and Elle Macpherson (EM), a female Australian model. Short biographical details of these discussants are given in 8.2.4 below. The devices used in the transcription of their talk are:


full transcription of the thatcher joke

It is worth remembering at this point that the analysis to come is not a conventional CA study but will also involve elements of ethnography, sociology, psychology, gender politics, and politeness phenomena. First we will look at the immediate context, which is that of a televised studio discussion performed in front of a live studio audience. Two salient factors will be looked at: the composition of the audience(s) and the nature of what will be called here ‘TV talk’ (as opposed to mundane everyday conversation). This will then be followed by a more detailed look at the composition of the key participants, the panel who carry out the discussion, as it is who they are and their roles in the discussion which are of great significance for the outcome. Once the nature of the audiences and type of talk have been established, the focus will then be on the different types of floor that can be constructed in multiparty talk and how they both shape and are shaped by the interlocutors’ relationships as constituted and reconstituted in the flow of talk. Specifically, the features of the collaborative floor and the single floor (as discussed above in 6.3.1) will be given attention. Next there will be a sociological survey of the negotiation of the serious import of humour, something which is a key feature of the discussion under review, followed by a view from two psychological perspectives, which will take in both the conscious and unconscious levels. This discussion also raises once again the question of the ‘ownership’ of meaning. The analysis will then reprise an important element of conversation analysis – preference organisation – and show how humour can confound the usual predictions of CA in this regard. Though the findings contradict much of the CA literature concerning preference, an explanation is offered in the final section with reference to politeness phenomena, which also helps to explain certain other moves made by the participants.

Two organisational points. From here on the extract to be analysed will be referred to as PI (‘Politically Incorrect’) and the topics within PI will be referred to as ‘macrotopic’ or ‘microtopic’. Chafe (1997:42) talks of ‘supertopics’, ‘basic-level topics’, and ‘subtopics’, but here we will simply talk of the macrotopic – ‘sex in this country’ - and the various microtopics which develop out of it.

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>

Contents>