As humour is such a complex cultural phenomenon it demands an outlook that is wide and inclusive. This often leads to studies of the subject feeling almost obliged to be definitive and to offer all-encompassing conclusions. This is a dilemma I hope I have avoided in this study. Though I have taken a broad view of (verbal) humour, I have no wish to extrapolate my discoveries into the realms of the universal. Thus this work has used a wide variety of (Western) humorous material to illustrate the relevant linguistic and social points, drawing on work from stand-up comedians, situation comedies, and sketch shows from the media of radio, television and film. But the main analysis has focused in great depth on just one particular chat show excerpt, and in particular on just one thirteen-word utterance from that excerpt. In order to establish the framework within which to place this utterance much ground has been covered.

A start was made by surveying the major theories of humour to see the diversity of ideas which various writers claim underlie humour. Though no single one was found to satisfactorily explain all humour, it is difficult to see how some aspect of incongruity can be excluded from humorous occurrences, and so more attention was given to this. Those that would seek to monopolise explanations – such as Gruner with his all-conquering claims for Superiority, and Matte with his hegemonic reformulation of Freud’s ideas – were given less attention, as one thing that became clear was how the theories, when looked at in detail, leak into one another, and none stands supreme.

The basic and important factor of performance space was not simply taken as a given nor sketched in mechanically but was thoroughly delved into in order to identify the relevance of its features to utterance. It is evident that from its origin onwards its major constituent has been the formalised division between performer and audience and the way this affects interaction between the two. Both have learned cultural roles and these are played out in a complex interdependent relationship. A crucial part of this is that performance utterances are granted a certain licence yet at the same time are not beyond the bounds of social responsibility. This is primarily because the audience is no mere passive receptacle but is actively engaged in the making of meaning.

This is particularly the case in comedic performances, where the audience is used directly as a resource, particularly by stand-up comedians. It was also noted, however, that comic figures are not simply makers of mirth but they can also have a darker side. This is particularly noticeable in the nature of their performative licence, which is a licence to transgress. It was seen how in most if not all cultures such figures openly exhibit taboo behaviour in speech and/or deed. Such licence has traditionally found its visible expression in distinct costumes, which have allowed immediate identification of the comic figure. Thus it was possible to make direct visual connections between comic figures across large expanses of time and space. Another significant distinction from other performers was found to be that whereas the actor who plays, for example, Hamlet is himself off stage, the clear distinction between the comedic performer’s on-stage identity and off-stage identity is not always apparent. This was noticeable in figures ranging from the buffoons of ancient Greece, through the medieval court jesters, to present-day stand-up comedians. This clearly can raise questions of personal responsibility.

An important aspect of the comic figure’s development in recent history, certainly in the English-speaking world, is his/her greater reliance on linguistic performance rather than on physical or musical skills. It was shown that humorous discourse, like any other type of discourse, exploits all available linguistic resources to do its work, but must ensure that it uses them to create a semantic content clearly cued for humorous interpretation. This it does through the deliberate creation of multiple meanings. It was also demonstrated that this does not simply involve linguistic choices but, if so desired, ideological choices also. Thus, according to the intent of the comedian, money can be taken out of the bank for a holiday by a miser, a Scotsman, a Jew, or a yid.

Being thus marked means that humour necessarily finds a reception which fluctuates from one audience to the next, a factor of great relevance to this study. It was thus shown that purely cognitive models of humour competence are insufficient for explaining divergent interpretations of the same material. Any working model of humour competence must be one which shows this differential competence, a competence that is grounded in social differences. This is because, as has been underlined throughout this work, humour is not merely formal play or language in a dialogue with itself (though such elements can be present), but is also a form of social communication and is fraught with all the complexities and contradictions that entails. This ambivalence of humour is something that is not confined to the audience but is also manifested in how comic figures themselves see their own licence and also how academic studies of the subject – such as this – can exhibit significant disagreement over what the scope of study should be.

To adequately tackle humour in action a pragmatic approach is needed in order to get access to the contextual specifics. Some assistance was afforded by the staple ideas of speech act theory, particularly in its pointing up of indirectness. However, these notions were found wanting when it came to understanding utterances in sequence in real conversation. In this regard, some of the analytic tools of conversation analysis were found to be extremely useful. But even they were found to focus primarily on formal structures and did not offer insights into participants’ motivations. Further, disagreement was expressed with the stronger CA claims of universality concerning some of their ideas of how talk is organised. Thus, further assistance was drawn from the ethnography of speaking with its concerns for local cultural conditions and mores. (It seems clear that if intention is such an integral part of communication, then it is of no small import to try to get closer to what can drive intentions.) As a key feature of the disputed utterance was its sexism, a survey of the relevant aspects of gender was undertaken, which included the important points of gender identities and representations, gender and language use, and gender and humour. Thus equipped, a detailed analysis of the excerpt from the chat show was carried out and, it is believed, much of what went on in that interaction was revealed as all the foregoing groundwork started to come together.

The participants were situated in their performance space, a space designed to encourage their cooperation. Their highly collaborative talk was used to discuss a serious topic in a humorous manner not only for one another’s benefit but, significantly, for an overhearing audience whom they were obliged to entertain. Their conversational work was an undoubted source of pleasure for themselves, the studio audience and the broadcast audience sitting at home. It was not until one of the participants spoke an utterance that gave rise to conflicting interpretations – was this a joke or an insult? – that collaboration stopped and it became possible for individual responsibility to be clearly assigned. It was as the details of this conflict unfolded that the relevance of much that had gone before – the nature of humour, performative licence, transgression, ideological language choice, differential competence, gender positions, the importance of the immediate contextual elements – shone through.

It was found that the utterance could be interpreted simply as a joke or simply as an insult (or as a joking insult or an insulting joke) and this highlighted certain important points. One, the indeterminacy of illocutions, particularly those, like jokes, which are designed to display such a feature, and, two, that humour competence, being grounded in the social world of motivated beings, is necessarily differential. Further, language use, whether direct or indirect, is not without certain social and political consequences and the significance of the distribution of power became apparent when it was shown that whatever the utterer’s intentions, he was adjudged to be socially responsible for his actions by the rest of the discussants despite the utterance giving pleasure to most of the studio audience.

Of particular interest in the turns taken in this dispute were the findings concerning preference organisation. The findings here demonstrated that responses are not as predictable as CA theory suggests, and further, that preference organisation is more subjective than CA theory allows. It is not always the case that those offering a dispreferred response are obliged to account for such. This incident showed it was actually the speaker and not the hearers who was forced to explain his actions. Strong connections were made with politeness phenomena and some support was found (contra Grice, and Brown and Levinson’s defence of Grice) for Leech’s Politeness Principle. This once more underscores the subjective elements of preference organisation. Whether these factors are effects solely of humour, with its inherent incongruities, is a matter to be settled not by speculation here but by further empirical research of speech events in non-humorous contexts. Finally, the disputed utterance was reviewed formally and functionally by applying the strong trace model of humour comprehension in conjunction with Carrell’s joke competence/humour competence model, and this was seen once again to emphasise the social nature of humour.