Humour Communities/Networks

In an attempt to understand differing humour competences, Carrell offers the concept of ‘humour communities’ (1997b), which she bases on Killingsworth’s (1992) notion of local and global discourse communities. This asserts that global discourse communities, unlike local, are not restricted by physical site but rather, ‘are defined by like-mindedness, political and intellectual affiliation, and other such “special interests” and are maintained by widely dispersed discourse practices made possible by modern publishing and other communication technologies’ (Killingsworth p.111). For Carrell these relationships constitute ‘abstract political systems’ (p.13).  She says that those different audiences who, for example, watch a television situation comedy, whether as adults watching a repeat or as new fans not even born when it was first shown, ‘constitute one humor community’ (p.14).
There is much of interest here but I have certain reservations, the chief one of which is that Carrell’s is too much of a top down approach. For example, she argues that people who watched the 1970s US sitcom ‘All In The Family’ (AITF), with its main character of Archie Bunker, can be broken into two broad groups: those who agreed with Bunker’s reactionary views and those who thought Bunker was the butt because of these views. That is, there were those who laughed with him and those that laughed at him. This show was the American adaptation of the 1960s/70s BBC sitcom ‘Till Death Us Do Part’ (TDUDP) with its main character of Alf Garnett. The self-same observation about Bunker was at the core of the argument over TDUDP in Britain. Its writer, Johnny Speight, insisted that Garnett was the butt, but not all those who watched the show shared the irony. (There were also those, of course, who strongly condemned the show10.) What is noteworthy about Carrell’s discussion is that for her both of the groups she identifies in the audience for AITF constitute one humour community. There are two main problems with this view. The first is that in this example the concept of community is stretched too far, so that, put simply, anti-racist viewers find themselves positioned with racist viewers without any say in the matter. Secondly, Carrell doesn’t take into account different types of comedy performances and the different nature and compositions of their respective audiences. Sitting at home watching television programmes, one of which is this particular sitcom, is significantly different to actively spending time, energy and money to find and go out to see a comedy performance of your own choosing. Even if it were the case that all viewers of this sitcom actively created time to watch only this show, we are still not comparing like with like. It seems to me that it is in the latter case that people are more likely to associate with like-minded individuals who also share other ‘special interests’ and therefore are more likely to see themselves as part of the same humour community. But part of my quibble here is with the term ‘community’ itself and the problems of trying to define it, particularly in relation to such a polymorphic subject as humour. With this and a concern for what is ‘local’ in mind, I would like to put forward the idea of ‘humour network’ as a more manageable concept.
Part of the problem with, for example, positioning racists and antiracists together is that it ignores people’s social relationships and their conceptions of self-identity. Drawing on models of social networks11 allows us to sketch in such important factors and I hope gives us a more detailed and accurate picture of what is at work in communicative interactions involving humour. Two concepts which are of great use in this regard are density, which refers to whether members of a person’s network are in touch with one another independently of the person at the centre of a given network, and plexity, which is a measure of the range of the different activities people are involved in with different individuals. In terms of density the relationships in the TDUDP situation could look something like this. (I will use this show as it is more familiar to British audiences. What is said below could equally apply to AITF.)

Figure 3 Part of the humour network of A                                                                                                       

In this rather simple representation of A’s humour network given in Fig. 3, B, C, D, and E also appreciate Garnett being the butt of the humour in TDUDP, and they share other ideologically similar humour connections with one another (for some of which see below), thus making up a (fairly) dense network. I would argue that those who agree with Garnett’s views are unlikely to be part of this network. Further, I suggest that the relationships A has with B, C, D, and E will lean towards multiplexity, that is, there is likely to be a range of interactions and interests among them apart from humour, whereas the (passive) relationship A has with someone (F) that watches TDUDP in support of Garnett’s views is less likely to be multiplex and may even consist of just viewing the same programme. In terms of contentious humour, A’s and F’s networks are unlikely to share connections except perhaps passively in infrequent cases like TDUDP, where there is an ambivalence concerning the butt. Such relationships can be illustrated thus (see figure 4):

Fragments of A's and F's humour networks graphic


Figure 4   Fragments of A’s and F’s humour networks.

In this representation of a very small part of A’s and F’s networks,12. A is seen to have hearer connections with Jeremy Hardy and Shazia Mirza, stand-up comedians known to be, amongst other things, antiracist. F is seen to have hearer connections with Jim Davidson and Bernard Manning, stand-up comedians known to have used racist material. A and F share a passive connection via TDUDP, but their perceptions of the show are different. Note that this representation does not mean that, for example, A will not find any of Davidson’s or Manning’s material amusing, nor that F will not be amused by some of Hardy’s or Mirza’s material. But it does mean, I argue, that it is unlikely that A will identify with or make efforts to go and see either Davidson or Manning in a supportive manner, and similarly it is unlikely that F would identify with or make efforts to go and see Hardy or Mirza in a supportive manner. There would seem to be little or no overlap of their networks when considering these aspects of contentious humour. It is entirely possible, of course, that A may share a connection with F concerning other, non-contentious humour, but this would make up a different network. While this bottom-up approach does not allow an immediate view of the bigger picture, it does provide a starting point from which to build a more accurate, practical and manageable model which could be expanded when needed.