Some Models Of Humour

The concept of 'humour competence' was introduced in Raskin’s (1985) Semantic Script Theory of Humour (SSTH), which claims to be able to assign the feature of funniness to texts. The SSTH draws on Chomsky’s notion of ‘linguistic competence’ and its ‘ideal speaker-hearer community’(1965) and consequently this idealised model of humour (and subsequent developments of it) is designed for a speaker-hearer community in which members’ senses of humour are identical (Raskin 1985:58), for people who have no racial or gender biases, and are not concerned by scatological, obscene, or disgusting content (Attardo 1994:197), and where audiences’ responses are ‘essentially irrelevant’ (Attardo 2001:30). As the discussion here is concerned with maters such as why, for example, an item of humour amuses A but not B, and who is in a position to determine dominant interpretations, we need to look at other ideas which do take account of the fact that, as people’s social positions (and, hence, relations of power) are different, our senses of humour cannot be identical. Thus, the relevant aspects of the models of Raju, Hay, and Carrell will now be considered. In her discussion of appreciation Raju refers to people’s ‘reference groups’ and ‘identification groups’, the former being the social groups in which other people place individuals, the latter being groups with which people identify themselves. She comments: ‘A person’s response to jokes which rely on racial or social stereotypes will therefore depend on how far his/her identification groups correspond with his/her reference groups’ (1991:80). Hay (2001) discusses humour support and in her three-part model Element 2 (understanding) entails 1  (recognition), and Element 3 (appreciation) entails both 1 and 2, which can be illustrated as in Fig 1.

Hay's model of unqualified humour support graphic

Figure 1 Hay’s model of unqualified humour support (2001)


Here we can see that there is a gap between 2 and 3 and that this gap is not bridged automatically but will be crossed via negotiation with recipients’ differing belief systems, so that people can, for example, show understanding of a joke but withhold appreciation should they so wish. (There is actually a fourth implicature in Hay’s model and this will be discussed below.) Carrell  like Raju and Hay, recognises that the space between understanding and appreciation is vital and one that is not traversed without mediation. Factors which can influence humour appreciation are such things as religious beliefs, political convictions and sexual orientation. (1997a:183). All these positionings involve power, a factor that is particularly important in contentious humour and one which will be returned to below. In sum, then, these latter models recognise that because our positions in social life differ, so will our humour competences, and thus, it isn’t possible to carry out a blanket assignment of funniness to texts. Of course there are areas of overlap between our humour competences (a shared competence) and so many of us will find the same example of humour amusing. In relation to this Carrell speaks of ‘humour communities’ (1997b), the outlines of which have already been implicitly suggested in this discussion so far. This is an important point and one which will receive further treatment below. But first it is necessary to detail and exemplify some of the complexities of the idea of differential competence, looking in particular at the following topics: contentiousness, joke relations, and the relationship between appreciation and agreement.