Much of the foregoing discussion can now be drawn
together in a look at two extended pieces of public humour. ‘Public humour’
merely refers to the fact that these examples are from sources which, through
the media, had a widespread audience. Both involve female Conservative politicians,
one as butt, one as teller. The former involves a comment made on a chat show,
the latter a joke made during a speech at a private dinner, which was subsequently
made public. I have chosen two different ‘performances’ of humour to see how
well the above discussion can match different situations.
The first example comes from a television show ‘Politically Incorrect’ (PI), which is a hybrid between a chat show with celebrity guests and a discussion programme, with the host, the comedian Bill Maher, nominating the various topics (Maher 1999). PI is a regular chat show in America and 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 was American and one half British. 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.
BM’s concern was to discuss why the British had elected a female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, but also had pictures of naked women as a regular feature of tabloid national newspapers (‘Page Three Girls’). His nomination of the topic as ‘sex in this country’ initiated a stretch of banter about all manner of things sexual: enjoying sex, changing sex, homosexuality, pornography, and also Margaret Thatcher. This was a cooperative interaction with much humour and humour support. Of note is that during these exchanges BM and RB, who knew one another before the show, worked together to establish that RB was a strong supporter of feminism, whereas BM was not. However, the bonhomie was punctured by the following exchange. JK, presumably because she is a Conservative female, was expected to answer this question of why the British elected a female leader yet at the same time have ‘Page Three Girls’.
We see that the joke relations, having started out as very similar for the
discussants13, suddenly change with
RB’s comment in 53. He may feel, from the progressive position that he had
earlier established, that he is joking at a right-wing butt; however, in choosing
to focus contentiously on the very topic – gender relations – on which he
had established that identity, he positions himself separately from the others.
At first JK and EM show an amused response (this may be out of politeness)
but once BM objects they immediately and forcefully cancel any idea of agreement
(61, 68, 69). RB tries to use his role as comedian (he is a practising
comedian, the comment was delivered with a theatrical pause and gestures)
and the nature of the utterance (a joke is by design ambiguous) to extricate
himself (60), but when someone has to explain a joke, that is strong
evidence of failure, and it is the interpretation of the comment as sexist
We should also note that this type of chat show talk is deliberately designed to be overheard as opposed to, say, everyday talk between friends in private, but at the same time the turn-taking system is largely extemporised as in everyday informal talk, and so what occurs is, as Alaoui notes, the private putting its imprint on the public, ‘thus generating talk which is halfway between talk that is produced as private and that whose design exhibits its production for overhearing’ (1991:388-9). RB’s 53 is not, then, a private joke between close friends shot through with irony, in which he is deliberately mimicking the role of bigot. He makes a public blunder and the medium serves to magnify it for many to see and judge. He himself must have thought that this line would be appreciated and this is partly understandable, for he has seen a whole variety of humorous comments from various panellists on the topics of sex, gender, nudity, Thatcher etc. not only go unremarked but meet with an appreciative reception by both panel and studio audience. Yet suddenly this topically relevant line about Thatcher and gender is assigned a different value by other discussants. We can guess that up to this point in this context the panellists are part of the same (or a very similar) network and that this sudden rupture serves to underline the point that such networks are not a given but are dynamic phenomena which emerge from and are transformed by interactions.
It is also important to emphasise the power that is at work in these exchanges. The viewer is left feeling that RB has made a sexist remark and has been socially censored for this. The chief determinant is the fact that it is the host and the majority on the panel who band together to assign this meaning, and that in this specific context – five people on stage in front of a studio audience, with a television audience at home – it is the discussants at the centre who have speaking rights. It is there that most power resides, and within this echelon it is, of course, the host who holds most power. When BM condemns the remark and then is supported by JK and EM it does not matter that the majority response of the studio audience was amused laughter (i.e. they saw it as a joke).The majority view of the panel with the host at the head holds sway. This, of course, does not mean that this is the only interpretation, because we are discussing ‘multiple realities’, and no doubt there are those who will see it as amusing not sexist or will see it as amusing and sexist (and some who will see it as amusing because it is sexist14). But it is the panel’s interpretation which dominates the show.