2.3 Sociology

Humour, of course, also happens outside of the head, in society, where it has numerous functions. Kane et al (1977) recognise this when they observe that ‘the ambiguity that surrounds humour allows for the rather substantial shift in its perceived meaning depending on situational factors’ (p.14). They list the following social functions: self-disclosure and probing; face-saving; unmasking; ingratiation; interpersonal attraction (pp.l4-8). Their paper was presented at a conference on humour, the contents of which show yet further functions – The Appeasement Function of Mirthful Laughter, Humour as a Form of Social Control, The Function of Humour in the Classroom , Humour and Psychotherapy, and so on.

No matter how many individual social functions humour may have, observers tend to place its overall social role into two categories, the conservative or the liberating. A considerable number opt for the former. Bergson (1911) saw laughter acting as a restraint on behaviour ‘by the fear that it inspires (p. 20).
Wilson ends his thorough-going social- psychological study with a similar conclusion. ‘Joking is essentially conservative…funnelling malice and abuse downwards through the social pyramid. People ridicule deviants, subordinates, those with mental or physical abnormalities, members of minorities and out-groups’ (p.230).

Others, however, stress its positive side. Boston (1974), while noting both sides of humour thus:

One is the aggressive, socially correct laughter of Hobbes, Bergson, and Freud, the laughter of the children’s playground and of ethnic and mother-in-law jokes. The other kind is a laugh of playfulness and pleasure, the infant’s laugh at seeing his mother. Mother-in-law humour is aggressive, mother-laughter is pleasurable and playful.

adds significant weight to the role of pleasure and play with a simple stroke of etymology. He points out that in English funny is to do with humour, fun to do with play. Something amusing makes us laugh, an amusement can be a game or form of play. In Italian uno giuco is not a joke but a game, while una commedia is not a comedy but a play. The German Scherz means both game and joke, and in French jeu means play or sport – un jeu de mots is a pun, un jeu d’espirit is a witticism. Beyond Romance and Germanic languages, in Chinese the ideogram Wán is common to the words for amusement, play, fun, game, and laughter (p 38). Thus, ‘When we laugh at the verbal games or tricks that Rabelais or Sterne plays on us, we are not proclaiming ourselves masochists eager for aggression. Rather we are delighting and participating in the skill of a brilliant player’ (p.41).

Powell (1977) develops these themes further. He suggests that humour’s social role can be both conservative and liberating at the same time, depending on the differing schemata of different members of the audience. As an example he uses the film ‘Modern Times’ in which Charlie Chaplin plays an assembly worker who experiences difficulties with the modern production process. Audience members of a left-wing bent might locate the problem in the conditions and relations of production and be amused by Chaplin’s attempts to assert his humanity against such odds. Those audience members of the right might be amused by the incongruity of Chaplin’s failure to conform to acceptable norms.

Even when the target of the humour is made explicit, this does not prevent the interaction from leading to differing interpretations. In an article contrasting the different approaches to humour between traditional stand-up comedians often seen in the television programme ‘The Comedians’ with those of the comedians associated with the more recent developments in alternative comedy, Park, the executive producer of ‘The Comedians’, when defending the programme against accusations of sexism and chauvinism, argues that, ‘You’re always going to have problems [of being offensive] with comedy because it works on targets.’ Cook, the author of the article, retorts, ‘But the difference is that alternative comedy attacks the strong not the weak’ (The Guardian 23.7.92). Thus it would seem that the appreciation of humour also depends on the audience’s social relations with the targets of that humour.

The argument, however, is yet more complex than this. Strength and weakness, power and powerlessness (themes with which this dissertation is intimately concerned) have various manifestations, as the section on power above demonstrated…[EDIT]… In that section Tanner also noted that there are many different kinds of power and that when people take different roles they have different kinds of power and use it in different ways. Thus, in complex societies the various power differentials interweave with one another so that at any given moment individuals and groups might be both powerful and powerless. Chiaro comments,

Recent literature on the subject [ethnic jokes] (Bier 1979 and 1988) suggests that it would be equally feasible to suggest that Blacks, Jews, Italians, and Puerto Ricans may have presented both an economic and phallic threat to the white middle-class American, thus suggesting that jokes conceal repressed feelings of fear and anxiety rather than superiority.

That is, those usually considered more powerful socially (white middle-class Americans) may feel psychologically less powerful vis-a-vis certain supposed social inferiors.

Another example of humour’s double-sidedness (this time in direct relation to the subjects of this dissertation) is provided by Jarrett (1982). He notes that the Marx Brothers ‘out-manoeuvred and conned the classes that sent Laurel and Hardy penniless back out on the road for their next meal’ (recall this was the time of the Depression), and thus their films could be seen in part as combative social criticism, yet at the same time they ‘helped to contain and stabilise any growth of social unrest...by their aggressive acting out of audience tensions and sentiments through the distancing of gag comedy’ (p.19).

So it can be seen, then, that humour is an extremely complex subject. Even so, the focus of this dissertation is simple and clear. It will concentrate its attentions on strong targets within institutions, that is, it will display what might be called a social sense of humour. Schutz (1977) comments on this aspect of humour as follows:

Humour in politics springs from the encounter of man’s psyche with his sociality; the sublimation of aggression, the continuing resentment of social authority, the necessary repressions of society, the levelling impulse against social hierarchy, and, even, man’s creativity against social conformity. Our voluntary subordination to social authority is always strained by the rules which mould man-the-animal into man-the-citizen.