Power through humour: the disturbance of dominant discourse in the works of the Marx Brothers

Ken Willis

A dissertation offered as part of the MA Linguistics in Education course at St. Mary’s College, Strawberry Hill, 1991-1992.


I would like to gratefully acknowledge the help and guidance offered by all the staff on the MA course and also the stimulating companionship of my fellow students.

I thank Helen Dufton for word processing the manuscript, Tim Sutton for allowing me access to his word processor, and Allan Jarrett for the personal loan of his dissertation.

Thank you one and all.


This dissertation aims to show that a significant part of the Marx Brothers’ humour is aimed at the disruption of conventional power relations which exist within certain institutional frameworks. It is contended that they achieve this aim through the use of linguistic strategies which deliberately disturb dominant discourse.

In part one there is a description of dominant discourse in institutions …[EDIT]… Humour is then given a thorough analysis from the perspectives of linguistics, psychology, and sociology. To conclude this part the Marx Brothers’ linguistic repertoire – their ‘arsenal’ – is reviewed.

Part two focuses on three institutional areas – the standard language and common sense, medicine and law. For each area a general model is presented and this is then followed by showing how the dominant discourse relations within each area come under attack from the Marx Brothers’ use of what Halliday calls ‘antilanguage’; that is, how they contest power through humour.