Making sense of humour: some pragmatic and political aspects

Willis, Ken (2002) Making sense of humour: some pragmatic and political aspects. Doctoral thesis, London Metropolitan University.


This is a study of humour in context, but as humour is by its nature extremely mutable and so occurs in many forms in a multitude of contexts, this calls for certain constraints to be applied to the methods of investigation. Thus rather than attempt a panoramic view of such a polymorphic subject, the focus here is local and deep. The main analysis is of an utterance spoken by a comedian on a television chat show which is interpreted both as a joke and an insult, a situation which cries out for pragmatic attention. This dissertation sets out to uncover what is at work in this interaction by means of a pragmatic approach which uses, critically, some of the essential ideas of speech act theory and in addition also draws on certain aspects of conversational analysis (CA), the ethnography of speaking, and, given the nature of the joke, gender politics. CA provides useful analytical tools to reveal the organisational features of talk, the ethnography of speaking helps with an understanding of the interlocutors who do the talking, and a gender perspective helps with the political dimension.

After beginning with a survey of the main theories of humour, which give us some insight into what lies beneath the surface of joking behaviour, there is an in-depth look at the important contextual features of performance space and the comic figure. Both of these reveal the significance of licence, transgression, and performer-audience interaction. Then the linguistic resources available for the creation of humour are described and the social uses to which such creations can be put are demonstrated. Once out in the world humour can engender a wide variety of responses, a factor of clear significance for the main analysis. This factor is given due regard in a discussion of competence, permission, and ambivalence. There follows 'a detailed look at the particular pragmatic approach used in this study, in which an original model of joke comprehension is offered. The study then examines the relevant aspects of gender before the final analysis is then elaborated. Some of the findings challenge the conventional conversation analytical notion of preference organisation, draw attention, contra CA theory, to its significant subjective content, and also point up how politeness phenomena also play a prominent role, further underlining the subjective element. The work ends with a final consideration of the disputed utterance from both a formal and functional perspective by reprising the previously-mentioned model of joke comprehension in conjunction with Carrell's notion of 'humor competence'.

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