December 02, 2019

Jokes and Scripts

By Jonathan Wynn

author photoWho doesn’t like a joke? Here’s one:

Campus Adviser: What class are you having the most difficulty with?

Sociology Student: The bourgeoisie!

Ok, I can hear your groans. I like jokes. There are probably only a few sociology jokes—I found the this one on reddit—but is there a sociology of jokes?

Back in 2013 I wrote a blog post about pranks, but really jokes are really another interactional form. Are they tricks? Erving Goffman, in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, describes tricks as a kind of informal deceit or “benign fabrication,” within which “the intentional effort[s] on the part of one or more individuals to manage activity so that a party of one or more others will be induced to have a false belief about what it is that is going on” (p. 86). Characteristic to his tendency to categorize, Goffman offers a set of activities that includes “kidding,” “leg pulling,” “practical joking,” “surprise parties,” “larks or rags” and “corrective hoaxing” (p. 87-92).

I’m not sure how jokes sit in this catalog. Joke telling and humor overall are likely forms of Goffmanian impression management. They are also more akin to Goffman’s concept of a script. Scripts are patterns of talk and interactions.

You might balk at the idea of a joke being scripted. If you’re uncomfortable with that, I would say that you should differentiate wit from jokes. I’m reminded of what one of my interviewees from my dissertation told me when I mistakenly asked her about her jokes:

Have you ever heard of Dorothy Parker? Oscar Wilde? Did they tell jokes? No, darling, they had wit. A joke can be anything. Wit has context. It has intellect. Don’t call it a joke—it demeans my humor. Put that as a footnote.

Indeed, Dorothy Parker once said: “There’s a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words.” There is assuredly a sociology of wit, which requires being attuned to context, intersubjectivity, interaction. But jokes need context too. Why is it that most jokes don’t translate well from one language to another?

So, a joke is a Goffmanian script. How is that script written? Look to any one of the late night shows that all have an opening monologue: Fallon, Kimmel, Colbert, Meyers, Conan, Bee, and Noah. (Here’s a quick three-minute explainer about the hidden formula for late night jokes. It’s brilliant.) All these shows have to generate dozens and dozens of jokes every week, many of which likely never make it on the show. How, they ask, can comedy writers put together so many jokes in such a short amount of time?

The authors explain that there are several different “triggers” that make us laugh: Surprise, incongruity, feelings of superiority, release of tension, embarrassment, coincidence, and permission to misbehave. Incongruity makes some connection that’s hidden. The news is the set up. Then they have to make an incongruous connection. Once you’ll see this video you won’t be able to hear jokes the same way.

There are lots of sociological ways to think about them. I would guess that men have greater latitude to be funny, because they are still the dominant group in most social spheres. (Just look at the list of men who dominate late night comedy above.) Using Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of cultural capital, we could see jokes as resources. Jokes and humor are something that Max Weber might see as bolstering charismatic authority. An ethnomethodologist might see jokes as everyday interactions that breach and therefore reinforce norms. (And I mentioned this in my post about creative careers, but it’s worth mentioning here as well: Michael P. Jeffries’ Behind the Laughs: Community and Inequality in Comedy, is a great study of the social life of comedians.) Gary Alan Fine offers a review of sociological approaches to humor.

Sociologist Giselle Kuipers is one of the few sociologists who has taken this topic seriously. Her book Good Humor, Bad Taste examines how people from different classes evaluate jokes differently. People from higher classes are more likely to devalue jokes as scripted and unlikely to reflect insight into the personality of the teller. People from lower classes appreciate jokes for their contributions to sociability.

Recognizing the harmful side of such jokes, Aristotle felt that demeaning humor should be banned. Jokes aren’t by definition a serious topic for research, but there is a dark side to jokes can move well beyond acceptability, which is likely one of the reasons why sociologists aren’t eager to talk about them. Roy Francis wrote that jokes and ethnic humor was a critical tool in the assimilation of groups in the early 1900s, and also the debasement of other groups far earlier than that. Jokes can demean, marginalize, and cause harm. They should continue to be a topic of sustained sociological research.

Last, it might be worth looking at a case of joke telling and humor that goes out of its way to subvert the conventions. Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette suits the bill. Gadsby’s comedy/art performance was the most talked about stand-up routine in a decade. By talking about her own realizations that humor was not the most effective means through which to deal with her own traumas, she unpacks what comedy is supposed to do and how it’s potentially crippling for her and others like her:

I have built a career out of self-deprecating humor, and I don’t want to do that anymore… Because do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation.

Part of the sensation of Gadsby’s performance is that it intentionally shirks the conventions of stand up still does some of the same formula that triggers laughter: it relies on surprise (i.e., not being purely comedy), incongruity (i.e., being funny but also deadly serious), embarrassment (i.e., self-deprecation), etc. Jokes, Gadsby points out, aren’t a full picture. When comedy obscures pain and provides cover for abuse, there’s no humanity. Humanity isn’t given its context.

Perhaps, in that way, Nanette isn’t offering up jokes but wit instead.

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