June 20, 2022

What Can Comedy Teach us about Sociology?

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

While preparing for take-off on a recent flight, a man in the row in front of me made a “joke” to his teenaged kids. After an announcement to take your seat and fasten your seatbelts, he said rather loudly, “Yeah, like seatbelts are really going to make a difference in a plane crash!”

He eagerly looked for a positive reaction to his comment. His kids didn’t appear to laugh, and those of us in the surrounding rows seemed to share a moment of nervous discomfort. Isn’t it an unwritten rule that you don’t mention plane crashes—even in jest—on an airplane?

While making plane crash jokes might—might—be okay in other contexts, in this particular context it seemed highly inappropriate. Lots of people are nervous fliers, and even those who are not might not want to hear the phrase “plane crash” while onboard. In some instances, an inappropriate joke might even get someone removed from a flight. This attempted joke was not just inappropriate in the context, but factually inaccurate. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, “In nonfatal accidents, in-flight turbulence is the leading cause of injuries to airline passengers and flight attendants.” Fastening seatbelts can keep people from getting tossed around if a flight gets bumpy.

What is funny and what isn’t might be a matter of debate, but comedy can teach us about several core concepts within sociology.

  1. The meaning-making process is social, and shifts based on our various social positions.

Unless we are just amusing ourselves (like my fellow passenger appeared to do), most of the time jokes are told in order to make other people laugh. Thus, humor is based upon and creates shared meaning between people.

What makes something funny (or not funny) is part of the social construction of reality, the way in which meaning-making takes place collectively and in a social context. We might find some kinds of jokes funny based on our cultural context, such as our race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status. Personal and shared experiences form the basis of humor.

As Janis Prince Inniss wrote in 2009, comedy sometimes provides a pass to express ideas that might otherwise be considered rude or offensive. And of course, people can be offended by jokes while others might not get why others are offended. This too is often related to the cultural lens through which we make sense of the world around us, and of course, who is telling the joke. Someone from our same ethnicity who makes a joke based on a common ethnic stereotype might avoid offending the in-group, as it might be read as a subtle challenge to the stereotype that an “outsider” might not be able to tell with the same response.

  1. We might use humor to broach topics people are reluctant to discuss

Public discussions of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and other social categories might be fraught with baggage and difficult to bring up. Court jesters historically performed for royals and had tacit permission to make fun of those in power. Likewise, the contemporary tradition of the White House Correspondent’s Dinner features a roast of the current president, who is typically present at the event and is expected to laugh at jokes told at their expense about the president’s handling of serious current events. The president, in turn, makes humorous jabs at the press.

Sometimes comedy is a way of managing emotions with others. “Gallows humor” is a way of dealing with death or difficult situations. When my grandmother was dying and people came to visit her to say their goodbyes, the mood was understandably heavy. Observing this, she said, “don’t be sad…but don’t be too happy either!” The moment of laughter provided some relief at a difficult time.

In this famous scene from a 1975 episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, we see how the characters’ jokes about the deceased “Chuckles the Clown” opens up a space for them to joke about their own and each other’s mortality:

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  1. Context matters

You may have heard the phrase “tragedy plus time equals comedy” or heard a comedian telling a joke about a historical event, perhaps the Lincoln assassination, and if it falls flat say “too soon?”

This aspect of comedy reminds us that jokes are considered funny or not in a particular context. Beyond our individual backgrounds, the meaning of humor changes based on time and location. A joke told at a funeral might take on an entirely different meaning than one told at a bar or a party.

The people around us may also impact how we interpret the meanings of jokes. Ever hear someone tell a dirty joke when your parents are around? It might feel less funny in that moment. Jokes between like-minded friends of a similar background and age group might have a better chance of going over well than those with people that we are less familiar with.

We have probably all felt the awkwardness of telling what we thought was a joke and regretting it later. When I was in high school, my friend and I were walking when the boy she liked drove by and asked if we wanted a ride. She was so nervous she said nothing once we were in the car, and maybe he was nervous too because moments later he got in a minor fender bender, rear-ending the car in front of us. I (stupidly) tried to lighten the mood with a joke about paying him for the ride if he didn’t hit any other cars for the rest of the trip.

He didn’t laugh. My friend was angry with me later. But now, decades later, I don’t know…kind of funny?

Comedy is a deeply social process. What is funny, when, and to whom, are all rooted in the social context and how we collectively create meanings. Can a joke ever just be a joke? Maybe, but if other people laugh, it has social meaning.

What else does comedy teach us about sociology?

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