The Anatomy of a Joke

This blog considers the use of ‘humour’ as an excuse for offensive and discriminatory statements. It looks at how jokes are constructed, how they are told, and what makes them funny. Throughout this the importance of subverting power dynamics is highlighted as a key factor in the use of humour around dark or emotive subjects, and the distinction between a joke and an offensive statement is defined.

I’m writing this blog because I’m really sick of ‘humour’ being used as an excuse. I am so tired of being told that my criticisms are just a manifestation of a ‘humourless’ nature, that I just “don’t get it”. A lot of the time these accusations are made by people who don’t know me, who I’ve argued with via twitter or through other sites. So, let me tell you a little bit about me. I love comedy. I spend much of my free time watching television comedy, listening to radio comedy and podcasts, and much of my limited spare cash on visiting comedy clubs and going to stand up/impro gigs. I buy and listen to old stand up/ sketch recordings, and can often be found trawling through youtube videos of whatever comedian I’ve recently discovered, or am currently re-watching. So I think it’s fair to say I quite like a laugh, even allowing for subjective differences in taste.

I’m painfully aware, as I set out to write this, of the E.B. White quote:

“Analyzing humour is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies.”

And yet right now I feel such a dissection is necessary. In order to better explain myself I’ve used a few jokes to illustrate my points, and I can only apologise for their imminent deaths. I do not believe I am one of the ‘PC brigade’, I do not believe I am humourless, and I am quite certain that I can take a joke. And I refuse to let my opinions, and indeed those of many others, be dismissed on such false terms. The people who call us humourless do so simply to drown out criticism. If it’s “just a joke” no deeper consideration is needed: You can carry on as before. You, your opinions and behaviour are absolutely fine, anyone who disagrees is humourless. Quick defence, easy dismissal, now how about some more banter? Except using this rebuttal usually means the ‘joker’ has absolutely no understanding of humour whatsoever.

So let me spell it out for you.

Social and Cultural Context

There’s a reason why not all jokes travel, both geographically and through time, and why much can get lost in translation.

A shared social context allows for instant recognition, and thus the set up is easily achieved without a lengthy explanation that would damage the joke or give a hint at the punch line. This also goes some way to explain why so many jokes have the same set up, e.g. “three men go into a pub…” – it makes it instantly recognisable as a joke.

Observational comedy in particular is reliant on this shared context. And the popularity of such comedians demonstrates how shared social and cultural norms can be a rich resource for comedy. In the UK, the two biggest selling comedians of recent years, Peter Kay and Michael McIntyre, have drawn heavily upon experiences common to their audiences. While the ‘safety’ of their acts is often the subject of derision, they still contain a subtle balancing of power. When McIntyre or Kay point out the absurdities of everyday life they are including themselves as the subject to be laughed at. They are not selecting weak targets, but making the broadest swipe, showing how the most stupid of actions and comments are commonly shared. Everyone gets mocked, but no one is belittled.

Of course, Kay and McIntyre are typically ‘safe’ comedians, their acts are never going to stray into controversial territory. However, my point here is to note the stark contrast between them, as hugely popular comedians, and the once also popular Bernard Manning (and others like him), who defended his racist and misogynist act with the claim that he made jokes about everybody – everybody except white working class Mancunians of course, his local audience.

The content of popular comedians’ acts has thus undergone a dramatic transformation.  Comedy has reflected the sea-change in social attitudes. While Manning certainly had contemporaries who rejected discriminatory content, they were predominantly ‘establishment’ comedians (i.e. alumni of Oxbridge and/or the Footlights) and thus they were not direct competitors. It was not until the late 1970s and 1980s, with the arrival of the alternative comedy circuit at London’s Comedy Store, that traditional club based comedy began to change.

The alternative comedy scene arose and defined itself by rejecting jokes that relied upon racist and sexist stereotypes, as well as rejecting the traditional joke format. And it did so in direct opposition to club based comedians such as Manning. Stand up comedy became free in form, aggressively challenging the audiences’ beliefs and expectations. Their rejection of bigoted stereotypes did not mean the subject matter of comedy dwindled – far from it. Using some of the best known alternative comics as examples, French and Saunders took spoof/parody to new self-referential levels; Mayall and Edmondson increasingly tested the limits of slapstick; and Ben Elton and Alexei Sayle injected satire with a previously unseen savagery (before the former sold out in the most spectacular fashion). Alternative comedy thus demonstrated that comedy could keep pace with social change; and such was their influence the alternative style became the mainstream.

The most important change that alternative comedy made was in regard to power dynamics. From Manning and his ilk laughing at those who were different, the alternative scene revelled in being outsiders. Their comedy, when not targeted inwardly, was directed at those in positions of power, such as this quip by Linda Smith, after being told not to give Jeffrey Archer the oxygen of publicity:

“I’m not that happy with him having the oxygen of oxygen, actually.”

While satire has always been a mainstay of British comedy, in the 1980s it became almost ubiquitous: Spitting Image, Not the Nine o’Clock News, Yes Minister, Have I Got News for You, the Comic Strip… all appeared from 1979 onwards and have been massively influential.

Shock and Surprise, Intellect and Emotion

The basic joke is best explained as two parallel stories. The comedian tells the beginning of one story and then subverts the audience’s expectations by finishing it with the end of another story. The punch line forces you to reassess the set up. For example, this joke from Ava Vidal:

“Other people criticised [Madonna’s adoption] and say ‘well what she’s actually done is gone to Africa and buy a black child for 1.5 million pounds… surely you find that offensive?’ I was like ‘well not really, I find it exciting – I’ve got two black kids at home’”

The humour comes from the surprise, and such a set up is also the basis for much shock humour. However, if the shock isn’t the unexpected ‘second story’, if the ‘first story’ is the only story, shocking only because voicing such a statement breaks social convention, it is questionable whether it’s a joke at all.

This is not to say that humour cannot be truthful, quite the opposite in fact. But humour reveals truth through dissonance; in the standard joke formula this dissonance is between the two parallel stories, exposing the audiences’ assumptions as problematic. Whereas in ‘jokes’ comprised of just one shocking story, the statement of truth merely provides the audience with the expected payoff, i.e. “(s)he said what we were all thinking”, a payoff that serves to reaffirm their expectations and thus reveals nothing.

Such a reaffirmation also serves to reinforce power structures, and such ‘jokes’ thus contribute to the acceptance of prejudicial and discriminatory views – rather than revealing truth it repeats (often bigoted) bias. By contrast, subversive comedy challenges power dynamics, undermines the status quo and gives power to the powerless – by doing so it can reveal a multitude of truths, including the uncomfortable realisation that you, as the audience, had subconsciously assumed an ending that opposes your consciously held views.

Where dissonance tests assumptions, requires logical leaps and can lead to the questioning of prior views, the affirmation of assumptions satiates the ego, allowing the listener to feel superior to those the joke targets. By taking this into consideration it is easy to see how the ‘one story’ joke feeds into stereotypes and prejudice.  There is, for example, no rational argument for misogyny – hatred tends to be an irrational emotion – and so a ‘joke’ such as this one:

“Uni Lad does not condone rape without saying ‘surprise’”

recently featured on (the now offline) Unilad.com, as a disclaimer to an article which stated:

“If the girl you’ve taken for a drink…won’t ‘spread for your head,’ think about this mathematical statistic: 85% of rape cases go unreported.  That seems to be fairly good odds.”

fails to be funny because it simply reiterates the rape advocating misogyny of the article’s author. This is not to say that no one finds Uni Lad funny, evidently they do, with the defence of ‘banter’ invoked almost continually (along with threats of violence against the women complaining, and homophobic taunts to the men who agreed with them). But this ‘humour’ is in-group, self aggrandising, and ego stroking; it is used to create a feeling of group superiority and it is done by spreading hatred of those on the outside.

While I’m perfectly willing to accept that many of the Uni Lad users, and even the site administrators, are genuinely ‘joking’ (in the sense that they would not actually commit rape), their ‘jokes’ normalise misogyny, and ensure that those men who have raped and those who would rape believe that this is normal and acceptable. In the UK, statistics show that on average a woman gets raped every six minutes. These ‘jokes’ foster an attitude of acceptance of a crime that ruins lives on a daily basis; there is no subversion, no intellectual defence, and no shock – it is laughing at the reality of violence perpetrated against women, and actively encouraging it.

It is important to state here that the rejection of the above does not mean a rejection of all potentially offensive jokes. Or of all jokes that have emotional content. But they must be more and do more than shock.

So Dylan Moran can talk about the child abuse committed by the church in Ireland, despite the emotional content, because he can subvert our intellectual expectations.

“Speaking as one of my peer group who wasn’t abused… I used to think there was something wrong with me. I used to show up to school in hot-pants.”

The leap between the two stories is a logical one, and the shock is not of emotion but of intellect, requiring you to reassess your interpretation of the story.

And, to be perfectly clear – and to pre-empt criticisms that I’m only angered by Uni Lad’s content because I’m a woman and the offensiveness is aimed at women – here are some words from Reginald D Hunter:

“I do jokes about everything but one of the reasons I might make a joke involving rape is that I’m tired of the word just being used to scaremonger. I was walking into a tube station in London… a big old poster in the entrance had a picture of a frazzled looking white woman, and a caption that read: ‘If you want to know how much an illegal taxi would cost, just ask a rape victim’… I stared at that thing for 15 minutes thinking: ‘of all the things I thought I’d ever ask a rape victim’… ‘uh excuse me ma’am, I can see you’ve just been raped, but I’m trying to get to Walthamstow down to Crystal Palace…’”

Like the Dylan Moran joke, this also covers an emotive subject by engaging the intellect. Hunter’s stress that he does jokes that involve rape is one that makes clear the distinction he has with this compared to jokes about rape. He is not joking about the act, he is not making light of the trauma or of the attack. He is not mocking the victim. Instead he challenges the logic of a victim-blaming poster campaign, and his literalist interpretation of the caption makes him the butt of the joke.

Once again power dynamics are all important. Humour relies on the subversion of power structures. Offensive statements simply recreate them.

Tension, Timing and Exaggeration

Good timing helps create tension, and the relief when the tension is broken causes a bigger laugh. One of the best comedians at creating tension is Stewart Lee, with recurring and repetitive lines dominating much of his act. Though Stewart Lee has taken this tension to an extreme, it is also evident in far ‘quicker’ comedy, with well timed pauses of great importance.

A pause often denotes when the ‘stories’ are about to switch, either from an innocent set up to a shocking punch line, or from a tense set up to an innocent and subversive punch line. Obviously the power of a well timed pause is difficult to communicate in writing, but this joke, by Emo Philips (whose on-stage persona is naive and childlike), helps demonstrate how tension is built quickly

“I love to go down to the schoolyard and watch all the little children jump up and down and run around yelling and screaming… They don’t know I’m only using blanks.”

You know that a punchline is due, and so the pause after the set up creates a tension – you know that all isn’t as it seems, but the reason why is unclear. So when the punchline comes, the juxtaposition of your assumption – whether that’s the innocence of children at play, or the expectation of a paedophile joke – with the realisation only on the very last word that you have been misled, immediately and decisively breaks the tension.

By using the two-story formula to subvert expectations (enhanced by his on-stage persona), and by creating an absurd scenario (i.e. the content is not a description of an everyday event), the joke still works despite breaking the ‘rule’ of subverting power dynamics, i.e. the power is very much with an adult over a group of children, and yet the humour is still apparent.

This is both because of the two story subversion and the unfamiliarity of the scenario: it is not instantly recognisable as an everyday event – you do not read daily news reports of children being shot or being fooled into believing they are being shot at. And if this joke were to immediately follow such an event, or to refer to a specific tragedy, or be told within a social context in which such an event (whether real of faked) had occurred, then it would lose its humour. The familiar context would render it one story and negate the absurdity.

Thus for those who might call me humourless, please note that I am not demanding that these ‘rules’ of comedy go unbroken. Breaking them can be incredibly effective. But if you break them all at once, if you ignore every element that is used in the construction of a joke, then you’ve quite possibly simply made a statement of intent. The statement might be hyperbolic, you may not mean what you say, but you reaffirm damaging power structures, you encourage the continued victimisation and marginalisation of the ‘other’, and you may cause real emotional torment.  It’s not that I don’t get the joke. It’s that you’re not fucking funny.

Conclusion

So now that the frog has been dissected, now that it has been demonstrated that laughing at someone does not necessarily make it a joke, maybe the criticisms of ‘banter’ will make more sense. It is not humourless to object to a ‘joke’ that derides the powerless. To claim otherwise is to demonstrate a lack of understanding of what actually constitutes humour, and to reinforce oppressive structures.

The ‘rules’ of humour, as outlined above, are not sacrosanct; they can be broken in imaginative, clever, and very funny ways. But you have to understand the ‘rules’ in order to break them – if you don’t know how to put a joke together, you can’t possibly know what to leave out and/or when to do so. And if you ignore this and continue to belittle people, if you continue to defend discriminatory, offensive, small-minded, and humourless banter, then you’re a cunt. And if that offends you, well “it’s just a joke”.

Sources

Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greaves, How to be Funny 

Tumblr Blog, Uni Lad Mag Evidence 

9 Comments

Filed under Writing

9 responses to “The Anatomy of a Joke

  1. Very good piece: completely agree.

  2. Pingback: Why rape jokes aren’t funny: the science « Another angry woman

  3. This is a good blog post. I agree wholly.

  4. Rosy

    Agree with all of this except the bit about Peter Kay. His “Geraldine McQueen” thing relied on trans misogynistic tropes and poked fun not at himself, but at transsexual women, a minority (and often heavily oppressed) group.

  5. Thanks for comments.
    Rosy – I haven’t seen the Geraldine McQueen stuff, was thinking of his stand up rather than his character work. But yes, am sure you’re right.

  6. Thank you for this amazing post!

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  9. Pingback: Misogyny | Warning! Contents may be hot

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