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What is the significance of humour in life? What are the limits of humour? What do we laugh at and when should the laughter stop?


The aim of this essay is too determine the significance of humour in life. To establish what things we laugh at and discuss if there is a limit to humour. Is there a point when the laughter becomes a mockery of a serious social and political issue?


Primarily I will investigate the theories of humour and laughter, then focus on the limits of humour and if there is a point when the laughter should stop.


After reading various researches on humour I have discovered it is very difficult to define the concept satisfactorily. Goldstein and McGhee (171) believe that humour cannot be defined “…for the simple reason that there is no single definition of humour acceptable to all investigators in the area”. There are sociologists and anthropologists who look at the social processes by which humour occurs and psychologists who look for the mental processes which occur in the production or reception of humour. Palmer (1458) states “ It is not essential to believe in a universal purpose of humour in order to define it functionally… many analyses find particular functions for humour in particular social circumstances”. Each area of study finds various explanations for the functions of humour. An example of this is Powell (18) who sees humour “…as a form of the social control of deviance”. Powell believes people who are deviant are responded to with humour. For example, if somebody has bad manners or eccentric behaviour they will be laughed and become the ‘butt’ of peoples jokes.


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There are many different theories for humour and the functions of humour that are all specific to different areas of study. It is not possible to list all the possibilities. When trying to explain humour Palmer (14) uses the simple explanation that “humour is anything actually or potentially funny”. For the purpose of this essay, Palmers statement provides a sufficient understanding of what humour is.


For most studies on humour the word laughter has been used extensively. Apte (18514) says, “ laughter and smiling are probably the most overt indicators of the humour experience”. There is a definite link between humour and laughter “… the two seem to have a cause � effect relationship or a stimulus- response relationship in many social situations”. However not every instance of laughter is a result of humour. There are other reasons behind laughter such as sheer joy and happiness. Darwin (187/16516) stated that “ laughter seemed primarily too express mere joy”. As evidence for this he provided the fact that idiots and imbeciles laughed in a senseless manner without any external stimuli. He claimed that such individuals merely “…feel pleasure and express it by laughter and smiles”. He also considers that “ tickling, crying and other non joyous emotions can be the causes of laughter”.


There are many reasons why people laugh, a main one being the cause and effect relationship it has with humour.


Is there a limit to humour? Is there a point when the humour is no longer funny and becomes offensive? In my opinion there is a fine line between humour and offence. The following case study illustrates my point. Taken from Palmer


(1416). A joke turned into a very serious issue.


In 14 in the former British colony of Tanganyika (now Tanzania) a joke turned into a court case (Pedler 140). A woman from the Situma tribe lodged a complaint in the British run court about a man from the Zaramu tribe, who had pushed her to the ground and manhandled her. The man admitted the act but claimed in his defence that she was his joking partner, that he had already behaved in the same way with her before and that therefore the act was a joke and not an assault. It was established in court that the two tribes were indeed in a joking relationship with each other. The court found the act was indeed an assault, but that the nature of the joking relationship was a mitigating factor.


In this case study, was it right that the woman who always joked with the man could suddenly regard the act against her offensive? The incident took place in a crowded town and not a typical African village. Palmer (14164) believes “the circumstances of the event were responsible”. The joke took place in front of people who do not follow the tribes culture and so the woman was afraid of the outsider’s reaction and cried assult. In conclusion to this case study, humour became offensive because of the social circumstances of the event. Humour can be regarded as offensive in cultures and societies that do not regard it as normal behaviour.


Various societies and cultures use other cultures as the ‘butt’ of their jokes. For example, the English will always joke about the Irish and the blacks in Ethiopia will always be the subjects of jokes in most western countries. Palmer (146) believes “what these different identities establish is that any group will do as the butt, provided it can plausibly be regarded as outside the ‘mainstream’ of the culture in question”. In my opinion, people like to joke and laugh about beliefs and situations outside there own culture because it gives them a sense of structure in their own society.


This does not necessarily mean it is acceptable to laugh at humour concerning serious social and political issues. A good example of the limits of humour is the cult character Ali G. Ali G is an uneducated, drug taking Black man played by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. The Guardian (1/01/00) “There’s no doubt Ali G is funny, but are we all laughing for the same reasons? Is Ali G offensive?” Everybody seems to agree that Ali G is funny, even his critics who think he is racist.


Sacha Baron Cohen is a Cambridge educated, well spoken, Jewish white man who impersonates a black man who is arrogant and takes drugs. He interrogates the rich, famous and influential and gets away with it. The Guardian (1/01/00) says “…he stands on a precipice, on the one side is the relatively steady ground of alternative comedy on the other is the sheer drop into racist buffoonery”. Many black comedians have taken offence to Ali G, comedian Chris Walker has described Ali G as “ offensive” comparing him to Al Jolson and a 150’s style of comedy entertainment. “He’s dishing out all the clich�s and stereotypical language. I find it degrading and sad that this is what catches peoples attention. I don’t like the concept of a white guy playing a black guy”. A major concern raised from Ali G is racism. Are people laughing at black street culture? People such as comedian Richard Blackwood are concerned that Ali G is giving the wrong impression of black men. He believes “ too many people are left thinking that is how black people chat to one another, that they are ignorant and don’t know about world issues”. The argument for Ali G is that he is a white man pretending to be black. The humour comes from a white man trying to be black; therefore the humour is not racist but white people laughing at a white man. Whether people think Ali G is a genius or a racist, everybody thinks he is funny. It is difficult to determine if it is wrong to laugh at him. Kamal Mustapha (The guardian 1/1/00) “ If I can’t laugh at Ali G then I don’t think I have the right to laugh at all”.


The recent terrorist attacks in America provide another example of whether there is a limit to humour. The events, which unfolded on September the 11th 001, left the world in shock. However it was not long before jokes, limericks and ‘funny’ short stories began to appear on the Internet. Comedians on shows such as Saturday Night Live (American television) gradually began to use jokes about terrorism. From personal experiences I can state that even people in chat rooms are joking with one another about the tragedy. Jokes such as ‘Early to rise, early to bed, makes a man healthy, wealthy and dead’, are circulating on the Internet. Is this unacceptable behaviour in the light of what happened in America? On a message board on the Internet, www.terrypratchetbooks.com (PG 7) readers have written their responses to jokes about the terror attacks on America. Dingo (1//01) states that “ people deal with grief in their own way”. Emmett-The-Sane (1//01 says “I feel that humour is the most important building block of the metaverse…I think bad taste is necessary to get through something like this. Sometimes you have to internalise it until the people it affects more than you can laugh about it, but you still have to laugh by yourself”. In my opinion the humour is needed in this situation to balance peoples feelings. The mood of most people who saw the terror attacks was very sombre and depressing for days afterwards. The humorous jokes and stories need to circulate so people can cope with the feelings of depression, anger and fear. They help to bring back a sense of normality. Humour is also used in this situation to control fearful feelings of what might happen next in the current war.


To conclude, “ the human species is the only species that laughs” Palmer (1457). Therefore, it is significant to humans and must have a purpose. Palmer (1457) sees humour as part of our species adaptation to its environment”. For example we need to be able to laugh at various events such as the terror attacks on America so we can accept the incident has happened and move on, adapt to life after such an atrocity.


Although sometimes it is not appropriate to laugh at something, it is a necessity in order to deal with certain emotions and situations.


Is there a limit to humour when it concerns serious political and social issues? The example of Ali G provided an example of racism in humour, however even his critics believe he is very funny. Laughing is inevitable.


Palmer (1457) “the more we laugh the more we see the point of things, the better we are, the cleverer we are at reconsidering what the world is like”.





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