Co-Constructed Humor: a new Kind of Play for Adults

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Co-Constructed Humor: A New Kind of Play for Adults

  • By Alleen Pace Nilsen, and
  • Don L. F. Nilsen

Different Types of Play

Play vs. Language Play


The Joker at Comic Con


Captain America, Wolverine and Spiderman at Comic Con in Washington, DC

Academic Administrators Using Hot Potato Metaphors

  • At a high level meeting of academic administrators, we saw the decision to turn down a request for a program in the raising and training of race-horses.
  • The discussion was negatively influenced by humorous comments made from the participants who were seated around a table making such unbridled comments as:
  • “Whoa!”
  • “Hold on; this is going way too fast,”
  • “We don’t want to stirrup that much trouble,” and
  • “Let’s not saddle ourselves with a risky bet.”

Batman, Robin, Wonderwoman and Superman at Comic Con


Business Colleagues Re-Decorating Offices

  • In the business world, the new trend is to re-decocrate colleagues’ offices or cubicles while they are off on vacation or on a business trip.
  • More than one person reported filling a cubicle with Styrofoam packing foam…,
  • While one person confessed to hacking into a neighbor’s computer and putting “questionable” wallpaper on the screen saver.
  • In one large office where the boss was gone on a month-long trip to Asia, fellow workers brought in sod and laid it on the floor of his office to show that indeed grass had grown under his feet.

Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman, The Green Lantern, and The Flash on The Big Bang


Star Trek Fans (Trekkies)


Harry Potter Fan Conference Phoenix Rising: Between Book 6 & Book 7 in New Orleans, Louisiana: Women and Co-Constructed Language

Party Atmospheres: Sights, Sounds, Tastes, Touches, and Smells

  • Commercial interests are desperately hunting for ways to get customers to play along with their advertising gimmicks, as when on the big shopping day after Thanksgiving, stores opened their doors at midnight or at 4:00 a.m. and tried for a party atmosphere by serving coffee and doughnuts to those waiting in line.
  • Some stores distributed “scratcher” cards to get the people excited about personalized discounts.
  • At an animated movie for kids, viewers were given “scratch-and-sniff” cards with ten numbers. They were told that if they scratched off the number when it was shown on the screen they would get a smell that would make them feel like they were part of the action.

Captionless Cartoons for Reader Suggestions

  • Publications, ranging from our local Arizona Republic newspaper to the New Yorker magazine regularly print cartoons with neither captions, nor words in the speech bubbles. Readers are asked to suggest the cutline or the dialogue.
  • The week before Thanksgiving our local paper printed a Steve Benson drawing of a gorgeous turkey with its head on a chopping block in the shape of Arizona.
  • Nearly five hundred readers (487) sent in suggestions for the caption. Of the six that were printed, four were about politics, one was a pun, and the other was an allusion to the advertising jingle, “I wish I were an Oscar Meyer Wiener.”

Internet Interactive Humor

  • The internet has also contributed to the desire for co-created or group humor.
  • For example, the speed with which new jokes can be sent around the world, along with how easily people can now find jokes on any subject, detracts from the value of traditional or “canned” jokes.
  • But in contrast, there are many new forms of humor, such as the photo-stories on Youtube, the continuing jokes (many of which come in the form of lists) created on Twitter and on various websites, and the humorous little essays and collections of photos that people often adapt or add to before forwarding to friends.

Academic “Factoids”

  • Because our academic area is linguistics, we are especially interested in the essays that are supposedly giving intriguing “facts” about the English language and the history of certain words.
  • A columnist for our local newspaper called one such essay “Historical Hooey.”


  • These factoids are like urban legends in that they have what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness.” We know enough about some of the words being explained to know that whoever writes them puts more value on the humor than on the truth.
  • We are left wondering whether students, friends, and relatives who forward them to us, do so because they are thinking of our interest in humor or because they are thinking of us as linguists interested in the history of English.

Shakespeare’s Plays

Attending a Harry Potter Conference: Men’s Discourse vs. Women’s Discourse

  • In 2006 J. K. Rowling had published six of her Harry Potter books, and her seventh book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was scheduled to appear in 2007.
  • Therefore, in 2006, there was a “Harry Potter” Fan Conference held in New Orleans, Louisiana in which the participants were expected to discuss and evaluate the first six books, and speculate about the final book in the series—How would it end. Who are the real villains and heroes, etc.?
  • Alleen and Don attended that conference, and Don learned an important difference between men’s discourse strategies and women’s discourse strategies.

Women tend to construct their discourses

  • Don knew that when men are in social situations, they tend to hold the floor and lecture to the social group.
  • But what Don learned is that when women are in social situations, they tend to share the floor, and construct the text.
  • Don also learned that in order to do this, women have to be good listeners.
  • We’re now applying these new insights to the interaction and con-construction of the new kinds of humor that we are now witnessing not only in social groups, but also in social networking on-line.
  • Please share with us some examples of these types of interactive humor. Thanks.
  • Trampoline Play on “Britain’s Got Talent”:

So what is “play” all about?

  • One person works while another person plays.
  • Or a person can play a musical instrument.
  • Or a person can play football or basketball.
  • Or a people can play certain roles in a play.
  • Or people can play card games or board games.
  • Or a person can play the piano or the drums.
  • Even animals can play. But try to figure out the next two slides.

What are these people doing?

They’re “Tebowing” based on Tim Tebow’s Touchdown Celebrations

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