Humor and sociology by Don L. F. Nilsen and Alleen Pace Nilsen Four Social Functions of Humor

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  • by Don L. F. Nilsen
  • and Alleen Pace Nilsen

Four Social Functions of Humor

  • Meaning Making
  • Hierarchy Building
  • Cohesion Building
  • Tension Relief
  • (Kuipers 367)

Humor for Group Solidarity and for Discrimination

  • Humor “‘breaks the ice’ between strangers, unites people in different hierarchical positions, and creates a sense of shared ‘conspiracy’ in the context of illicit activities like gossiping or joking about superiors.”
  • “The flip side of this inclusive function of humor is exclusion. Those who do not join in the laughter, because they do not get the joke, or even worse, because the joke targets them, will feel left out, shamed, or ridiculed.”
  • (Kuipers 366)

Social Control Theory

  • “Very recently, social control theory has been revived by Michael Billig, who in Laughter and Ridicule (2005) puts forward a theory of humor as a social correctie, closelyl lilnked with embarrassment, arguing that “ridicule, far from being a detachable negative, lies at the heart of humor.”
  • (Billig (2005): 190)
  • (Kuipers (2008) 365)

Humor as a Social System

  • Mahadev Apte said, “joking relationships…manifest a consciousness of group identity or solidarity” (1985, 66).
  • David Viktoroff said, “One never laughs alone—laughter is always the laughter of a particular social group” (1953, 14).
  • Henri Bergson called humor a “social corrective..intended to humiliate.” There is no interaction for Bergson; humor is one-sided: those who laugh and those who are lauged at. (Carroll in Raskin [2008] 305).

Gendered Humor

  • Thomas and Inger Burns worked with 11 informants who encountered the same joke:
  • “A newlywed couple agrees to refer to sexual intercourse as ‘doing the wash.’ One night the man turns to his wife in bed and suggests they ‘do the wash.’ The wife refuses. Later she reconsiders and consents to ‘do the wash,” whereupon the husband replies: ‘Oh, it’s all right. It was a small load and I did it by hand’” (Oring [2008] 201).

Informants were asked to comment on the actions in the joke, viz., the use of a euphemism for sex, the husband’s request for sex, the wife’s refusal, the wife’s subsequent acquiescence, and the husband’s recourse to masturbation.

  • Informants were asked to comment on the actions in the joke, viz., the use of a euphemism for sex, the husband’s request for sex, the wife’s refusal, the wife’s subsequent acquiescence, and the husband’s recourse to masturbation.
  • The point of the study was to explore the ways that these individual tellers related to the various aspects of the joke and to ascertain the joke’s psychological and social functions.
  • The responses told a great deal about the listeners’ personalities. (Oring [2008] 201)

The Humane Humor Rules

  • 1. Never target an attribute that cannot be changed. (But this can be used as a manipulation device)
  • 2. Target yourself (this is called self-depricating humor)
  • 3. Target your own ethnic group or gender, but no other ethnic group or gender (Consider “Embodiment”)
  • 3. Never target the victim
  • 4. Always target a strength (NOTE: Teasing and Verbal Competition are empowering devices)

The People of the Joke

  • The Scots became “the people of the joke” at about the same time as or slightly earlier than the Jews.
  • These Scottish jokes were about the canny Scotsman who was covetous, argumentative, and obsessed with keeping the Sabbath.
  • But in fact these jokes were told by Scots about Scots. They are therefore self-mocking in tone. (Davies [2008]: 175)

The Jews and the Scots

  • What the Jews and the Scots have in common is a sense of double identity.
  • They are both grounded in their religious tradition, and love to argue for the sake of argument.
  • “From this arose the Jewish and Scottish pre-eminence in physics, philosophy and economics and in jokes that no other small nation can match” (Davies [2008]: 176).

Comedy Teams

  • 43 out of the 500 entries in Ronald L. Smith’s Who’s Who in Comedy are about comedy teams. There are many reasons for this high number:
  • Teams are often more recognized and more memorable than are the individuals who make up the teams.

Good “chemistry” enhances creativity and enjoyment.

  • Good “chemistry” enhances creativity and enjoyment.
  • Through interacting with each other, team members can revitalize old gags.
  • Differing appearances, personalities and voices provide for contrast and for the efficient creation of stock characters.
  • With teams, audiences can enjoy both surprise and anticipation because while teams do new material they usually have a style that carries over from one performance to another.
  • (Nilsen & Nilsen 82)

The Dyadic Tradition

  • This is a term coined by Elliott Oring to refer to the special joking relationship enjoyed by couples, siblings or close friends.
  • “Dyadic traditions are largely humorous and much of that humor involves insult, abuse, or references to re-creations of shared, unpleasant experiences” (Oring [2008] 188).

Gender Issues

  • A. J. M. Sykes noted that obscene joking was acceptable between the sexes when the jokers are not danger of a real sexual relationship as with old men and very young women, or old women and much younger men.
  • “The sexually possible relationships between men and women of the same age group were marked by modesty and restraint” (Oring (2008) 186)


  • “The Brothers Grimm included comic tales in their famous collection of Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales).”
  • “Jokes and anecdotes comprised approximately a third of the tale type in Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson’s index The Types of the Folktale.”
  • “Since the early 1960s, folklorists have been documenting, analyzing, and interpreting the jokes and joke cycles that have come to dominate oral expression in contemporary society.”
  • (Oring [2008] 192-193)

Joke Cycles

  • Elephant Jokes
    • How do you know if an elephant has been in your refrigerator?
    • There are footprints on the marshmallows.
  • Dead Baby Jokes
    • What is red and sits in the corner?
    • A baby chewing on razor blades.
  • Alan Dundes says that such jokes show a hostility and resentment against babies that resulted in the contraception and abortions from the 1960s to the 1980s, when the joke cycle ended (Dundes [1987] 3-14).

Dumb blonde jokes

    • Dumb blonde jokes
    • Stupid Jokes
    • Promiscuous Jokes
    • Sick Jokes
    • Challenger Jokes
    • Polish Jokes
    • Jewish American Mother Jokes
    • Jewish American Princess Jokes
    • Lightbulb Jokes
    • Urban Legends
    • Tall Tales
  • Christie Davies (1990) showed that such jokes are not told about our adversaries, but are told about groups that are peripheral to the mainstream: in terms of geography, ethnicity, or economics (Oring [2008] 194).


  • The Jewish American Princess is portrayed as “spoiled, self-centered, materialistic, excessively concerned about her appearance, and indifferent to sex and the needs of her family.”
  • In contrast, the Jewish American Mother is portrayed as “over-solicitous of her children; she is ever concerned with their feeding and health; she suffers for them and enjoys her martyr role; and she looks forward to nothing so much as the attention and appreciation of her children” (Oring [2008] 203).

Challenger Jokes

  • “Challenger jokes did not appear all at once, but in stages. The weeks following the explosion of the shuttle on 28 January, 1986, jokes appeared on three different college campuses that focused on the acronym NASA (e.g. Need Another Seven Astronauts), on Bud Light (e.g. they found the flight recorder and all that was on it was, “no, Bud Light,” and on Christa McAuliff’s last words (“What’s this button for?).”
  • “The jokes signaled a move towards closure; meaning a willingness to bring the tragedy back to private discourse” (Oring [2008] 196).

Alan Dundes’ “Cathartic Theory”

  • Dundes views sexual and aggressive joking as cathartic.
  • People use joking to express their repressed sexual and aggressive wishes.
  • The cathartic theory of joking can also be applied to Auschwitz jokes, quadriplegic jokes, and Helen Keller jokes (Oring [2008] 193).

Keying Jokes

  • “Keying” refers to the words, actions and props that identify telling a joke as “performance.” Parties and roasts can be considered to be “joke places.”
  • “Jokes may also be keyed by
    • stereotypical actors and locales (“Guy goes into a bar…”);
    • a pervasive present tense (“asks the bartender for a martini…”);
    • formulaic introductions (“Have you heard the one about…”);
    • appeals to tradition (“Here’s an old chestnut…”);
    • and disclaimers (“My husband is the joke teller in the family, but...)” (Oring [2008] 200).

Late-Night Humor

  • “Alf Walle (1976) studied a diner in upstate New York and focused on the dynamics of joking during the period of 12:45 to 2:00 A.M.”
  • “Many bars in the immediate area of the diner closed at 1:00 A.M. and waitresses who began work the previous evening got off at 1:30 A.M.”
  • So this period, known locally as ‘the bar rush,’ was the period in which men from the bars went to try and pick up waitresses who were getting off from work” (Oring [2008] 199)

“The jokes provided a way for customers to test the availability of waitresses without risking a personal rejection.”

  • “The jokes provided a way for customers to test the availability of waitresses without risking a personal rejection.”
  • “Similarly, waitresses could encourage someone they were interested in or discourage others without having to entertain or reject explicit sexual overtures.”
  • “Thus joking in the social context of the bar rush was a coded communication about intimacy and sexual availability” (Oring [2008] 200).


  • “Play is not the opposite of seriousness.”
  • “The comic in ritual is not comic relief; it is another system of signification that speaks to, against, and with the serious one.” (Oring [2008] 189)

“Carnivals can be affairs of great seriousness requiring enormous discipline, expenditure, and even pain.”

  • “Carnivals can be affairs of great seriousness requiring enormous discipline, expenditure, and even pain.”
  • “The preparation for Carnival goes on throughout the year, and these preparations are not something apart from the festive celebration itself”
  • But sometimes “carnival” goes too far.
  • Some members of the Lutheran congregation use the term “chancel prancers” to label and criticize those members who take delight in “high church” and Catholic-like ritual behaviors (Oring [2008] 190).

Police Humor

  • When California police office Adelle Roberts got out of her squad car to deal with a domestic dispute she heard yelling and things being thrown against the wall inside.
  • Then a portable TV set cam crashing through the front window.
  • She knocked very loudly and a voice inside asked, “Who is it?”
  • “TV repair” Adelle responded, and the husband and wife caught onto the humor and came to the door smiling.
  • (Morreall [2008] 240)

Political Humor

  • “It is difficult to make stupidity jokes about a democratic leader with a popular mandate because it would imply that the people rather than the system were stupid since they put him there.
  • Therefore, mass joking about the stupidity of politicians normally doesn’t exist in Western democracies

There is, however, joking about Sir Alec Douglas-Home (British Prime Minister 1963-4), President Gerald Ford, Vice-President Dan Quayle, President George “Dubya” Bush, and Governor Evan Mecham.

  • There is, however, joking about Sir Alec Douglas-Home (British Prime Minister 1963-4), President Gerald Ford, Vice-President Dan Quayle, President George “Dubya” Bush, and Governor Evan Mecham.
  • What they have in ;common is that they were not elected in the usual way, and lost legitimacy as a consequence.
  • (Davies (2008): 171)

Practical Jokes

  • Some practical jokes become institutionalized:
    • April Fool Jokes
    • Halloween Trick-Or-Treat Jokes
    • The Snipe Hunt
    • The Farm Animal in the Classroom
    • The Animated Corpse
    • Video Clips: Piano, Squirril

!Practical jokes occur during particular times of the year (April Fool’s Day, Halloween).

  • !Practical jokes occur during particular times of the year (April Fool’s Day, Halloween).
  • They occur during certain events (Initiations, Weddings, Wakes)
  • Certain groups are prone to practical jokes (students, males, fraternity or sorority friends)
  • They are a means of social control, social resistance, and folk aesthetics.
  • (Oring (2008) 187-188)


  • Penelope Eckert said, “the use of variation does not simply reflect, but constructs, social categories and social meaning.”
  • (Eckert 4)

!!!Joking and Social Rules: Community over Hierarchy

  • Mary Douglas says that joking promotes community over hierarchy and reveals ambiguities in the fabric of society.
  • Douglas said that jokes are anti-rites that subvert the normative social order, the order usually validated and maintained by religious and civic rituals (Oring [2008] 187).

Related PowerPoints & DVD

  • Accidental Humor
  • American Pop Language
  • Body Humor
  • Gender Issues
  • Stand-Up Comedy
  • Make ‘Em Laugh (DVDs)

References # 1:

  • References # 1:
  • Alberts, J. “The Use of Humor in Managing Couples’ Conflict Interactions.” in Intimates in Conflict, Ed: D. Cahn. Hillside, NJ: Erlbaum, 1990.
  • Alberts, J., Y. Kellar-Guenther, and J. R. Corman. “That’s Not Funny: Understanding Recipients’ Responses to Teasing.” Western Journal of Communication 60 (1996): 337-357.
  • Apte, Mahadev L. Humor and Laughter: An Anthropological Approach. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1985.
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References # 2:

  • References # 2:
  • Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home. New York, NY: Houton Mifflin, 2006.
  • Bethea, Lisa Sparks, Shirley S. Travis, and Loretta Pecchioni. “Family Caregivers’ Use of Humor in Conveying Information about Caring for Dependent Older Adults.” Health Communication 12 (2000): 361-376.
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References # 3:

  • References # 3:
  • Billig, Michael. Laughter and Ridicule: Towards a Social Critique of Humour. London, England: Sage, 2005.
  • Billig, Michael. “Humour and Embarrassment: Limits of ‘Nice Guy’ Theories of Social Life.” Theory, Culture and Society 18.5 (2001): 23-43.
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References # 4:

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  • References # 5:
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References # 6:

  • References # 6:
  • Davies, Christie. The Mirth of Nations. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2002.
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References # 7:

  • References # 7:
  • Davies, Christie. “Humor and Popular Culture.” in Raskin [2008] 281-302.
  • Davies, Christie. Jokes and Their Relation to Society. New York, NY: Mouton, 1998.
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  • Duden, Arthur Power. Pardon Us, Mr. President: American Humor on Politics. New York, NY: A. S. Barnes, 1988.
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References # 8:

  • References # 8:
  • Dundes, Alan, and Carl R. Pagter. Sometimes the Dragon Wins: Yet More Urban Folklore from the Paperwork Empire. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse Univ Press, 1996.
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References # 9:

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  • References # 10:
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References # 11:

  • References # 11:
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References # 12:

  • References # 12:
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References # 13:

  • References # 13:
  • Holmes, Janet, and Meredith Marra. “Over the Edge? Subversive Humor between Colleagues and Friends.” HUMOR: International Journal of Humor Research 15.1 (2002): 65-87.
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References # 14:

  • References # 14:
  • Koller, Marvin. Humor and Society: Explorations in the Sociology of Humor. Housston, TX: Cap and Gown Press, 1988.
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  • Kuipers, Giselilnde. “The Social Construction of Digital Danger: Debating, Defusing, and Inflating the Moral Dangers of Online Humor and Pornography in the Netherlands and the United States.” New Media and Society 8.3 (2006): 379-400.

References # 15:

  • References # 15:
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References # 16:

  • References # 16:
  • Martin, Leslie R., Howard S. Friedman, Joan S. Tucker, Carol Tomlinson-Keasey, Michael H. Criqui, and Joseph E. Schwartz. “A Life Course Perspective on Childhood Cheerfulness and its Relation to Mortality Risk.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 28.9 (2002): 1155-1165.
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References # 17:

  • References # 17:
  • Nilsen, Alleen Pace, and Don L. F. Nilsen. Encyclopedia of 20th Century American Humor. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000.
  • O’Connor, Daniel C., and Sabine Kowal. “Laughter in Bill Clinton’s My Life (2004) Interviews.” Pragmatics 15.2-3 (2005): 275-299.
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References # 18:

  • References # 18:
  • Oring, Elliott. Jokes and their Relations. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1992.
  • Oring, Elliott. “Risky Business: Political Jokes under Repressive Regimes.” Western Folklore 63.3 (2004): 209-236.
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References # 19:

  • References # 19:
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References # 20:

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