Comedy Research Paper

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The social sciences have led the way in the scholarship on humor, looking to social dynamics to explain what people find funny, and why they find it funny. This enquiry began with Le Rire: Essai sur la signification du comique (1899), in which the French philosopher Henri Bergson, thinking as a social scientist might, explored how comedy depends upon the rupture of socialized standards of group behavior. A few years later, Sigmund Freud, in Der Witz und sein Beziehung zum Unbewussten (Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, 1905), posited that it was the violation of social constructs (functions of the ego and superego) that makes people laugh.

Bergson would go on to cite “the worthless act” as a central component to laughter in the modern and mechanized world, explaining in “Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic” (1911) that humor allows one to distance oneself from the dehumanizing effects of modern, civilized life. Modern scholarship might be said to begin an extension of this logic, looking not only to the essence of humor but also to its social functions. The Czech sociologist Antonin Obrdlik’s “Gallows Humor, a Sociological Phenomenon,” which first appeared in the March 1942 edition of the American Journal of Sociology, argued that “gallows humor” served as relief from the devaluation of human life at the hands of the Nazis.

Since World War II, the social sciences have continued to explore the social functions of humor, often contextualizing these functions by way of well-established theoretical models. In his introductory textbook Humor and Society (1988), Marvin R. Koller addresses the work of Obrdlik directly, examining gallows humor as an example of “relief theory.” Koller then contextualizes relief theory as one of four “macrotheories of humor,” the others being “ambivalence theory” (an embracing of a social construct while simultaneously holding it at arm’s length), “superiority theory” (excluding other social groups from human commerce by way of pronouncing one’s own their “betters”), and “incongruity theory” (reminding us of the perils in thinking we have codified our world more definitively than we have). As any seasoned sociologist will recognize, these theories are familiar approaches drawn from elsewhere in the discipline. Nonetheless, they are profitable means of categorizing and appreciating how humor is more than simply “funny.”

A second contribution to humor scholarship has come from the willingness of the social sciences to look at how what people find funny can be determined by the groups of which they are a part. The social sciences in general, and sociology in particular, have explored the nature of humor by gender, by medium (e.g., print, television, motion pictures), by region, by professional group, and by race. Surely the most impressive scholarship in this regard has explored the relationship between humor and ethnicity. The early work in this area often employed “conflictaggression” interpretations of ethnic humor, depicting ethnic humor as a means of ranking ethnic groups in a social hierarchy. More recent work though has found the phenomena to be flexible, even fluid. Christopher Davies, in The Mirth of Nations (2002), suggests that Polish jokes, for instance, ebb when definable tensions between Poles and other groups are most pronounced. Conversely, Polish jokes flourish when tensions are lowest.

The reach of scholarship in the social sciences is at once broad and deep. The work is yet to be fully synthesized however. Initially spread across psychology, sociology, and anthropology, it is now also found in related fields such as philosophy, communications, folklore, and media studies. Hence, the most exciting scholarship is more often discovered in articles in interdisciplinary journals than in full-length books devoted to a particular social-science discipline.

Bibliography:

  1. Bechtold, Robert Heilman. 1978. The Ways of the World: Comedy and Society. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
  2. Davies, Christie. 1998. Jokes and Their Relation to Society. New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
  3. Davies, Christie. 2002. Mirth of Nations. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
  4. Koller, Marvin R. 1988. Humor and Society: Explorations in the Sociology of Humor. Houston, TX: Cap and Gown Press.

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