Ivory Towers: Please don't laugh, it isn't funny

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The Independent Culture
TWO weeks ago in this column, we discussed a new, complete theory of humour, but there is evidently more to humour than a complete theory.

Recent work has thrown additional light on two further aspects essential to an even more complete understanding of the topic: What is humour for, and are Essex girl jokes funny?

In their paper Functions of humor in conversation: Conceptualization and measurement (Western Journal of Communication, vol 56, 1992), Michael J Papa and Gordon P Brooks set out to 'explain humour from a functional perspective'.

By analysing earlier research, they identified 24 functions of humour which were reduced to an 11-item 'Uses of Humor Index' by statistical techniques.

This, and an existing measure, the 'Situational Humor Response Questionnaire', were given to 191 university students, who were also asked to assess each other's sense of humour and 'interpersonal competence in naturalistic conversation'.

From all this, three primary factors of the effect of humour emerged: positive effect, expressiveness and negative effect. And the conclusion of the whole research project was that 'humour appears to be a facilitative form of communication that fulfils interpersonal functions', which must have come as a relief to anyone who suspected anything else.

The question of whether Essex girl jokes are funny may follow by analogy from the results announced in a paper entitled The JAP joke controversy: An excruciating psychosocial analysis (International Journal of Humor Research, vol 4, 1991).

Bernard Saper, the author, argues that an understanding of jokes based on the 'Jewish American Princess' stereotype requires an evaluation in three categories of humour: hostile, ethnic and sexist.

'Cognitive behavioural psychology and social learning provide the analytical mode for the discussion' he says.

While admitting the possibility that JAP such jokes can 'fuel antagonistic feelings and beliefs', his research indicates it is more likely that they will 'defuse such antagonisms'. He concludes: 'If these jokes go un-reinforced (by withholding of attention, praise, laughter or repetition), they will extinguish themselves.'

Putting these two results together, current beliefs on humour may be summarised as follows: It is something consenting adults like doing together and if you don't laugh at someone's joke, they will probably stop telling it.