Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Getting Inside the Joke

I found that one of the most important "take away" messages from the readings this evening has to do with the societal context of a joke. We've already touched on this many times in our class discussions: how can one thing be funny in one situation, but not funny in another? What qualifies a subject matter as "appropriate" for a joke? Why would one group of people find a particular joke humorous but another group be offended or confused by it? I think that both Turner and Douglas are on to something when they answer these questions by saying it all depends on the situation.

I found Douglas' model of humor to be the broadest of the theories we have studied thus far. To summarize, he says that a joke is really just momentarily disordering society. This definition presupposes that the joker and the audience are both already familiar with the original structure of society that is then turned upside down by the joke. Perhaps this is why many of us did not find the readings for last class "laugh out loud" funny. These stories were set in societies with which we are not familiar. However, when Elaine played the "School House Rock" parody video in class, we all immediately understood how the video could be seen as funny--or dangerous--because it was commenting on the social structure that we have personal experience with; we could easily see the ways that the video was both implicitly and explicitly reversing typical social roles.

I can also see this familiarity or unfamiliarity with social systems and its relationship to humor in the service that I am doing at Don Miller House, a home for people who have HIV/AIDS. I actually started volunteering at Don Miller last year, and I've been so lucky to be able to continue my relationships with the residents there. I remember the first two semesters I worked at the house, I felt really awkward and uncomfortable. A lot of this discomfort had to do with me not fully understanding the social structure of the house. There is actually a quasi-"hierarchy" to the places the residents sit at the table and who is served at dinner first. As I learned more about the routine of the community, I began to feel more comfortable and at home there. As my comfort level grew, I could definitely sense an increase in the comfort level of the residents with my presence, too. By the end of the spring semester last year, conversation at the dinner table was infinitely less awkward and downright hilarious at some points, because we had all learned our "place" in the social structure. I spent last semester abroad in Rome, and I went through the same process with my host family. Things were uncomfortable until I learned my host family's routine. By the end of the semester I was comfortable enough (and good enough at Italian!) that I could make jokes with my host parents, and they would gently tease me in return. When I returned to Don Miller House a few weeks ago after being away for nearly six months, I slipped right back into the routine of the house. I felt welcomed and at home with the residents because we had already built a relationship and an understanding between us.

So while Douglas' model of a joke seems nearly sufficient, I think he is missing one important thing: trust. Not only must the members of a society have and understand their social structure, but they also must trust one another in order for a joke to be successful. Perhaps this is why we felt some discomfort at the School House Rock-inspired video in class on Tuesday. We thought we could trust School House Rock as a reliable and fun source of information (I mean, who doesn't love Conjunction Junction?!) but when that form was used to present true yet unsettling information about our government, it not only rearranged our social structure (as Douglas would say) but told us we can't trust the entity that claims to keep our land one of justice and freedom. I couldn't laugh with the residents of Don Miller House or my Italian host family until they felt that they could trust me and I felt that I could trust them. Ultimately, I think that trust is one of the most important factors when it comes to a successful joke. Without it, the audience will not know how to respond when the joker "subverts the social system." Yet with it, any number of situations suddenly become available as the subjects for hilarious jokes.

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