“Language and Humour in the Media” includes papers that were presented in a thematic workshop that was part of the 10th conference of the European Society for the Study of English (Torino, 2010). The collection of papers was edited by Isabel Ermida & Jan Chovanec and published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing. As a whole, the volume aims at covering theoretical and empirical issues of humour in mass media as a specific discourse domain.
The introductory chapter, “Humour, Language and the Media”, written by Isabel Ermida and Jan Chovanec, presents the reasons for compiling the volume and gives a brief overview of the contributions. The main idea behind the volume is to show that humour in mass media is not a purely rhetorical device. Rather, it can be studied as an important and highly functional sociolinguistic and discursive phenomenon. The authors allude to major publications in the field of humour research and claim that pragmatic and conversational approaches allow taking a broad stance on humour and its functions in print and audiovisual media.
The papers included in the volume demonstrate a range of approaches to the analysis of humour in media and analyse data that come from various genres of mass media discourse. These differences allow for organizing the contributions into three thematic sections.
Part One bears the title “Responses to Mass Media Humour across the Disciplines”. It comprises three papers that address humour from an interdisciplinary perspective. Patricia Andrew’s paper, “The Construction of Old Age in Ageist Humor”, analyses jokes transmitted by pass-along email messages. According to Andrew, pass-along emails combine the properties of public and personal humour: they are public because they are usually sent to multiple recipients, but at the same time, they are personal since it is up to the sender to decide who will enjoy the humorous content of the message. When age-related humour is transmitted via pass-along emails, it serves a number of social functions, e.g., promoting in-group solidarity or eliciting sympathy from the audience. Andrew also discusses the topics of age-related jokes (e.g. loss of physical or mental abilities, loss of attractiveness or sexual interest, etc.) and argues that this kind of humour is largely based on social stereotypes. The jokes discuss the negative side of being old, and it would seem only natural if they were considered unacceptable. However, because they are amusing, they serve as a coping mechanism for elderly people.
Melody Geddert’s paper, “Towards a Cross-Linguistic Analysis of Humour in Academic Reading”, addresses the practical issue of challenges that English as a Foreign Language (EFL) students face in recognising humour in academic texts. The research addresses two questions: how much differences in humour perception affect recognition of humour in an academic text, and to what degree cultural immersion influences one’s perception of humour. Geddert adopts a sociolinguistic perspective in her study of how humorous passages are recognised by EFL students. The results of the experimental research demonstrate that the perception of humour, to a large degree, depends on the amount of time spent in a particular culture.
The third paper included in the first part of the volume is Viktor Raskin’s “The Hidden Media Humor and Hidden Theory”. Raskin insists on the need for a “full-fledged, well-defined, formal, scientific -- and computable -- theory of humor” [Raskin, this volume, p.45]. He shows how the Ontological Theory of Verbal Humour (OTVH) -- the next step in the development of a formal theory of verbal humour, after the Script-based Semantic Theory of Humor (SSTH, see [Raskin 1985]) and the General Theory of Verbal Humour (GTVH, see [Attardo & Raskin 1991]) -- can be used in the analysis of compound jokes distributed through internet mailing lists. He also addresses issues related to the logical complexity of jokes and the number of mental steps needed to understand a joke. Sections 6 and 7 of the paper are particularly important, as they offer examples of formal joke analysis, model the process of logical inference, and enumerate the necessary components of the OTVH.
Part Two, “The Mechanisms of Humour in the Mass Media”, comprises five papers discussing topics such as audiovisual humour, jokes used in online sports commentaries, and commercial advertisements. In his paper, “Dialects at the Service of Humour within the American Sitcom: A Challenge for the Dubbing Translator”, Christos Arampatzis focuses on the practical task of translating the non-standard (dialectal) varieties of the characters from the sitcoms “Friends” and “Will & Grace” into Spanish. Arampatzis reviews existing translation strategies and analyses a corpus of examples with the aim of revealing social stereotypes transmitted through humorous imitation of speech varieties. The data suggests that three types of strategies are used in Spanish dubbings: levelling (standardisation) of dialects to the standard form of the target language; paralinguistic compensation for non-standard speech (e.g. through a manipulation of pitch and/or tone of voice); and generalization involving references to more general culture-related concepts (e.g. stereotypes about British behaviour).
The paper “Humour on the House: Interactional Construction of Metaphor in Film Discourse”, written by Marta Dynel, addresses the issue of humorous effects produced by creative metaphors. Novel metaphors are diaphoric by nature: they are likely to result in humour since they violate the requirement of similarity between the tenor and the vehicle. Because of their cognitive complexity, creative metaphors can pose a challenge for the listener. Dynel’s qualitative analysis of creative metaphors produced by Gregory House, the protagonist of “House. M.D.”, suggests that the main function of figurative language use is entertainment of the viewers; novel metaphors can remain unavailable to other characters of the film.
In Milena Kozić’s paper, “Framing Communication as Play in the Sitcom: Patterning the Verbal and the Nonverbal in Humour”, a playful mode (or a play frame, in Kozić’s terms) of communication is the main issue under discussion. The study combines linguistic, psychological and media studies perspectives to illustrate how verbal and non-verbal semiotic resources signal play in sitcoms. Though the genre of a sitcom itself is usually perceived as humorous, the play frame can be marked by a whole cluster of non-verbal signals, such as laughter from the audience, facial expressions of characters or paralinguistic resources (e.g. tone of voice or an accent). Kozić also discusses the three types of relations between verbal and non-verbal channels: complementation, contradiction, and substitution.
In his paper, “Conversational Humour and Joint Fantasizing in Online Journalism”, Jan Chovanec analyses online newspaper texts of live sports commentaries with the aim of documenting ways of interactively constructing humour. Both journalists and readers participate in the joint creation of humorous unreal situations, or shared fantasies: journalists introduce the play frame and conduct the interaction; and readers comment on the situation and mock and tease each other. Chovanec concludes that in general, humour makes live commentary entertaining and helps establish virtual in-group bonds.
Moeko Okada’s paper, “Wordplay as a Selling Strategy in Advertisements and Sales Promotion”, is concerned with the issue of humorous plays on words as linguistic tools that allow for promoting products and services. Okada analyses British and Japanese advertisements containing wordplay on various linguistic levels. The Japanese examples are especially interesting because the texts relate advertised products to university entrance examinations and the tradition of reading signs that exists in Japanese culture. Through wordplay, the ads present goods (e.g. chocolate bars) as signs of good luck that can support students during exams. Okada suggests that humorous wordplay is an effective marketing strategy: the reference to a culturally important situation helps increase sales and establish the status of products.
Part Three, “Mass Media Humour as Political and Social Critique”, includes papers that adopt a social perspective on humour. The data used by the contributors include spoof newspaper texts, billboard messages and gossip magazines. Isabel Ermida’s paper, “News Satire in the Press: Linguistic Construction of Humour in Spoof News Articles”, draws on data from the Portuguese spoof newspaper “The Public Enemy” to analyse a specific type of spoof journalism -- parodic news satire. In particular, the research focuses on the linguistic aspects of the genre, as well as its intertextual and comical components. While keeping the formal properties of news coverage intact, parodic news satire mimics and mocks reality through exaggeration and nonsense. Using Raskin’s Semantic Script Theory of Humour as a theoretical basis, Ermida offers a linguistic model of parodic news satire. The model includes three components: intertextual, critical and comical. This kind of structure allows for an integrative description of the genre, which is applied to spoof newspaper texts in the latter portions of the paper.
Maria Jesús Pinar Sanz addresses the issue of multimodal (verbal and visual) messages conveyed by British political billboards in her paper “Ethnic Humour and Political Advertizing”. The possibility of a humorous interpretation of visual and textual metaphors used in political discourse is analysed from the perspective of Relevance Theory. Jesús Pinar Sanz suggests that in political discourse, humorous messages function as signs of superiority and highlight stereotypes traditionally associated with particular groups of people. The identification of ethnic stereotypes largely depends on background knowledge about the targeted group. Jesús Pinar Sanz claims that multimodal metaphoric messages invite a number of equally possible interpretations, and as such, overall, it is apparent that the viewer’s ideology and background knowledge play main roles in ethnic humour appreciation.
The final paper, “Humour as a Means of Popular Empowerment: The Discourse of the French Gossip Magazines”, written by Jamil Dakhlia, is a study of texts published in the French celebrity press, the consumers of which are primarily teenagers and young adults. To analyze this kind of data, Dakhlia combines socio-discursive and cultural approaches. The focal point of his study is the paradox between the canons of beauty and glamour and the desire to make fun of those who conform to these canons (e.g. pop stars or film stars). According to Dakhila, there are two strategies of transmitting humour: one can laugh with the stars or, alternatively, one can laugh at the stars. While the former strategy normally takes the form of friendly teasing, the latter is usually expressed through irony, mockery and sarcasm. Both strategies are aimed at producing readers’ satisfaction and transmitting a message of equality.
As a whole, the volume brings together very different papers, showing that humour has its special functions in mass media discourse. These functions range from being a mechanism of coping with difficulties to being a marketing tool or a strategy for activating ethnic stereotypes.
The analysis of various genres of mass media communication is the strong point of the volume. It shows how widespread and universal humour is. Also, the issues of age-related or ethnic humour are very subtle, so in this respect, analyses of public joking about age or ethnicity presented by Andrew and Jesús Pinar Sanz are very important contributions to the field of humour research.
There are, however, a couple of shortcomings that I would like to mention. Firstly, most papers focus on qualitative approaches and do not pay attention to quantitative aspects of humour (which I think are important as well). As a result, it is not quite clear how often people use a particular kind of humour and how culturally significant it is (for instance, how frequently people use age-related jokes in pass-along emails). Also, though Andrew claims that ageist jokes are culture-specific (and I fully agree with the claim), she never clearly specifies the culture in which the jokes analysed in the paper circulate. The American origin of the jokes could be stated more explicitly.
Secondly, it is fair enough to say that mass media is a vast field of discourse comprising a wide range of genres. However, it is not quite clear why the editors included Geddert’s paper, which analyses the comprehension of humour in academic reading materials in the EFL classroom and how academic discourse relates to the domain of mass media discourse. This somehow takes away from the coherence of the volume and questions the general intention of the editors to concentrate on the interface between humour research and mass media discourse analysis.
Overall, the volume is an important contribution to the field of humour research. It will be of interest not only to those involved in verbal and non-verbal humour research, but also to those interested in cultural studies.
Attardo, Salvatore and Viktor Raskin (1991), Script Theory Revis(it)ed: Joke Similarity and Joke Representation Model. In Humor 4 (3-4), 293-347.
Raskin, Viktor (1985), Semantic Mechanisms of Humor, Dordrecht: D. Reidel.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Ksenia Shilikhina is an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Voronezh State University, Russia. Her main research interests include semantics and pragmatics of verbal humour with a special focus on verbal irony. Corpus linguistics is another area of her interests. She teaches courses in Linguistic Typology, Applied and Computational Linguistics and Formal Models in Linguistics.