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Review of  Studies in Political Humour

Reviewer: James Murphy
Book Title: Studies in Political Humour
Book Author: Villy Tsakona Diana Elena Popa
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 23.1425

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EDITORS: Tsakona, Villy and Diana Elena Popa
TITLE: Studies in Political Humour
SUBTITLE: In between political critique and public entertainment
SERIES TITLE: Discourse Approaches to Politics, Society and Culture 46
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2011

James Murphy, Department of Linguistics and English Language, University of
Manchester, U.K.

The book under review is the 46th volume of the very fertile Discourse
Approaches to Politics, Society and Culture (DAPSAC) series. The aim of this
volume, according to its editors, is to ‘debunk two popular myths about
political humour’ (1). The first is that ‘political humour is considered to be
subversive and leading to political change’ (1) and the second that such humour
is a ‘prevailing and exclusive feature of specific sociocultural environments’
(2). In what follows, I will summarise each chapter with a view to showing how
it contributes to the aim of debunking these myths, followed by a general
evaluation of the book.

Chapter 1 is an introduction by Villy Tsakona and Diana Elena Popa, the editors.
As well as setting out the aims of the volume and the contents, Tsakona & Popa
provide helpful background on humour and its application to politics/political
discourse. The editors favour a ‘broad church’ approach to humour and welcome
the attention of different disciplines to its study, following Ruch (1998) in
using ‘humour as an umbrella term covering all related phenomena’ (3), e.g.
satire, mockery, irony, etc. In defining ‘political humour’ the editors again
suggest the broadest of meanings, arguing that it is humour produced by or about
politicians. They suggest that its purposes are equally varied, with
politicians using humour in order to ultimately attract voters, whilst the press
and others use it ‘to simultaneously “criticize” political decisions and
figures, and entertain the audience’ (8-9). The section on the side-effects of
political humour is of particular interest and highlights how jokes can be
created by totalitarian regimes as a means of controlling the people (12-3).
Other side effects are also noted, including a reduction in trust in the
political classes and a loss of respect for politicians who use humour in
‘inappropriate’ contexts.

Part I on ‘Humour by politicians’ begins with Ralph Müller’s chapter ‘Fun in the
German parliament?’. Using a corpus of written proceedings from the German
Bundestag in conjunction with video recordings, Müller seeks to explain the
differing contexts in which the parliament’s stenographers use the terms
‘Heiterkeit’ (‘amusement’) and ‘Lachen’ (‘laughing’) to describe instances of
mirth and merriment amongst members of the Bundestag. Müller finds that
‘Lachen’ has a variety of communicative and social functions, including rebuttal
of a statement without further engagement; denigrating a speaker in order to
strengthen in-group relations; marking another’s behaviour as socially
inappropriate (the case of a parliamentarian speaking whilst intoxicated is
given as an example of this function). ‘Lachen’ is found mostly to indicate
scornful laughter and that the instances that provoked it ‘do not display
intentional humorous incongruity’ (33). ‘Heiterkeit’, on the other hand, is
usually provoked by some form of intentionally humorous statement or act.
Amusement is also derived from a number of situations including: speaker(s)
using non-standard language, which humorously contrasts with the formal setting
of the Bundestag where standard language is the norm; attempts by speakers to
negotiate with the Chair to give them further time to speak; attempts to
manipulate parliamentary conventions e.g. superficially turning controversial
statements into questions in order for the speaker’s talk to be deemed
parliamentary. ‘Heiterkeit’ seems, therefore, to be less scornful and less
hostile. Müller concludes by suggesting that the difference between ‘Lachen’
and ‘Heiterkeit’ can be considered akin to the difference between ‘laughing at’
someone and ‘laughing with’ them.

Chapter 3 sees Argiris Archakis and Villy Tsakona look at ‘Informal talk in
formal settings: Humorous narratives in Greek parliamentary debates’. The
authors provide a detailed analysis of four humorous extracts from a
no-confidence debate in the Greek parliament. Through this analysis, they show
that parliamentarians use humour to support their argumentation. Some speakers
invoke ordinary citizens in their narratives, which Archakis & Tsakona suggest
is done in order to appropriately address the wider Greek public (which they
suggest favour positive politeness in Brown & Levinson’s (1987) terms and thus
prefer to be addressed as a friend/acquaintance) and so that ordinary people’s
discourse is represented in the formal setting of parliament. By using the
discursive practices of the ‘normal’ Greek person, i.e. joke-telling and
story-telling, the politician can present him/herself as a man/woman of the
people. In their discussion and conclusions, the authors present numerous
suggestions for further work, including a diachronic study to see whether the
televising of parliamentary exchanges has led to a change in the
frequency/nature of humorous narratives and a cross-cultural study to see how
humour in politics is manifest across nations.

Chapter 4, ‘“Stop caressing the ears of the hooded”: Political humour in times
of conflict’ by Marianthi Georgalidou, investigates humour in the speeches of
Greek politicians made during the period of civil unrest in December 2008,
during which young people wearing hoods (‘the hooded’, cf. British English
‘hoodies’) demonstrated violently following the shooting of a student by the
police. Georgalidou shows how the sound-bite of one politician aimed at a rival
party telling them to ‘stop caressing the ears of the hooded’, implying that
they were not condemning the violence of the hooded youths in order to gain an
electoral advantage, was a fertile trope which was used extensively by others
during this time of civil unrest. She shows how humour was used by the accused
political party in an attempt to repudiate the allegation that they supported
the violence, and how productive the ‘hooded’ comment was for jab-lines used
even in the formal setting of the Greek parliament. She concludes by suggesting
that the humour was used not only as a conversationalised form of talk, but also
as a good means of casting aspersions on a rival political party.

Chapter 5 ‘Entertaining and enraging: The functions of verbal violence in
broadcast political debates’ concludes Part I. In the chapter Marta Dynel
suggests that the assumption that the viewer of a televised political debate
should be thought of as an overhearer is flawed and cogently argues that s/he
should, instead, be thought of as recipient 2, or a meta-recipient, whilst
recipient 1 is a member of the studio audience. In the rest of the chapter,
Dynel analyses pre-election debates from 2007 in Poland with a view to exploring
the interaction between verbal aggression and humour. She finds that humour is
used disaffiliatively by politicians seeking to denigrate their opponents and
that aggressive utterances are produced humorously in order for the politician
to demonstrate his/her wit and rhetorical skill. She also suggests that the use
of humour is a potentially dangerous strategy, with the potential for the
politician to be viewed as ‘uncouth rather than witty and rhetorically skilful’

Part II on ‘Political humour in the media’ begins with Diana Elena Popa’s
chapter entitled ‘Political satire dies last: A study on democracy, opinion
formation and political satire’. Popa sets out the function of (televised,
animated) political satire suggesting that it must: be a tool for the public to
talk about the state of the nation; discuss topics which other media sources are
afraid to, thereby being a source of information; continually scrutinise public
life which may result in poor behaviours being corrected; and protest against
the inappropriate behaviour of politicians. Popa analyses episodes of the
animated Romanian satirical programme ‘The Animated Planet Show’ to see whether
it fulfils these criteria. Through this analysis, Popa shows that writers use
different satirical strategies: an ‘overt satirical strategy’ which sees
criticism carried out openly by characters in the programme and a ‘covert
satirical strategy’ which sees ridicule brought on politicians and others by
‘taking all their statements and purported beliefs to their furthest supposedly
logical conclusion, revealing their hypocrisy and stupidity’ (145). The
examples taken from the show along with Popa’s analyses leads the reader to be
convinced that ‘The Animated Planet Show’ does fulfil the function(s) of
political satire which were set out at the beginning of the chapter.

Chapter 7 ‘Being Berlusconi: Sabina Guzzanti’s impersonation of the Italian
Prime Minster between stage and screen’ by Clare Watters highlights the cultural
and political importance of impersonators of politicians. She shows how Sabina
Guzzanti has constructed a humorous, counter-image to Silvio Berlusconi in her
impersonation of him. Watters argues that the success of Guzzanti’s
impersonation lies in the contrast between the carefully stage-managed,
image-based politics of Berlusconi and the impersonation itself, which some may
contend is a more realistic portrayal of Berlusconi than the one put forth in
the media (much of which he owns and controls). Watters discusses how the
censorship of Guzzanti on the television has led her to develop her character
away from the screen, which has in turn led to an increase in the political
aspects of her humour which is ‘beyond the bounds of what Italian television can
allow’ (187).

In Chapter 8, Efharis Mascha discusses political satire within a popular culture
framework. In ‘Mocking Fascism: Popular culture and political satire as
counter-hegemony’, Mascha uses Gramsci’s (1985) theory of popular culture to
explore the themes developed in caricatures of Mussolini printed in satirical
(leftist) Italian journals between 1919 and 1925. Mascha develops the idea that
popular culture was counter-hegemonic (i.e. an alternative) to fascism and
Mussolini’s brand thereof, since it attempted to organise popular consciousness
-- in particular against the propaganda perpetuated by the regime regarding the
supposed omnipotence and immortality of the dictator, Mussolini. Mascha
suggests that political satire did not directly affect the emergence of Fascism
since it was at ‘the margins of popular culture’ (211) and was not
well-organised and was increasingly censored by the Mussolini regime.

Part III on ‘Public debates and political humour’ opens with Chapter 9 by Liisi
Laineste called ‘Politics of taste in a post-Socialist state: A case study’, in
which she explores recent public discourse on the decency or lack thereof in
Estonian ethnic jokes. The author argues that Estonia is the ideal location to
investigate how the ethnic joke can shape national identity, given that
Estonia’s national identity is still in flux since its recent independence and
since ‘ethnic jokes are available without censorship and the negotiations of
taste are still underway’ (220). Laineste presents a case study of media
reaction to a complaint made by a member of the Russian-speaking minority
community in Estonia that the school curriculum recommended texts which
contained jokes like ‘Why do Russians wear straw hats? Because you always must
put hay on manure’ (224). In her analysis, Laineste shows that the official
fall-out from the affair was a government apology and statements saying that
‘racist’ jokes should not form part of public life and therefore be censored.
Whilst press articles reporting the story focussed on the potential threat to
Estonia’s international image caused by the racism (described by the author
using Vihalemm and Timmi’s (2007) terminology as the ‘discourse of
self-criticism’), members of the public commenting on the articles defended the
‘racist’ jokes with the majority supporting their comments by using the
‘discourse of danger’ (i.e. Estonians had previously been victims of Russian
power so that their xenophobia was justified) and others using the ‘discourse of
healthy reasoning’ (i.e. racism ‘is a natural co-product of cultural encounters’
(223)). Laineste concludes by arguing that politicians and the media do attempt
to set new frames for the perception of what is in bad taste.

Chapter 10 entitled ‘Humour and…Stalin in a National Theatre of Greece
postmodern production’ by Vicky Manteli analyses a performance of the theatre
production ‘Stalin: A Discussion about Greek Theatre’ using a semiotic approach
based on Attardo’s (2001) ‘General Theory of Verbal Humour’. Manteli introduces
the reader to some basic concepts about the nature of postmodern theatre and
about the semiotic theory her analysis is couched in. Through the detailed
description and analysis of the props used, the staging of the work and the
(metatheatrical) discourse used in the performance, Manteli highlights how
humour (and in particular irony and parody) is used to attempt to tackle
‘totalitarian ideologies…and expose their potential to distort political reality
and historical memory’ (267). Manteli also shows how the humour in postmodern
theatre is often derived from the use (and abuse) of theatrical conventions,
genres and discourse, which she argues can be seen as an extension of Attardo’s
(2001) notion of ‘hyperdetermined humour’ which gives credence to the further
exploitation of Attardo’s humour theory to the analysis of works of theatre.

A final note from the editors concludes the volume, summarising the work
contained in the preceding chapters.

The volume at hand is, to my knowledge, the first collection of work dedicated
to the exploration of humour in a political context. It treats the subject
using methodologies from a number of contrasting fields (theatre semiotics,
media studies, popular culture studies, discourse analysis, sociolinguistics,
etc.). In this respect, the book can be said to stray somewhat from the goal of
the DAPSAC series which aims to ‘investigate political, social and cultural
processes from a linguistic/discourse-analytic point of view’ and some may find
the lack of linguistic detail in some of the chapters disappointing. However, I
found the eclecticism of the book to be in no way disconcerting, especially
since all of the chapters were working, in one way or another, towards the
common goal of debunking the two myths which were set out in the editors’

The book does make great strides in fulfilling that goal. A number of the
chapters do show convincingly that humour does not change the political
situation (in particular chapters 6-9) and how in some instances, the reverse is
true and politics changes the humour (6 and 9). As far as the second myth is
concerned, the range of nations represented goes some way to showing that
political humour is not limited to a particular sociocultural environment,
though one criticism of the volume would be that it is notably Eurocentric and
that chapters focussing on humour in politics outside of Europe would have
helped to debunk the myth further.

A praiseworthy feature of the volume lies in its strong editorship. It is clear
that all of the authors have had access to one another’s work which is reflected
in authors referencing related work from the volume. The editors’ final note
also helps to digest the vital information from each of the chapters leading to
suggestions of where humour research in/on politics ought to look next. The
name and subject indexes are also very useful.

In summary, ‘Studies in Political Humour’ is a volume which scholars working on
political discourse, humour theory, and the interface of the two will find
valuable. It considers humour (broadly defined) from a wide range of
perspectives and this may inspire readers to look to other disciplines when
carrying out further work on such topics.

Attardo, Salvatore. 2001. Humorous texts: A semantic and pragmatic analysis.
Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Brown, Penelope & Stephen Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some universals in
language usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gramsci, Antonio. 1985. Selection from ‘Cultural Writings’. Ed. D. Forgacs & G.
Nowell-Smith. London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Ruch, Willibald. 1998. ‘Foreword and overview. Sense of humour: A new look at an
old concept’. In: The sense of humour: Explorations of a personality
characteristic, Willibald Ruch (ed.), 3-14. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Vihalemm, Triin & Mailis Timmi. 2007. Rassism eesti trükimeedias [Racism in the
Estonian press]. Ministry of Justice press conference, 15/10/2007.

James Murphy is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Linguistics and English Language at the University of Manchester. His Ph.D. research focuses on the pragmatics of apologies in political discourse. His research interests include political discourse, conversation analysis, speech-act theory and corpus linguistics.