In Mary Douglas’s article on jokes, she argues that the “joker” or the person telling the jokes holds a special place both among other forms of entertainer but also in the social context of the environment in which he is telling the joke.
The joker presents the information he gives to the audience as being hidden to them. The joker explains reality in a way that is creative and new, allowing the audience to become privy to this other side of reality as well.
More than anything else the joker deconstructs. He deconstructs social norms, formalities, and realities to make them seem arbitrary.
To prove the validity of Douglas’s assessment, one must look at the “jokers” of the modern age, that being stand up comedians, in this case, George Carlin.
This bit is one of his most famous and demonstrates many of the qualities described by Douglas. Before even analyzing the content, one can see that the way in which Carlin speaks to the audience about bullshit is meant to emulate that of someone explaining something previously hidden. He explains it as though the audience did not understand bullshit in the same way he did, much like how Douglas described the “joker” as presenting information which the audience was previously unaware of.
Like the “joker”, Carlin also renders many aspects of modern society arbitrary by boiling them down to nothing more than “bullshit”. In this way, Carlin is simplifying these aspects of society, such as politics or religion, and rendering them unimportant, breaking the pattern that the audience was previously used to.
Carlin also demonstrates the immunity that the “joker” creates for himself through his humor. Carlin insults everything from religion, politics, and airplanes giving no thought to anyone in the audience who might take offense to that. Despite this, the audience is always in support of what he is saying because it makes them laugh which, in the end, is the true purpose of the “joker”, anyway.
Mary Douglas, “Jokes” in Implicit meanings: essays in anthropology (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975), 107.