The Impact of Social Context on Enjoying Situation Comedy (Lilja Valtonen)

In a chapter entitled ‘Jokes’, Mary Douglas addresses the subjective and complex nature of humour. Bergson and Freud thought that there were certain guidelines that could be laid down to determine what is and is not objectively funny. Douglas, alternatively, argues that humour relies on social situations, i.e. the social context. For instance, a joke that would have worked for an 18th-century aristocratic audience may fail to induce laughter in people of a modern, working-class background due to the differing values and experiences of the two sets of audience members.[1]

Douglas writes, “A joke cannot be perceived unless it corresponds to the form of the social experience”,[2] which I take to mean that our interpretation of something funny cannot be complete without understanding the context in which the joke is made. For example, a person might not find a joke about a television show they have never watched to be funny because they are not familiar with the context and therefore cannot relate to the joke.

Douglas’s argument reminds me of a scene in the American sitcom ‘Seinfeld’ that I once showed to a friend who had never heard of the show. I played him a two-minute clip from the episode ‘The Revenge’ in which Kramer, a zany and boisterous character, attempts to put dry concrete into a washing machine at a laundromat owned by a man who presumably stole money from Jerry Seinfeld, the show’s eponymous protagonist. I found the scene absolutely side-splitting, but my friend did not even crack a smile. He could not understand why I found it funny – perhaps because we have different taste, perhaps because he did not know the context. However, most interestingly, he was upset by Kramer’s destructive actions and chose to view him as a malicious villain rather than a harmless buffoon. This demonstrates one way that context can influence the humour of a situation.

[1] Mary Douglas, “Jokes” in Implicit meanings: essays in anthropology (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975), 96.

[2] Ibid., 100.

One comment

  1. Your example of how your friend thought it wasn’t funny is fantastic in relation to the idea of needing context. I would add that slapstick comedy can often be seen the same way, as an isolated scene from Charlie Chaplin, Buston Keaton, or even “Mr. Bean” might elicit the same response since their motivations and actions can be similar to that of Kramer’s.

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