The Sick Joke and Its Social Context – Yu Ching Yau

One of the modern forms of humour mentioned by Mary Douglas is the sick joke, which “plays with a reversal of the values of social life; the hearer is left uncertain which is the man and which the machine, who is the good and who the bad, or where is the legitimate pattern of control.”[1] For such a joke to be perceived as funny by a person, they must first be familiar with the social values and context that the joke is potentially subverting. When I read this part of the essay, I thought of the work of a musical group that has elicited differing reactions back home, usually between older and younger generations. The group is called The Low Mays, a romanisation of a Cantonese swear word. A lot of their songs and music videos parody gangster culture and always use vulgar language to paint scenes of all types of violence, excess and scatology. It’s this extreme-ness of language paired with images of parody that provokes a humorous response in their listeners/viewers. However, the video I’m using as an example goes further. In “Chairman Hao”, a pun combining the name of Chinese dictator Chairman Mao Zedong and the word for mansion (referencing the luxurious excess of the nouveau riche), The Low Mays are unrelenting in their use of puns and wordplay to satirise the Chinese Communist Party. They skip from one issue to another, often creating an unexpected juxtaposition with the insertion of crass imagery. References include the Tiananmen Massacre, the lack of universal suffrage in Hong Kong, the sovereignty of Taiwan, health scandals, the dog eating festival and the nationalistic fervour that creates a false sense of superiority in the people. All the lines are performed in an exaggerated accent combining Cantonese and Mandarin, which is the main “joking” point poking at China’s desire to control Hong Kong like it does to the rest of the country. Douglas asserts that the form of a joke “consists of a victorious tilting of uncontrol against control, it is an image of the levelling of hierarchy, the triumph of intimacy over formality, of unofficial values over official ones.”[2] The song’s irreverence towards the real atrocities committed by the CCP is the element of “uncontrol” that goes against the socially acceptable “control” of giving the victims respect that they deserve. For the older generation who personally experienced the trauma of the events, it is much harder to conceive of seeing humour in such creations. For the younger generation who has learnt about all these events, is experiencing it in the present and sees a bleak future much like the one envisioned by the party, a Freudian enjoyment of the sick joke is experienced, as “for a moment the unconscious is allowed to bubble up without restraint, hence the sense of enjoyment and freedom”[3]. The younger generation is the one who will have to live in this dystopian reality, and that is the social structure analogous with the joke structure.

[1] Douglas, Mary. “Jokes.” Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology. London: Routledge, 1975, p. 97.

[2] Ibid, p. 98.

[3] Ibid, p.94.

One comment

  1. You break down Douglas’ argument very well and the argument’s links with ‘Chairman Hao’ are most interesting. A musical example is of particular interest when thinking of jokes that offend. For next time try to use shorter quotations to allow more room to develop your argument within your post.

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