Heard the one about humour in the humanities?
Three seated women comedians holding their arms in front of them and making funny faces on stage

Heard the one about humour in the humanities?

In this guest post Dr Sharon Lockyer, director of the Centre for Comedy Studies Research (CCSR) at Brunel University London, reflects on the importance of humour as a core aspect of being human, and how academics in the humanities are beginning to research this significance in the emerging field of humour studies. This research has inspired Feeling Funny, Being Human, an event to be held at Brunel’s Antonin Artaud Theatre on 21 November.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before

What does silence, bemusement, comments such as ‘you must have a sense of humour’ and requests to ‘tell a good joke’ have in common? They are all responses to my revelation that I have been researching humour for more than 15 years.

These reactions lay bare the position and perception of humour in academia and, indeed, wider society. Sometimes they are based on the assumption that humour is too trivial, inconsequential or frivolous to be worthy of academic attention. At other times they are caused by the view that humour is beyond balanced analysis and discussion. I challenge these restricting and restricted assumptions, and so does the rapidly growing international ‘humour studies’ community.

Humour matters

Humour is one of the most important and universal features of our everyday lives. It can be experienced in many contexts and it can fulfil a wide range of social, emotional and psychological functions. For example, our conversations with friends are often littered with jokes and anecdotes that help to build and sustain these relationships.

And jokes are often used to mask worry. When we visit our doctor with a potentially serious or embarrassing problem, we might make a joke or a light-hearted comment as a coping mechanism to manage a stressful and difficult situation. At work, humour between colleagues can be a source of entertainment to enliven our efforts to complete mundane, routine tasks. For a teacher, humour can be used to help communicate difficult concepts to students and to aid their memory and recall of factual information. Furthermore, the popularity of professional humourists is a significant part of our vibrant and eclectic comedy industry.

But, of course, it is not that simple or straightforward. As Professor Geoffrey Crossick noted in his Being Human blog post, the subject matter of the humanities – human beings – are ‘complex’ and that’s why the humanities don’t provide uncomplicated answers. In addition to being one of the most important features of everyday life, humour is also one of the most unpredictable, dynamic, contradictory and paradoxical parts of our lives. This, for me, is why humour is so fascinating to study.

Any attempt at being humorous depends on a number of important factors. These include the content of the humorous remark/story/action, the relationship between the creator and the audience, and the context.

Humour can bring people together, aid our interactions and reduce social boundaries, but it can also be divisive, make us feel uncomfortable and create boundaries between individuals, groups and societies. Although universal in human experience, how humour operates and is sanctioned, is socially, culturally, spatially and temporally specific. Therefore understanding how, why, when, where and what we find humorous can provide interesting insights into others and ourselves.

Feeling Funny, Being Human

The Feeling Funny, Being Human: what can humour tell us about being human? event, will provide a compelling space in which to discuss this most dynamic and complex feature of our lives. Questions to mull over include:

  • To what extent is humour a feature of being human?
  • Do people learn to be humorous or is it something they are born with?
  • Does humour creation, understanding and appreciation change across the human life-course?
  • What can computer-generated humour explain about human-generated humour?
  • Do animals have a sense of humour?
  • Why are some animals humorous to humans?

You’ll also be able to generate jokes using ‘The Joking Computer’ – computer software that can build billions of jokes – and talk to one of its creators. The Funny Women Players improvisation group will show us just how funny we humans can be as they use suggestions from the audience, based on the topic of humour and being human, to make up their on-the-spot performances.

This is going to be a fun (but also serious) afternoon of humorous insights into what makes us human and why humour in the humanities matters.

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Feeling Funny, Being Human is one of many events bringing cutting-edge research in the humanities to a broader audience during the Being Human festival. For updates on that programme and on the festival follow us on Twitter @BeingHumanFest, and on Pinterest. Don’t forget to sign up to our e-newsletter too!