Being amused provides one of the greatest joys of being human. I have yet to meet one person who does not enjoy having a good laugh. The act of actually laughing out loud (as opposed to typing out its acronym) lifts your spirit and improves your mood. Humour is positive. Indeed, laughing out loud at live performed routines that stand-up comedians cleverly put together is one of my favourite pastimes. In doing so I have come to believe that these comedians, in particular those who engage in observational humour, share some common ground with sociologists.
In simple terms, humour can be described as that which makes people laugh. What makes people laugh, however, is not universal. Different people find humour in different things. We may not be able to articulate exactly which things make us laugh, or even why they do, but just by experiencing them we are able to distinguish between what is funny and what is not, at least for us, as individuals. That much is obvious.
What is perhaps not as obvious is that humour is not a fixed or static attribute located inside words, text or actions. It depends on the coming together in a favourable way of various elements, such as tonality and timing to create a specific scenario. More importantly, context is crucial. This is a lesson that sociologists learn early in their careers. Whether a particular comment makes us laugh depends on the context in which it is made. The exact same uttering may vary in its effect if its setting changes. The same remark that you overheard in a serious situation, which had you seriously struggling not to burst out laughing may come across to you as extremely bland if repeated in other circumstances. This may help explain why so many anecdotes fail to live up to their implied promise of hilarity, ending up with the anti-climactic excuse of ‘you had to be there’, a tendency cheekily pointed out by the Irish comedian Dara O’Briain in one of his routines.
The importance of context to humour drives home the idea that humour has an inherent social character. Humour happens in a social space, and this social space plays an important part in the creation of that same humour. A silly comment may sound much funnier uttered in class, where it is unexpected, than at the park where leisurely banter is normal. This is obviously not because of the physical differences between the classroom and the park, but because of the different social situations that they represent. Social sites are not neutral, but come riddled with their own rules of appropriate behaviour and expectations.
The same is true for social roles. A nation’s head of state telling a joke during times of national crises would cause different reactions to a comedian telling the same joke at a comedy show, irrespective of how impeccable the former’s delivery is. Humour is thus also social in terms of its regulation: there are appropriate places to laugh at, and inappropriate ones. There are things and people one can joke about, and others that are taboo. Above all, humour is social because it entails communication and interaction between people who share things in common.
This social dimension of humour is nowhere clearer than at stand-up comedy shows, which are basically halls full of strangers brought together by their desire to laugh. In delivering their routines stand-up comedians presuppose certain knowledge on the part of their audiences. The most fundamental and obvious one is that the audience understands the language of delivery. Nobody will laugh at a joke in a language they do not understand, no matter how objectively funny it may be. The second presupposition is that the audience is able to get the jokes, and can relate to the subject matter discussed by the comedian. This applies especially to observational comedy, which uses the most trivial and mundane aspects of everyday life as its subject matter. Put differently, the comedian and audience must have some level of cultural affinity.
Faced with a roomful of strangers, the observational comedian must dig into experiences that ordinary people can recognize. Without experiential knowledge, or at least a vicarious understanding of the topics discussed, the audience would find it difficult to appreciate the humour. This is why such comedians are more likely to discuss the daily difficulties faced by office workers as opposed to the problems encountered by astronauts during rocket launches.
Needless to say, talking about familiar things by itself does not make things funny. The skill of observational comedians lies in their ability to make the mundane interesting, to make the audience look at daily occurrences from a new angle, to see the funny side of everyday things. The observational comedian is able to make us look at our home town with tourist eyes. In doing this, observational comedians step into a zone that is also inhabited by sociologists.
Sociology is often described as the systematic study of society. Studying sociology is said to help us question what we take for granted, the things that escape our rumination, that common-sense knowledge we cultivate just by living in our society. In ‘Thinking sociologically’ Zygmunt Bauman explains that sociology is all about making the familiar strange.
If this is so, then the sociologist and the observational comedian depart from a similar place. Admittedly, their motivations, and intentions, are miles apart. Comedians care little for social theory, research or the creation of knowledge. They only want to make people laugh. Likewise, sociologists are definitely not renowned for accentuating the comical side of social reality. They are more likely to be concerned with such serious things as social cohesion, social solidarity, social action, power, conflict and social inequality. Nevertheless, both sociologists and observational comedians are interested in making us look at things we think we know well with fresh eyes.
This means that despite setting off in completely different directions, observational stand-up comics and sociologists begin their respective journeys in relative proximity. And while this may be inconsequential to the stand-up comedian, who may find little of benefit in sociology, it need not be so for the sociologist.
Unfortunately, a lot of sociological research and writing ends up lost in academic publications that few people read. As a discipline, sociology suffers the unfortunate condition of being often about people and their everyday lives, but seldom for everyday people and their lives.
In this regard, observational comedians fare better. Such comedians are able to command people’s attention and keep things relevant. They do not have much choice. The nature of their job entails keeping things grounded in experiences that people can relate to. More than that, laughter is easier to sell than social research, which makes the comparison between comedians and sociologists somewhat unfair on the latter. Indeed, observations made by comedians are intended to create laughter, not knowledge, and so the “truths” expressed by them remain largely inconsequential, told only for laughs.
Conversely, sociologists are not primarily interested in people’s amusement. For sociologists commanding the undivided attention of a general audience is less of a priority than understanding and explaining social matters. This is unfortunate because sociological writing often carries research findings and truths that are more useful shared than hidden behind walls of impenetrable jargon in academic hideouts. In this sense, making the familiar strange does not suffice. That strangeness must also be made intelligible and accessible.
This sketchy comparison of comedians and sociologists thus presents a scenario where those most likely to hold people’s attention with their questioning of taken for-granted knowledge have only light-hearted frivolities to offer, whereas those with more substantial things to say lack the mass audiences of the other.
This does not mean that sociologists should become comedians, or compromise their research integrity to appease a mainstream mass of non-sociologists. It does, however, remind us that the social world, which provides so much material for observational comedians, can indeed be a funny place. Way back in 1963 Peter Berger warned that sociology should not ignore the “buffoonery of the social spectacle” (p. 165). Sociologists would do well to remember this piece of advice. Indeed, if Berger’s plea is heeded, people may become more receptive to questions that challenge the structures of everyday life.
At the most basic level observational stand-up comedy can be an aide to sociology by serving a heuristic purpose, as a springboard from which everyday social reality is questioned and deconstructed. This is perhaps what drove Tim Delaney to write Seinology, a book that takes a sociological look at the comedy series Seinfeld, a show that is loosely based on the observational comedy of Jerry Seinfeld. The show was often described as being about nothing. As Delaney argues, however, in reality the show is about everything, with episodes made out of basic ordinary circumstances and social situations. Many issues that were tackled in the show have a direct sociological relevance.
What the above suggests is that although different, the worlds of sociology and observational comedy are in some sense proximate enough to make the building of casual bridges possible. Observational stand up comedy can help us appreciate that the way things are does not always make much sense, and convention can be rather funny, if not downright ridiculous. This is its potential contribution to sociology. Sociologists, on the other hand, can help us understand that these conventions, and the forces that create and re-create social life, are alterable. This knowledge is empowering and can be sociology’s contribution to society.
Bauman, Z. (1997). Thinking Sociologically. In A. Giddens (Ed.) Introductory readings (pp. 12-18). Cambridge: Polity Press.
Berger, P. (1963). Invitation to Sociology. New York: Anchor Books.
Delaney, T. (2006). Seinology. New York: Prometheus Books.