Humor is an important part of everyday interaction. It serves mainly as a social lubricant that creates a lighter atmosphere between a speaker and an audience. Provided that it is not provoke offensive behavior, humor can be used as a first step towards building individual relationships. A more relaxed ambiance between people, in turn, is conducive to friendliness.
In the sociological context, however, humor has more important functions. It allows people to express their innermost feelings and opinions without offending a given status quo. In addition, it operates as a coping mechanism by paving the way for the normalization of crises. Lastly, it is a means of transmitting group culture to new members (Drew, Mills and Gassaway, 2007).
What’s So Funny? The Foundation and Dynamics of Humor
Humor is the result of “(the divergence between) the conventional and the unconventional” (Macionis and Gerber, 2008). A joke is regarded as funny when its reinterpretation of a protagonist or an event sharply contrasts those of preexisting concepts and schemata (Kubovy, 2003). But the teller of the gag must be able to specifically point out this difference at the proper time (Macionis and Gerber, 2008). Otherwise, the yarn might not be able to fulfill its objective of generating humor.
The listener, meanwhile, must be able to identify and understand the conflicting elucidations of a given reality in the joke that is being told to him or her. Reconciling these opposing interpretations is the only way he or she can understand the gag. Comprehending the yarn, in turn, satisfies the listener in the sense that he or she receives an “insider” status (Macionis and Gerber, 2008). He or she establishes rapport with both the teller of the joke and all the other people who understand it as well.
It must be noted, however, that a funny joke is entirely different from a demeaning one. Humiliating jokes in general are thinly disguised statements of intolerance against other races, ethic backgrounds, religions, the opposite gender and or individuals of different sexual orientations (Voors, 2000). These gags convey their message of hatred usually by perpetuating negative stereotypes about parties that are deemed to be different. Below are some examples of demeaning jokes:
a. Question: What is the difference between a Jew and a meat pie?
Answer: A meat pie does not scream when it is put in the oven.
b. Question: Why is a woman’s pussy like a warm toilet seat?
Answer: They both feel good, but you wonder who was there before you.
c. Question: What is the difference between a Catholic priest and acne?
Answer: Acne does not come on a boy’s face until he is 12 years old.
The Functions of Humor
It would be fair to say that humor operates as a “safety valve” in human interactions (Macionis and Gerber, 2008). Even the most taboo subjects become discussable when jokes are made about them. Its desensitizing ability likewise allows humor to become a non-threatening means of understanding the culture of a given society. Gags, after all, can express sentiments that might be dangerous to relationships within a certain society when discussed seriously.
Satire: Humor as a Cynical Commentary on Society
Satire is one of the most popular forms of humor. Its fame stems largely from the fact that it can ridicule the cruelest tyrants without the danger of retaliation. The Zairians, for instance, came up with the following joke to criticize the incompetent, corrupt and repressive regime of their former leader Mobutu Sese Seko:
Get yourself a leopard hat like the late Zairian President Mobutu wore, as Africans believe that their leaders are untamed lions, tigers or leopards. (p. 29)
By turning social issues such as political scandals and state repression of mass media into objects of comedy, the satirical pun also succeeds in convincing apolitical groups to ponder about the real state of their nation. Indeed, in the context of satire, euphemism and laughter are the most effective means of unveiling inconvenient truths. People, after all, will not react negatively to a joke unless they have something to hide.
Don’t Worry, Be Happy
Humor is likewise an effective method of stabilizing predicaments. Jokes that focus on particular professions validate this observation. The gag below pokes fun at how law enforcers deal with hardened criminals:
A local policeman had just finished his shift one cold November evening and was at home with his wife.
“You just won’t believe what happened this evening, in all my years on the force I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Oh yes dear, what happened?”
“I came across two guys down by the canal, one of them was drinking battery acid and the other was eating fireworks.”
“Drinking battery acid and eating fireworks! What did you do with them?”
“Oh that was easy, I charged one and let the other off.” (n. pag.)
It is very obvious that being a cop is a very dangerous job. Most criminals that cops come across with will not hesitate to use violence just to be able to escape arrest. Getting injured or killed in the line of duty is already a fact of life for a law enforcer.
Humor, therefore, allows cops to share common experiences and raise job-related concerns that might not be expressed properly in a more somber setting. In the process, group solidarity is promoted – they are able to share a communal relationship by laughing at each other without malice. Furthermore, they get the assurance that they are not alone in their work-related dilemmas (Drew, Mills and Gassaway, 2007).
A Funny Welcome
Jokes that tackle the norms of a society can actually provide valuable insights on its culture. Norms, after all, reflect what a community considers to be right and wrong. Readers can learn a thing or two about Russian norms and culture in the following joke:
The math teacher calls Petya up to the blackboard.
“Imagine that your father has borrowed a hundred rubles from a neighbor,” says the teacher, “and has promised to give the money back in two weeks. The first week he gives back forty rubles. How much would he give back the second week?”
“None at all,” replies Petya.
“What do you mean, ‘none at all’?” the teacher asks, surprised. “You weren’t listening properly. Let me repeat: imagine that your father has borrowed a hundred rubles and promised to repay the money in two weeks. The first week he gives back forty rubles. How much would he give back the second week?”
“None at all!” repeats Petya.
“Oh, Petya,” the teacher is annoyed. “You don’t know the simplest arithmetic!”
“And you don’t know my father…” (n. pag.)
This gag reveals the communal nature of Russian culture. Centuries of agricultural village life and decades of communist rule instilled in Russians the collective mentality. They are therefore bound by tradition to help one another without expecting anything in return. In Russian culture, in fact, being asked by someone to do a favor for him or her is an indicator that you have a close relationship with him or her. For the Russians, being asked to do a favor for others is a sign of dependability and trustworthiness (Kwintessential, n.d.).
Humor is more than just a social lubricant that creates a lighter atmosphere between a speaker and an audience. It likewise serves as a venue for people to discuss important concerns in a non-threatening manner. By laughing at each other and at their problems without ill intent, they are able to instill among themselves a sense of unity. Even by just making fun of their predicaments, they are already exerting a collective effort to do something about these.
But while laughing at grave matters is good, it is still much better to actually solve them. After the amusement has died down, the hungry still has to be fed, the sick still has to be treated and the criminals have to be made to face their crimes. When people live in a safe and just society, they are happy because really feel so and not because they just want to run away from their problems. In the process, their laughter would be merrier and more genuine.