In preparation for a recent flight, the man in front of me “joked” at his teenage children. After being told to sit down and fasten my seatbelts, he said quite loudly, “Yes, seatbelts will definitely make an impact in a plane crash!
He looked forward to a positive response to his comment. His children did not seem to be laughing, and we in the surrounding queues experienced nervous discomfort. Is it not an unwritten rule not to mention a plane crash – even with a laugh – on the plane?
While joking about a plane crash may be good in other contexts, it seemed very inappropriate in this particular context. Many people are nervous flyers, and even those who don’t may not want to hear the phrase “plane crash” on a plane. In some cases, someone may be removed from a flight due to improper joke. This attempt to make fun of was not only out of context, but in fact inaccurate. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, “in-flight turbulence is the leading cause of injury to airline passengers and flight attendants in the event of non-fatal accidents.” Fastening seat belts can prevent people from throwing if the flight is uneven.
What is funny and what is not may be the subject of debate, but comedy can teach us about some basic concepts in sociology.
- The process of meaning creation is social and changes with our different social positions.
Unless we’re just having fun ourselves (as my fellow passenger seemed to be doing), it’s usually joked to make fun of others. So humor is grounded and creates common meaning among people.
What makes something funny (or non-funny) is part of the construction of social reality, the way meaning creation takes place collectively and in a social context. Some jokes can seem funny because of our cultural context, such as race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status. Personal and shared experiences form the basis of humor.
As of 2009 wrote Janis Prince Inniss, comedy sometimes provides an opportunity to express thoughts that would otherwise be considered rude or offensive. And, of course, people may be offended by jokes, and others may not understand why others are offended. It is also often associated with the cultural lens through which we perceive the world around us and, of course, who jokes. Someone of the same nationality who jokes based on a common ethnic stereotype may not offend members of the group, as this can be seen as a subtle challenge to a stereotype that an “outsider” may not be able to say the same. .
- We can use humor to discuss topics that people don’t want to discuss
Public debates about race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and other social categories can be full of baggage and difficult to raise. The House’s jokers have historically played for royals and have tacit permission to ridicule those in power. Also, in the modern tradition of a White House correspondent dinner, a steak is being prepared for the current president, who usually attends the event and is expected to laugh at the jokes told at their expense about how the president handles serious current events. The president, in turn, humorously crosses the press.
Sometimes comedy is a way to manage emotions with others. Swordsman humor is a way to deal with death or difficult situations. When my grandmother died and people came to say goodbye to her, the mood was understandably heavy. Watching this, she said, “Don’t grieve, but don’t be very happy either! The moment of laughter provided relief at a difficult time.
In this famous scene from 1975 Mary Tyler Moore showwe see how the characters’ jokes about the late “Lying Clown” open up space for them to joke about their own and each other’s mortality:
- The context is important
You may have heard the phrase “tragedy and time equals comedy” or you may have heard a humorist tell a joke about a historical event, perhaps the Lincoln murder, and if it falls, says “too early?
This aspect of comedy reminds us whether jokes are considered funny in a certain context or not. In addition to our individual origins, the meaning of humor changes with time and place. A joke told at a funeral can take on a completely different meaning than told at a bar or party.
The people around us can also influence how we interpret the meanings of anecdotes. Have you ever heard someone say a filthy joke when your parents are around? At that moment, it may seem less funny. Jokes from like-minded friends of a similar background and age group may have a better chance of success than those with people we know less.
We probably all felt uncomfortable telling what we thought was a joke and later regretting it. When I was in high school, my friend and I walked in when a boy I liked came and asked if we wanted to take a ride. She was so excited that she didn’t say anything as we sat in the car, and maybe he was also excited because after a few moments he got into a slight bend in the wing and turned into the car in front of us. I (foolishly) tried to brighten the mood with a joke that I paid him for the ride if he didn’t hit any other cars for the rest of the trip.
He didn’t laugh. A friend got mad at me later. But now, decades later, I don’t know … is it funny?
Comedy is a deeply social process. What is funny, when and to whom, all depends on the social context and how we create meanings together. Can a joke be just a joke? Maybe, but if others laugh, it has social significance.
What else does comedy teach us about sociology?
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