Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Context is Key

            As Douglas talks about The Joke, he highlights the idea that humor draws attention to social structures and relationships. We have often discussed this in class, and I found Douglas’ assertion, that “the joke form rarely lies in the utterance alone, but that it can be identified in the total situation” (148), particularly apt. This is something I could not help but experience in my own humorous adventures.
Americans usually find jokes from different cultures less humorous than jokes from their own soil. I have a friend from France, and he told me this joke the other day:
A guy walks into a bar and yells, “It’s me!”
Everyone turns around, but it wasn’t him. [End.]
When he was finished, awkwardly waiting to see if I found it as funny as he did, I could muster only confusion. He rolled his eyes and explained that the “me” in this situation was subjective, so the people who turned around could have been expecting any “me.”  I kind of half-smiled and he was satisfied.
            Without the larger context of French as a first language, I was excluded from this joke. It was simply not as funny to me, because the words required a larger context, about which I was ignorant. Even after he explained the joke, though, I cannot say that I would pass it on to my friends, except here as an example of a joke that I’ll never find funny.
            The context for a joke is important even with instances of humor from our own backyard. Though we have often discussed the highlighting of a larger context through a joke, this reading of Douglas specifically reminded me of political cartoons. This genre might not always be side-splittingly, laugh-out-loud humorous, but, as Douglas points out, “one can appreciate a joke without actually laughing, and one can laugh for other reasons than from having perceived a joke” (148).
            The cartoon below can only be appreciated if the viewer is informed about Obama and his healthcare policies, thinks that a smug Obama or a precocious child is laughable, or perhaps simply gets a kick out of the President being dressed up as the symbol of Christmas and called “Obama Claus.” Without any of these qualities of the viewer, however, this cartoon is either offensive, as to one who wholeheartedly endorses Obama’s healthcare policies, or confusing, as to someone who has none of the context with which to appreciate it.

            Douglas is quite right to point out the importance of context in humorous situations. Sometimes, the context is highlighted by the joke, but other times, the context must be a prerequisite to the understanding of the joke. It seems possible that this kind of humor is less effective than the former. In Tales of the Tikongs, for example, any readers are invited to laugh before they consider the larger ideas represented. Only those that already agree with the ideas represented in political cartoons can appreciate them and their like.

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