Punchlines and conclusions

Updated Monday, 19th January 2009
During the Lenny's Britain series, we asked for your help with some research. We wanted to understand British humour - and you responded with your jokes. Thanks for taking part in the research - and now, Marie Gillespie shares with OpenLearn some of the findings.

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Why study jokes?

Some might say studying jokes is a bit of a joke, why is humour something that’s worthy of academic research?

Humour isn't seen as worthy of academic study by some because - like many other forms of everyday communication, such as gossip - it is often regarded with disdain as being rather trivial or unimportant. Yet these forms of communications are very important for understanding social life; social relationships and everyday communication.

Jokes are a social lubricant, especially in a world where technologically-mediated forms of communication are becoming more pervasive. A lot of jokes are passed on through mobile phones.

Even when there is nothing special to share, a joke can be a way of keeping in touch; part of the ‘perpetual communication’ occasioned by the internet and mobile telephony.

I do ethnographic research: participating in the lives of people you’re studying, observing and talking to them, in order to understand the rich texture of everyday life. This approach to studying social life enables us to realise the social and political significance of jokes.

What attracted you to doing this on line survey of jokes?

I was interested in exploring the changing face of British humour, and because most of my prior research has been around questions of national, ethnic and religious identity, this was a fascinating subject for me.

I have done some ethnographic work in the 1980s on humour and joking relationships in everyday life, and one of my findings was that a lot of the jokes told by British Asian youth in Southall, west London (where I did my fieldwork) were taken either from television and from the wonderfully vibrant Punjabi joking culture that they acquired, and learned, through their parents.

So there was this interesting juxtaposition of Punjabi humour and the kind of British national humour we saw on programmes like Only Fools And Horses and Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. Quite similar in fact to the kind of humour we later saw on the TV comedy show Goodness Gracious Me!

How do you go about analysing jokes?

There are many ways in which you can analyse jokes - you can have a sociological approach or you could have a psychological approach.

Freud, for example, thought that jokes and humour provided very important vistas into the subconscious, into the kind of taboo things we feel we couldn’t or shouldn’t say. But you can’t research the subconscious very easily if at all! A psychological approach would look at jokes as an aspect of personality or as performing a self –gratifying or self aggrandising function – you know the idea that all jokes are “put downs”.

A sociological approach would, in contrast, look at the way in which jokes and humour are social lubricants of everyday life, how they express power in relations, and how they reflect certain kinds of inequalities - because fundamentally jokes always involve power relations between the joke teller, the joke receiver and the butt of the joke.

Another kind of theory of humour that combines the sociological and the psychological would say that jokes and humour are kind of social safety valves. They allow a kind of release of social tensions, or psychological tensions.

I think there’s something to be said for all these different approaches to the analysis of jokes. My approach is always to understand the individual in relation to the social.

So if you were going to take that one joke teller, and if you really wanted to understand the joke, you would have to look at the context in which it was told, who the joke was being told to and what the butt of the joke was. I would need to have all that data in order to be able to say what the social significance of that joke was.

That’s why it’s very difficult to take a joke and say "that’s racist" or "that’s sexist", because it’s not in the joke itself but it’s in the telling, and the context of the telling, that the social consequences, the significance, is realised.

Large scale cross-cultural studies of jokes are really fascinating because they show how there are fundamental joke types and how the same jokes appear in different cultural contexts - obviously with local variations and local details, and we found this when we did our survey. We found similar jokes, similar structures, but they had a kind of Liverpudlian flavour added, or they would have a little bit of local detail from Belfast, so that people adapt and creatively appropriate and recreate jokes and make them their own.

The more historical and large scale sociological and cross cultural studies (like the work of Christie Davies details of which can be found on the website) are absolutely fascinating in showing that kind of universalism and particularism that’s always at play in any kind of joke waves – especially disaster joke cycles which are perennial.

The other interesting angle on the larger scale studies is when you look at how jokes are communicated – how technologies change the social lives of jokes themselves. Prior to television, of course, jokes would be largely carried through word of mouth or through the press (or through pamphlets and so on and so forth).

With television, what you began to have was jokes that could be told on a mass scale and so were able to travel and spread in unprecedented ways. It’s quite interesting to see how this affected the kind of jokes that were told.

What did you learn from the online joke survey?

We found a majority of riddle type jokes which surprised me at first - and ill come back to that in a minute.

A total of 350 jokes were sent in by member of the public, the majority of which were sent in June and July 2007.

Over one third of the jokes were sent in by young people between 8 and 19 years old, and a further quarter by 40 to 60 year olds which is perhaps more revealing about how age shapes internet use rather than about the kind of jokes that different age groups like.

Perhaps predictably, the lowest number of jokes was sent in by the 60 to 80 year old category.

A majority of contributors were males (178 males to 97 females) and again this reflects what we already know about gender bias in internet use.

Joke sources

It’s hard to be precise about where jokes come from, because of the manner in which jokes circulate from media to family and friends, getting adapted, reinvented and retold, creating new versions. But based on what our online jokers told us most of the jokes were heard from friends (36%), followed by family members (15%).

This suggests that the joke is still seen very much as verbal art form despite the proliferation of jokes circulated by text messaging and the internet.

Nevertheless the internet and email are increasingly important joke sources and provide many more jokes (14%) than television (7%) or text messages (1%).

Our jokers heard the jokes they submitted in a variety of places but jokes circulating at school, in the workplace, pub, and derived from joke books, magazines, or newspapers came out tops. Others were heard in church, while shopping, or while playing golf.

There is of course some overlap between jokes heard at work, in church, in a pub, over lunch, at school, when shopping, on holidays or playing golf and those told by friends and family.


The 350 jokes were first sorted into the three main joke types or topics (by my wonderful research assistant Sylvie Butterbach who, as a French national, brought a distinctive eye and ear to our analysis). These three types were sexual, ethnic/nationality, and political jokes.

There were 74 sexual jokes, 23 ethnic/nationality and only 5 (overtly) political jokes.

Of course these categories are very broad and for example there is a big cross-over of jokes about ethnic or national identity and sexual jokes where stupidity or naivety is the joke butt.

A large number of jokes did not fall straightforwardly into these three categories but instead revolve around stupidity, naivety, ignorance or are designed to reinforce the cleverness or superiority of the joker, for example:

What is the definition of ‘stupid’?
Climbing over a glass wall to see what is on the other side

A significant proportion of the jokes might be viewed as being sexist or racist. They mainly revolved around ethnic caricatures and also the ‘stupidity’ of the ethnic characters. Though, as explained earlier, in order to really understand the significance of the joke, and whether it’s racist, sexist, you would have to be there and understand the context - the interpersonal relations.

Many stereotypes used in jokes - "they’re dirty", "they’re ignorant", or "they’re drunken" - they pass from one ethnic group to the other, which says something about the wider power relationships.

If you go to Canada, the butts of the jokes are the Newfoundlanders, but the same kinds of characteristics and stereotypes are attributed to them as have been attributed elsewhere to Irish people, black people or Indians. So these are to do with the relative position of power in society.

There was a paucity of overtly political jokes. Could that be due to political apathy or not feeling concerned by national or world events? Maybe, but it seems to me more likely that political jokes thrive where political freedom is curtailed (Soviet Russia, for example). Britain may not be a perfect democracy, but political freedom is guaranteed for most citizens.

Many jokes involved self irony and mockery – the British public laughing at itself, as in this joke sent in by a "50something" Scottish woman:

What’s the difference between the Italian Mafia and the Scottish Mafia?
Well, the Italians make you an offer you can’t refuse and the Scots make you an offer ye cannae understand

The lack of regionally-specific jokes could be seen as a reflection of how online joke submission flattens local differences in terms of geographical markers and cultural reference points, but also accent, speech and dialect don’t come alive in jokes that are sent by text or email.

It is also perhaps an indication of the standardisation of joke cultures that seems to be emerging as a result of technologically mediated communication. On this online survey, no significant regional differences emerged and this shows that how you do research affects the results that you get!

Sexual jokes were far less inhibited than in the joke booth where one had to appear on camera. Many were fairly crude, ranging from heterosexual and homosexual sex, through to light bulb jokes with a twist. Jokes about ageing, race or ethnicity, disability and about nuns, prostitutes and ‘tarts’ all appear regularly.

Some might find it disappointing that (racial and sexual) jokes have changed so little and the joke butts remain remarkably constant over time, despite the changing sources of jokes and technologies of joke telling.

Others would certainly argue that fundamental joke structures are universal, take culturally distinctive forms but are hard to shift. In fact you could argue that the majority of jokes play with feelings and ideas about misogyny, misanthropy and the misfortune of others!

There was a majority of riddle jokes (64%) versus narrative jokes (36%). Most of the narrative jokes are in the sexual category and are told by older people while most of the jokes sent in by young people are riddles, puns and word play jokes about animals or popular culture (“Star Wars” type jokes were a favourite).

The prevalence of riddle jokes in our on line survey is consistent with the joke booth findings. After all, Britain is famed for its ‘nonsense’ humour, from the riddles in Tolkien’s The Hobbit to Edward Lear, not forgetting the Penguin biscuit wrappers and the ones found in the Christmas crackers.

Riddles have a simple structure, are short, and thus easy to memorize. They are a good ice-breaker, good for killing or sharing time – and easy to text or email!.

Narratives are more complex, longer by definition, mostly in three parts, many with a leitmotiv; keeping the listeners in suspense, with the punch line delivered contrary to the listener’s expectations, which causes the laughter. These narratives require skills and mise en scene, with minimal gestures to sustain the interest. They are more suited for a pub, a gathering of friends.

Do you think there is a specific "British" sense of humour?

Many of the people we interviewed in and around the Joke Box, they all say, yes, there is something specific about British humour but it only becomes evident what is distinctive about British humour when one compares it to French or Irish humour.

British humour is full of self irony and self deprecation and these traits are much in view in the jokes submitted, and are expressed just as much in jokes about ageing as about disability as about baldness, for example. People like to laugh at themselves – perhaps before someone else does! – as well as at others.

But jokes also reveal an unequal society with hierarchies, rules and taboos that jokes challenge and subvert. Mock-shock jokes, the crude sexual jokes, and jokes which play on race and sex are staple among British jokes.

Arguably, such jokes are designed to escape roles and rules, to play with moral, social and political ambiguity, to expose hypocrisy, to flag incongruity, to critique - as well as to affirm - the social order.

But ‘the times they are changing’. If you consider how even twenty years ago, there were only four television channels, you had television and radio broadcasting to largely national audiences, and so in a way broadcasting was essential to the reproduction of national culture.

I think that is, to some extent, being eroded now have a proliferation of different television channels - the media world is becoming much more fragmented.

There is a fundamental contradiction at the core of contemporary culture. On the one hand you have media that are homogenising culture at a global level (with pan-national TV hits such as Friends) but at the same time you have this fragmentation with a myriad of digital TV channels, the internet, and so on.

So anybody trying to do cultural analysis today has to work with those contradictions of the particularisms of culture and how local cultures, and small social groups, create their own niche cultures and have their own insider references, cultural references, humour references.

At the same time there’s this global dimension to culture that cannot be ignored. But the "global" never remains strictly global because, as with the national, people always appropriate it in a local or regional form or variety.

So, there is something that we can recognise, and that recognition is important as British humour, but that cultural boundaries are very porous. It’s never something that you easily define because culture is always on the move.

What did you find most interesting about the project?

One of the very interesting things we found was with the Joke Booth. Because we had videoed the joke tellers we were able to see something of the way in which language and accents, and dialect and local idioms were what actually made the jokes regional – in other words it’s the way that telling a joke involves a performance, and the telling is often funnier than the joke – look at our joke booth clips and you’ll see what I mean!

The joke booth was quite a novel methodology – I don’t think that researchers have actually filmed the public telling jokes before. Quite often stand-up joke researchers go along and write down the jokes, so our filming was a new dimension and it helped us to see that, to some extent, we’re always put on the spot when we tell a joke, even when we’re in a safe situation: it’s a performance.

It was this performative aspect, which was so fascinating about what we did in this study, and which pushed the boundaries of what might have been traditionally undertaken in academia.

The main thing that it picked up that hadn’t been quite so clear in past studies is the way in which context shapes not only the content and style of humour, but also the performance of it.

If I were going to be doing future research on this, I would look much more carefully at the performative aspects of jokes and putting the joke in context.

How might jokes and humour evolve in the future?

Jokes get recycled, they always get reinvented with a contemporary and a local spin, and that’s the essence of it - you get the same jokes being reinvented. It’s a constant process of re-creation and reinvention – take the recent credit crunch jokes!.

But I think the acceleration of social and cultural change is one of the defining features of contemporary society. In the big metropolitan centres we are living not just in a situation of diversity but super diversity, and migration has become so much more complex.

It isn’t that people come and stay and work and sometimes visit back home. Now there’s circular, cyclical and reverse forms of migration. There’s this wonderful, cultural mix, and that is bound to be reflected and refracted through the humour and comedy that we see.

Finally, what's your favourite joke?

My favourite all time joke is the one about Paddy going for a job on a building site.

Paddy goes along and he meets Johnny, an Englishman, and he says, “Have you got any work there?”

And Johnnie says, “Yeah, what you looking for?”

“Ah, any labouring, you know, I’m a good worker.”

And Johnnie says, “Well, you’ll have to do an intelligence test first.”

“Ah, sure that’s no problem,” says Paddy.

“Okay, come on into the office,” says Johnnie. And so he goes into the office and he says, “Okay sit down there, Paddy.” And he says, “Now for your first question, can you tell me what’s the difference between a joist and a girder?”

And Paddy thinks for a moment and he says, “Sure, didn’t Joyce write Ulysses and Goethe wrote Faust.”

I love that joke because it does what all good jokes should do and that’s surprise us and challenge our assumptions.

Find out more

Read Marie's findings on the joke booth jokes

Watch some of the best joke booth jokes


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