Good Humor, Bad Taste: A Sociology of the Joke
Good Humor, Bad Taste is a sociological approach to understanding aspects of taste in the reception of jokes specifically and humor more generally. It explores humor appreciation in relation to the factors of age, gender, and class. To date, the research on humor preference has been conducted primarily by experimental psychologists and has been linked only with aspects of personality. Although Giselinde Kuipers—an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Amsterdam—considers the joke to be a form of communication embedded in social relationships, hers is not a study of joke telling in situ. The data are gathered from interviews and questionnaires. Subjects for the study were acquired through newspaper advertisements and personal contacts in the Netherlands, but mainly through people applying to participate in joke-telling contests for a Dutch television program. Kuipers also interviewed editors of [End Page 119] joke books, and other interview subjects were drawn from respondents to a questionnaire on jokes and humor. Joke evaluation schedules were completed, and subjects were asked about their favorite television comedians. The initial phase of research was completed in the Netherlands in the late 1990s. Five years later, Kuipers conducted similar research—although on a much smaller scale—in the United States, which is also described in the book.
What is perhaps the most surprising finding in Kuipers’s research in the Netherlands concerns class difference. As a genre, the joke itself is evaluated differently by differing classes. Members of the higher classes—measured not by income but by extent of education—evaluated the joke much more negatively than those with less education. In other words, those with a university education tended to reject the joke as a genre, independent of its contents. Those with only primary or some secondary education were much more appreciative of the joke form. The more highly educated tended to reject the joke because it is framed as humor and is thus too predictable. It is not spontaneous and creative, it is likely to be disruptive and boisterous, and it is not connected to the person of the teller and thus not an aspect of self. Lesseducated subjects showed no concern for such criteria and lauded the joke for its sociability and its ability to create fun. The joke is valued for its presentation and not for its spontaneity or originality.
There were class differences as well when it came to the evaluation of specific humorous materials—highbrow and lowbrow styles of humor. More-educated subjects appreciated humor with a certain edginess and shock value (except when it is about minorities). Highbrow humor was thought to be complicated, difficult, and ambiguous. It had to make one think. It should make a serious point and not be merely amusing or sociable. The more-educated classes also tended to formulate comments about humor in artistic and literary terms. Less-educated subjects said that they preferred humor that seemed natural, sociable, easily grasped, and nonaggressive. There were a few subjects who equally appreciated both highbrow and lowbrow styles of humor, and even people who of humor, and even people who claimed not to like jokes had a sense of what constituted a good and a bad joke. And whether one liked or disliked jokes, longer jokes were invariably rated better than shorter ones.
The differences that Kuipers found in humor preference based on gender and age were less surprising. There were, of course, differences in knowledge of and appreciation for comedians from differing generations. The jokes of the older subjects employed different settings and scenarios than those of the young. The young could appreciate transgressive jokes using obscene language and sick imagery more than older subjects could. They also appreciated a quicker tempo in joke telling and comic routines. Women were less appreciative of jokes than men, although they often were the audience for male joke telling. Men did not think that women could or should tell jokes and felt that women were more easily embarrassed or offended. Many women agreed. Although subjects were aware of differences between genders and age groups with respect to humor appreciation, they were much less attuned to the differences that related to distinctions in class.
In the final section of the book, Kuipers presents her data on style and taste in American humor. Highly educated Americans seem far more appreciative of the joke genre than the educated Dutch. Differences in humor appreciation were more related to content than to form. An appreciation of political humor, for example, served to distinguish more-educated from less-educated Americans. Americans also talked about the value of “letting go” in response to a joke, whereas the educated Dutch seemed to value restraint more. The most salient difference between Americans and the Dutch was their response to questions about the “sense of humor.” Americans invariably described the sense of humor in moral terms— seeing it as an aspect of a moral self needed for being a good person, for dealing with the hardships of life, and for putting the self into perspective. The Dutch seemed only to be concerned about the morality of particular subject matter.
One of the problems that this research raises for me is the nature of the sample population that is assessed and interviewed. Folklorists [End Page 120] often depend on “samples”—although they never use the word—of convenience. Actually, folklorists will talk to almost anyone who is willing to talk to them. While I grasp the impossibility of trying to get anything like a representative sample of Dutch or American society for the purpose of studying joke tastes, the populations in this sociological study seem a little too ad hoc. Given some of the interesting results that emerge from Kuipers’s endeavor, one wonders what to make of it all. Should this research be considered a trial run for a bigger investigation employing a different sampling procedure?
I am also suspicious about the responses of subjects to questionnaires and interviews. Kuipers herself notes the difficulty. At one point, she mentions that in responses to ethnic jokes that rely upon very aggressive imagery, “Almost no one finds the joke funny. At least: in a questionnaire” (p. 151). One of her female joke tellers claimed that she would never tell Dutroux (a Belgian child molester) jokes. In fact, this subject relates in detail the real tortures she would inflict on such a monster (p. 150); nevertheless, Kuipers heard the same woman tell a number of such jokes at a previous meeting (p. 167). Kuipers is aware that people often tell jokes that they claim in interviews and on questionnaires never to tell, but she does not seem to highlight this problem sufficiently. If jokes are presentations of self, so are interview and questionnaire responses (if only to the self). To what extent can we trust the answers that subjects give to inquiries in the absence of some ethnographic check? How much is an informant’s claim to reject “hurtful” or aggressive jokes a presentation of self rather than of fact? Of course, Kuipers has no choice but to organize and analyze the data she elicited, but she might have made much more of this disparity in her discussion. One cannot help but wonder how much of the findings reflect how subjects imagine their world, rather than how that world really is.
Good Humor, Bad Taste makes many more points than can be easily addressed in a short review. There is much to explore, ponder, and dispute. The book would have benefited from closer copy editing and proofreading. It confronts, however, an issue that should be of central concern to folklorists and anthropologists: the reception of humor. Do people appreciate humor? What kinds of humor do they like, and why do they like them? Folklorists have talked about folk aesthetics for some time, but when it comes to grappling with one of the dominant forms of contemporary oral art, they have added precious little to the account. That is why Good Humor, Bad Taste is an important book. [End Page 121]