This article is part of a series linked to episode 16 of The Anthill podcast from The Conversation called Humour Me, which includes an interview with the author.
Despite the fact that it is ubiquitous among humans, the study of humour is, ironically, still not taken seriously. It is routinely left to the footnotes of psychology and communications textbooks. In my PhD research, however, I argue that when it comes to making a point, comedy does not come naturally lower in the pecking order than seriousness. In some places and times, they have been equally important and the division between them is blurred.
The division is so ingrained that there isn’t a word for when humour and seriousness are mixed together. Once I had named it, it became easier to recognise and I spotted examples of it everywhere. The word I made up is “humitas” – a blend of “humour” and “gravitas”. The etymology of humour comes from “fluid” whereas gravitas comes from heavy, so with humitas we have weighty humour or fluid seriousness.
Something humitastic is a type of discourse which enjoys incongruity and paradox and doesn’t draw a clear line between satire and sincerity. It can be seen operating everywhere from a couple who decide to have a Star Trek-themed wedding to moments in Barack Obama’s speeches, Michael Moore’s films and anti-capitalist demonstrations.
The value of laughter
The literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin wrote about the Renaissance of the mid-16th century as a time when the writings of Rabelais, Cervantes and Shakespeare brought together the folk humour of the masses with the serious discourse of officialdom. For a heady 60-year period, high literature embraced low comedy, until the old hierarchies reasserted themselves. As the modern world then took shape, we needed novelists, philosophers or scientists to tell us that the world was full of beautiful contradictions, rather than laughing about it together out loud. Laughter was relegated to being trivial.
Political anthropologist Dominic Boyer describes a similar mixture of satire and sincerity happening in today’s politics and suggests it might be a reaction to the authoritative single voice of 24-hour news channels. I argue that we are once again seeing a value being placed on laughter, which can help us know the world beyond what official versions of the news tell us.
Boyer points to the recent spate of comedians entering politics, such as Beppe Grillo, who founded the Five Star Movement in Italy in 2010, and the Brazilian clown Tiririca who won a seat in the country’s congress in the same year, with slogans like “It can’t get any worse”.
Icelandic politician-comedian Jon Gnarr summarised the spirit of humitas perfectly when he said: “Just because something is funny, doesn’t mean it isn’t also serious.” He became mayor of Reykjavik in 2010 on a comedy platform which was seen as a reaction to the financial crisis in Iceland. He formed the Best Party with a manifesto including free towels for everyone in public pools, a polar bear in Reykjavik Zoo and a pledge to only enter into coalition with partners who had watched all five series of The Wire.
Stand-ups taken seriously
At the same time, but in a different way, stand-ups are increasingly using the cultural capital of their comedy and deploying it in activism. Irish stand-up Grainne Maguire joined in the “Repeal the Eighth” campaign against anti-abortion laws in Ireland by getting women to Tweet the Taoiseach with details of their periods. Stand-up Josie Long has started the charity Arts Emergency in order to give disadvantaged young people mentors in the arts industries. The comedian Ruby Wax has also set up forums so people with mental health problems can support each other. This activism is not separate from these comedians’ shows – the themes are introduced in them and the campaigns are entwined with them.
Street movements have used their own kind of humitas, too. The Serbian resistance movement Otpor, which was founded in 1998 to bring down leader Slobodan Milošević, used humorous posters and performances to help make non-violent protest cool and bonding. The Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army was founded in 2003 to use playfulness and absurdity to confuse security forces in protests against George W Bush. Russian punk protest group Pussy Riot often use humour in their protest videos.
We are also seeing this blurring of boundaries in academia. Bright Club is a night, started at UCL in 2009, in which academics deliver their research in the form of stand-up comedy. Social scientist Cate Watson has recently argued on The Conversation for the value of humour as a social sciences methodology. My own PhD thesis about stand-up is one of relatively few pieces of academic work to be written humorously – which is why I looked for this word humitas in the first place. My written thesis contains a second voice who pops up to make jokes, puns and criticise the main argument.
Like everything in a neoliberal society, humitas could be reduced to a commodity whose only role is to sell things such as dodgy political ideas or friendlier business brands. But it can also be a way of acknowledging and embodying the world’s absurdity while still trying to change it for the better.