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Participatory humor

Posted by Robin Abrahams  October 4, 2011 12:15 PM

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Kestrell (aka the Traveling Professor) sent me this call for data from two Arizona State University professors: 

HELP WANTED! Now that Don and Alleen Nilsen have retired from teaching at ASU, they want to write a book about humor focusing on the changing nature of humor and how people are no longer happy to sit back and laugh when someone tells a "canned joke." Today, people want to participate in the creation of the humor they laugh at. We would love to hear examples or opinions from friends, colleagues, former students, and anyone who enjoys a good laugh. Please send us your ideas or experiences: or We promise to keep track of your names and to acknowledge your help. And if we can get a publisher who will print the book for a reasonable price, we will try to send copies to our biggest contributors. Many thanks. 

Here are some of the topics we need help with. 

Hot Potato Humor: This is like the game children play when sitting in a circle and tossing a ball from one player to another pretending that it is too hot to keep. The idea is not to be caught with it when the whistle blows. With humor, someone starts a joke, then someone else in the crowd adds to it and so does someone else. For example, when Alleen was a loaned executive to the Board of Regents, she remembers one of our universities proposing a program devoted to race horses. Even before everyone at the table had received their copy of the proposal, someone said "Whoa!" This was followed by such other comments as, "Don't let this one get out of the gate!" and "I wouldn't bet on its success!" By the time more than half of those voting had added a joking comment, the fate of the proposal was sealed. Of course the regularly-schedule twenty-minute discussion was held, followed by a vote in which the proposal was formally shelved. The announcement was made with the comment "Thank goodness, we won't be saddled with this one." We would love to hear about examples of this kind of quick moving, spontaneous humor that you have observed or participated in. 

The world's longest running joke: Arizona has a law that an elected official cannot be impeached until having been in office for six months. When in 1986, Evan Meacham was elected Arizona's governor, he received a plurality, but not a majority of the votes. Even before his inauguration people were joking about his controversial decisions and the inadvertent remarks he made. This went on for a full six months, after which he was impeached. Two books of Meacham jokes were published, and he was featured in several national news stories. Gary Trudeau, for example, devoted a week- long comic strip to him. Can you tell us about other "long-running" jokes-maybe in your family, high school, church, or community? 

INTERNET HUMOR: We think one of the reasons for the success of social networking (FaceBook, Twitter, YouTube , etc.) and of the jokes (both written and in pictures) that viewers pass on to their friends, is that they invite participation. Have you adapted or helped create one of these jokes? What is the funniest incident you remember receiving? 

Participatory humor: Besides planning surprise parties, have you ever participated in other forms of creative, group humor, such as practical jokes, tricks, or campaigns? If so, we would love to hear about them.

I like their idea, although I wonder about their assumption that participatory humor is somehow a new phenomenon. Shakespeare's plays are full of scenes of friends riffing off one another's puns, which implies that the behavior was at least recognizable. 

One of my all-time favorite books is Henry Jenkins's Textual Poachers, a cultural study of fan fiction and pop-culture fandom. According to Dr. Jenkins, gluing on your pointy ears and heading for the nearest con is a form of "participatory communication" -- you're not a mere consumer of a product, but someone who is joining in a public conversation, a conversation about adventure, friendship, loyalty, diversity, honor. His book also illustrates the extent to which fan behaviors -- forming societies for the discussion and emulation of beloved characters, creating songs about them, writing "fan fiction" -- go back to at least medieval times. 

Participatory humor and the kind of fan behavior Dr. Jenkins documents (entertainingly, too -- the book is nothing if not a fun read) seem to spring from the same impulse: to take what is out there, whether it's a friend's slip of the tongue or the new JJ Abrams Friday-night entry, and run with it. I'm guessing we've always been that way. 

If you've got data for the Drs. Nilsen, please post it here as well! I'll try to come up with a few examples of my own to share, too. 
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About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at

Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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