You must be joking…

13 Apr

Andrew McEwan

“Jokes are a way of maintaining regional, national and international identities”

The Simpsons' favourite Scot - Groundskeeper Willie

So an Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman walk into a bar, and the barman looks up and goes, “What is this, some kind of joke?” All three leave the bar instantly, as they’ve had enough of that response and walk down the road to the next one. As they enter, the barman looks up and says “What is this? Some kind of demarcation of identity across cultural, geographical and individual boundaries?”

Excuse me?

 To consider this properly, we need to go back to what the first barman said. He mentioned “jokes”. Jokes are brief, packaged moments of human experience and thought stripped down and streamlined for optimum delivery. Though short, they have plenty to say. They reveal what the teller finds funny, how good their sense of humour is (my friends all agree that mine is in need of radical improvement, “dad-like” being a phrase I hear often), how they perceive their audience and how willing they are to test the boundaries of social decorum. In short, they are but one way amongst many to construct an individual identity in a group. But what about the even bigger picture? Are jokes capable of accomplishing a similar feat on a regional and national level? The second barman seems to think so. To explore this, I want to focus on not the structure of the joke or how it is told, but the subject; who or what exactly the teller is choosing to make a joke out of.

Austin Powers

A question that I’ve recently been asking people I meet who are from all over the world is “Who do you like to make fun of?” The answers are fascinating, so much so that I’m thinking of campaigning to have it as a compulsory question in the next census. They tend to fall into three categories; regional, national and international. These categories are both geographical and cultural in what they define. For example, last week I asked this question of a girl who was from the state of Wisconsin in the USA. Regionally, they made fun of other Wisconsonites, (is that a word?) with the boundary tending to fall along county and city lines. Nationally, they made fun of people in the Midwest in general and in particular, Texas. Even I agreed with her on that last one. Internationally, it was the British that were the butt of their jokes, as she explained that when people joked about being arrogant, they “put on a British accent.” Now this is only one from many, and I doubt that if I asked another Wisconsonian (still not sure what the correct term is…) I would get the same answer, probably with a few similarities here and there. My friend from Wisconsin is engaging in the act of stereotyping, something that we all do and it occurs across the three categories set out previously.

When we stereotype, we simplify, and when we simplify, we set out a boundary between ourselves and whatever is being simplified.

The leprechaun, one of Ireland's most famous exports

The “Englishman, Scotsman, Irishman” jokes are perfect examples. The actions of one nationality are made to look stupid against the actions of the other two as they walk into bars on a seemingly endless basis. (You can make a career out of anything these days!) In a world where the individual identity is constantly being encroached upon, jokes are a way of maintaining regional, national and international identities – as long as neither side takes them too seriously of course. They are a dynamic record of how individuals and groups perceive themselves in relation to other individuals and groups; magnify this to on an international scale and you find yourself with one country’s view of their neighbours. So next time you make those three perennial favourites walk into a drinking establishment of your choice think about it – you’re maintaining your own identity across cultural and geographical boundaries. So go on – flex those “identity muscles”! A word of warning – stick to the term “joke”, as “demarcation of identity across cultural, geographical and individual boundaries” doesn’t roll off the tongue that sweetly.

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