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“Humor and Laughter” by Attardo Analytical Essay

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Updated: Sep 30th, 2019


Humor and laughter are essential parts of the discourse that intend to express a happy emotion. Historically, the two aspects of conversation did not acquire substantial attention until the 1990s when studies and publications regarding the topic intensified.

Since then up to now, a synthesis of the different elements of humor and laughter lacks thereby, triggering the relevance of evaluating the maturation of the field. Therefore, analyzing the developmental period of the field that include the precursors (1974-1984), the functionalist stage (1985-2000), and the corpus synthesis that spans from 2000 up to now is crucial (Attardo, 2015).

The Precursors

The works of Harvey Sacks provided the foundations for studying the strands of humor and laughter as he endeavored in the Conversation Analysis approach. Essentially, Sacks analyzed the three elements of jokes that include the preface, telling, and the reactions that facilitate the introduction, delivery, and the conclusion of the conversation.

Therefore, jokes are similar to narratives whereby the speaker introduces the joke by asking the audience if they are willing to hear one. Then, the narrator proceeds to relate the joke after a successful preface. In most cases, jokes intend to test the audience’s awareness about a certain issue that would also welcome their interaction. The reaction part characterized by “systematic possibilities” constitutes the aspects of laughter, delayed laughter, and silence (Attardo, 2015).

The facet of laughter has received more inquiry than humor and it should be noted that the two features of discourse are not coexistent since the latter is not a physical depiction of the former. Thus, laughter can occur without the presence of humor, and the reverse is true. Further, laughter could signify the appreciation of humor or the termination of discourse.

Additionally, the teller could use laughter to validate the response of the audience regarding the topic of discussion. Besides, the functionality of laughter entails taking turns, depicting the speaker’s humorous intent, affirming the interpretation of the discourse, requesting for additional information, and acting as an affiliate resource (Attardo, 2015).

Delayed laughter is usually prompted by two incompatible needs in the audience. Firstly, depicting a comprehension of the text; secondly, tracking the audience’s reaction throughout the conversation. Silence, as the last strand of response to jokes, portrays the disapproval of the audience concerning the teller’s ideas or maintaining the character as the audience takes some time to get the joke.

Another form of reaction to jokes involves the speaker’s expression of seriousness to jokes associated with playful insults or irony (Attardo, 2015). Moreover, there is a distinction between canned and conversational jokes since the former comes at the end of a narrative in the form of a punchline while the latter occurs spontaneously.

The functionalist phase

Humor fulfills several functions that scholars intended to analyze during this stage of studying the aspects of discourse. The chief functions of laughter and humor are affiliative and the less common disaffiliative or aggressive aspect (Attardo, 2015). In most cases, humor and laughter seek to streamline conversations in an interactive manner.

Furthermore, some scholars perceive the function of humor as that of evoking “laughable” situations. However, other scholars have refuted the claim owing to situations whereby the audience experiences a failed joke (Attardo, 2015).

Laughter and humor occur partly in a controlled manner through which the speaker fosters their communication for a particular purpose. In shared laughter, for instance, the speaker introduces the joke in an “invitation-acceptance” manner that involves taking turns with the option of renewing the joke to enhance the continuity of the shared laughter.

In this light, the speaker fosters the functionality of humor and laughter by introducing new jokes or saying something funny after driving a particular message. Thus, providing the humor support and observing the principle of least disruption facilitates the affiliative functionality of humor and laughter whereby the in-group attains a “we-feeling” that strengthens their interaction and relationships (Attardo, 2015).

Besides the affiliative function, laughter and humor could also yield negative aspects that have the potential of biting instead of building the bond within the group engaged in discourse. However, the negative functionality element of humor and laughter occurs rarely since discourse seeks to instill a positive impact on the audience thus signifying meaningful interactions.

The Corpus-Based Synthesis

Recently, corpus-based studies have fostered conversational analysis regarding humor and laughter by enabling a better understanding of the different strands of discourse. Before the year 2000, studies that integrated the use of corpora lacked due to less annotation concerning the features of discourse on humor and laughter. For this reason, the study of the various types of humor faced challenges concerning the uninformative feature of delving into the study.

The assertion holds because there lacks adequate or none at all corpora that labels the existence of humor in a particular discourse situation (Attardo, 2015). For the purpose of mitigating this challenge, studies regarding the analysis of the different elements of humor have recently integrated varied corpus to enhance the analysis of discourse.

Some of the studies analyzed teenage conversations, press conferences, and newspaper stories. Therefore, it is indispensable to conduct studies that specifically analyze either laughter or humor. In this light, corpus studies that involve humor styles, humor support, and style seek the distinction of its unique features.

Humor adopts the form of many styles depending on the situation at hand. Hence, one should expect different types of humor at the dinner, workplace, classroom, or wedding settings. One of the unique aspects of an individual’s personality manifests in their style of humor.

Thus, the introduction of “family” styles of humor have expressively enhanced the understanding of the element of conversations. The frequencies of the humor occurrences also depend on the “family” or situation with more of it experienced in multiparty discourses. Corpus studies as the Language in the Workplace Project initiated in 1996 carried out in at least 20 workplace environments have been instrumental in facilitating the understanding of humor styles concerning setting and gender (Attardo, 2015).

The concept of humorous support involves the integration of conversational initiatives that foster the acknowledgment and support of humorous utterances that centrally seek the occurrence of additional humor and laughter.

The scope of humor support focuses on the trait of verbal support by disregarding strands like exaggerated facial expressions, laughter, or smiles among other expressions. Humor support could be achieved through more humor contribution, echoing the jokes, and bolstering the conversation involvement. Reactions that do not support humor include withholding appreciation and lack of reaction (Attardo, 2015).

The integration of timing in humor corpora is essential for picking the humorous moments from the non-humorous ones in discourse studies. Thus, the application of instrumental phonetic analysis improves the identification of different aspects of humor to enhance the accuracy of the analysis and evaluation. Further, the prose at which canned joke-tellers drive their punch lines should be noted to foster its identification.

Paradigm Shifts in Humor Discourse Research

Methodological changes in the study of humor and laughter have taken place over a period as seen in the move from narrative and canned jokes to conversational and discursive humor. Furthermore, the move from the conversation analysis and discourse analysis methodologies that used transcriptions to the application of quantitative methods that integrate video recording as seen in corpus-based research depicts the change in approach.

Currently, mixing discourse analysis with cognitive resources has proved to be instrumental in analyzing the critical aspects of humor and discourse. Cognitive resources like the General Theory of Verbal Humor (GTVH) enrich the analysis of humor by facilitating its identification and validation (Attardo, 2015).

Additionally, humor has multiple functions that it can execute concurrently. Thus, the indeterminate strand of humor and irony may, and normally does, result in diverse interpretations amongst the discourse participants. Moreover, adopting the co-construction approach to humor has improved the understanding of humor and laughter. In this respect, both participants collectively engage in the production and elaboration of the joke unlike in the approach used by Sacks whereby a narrative and reactive approach was applied.

A paradigm shift in the study has also been manifested in the identification of humor as scholars involve extensive corpora in the analysis of humor. Besides, the use of laughter to identify humor has diminished in contemporary studies since it does not assure its existence. The several reasons for failed humor that include lack of utterance comprehension, failure in the identification of humorous keying, and lack of joke appreciation or participation (Attardo, 2015).


Humor as an element of conversations is great and complex. Initially, studies on humor entailed an analysis of the story-telling aspects to the functional features of laughter and humor. Later, more emphasis on the affiliative functions resulted in considerable insights especially on the discernment of humorous utterances from non-humorous ones.

Moreover, paradigm shifts as portrayed in the changes from the corpus-based inquiries to the statistical comparison of the humor and laughter aspects of discourse demark the development of the field over years.


Attardo, S. (2015). Humor and laughter. In D. Tannen, E. Hamilton & D. Schiffrin (Eds.), The Handbook of Discourse Analysis (pp.168-188). Chichester, UK: Wiley.

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