Make your own free website on Tripod.com
Chapter 2

Previous page
Next page

This chapter will serve as a bridge between Chapters One and Three, as a link between the theoretical discussion of the first chapter and the presentation of the findings of the empirical study in the third. In the first section of this chapter I shall explain why the video medium was chosen for the empirical study. This section will include a brief description of the defining characteristics of television situation comedies. In the second section I will discuss the interplay between visual and verbal humour that occurs in television comedy, and the effect this relationship might have on the subjects' reactions to the sitcom. In the third section I will explain why I chose Fawlty Towers as the sitcom to be used for data collection, and in the final section I will give a description of the empirical study. This will pave the way for the presentation of data in the next chapter.
 
 

Section 2.1:The Medium

During the course of the research I have undertaken for this dissertation, I have found very little work dealing with humour in English, from the perspective of people learning English as a second language. Valdes (1986:142) mentions the subject in passing:
 

            It is wise to introduce the topic of humor [into the classroom] at an early stage,
            as the understanding of what is funny in another language and culture is one of
            the last attainments of language students. . . Learning that the most widespread
            incongruous or the unexpected can help the nonnative speaker at least to understand
            humor when it is pointed out.
 

Valdes is speaking here in relation to literature, and indeed, literature is one medium that could be used to investigate the issues raised in this dissertation. I have chosen television comedy, however. I shall now outline the reasons for this decision.

The prevailing theme of this dissertation is that there are many linguistic obstacles to understanding humour, even for advanced learners of English. These obstacles have been discussed in Chapter One. For the empirical study, I could have given the subjects individual jokes to analyze, and tested their appreciation of them. However, I wanted to employ a medium which emphasised that humour is above all a social activity. In this context video seemed the natural medium. As Nash (1985:12) points out:

[H]umour is an occurrence in a social play. It characterizes the interaction of

persons in situations in cultures, and our responses to it must be understood in

that broad context.

So, while looking at those systemic elements in humour which pose problems for language learners, I also wanted to locate those elements in the wider context of humour as social interaction. Video is the perfect medium for showing language in context. In Ruane's (1991:30) words, "video documents can show us something near the integrality of spoken and interactive discourse". Most importantly,

video demonstrates the close interrelationship between aural and visual channels in communication and ensures that we have access to the full range

of non-verbal and extralinguistic sources of meaning which are so important in

interaction (Ruane 1991:31).

This point will be raised again in the next section.

The other reason for my choice of video is to do with pedagogical considerations. Television comedy would seem to be an ideal way of presenting humour to language learners. Like individual jokes, or comic literature, it is of course authentic, in that it was "created to fulfil some social purpose in the language community in which it was produced " (Little et al. 1988:21). What distinguishes video is that is has "strong motivational features" (Ruane 1991:33). As Ruane (1991:32) points out, many learners "are positively predisposed to television and believe that it can contribute to their learning". This is not to say that other media would not be suitable for dealing with humour in the classroom: there is a place for studying comic literature, or analyzing, say, puns. However, the most relevant and probably most motivating medium could well be video.

Before discussing the role of visual humour in TV comedy, I will look briefly at what is meant by television situation comedy. Mulkay (1988:183) described the sitcom as:

            a distinct form of visual narrative which is recognisably humorous, not simply because it is signalled as such or because it contains specific humorous
            exchanges, but because it consists of a series of separate, but related, episodes, each of which is generated out of the same basic 'root joke' (or,
            occasionally, a small set of interconnected jokes).
 

In Mulkay's view, the basic recipe for a sitcom is a number of stereotyped characters with discordant views, interests, or inclinations, placed in a context of interaction they cannot escape from (think of Basil, Sybil, Manuel and Polly in Fawlty Towers). Eaton (1981:37) also makes it clear that a sitcom's characters are stuck with each other.

Each episode of a sitcom has a unique storyline, but the setting and underlying patterns of behaviour are unchanging. This immutability enables viewers to pick up the clear, repeated signals of humorous intent that are present (Mulkay 1988:184). This raises the possibility that students of English may be able to pick up on humorous intent in sitcoms when they have become 'acclimatised' to the programme. In other words they may be able to exploit extralinguistic cues, in this case knowledge of the sitcom's format, to aid their appreciation of the humour. They may not appreciate the systemic features of the humour. As we shall see in the next section, the visual humour in TV sitcoms may have a similar effect.
 
 
 
 

Section 2.2:Visual and Verbal Humour

Chapter One focused on humour as a linguistic phenomenon. Certain aspects of the structure of humour, such as incongruity and ambiguity, were identified as highly problematic for even advanced learners of English. It was suggested that the obstacles arising from systemic features of humour are as important as those connected with pragmatic or sociocultural features. When the subjects' responses are presented in Chapter Three, we shall see which problems are evident. As the medium being used in the empirical study is video, the effect on the subjects of non-verbal cues to laughter will have to be taken into account. Two points need to be considered: when the subjects appear to be appreciating the humour, are they actually grasping the complexities of the verbal humour, or are they reacting to, firstly, visual cues; or, secondly, the laughter of the studio audience?

Let us deal first with visual humour. As pointed out in Chapter One, this type of humour tends to be universally appreciated, not only geographically, but also through time. Staveacre (1987:5) speaks of slapstick gags "handed down from one generation to the next, sometimes hijacked, endlessly recycled". The medium of video obviously provides the perfect vehicle for visual humour, so all sitcoms will, to some degree, contain it. Even for a non-native speaker with a low level of proficiency, there will be something to laugh at in all sitcoms. It seems probable that there is some interplay between the visual and the verbal humour in such cases. It will therefore be necessary to differentiate between occasions when subjects seem to appreciate the verbal humour, and occasions when they are actually responding to simultaneous visual cues. In the latter case, the cues may support the viewers' understanding of the verbal humour; or they may distract attention from the content of the verbal humour. Any examples which occur in the empirical study will be discussed in Chapter Three.

The other relevant cue to laughter is the 'canned laughter' of the studio audience. This is by now such a ubiquitous feature of sitcoms that we tend to ignore it at a conscious level. It seems, however, that "laughter and smiling operate as cues which encourage laughter and smiling on the part of others" (Mulkay 1988:109). We are familiar with instances of this in everyday life, when laughtecan seem contagious. Viewers of sitcoms,
 

            are reminded every few seconds by the hilarity of the unseen studio audience that
            they should be amused by the happenings on their screens. This repeated cueing
            operates as an instruction to recipients to search for humorous interpretations of the evolving text (Mulkay 1988:182).
 

It is important to ascertain whether the subjects in any particular instance are simply following the studio audience's lead in laughing. By noting the timing of reactions, and by observing facial expressions, one may be able to come to a decision on this point.
 
 

Section 2.3:Why Fawlty Towers ?

Having decided to use a television sitcom, the question remained - which sitcom? The first decision was to use a British rather than an American one, because of the likelihood that the subjects would be more familiar with imported American sitcoms, a fact which might influence the findings excessively. I had to pick one of the finest examples of the genre. Fawlty Towers instantly springs to mind. Palmer (1987:115) states that it "is by common consent one of the best British television farce series". Margolis (1992:164) says it is "recognised widely as simply the sitcom by which all others are judged". Considering its wide critical acclaim Fawlty Towers was an appropriate choice for the study.

For this study I did not want a sitcom that depended to a large extent on slapstick humour (think, for example, of Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em). Fawlty Towers is rich in verbal humour, but at the same time it does have a slapstick element which can help language learners. Fawlty Towers is well-balanced - there are countless examples of the linguistic elements of humour discussed in Chapter 1, yet viewers can also appreciate the visual humour. Much of this visual humour is provided by John Cleese in his role as Basil Fawlty, with his walk for example:
 

            Fawlty seems to slant backwards, usually because his brain has not caught up
            with the fact that his legs are on the move again, in a desperate dash to head
            and heels is so marked that he appears to be in two scenes at the same time,
            arriving legs make a whirlwind diversionary entrance, while departing head is
            still explaining, ranting, prevaricating, grovelling. . . (Staveacre 1987:64).
 

Another reason Fawlty Towers was chosen was because it is not densely packed with obscure sociocultural references. Of course, the entire premise of the story is grounded in English sociocultural experience, and there are sociocultural subtexts, particularly relating to issues of social class; and the fact that the programme was written and produced in the 1970s means that some sociocultural references are at this stage also historical. Overall, however, the relative lack of explicit references might benefit language learners in their attempts to understand the programme's humour.

Fawlty Towers is an extremely challenging sitcom for learners of English. The purpose of this dissertation is to see how well the subjects in this study pick up on the verbal humour, taking into account the fact that they will also be picking up on extralinguistic cues, and to identify the linguistic elements they have difficulties with.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Section 2.4:The Study

The study involved showing subjects three episodes of Fawlty Towers over a period of three weeks. Each session lasted just over an hour, allowing the subjects time to watch the episode, and complete the related questionnaires. The reason for showing a number of episodes was to let the subjects familiarise themselves with the 'culture' of Fawlty Towers. It can often take a few episodes for viewers to become fully immersed in the workings of a sitcom, before they get used to the characters, and the situations that unfold. This is probably especially true for non-native speakers who need to become accustomed to the characters and situations, the type of humour, and the accents of the protagonists. The three episodes were: The Kipper and the Corpse; The Hotel Inspectors; and Gourmet Night.

A total of eight subjects were involved in the study, though numbers varied from session to session. The subjects included those with German as a first language, and those with Spanish as their mother tongue. I felt that the participation of two language groups might show some differences in the appreciation of the programme's humour. With the exception of two German-speakers, who were only present for the second session, all the subjects were female. At the first session there were six subjects - four Spanish and two German-speakers (one of whom was from Austria). After this session, one of the Spanish subjects dropped out. For the second episode, the five remaining subjects were joined by two more German-speakers. At the final session, four of the original group were present - one Austrian, one German, and two Spanish.

At the start of the study, the subjects were asked to fill in a personal information questionnaire (Appendix i ). The subjects were aged between 19 and 25, and were all at an advanced level of English. Four were Erasmus students at Trinity College, Dublin; four were preparing for the Cambridge Proficiency Exam. It was crucial for the subjects to have a good level of English, so that they would not get bogged down in problems of listening comprehension. I needed subjects who would be able to sit down and enjoy Fawlty Towers, yet who would have problems with a lot of the verbal humour.

The subjects were either students or teachers. They were in Ireland to improve their English, and in some cases to attend university. They had all been in Ireland for between six months and one year. All but one had visited other English-speaking countries before. Those countries were England, USA., Canada and India, for lengths of time ranging from two weeks to two years.

After completing the personal information questionnaire, the subjects were given a general questionnaire on humour (Appendix ii). The aim of this questionnaire was to get the subjects thinking on the topic of humour. I wanted to see how they perceived the differences between humour in English and in their native tongues. I also wanted to check whether they could identify what problems they had comprehending humour in English. At this stage I was not expecting penetrating analysis of these matters. I merely wished to concentrate their attention on the general area, and to get them started on a process of thinking explicitly on their own implicit feelings about humour.

The purpose of questions 1 to 3 was to obtain a rough idea of what types of comedy the subjects had been exposed to and liked. Question 4 was useful for showing what the subjects' level of awareness was in relation to the variations in humour between linguistic, cultural and national groups. The aim of questions 5 and 6 was to see what, if any, preconceptions the subjects might have about English humour. The final question is highly important, since it looks at what the subjects perceive to be their biggest problems with English language humour. It will be interesting to see whether their responses focus on linguistic or sociocultural aspects of humour.

Before watching the first episode, I gave the subjects a brief outline of Fawlty Towers. None of the subjects were familiar with the programme. I gave a quick profile of the main characters and explained the relationships between them. I made it clear to the subjects that I would not be pausing the video at any time, and that they were not being tested for comprehension ability. Inevitably there would be difficulties in overall comprehension, which would have to be distinguished from instances where general comprehension was fine but the humour was not appreciated.

The purpose of this first session was for the subjects to become familiar with Fawlty Towers. As a result I was not going to be examining particular pieces of humorous interaction in too much detail. There was, therefore, no questionnaire on this episode. Instead, I observed the subjects' reacto the programme in general, and particularly noted their responses to certain segments which I had picked beforehand.

A couple of factors had to be taken into account with this episode: firstly, it would take a while for the subjects to get used to the style of humour; secondly, a lot of the humour would be lost because of rapidity of speech, unfamiliar accents, new vocabulary, and sociocultural allusions. As a result I was not concerned with individual jokes or specific instances of humour, but with the broader picture, seeing how the subjects responded to the following extracts from the episode:

(a) The conversation between Basil Fawlty and Mr. Leeman. This exchange occurs early on in the episode. Mr. Leeman is retiring early to bed, complaining of feeling ill. His wish to have breakfast in bed the following morning is met by a stream of invective from Basil. The scene demonstrates Basil's contempt for his guests, his annoyance at their mere existence, and the sarcasm he frequently employs when dealing with them;

(b) The scene in the dining room involving Manuel, Polly, the elderly Mrs. Chase, and her pampered dog. It is a short scene full of visual humour, where much of the confusion stems from the violation of norms of discourse. The language is not too difficult.

(c) Basil's monologue when he is delivering Mr. Leeman's breakfast in bed. Mr. Leeman is dead, a fact Basil fails to register;

(d) The scene in the Whites' bedroom, when Basil, Polly and Manuel are attempting to conceal Miss Tibbs in the wardrobe, along with Mr. Leeman's body. The scene is very amusing visually, and the conversation contains numerous violations of discourse maxims.
As the students watched, I observed and took notes of their reaction to the above extracts.
 

In the second session I showed The Hotel Inspectors, the episode in which Basil is thrown into a panic by the news that there are three hotel inspectors in town. A key figure in the story is Mr. Hutchison, an unbearably pompous cutlery salesman, who Basil mistakenly believes is one of the three inspectors. Basil's behaviour fluctuates wildly between breathtaking rudeness and craven obsequiousness, as his view of Mr. Hutchison's occupation shifts.

During this session two questionnaires were given to the subjects, to be completed after watching the episode. I will now look at the questionnaires and explain the purpose of some of the questions. The first questionnaire (Appendix iii) was the more wide-ranging of the two. With question 2, I wanted to see if any consensus would be reached among the subjects. I also wanted to check if subjects would tend to choose moments with high levels of visual humour.

The importance of question 3 lies in the possibility that some of the characters might be practically incomprehensible. Basil Fawlty, for example, could be described as a uniquely English creation. John Cleese himself has classed Basil's anger as a general English phenomenon:

            [many English people] tend to develop on the surface a kind of brittle politeness and underneath a lot of seething rage (quoted in Margolis 1992:175).
 

Cleese believes this characteristic is the result of English people's lack of self-assertiveness.  Another of Basil's prominent characteristics, his snobbery, can be seen as "a caricature of English obsequiousness to the nobility" (Margolis 1992:176). On a more particular level Basil
 

            accurately exemplified a certain type of English hotelier and restaurateur, a bitter breed of men who can be spotted in every seaside town, with their
            implicit air of having fallen into innkeeping after a semi-successful career involving less on the service side, like debt collecting or possibly abattoir
            management (Margolis 1992:167).
 

The character of Basil is actually partly based on one Mr. Donald Sinclair, a retired naval officer who owned the Gleneagles hotel in Torquay. Sinclair was, according to Cleese, "a wonderfully rude man" (Margolis 1992:166). We can clearly see the character of Basil in this description of Sinclair (Margolis; ibid.):

            guests were to Mr. Sinclair a massive inconvenience, foisted upon him by cruel
            gods malevolently bent upon preventing him from managing his hotel smoothly.

The sociocultural knowledge here, whether about perceptions of a certain "bitter breed" of English hoteliers, or of the “English psyche”, is very specific, and without it the subjects might well be expected to feel the programme lacked any realism.

Questions 4 and 5 follow on from what was asked in the preliminary questionnaire on humour - what preconceptions do the subjects have about English language and humour, and does Fawlty Towers fit into those preconceptions?

The second questionnaire from this session (Appendix iv) focused on some particular areas of the episode. The first question deals with the angry exchange between Basil and Sybil which takes place near the beginning of the episode. One would expect this piece to pose many difficulties for the subjects: difficult vocabulary, speed of delivery, lack of visually humorous cues, and the generally sarcastic and aggressive tone of the conversation. What makes the conversation amusing to native speakers is the language used; there is no visual support. When Sybil complains of having had a tough morning, Basil offers mock sympathy: "Did you get entangled in the eiderdown again?" The bizarre imagery evoked here, allied with Basil's sarcastic tone, creates the humour. There is an incongruity in the idea of a tough morning (spent working, presumably) consisting of wrestling matches with eiderdowns. For a non-native speaker who did not know, say, the verb 'entangle' or the noun 'eiderdown', there would be nothing else in the scene to grasp onto, nothing to provide any cues to laughter.

The purpose of the second question was to note the subjects' reaction to Mr. Hutchison: would they notice how negatively he is portrayed? It would be interesting to see if the subjects realised that the language used by Mr. Hutchison is completely inappropriate. Question 3 followed the same theme - the more the subjects are aware of how negatively the character of Hutchison is painted, the more likely they will be to sympathise with Basil.

Question 4 would show how well the subjects could pick up on Basil's constant attempts to "explain" or excuse his behaviour, as such attempts are an integral part of the programme's humour.

In the third and final session I showed Gourmet Night. In this episode, Basil and Sybil launch their special gourmet evenings, providing, in Basil's eyes, an opportunity to attract a better class of customer. Things go wrong when Kurt the chef gets drunk, and Basil orders duck from his friend Andre's restaurant, as a last-minute substitute. Of course, this being Fawlty Towers, things do not go smoothly.

After watching the episode, I gave the subjects a general questionnaire on it (Appendix v). The first question was useful to see if the subjects fully grasped the idea of sarcasm, and were aware when Basil was being sarcastic. Questions 2 and 3 checked out how well the subjects followed the overall plot, and how well they understood Basil's character.

The last two questionnaires ( Appendices vi and vii ) dealt with two scenes from the episode. The subjects received these questionnaires and copies of the script for the scenes ( Appendices viii and ix ). Before answering, they watched the scenes again and consulted the script. The first scene (Appendix vi) features Basil's conversation with the Heath family over dinner. In this piece the Heaths' son Ronald moans that the chips are horrible, and that there is no salad cream. What follows is a hilarious duel between Basil and Ronald, with the timid interjections of Mr. Heath and the considerably more forceful ones of Mrs. Heath. When Mrs. Heath inquires pointedly why the hotel has mayonnaise but no salad cream, Basil explains with unveiled irony how they only get salad cream in on special occasions. What is important to note is that Basil makes no efforts to conceal his contempt for the Heaths, and is extremely rude to them. Questions 1-3 check the subjects understood this. Questions 4 and 5 ask which elements of humour the subjects appreciated most, to see if they picked up on the linguistic humour. The last question focuses on sociocultural matters, checking comprehension of the scene's sociocultural background, in particular the importance of class in English society.

The final questionnaire (Appendix vii) concentrates on the scene where Basil and Sybil welcome Colonel and Mrs. Hall to their inaugural gourmet evening. Basil lurches from one embarrassment to another. Initially he wonders if Colonel Hall remembers him from some social event held the previous year. Of course the Colonel does not. Basil, flustered by this, asks after the Heaths' daughter, to be told by Sybil that she is dead. Completely mortified at this stage, Basil is introduced to the diminutive Mrs. Hall. Terrified at the thought of committing more faux pas, Basil obviously tries hard to ignore Mrs. Hall's size, but comes out with a succession of slips. By the end Basil is relieved to be able to retreat and lick his wounds. With the questions I wished to know how the subjects picked up on sociocultural features (2); if they understood the verbal humour (4); and if they were heavily influenced by visual cues (1 and 5).

In the next chapter I will go through the questionnaires one by one, and examine the responses of the subjects.
 


Next Page