In this chapter I shall present the findings of the empirical study.
I will comment on the findings where necessary, going into particular detail
when discussing examples of the categories introduced in Chapter One -
incongruity, ambiguity and pragmatic humour. I will be interested in the
problems the subjects have, and the reasons for those problems. Of course,
many problems will not be connected with the humour. There will be problems
of comprehension, caused by unfamiliarity with the programme, difficulty
with accents, rapid speech, and quality of recording. There will, however,
be problems left after all those other factors have been stripped away.
These will be the linguistic and sociocultural difficulties in the humour
itself. I will be hoping to show that the difficulties in the formal linguistic
features will prove to be significant.
Section 3.1:Preliminary Questionnaire on Humour
Question 1 - Do you enjoy comedy films? If yes, who are your favourite comedians?
All the subjects answered 'yes' to this question. From a quick glance at the comedians’ names, the popularity of slapstick, non-verbal humour is evident. Among those mentioned are Mr. Bean, Jim Carrey, Benny Hill, and Jerry Lewis.
Question 2 - Do you enjoy watching sitcoms? If yes, which ones do you like most?
All subjects watch situation comedies, to a greater or lesser extent, with American ones proving either more popular or more accessible. The only non-American sitcom referred to was Father Ted. The question is: does this preference for American sitcoms reflect the subjects' lack of familiarity with the British variety, or is it an informed decision based on comparison between the two genres?
Question 3 - Do you prefer British or American sitcoms? Explain your answer.
The responses to this question throw more light on the issue brought up by question 2. The subjects display a lack of familiarity with British sitcoms. Five of the six subjects thought American sitcoms were funnier, though two of these had not seen many British ones:
"We do not really have British sitcoms on Spanish TV"; and
"I don't know any British sitcoms".
Of the others who expressed a preference for American comedy, one thought “British comedies [are] all the same”; another said "[British sitcoms] follow the same structure"; the third simply wrote "It's easier for me to understand American humour. I don't know why".The one subject (German- speaking) who preferred British sitcoms loved their "black humour" and "unpredictable jokes". One could explain this overwhelming preference for American comedies by the fact that in many countries they are ubiquitous, dominating television schedules. Going by the responses of the subjects on this questionnaire, British sitcoms do not make such an impact on international audiences.
Question 4 - Do you think humour in the English language is very different from humour in your native tongue?
For the native Spanish speakers, there was some disagreement as to whether English or Spanish humour was more ironic. A number of subjects emphasised that many differences were due to historical and cultural variety. The German speakers thought that English humour is more sarcastic and subtle. One of the comments was that, in English humour, fun is made of other people, but "people are less able to take jokes about themselves".
Questions 5 and 6 - Do people from your country have a generally positive or negative attitude towards humour in English? / Do you think you have a positive or negative attitude towards humour in the English language?
All but one of the subjects felt that people from their countries had a positive attitude to humour in English; all the subjects said that they themselves were positive towards English humour.
Question 7 - Do you have any problems understanding jokes or funny stories in English? If yes, why do you think you have this difficulty?
Four subjects cited context and the cultural background of humour as
the main factor in comprehension problems, as well as speed of delivery
and accent. Only one subject referred to linguistic factors: "I usually
understand what the joke is about but then when they say the last phrase
or word, there is always something I don't understand".It is interesting
to note this emphasis on pragmatic and sociocultural features of humour.
It comes as no surprise since, in numerous discussions on the topic of
humour with teachers of English as a Second Language, I have noticed a
widespread assumption that humour is problematic for advanced learners
of English principally because of its sociocultural content. The
importance of formal linguistic features is forgotten. The responses to
this question would seem to suggest that many advanced learners may share
Section 3.2:First Episode -"The Kipper and the Corpse"
As outlined in Chapter Two, I observed the subjects' reactions to this episode, in particular to certain extracts. I will now look at the findings of these observations, starting with the pieces which did elicit laughter, and then going on to those which failed to do so.
The subjects found the scene in the dining room very funny. To recap, this is the scene with Manuel, Polly, Mrs. Chase and her dog, and the ensuing commotion at breakfast. This scene works well on a visual level, with gags such as Manuel putting the bowl and the cushion in the wrong place; and the dog biting both Manuel and Polly. So, at the visual level the subjects were able to appreciate the humour. In addition, the Spanish speakers thought the character of Manuel was extremely funny. However, the timing of the subjects’ laughter seemed to indicate an understanding of the linguistic humour operating on a suprasentential level. The conversation contains a couple of instances where the discourse maxim relating to manner is violated. For example, we can find ambiguity and obscurity in this extract:
Mrs Chase: On the table... on the table. (Manuel puts the cushion on the table) No! That! (Manuel puts the bowl on the table uncertainly; Mrs Chase picks up the dog) Now put that under him (Manuel puts the bowl on the chair) The cushion! The cushion!
Mrs Chase: Oh, yes. The sausages are for him. (Polly puts the food down)
Polly: What's the matter, Manuel?
Manuel: He bite me.
Mrs Chase: Cut them up. Cut them up into little pieces. (Polly starts cutting up her eggs) No, not my eggs, not my eggs. The sausages!
Another scene which the subjects enjoyed enormously was that in the Whites' bedroom. The Whites have just returned to their room to collect their coats, and can hear groaning from inside the wardrobe, where the unconscious Miss Tibbs was unceremoniously dumped, along with Mr Leeman's corpse. Once again, this is a scene which can be appreciated on a non-verbal level - the moanings and groanings of Miss Tibbs, the simulated pain of Polly, Manuel's singing, the arm hanging out of the wardrobe door, and Basil and Manuel's attempts to distract the Whites' attention from it. Yet the humour that operates at the level of discourse also seemed to be understood by the subjects. For instance, when the Whites demand to know who is in the wardrobe, Basil flouts the quantity maxim, by being deliberately evasive:
Mr. White: Yes, listen.
Basil: No, no, no.
Basil: Good idea. Right...well... um...
Mr. White: Well, go on.
Basil: Yes, we're going to. It's the next thing on the list. If you do get a chance to see the museum it's well...
We shall turn now to the areas where the humour seems to have bypassed the subjects. As mentioned in the previous chapter, early in the episode there is a conversation between Basil and Mr. Leeman, in which Basil is extremely sarcastic and breathtakingly rude. The subjects appeared to have a lot of difficulties with this piece, for reasons I will now examine. At the start, when Mr. Leeman is going upstairs, Basil appears and says "Good night". Failing to get a response, Basil perseveres: “ I said ‘Good night’”. On the surface Basil seems genial, but he is actually intensely irritated. The subjects were amused by this, but the rest of the scene was largely lost. One reason for this lack of comprehension would seem to be Basil's habit of muttering asides, out of earshot of the guests. For example, when Mr. Leeman acknowledges Basil's second "Good night", Basil comes out merrily with: "That didn't hurt, did it", his rudeness smothered by his veneer of joviality. There was no reaction to this line from the subjects. The problem here, of course, may have arisen because Basil muttered this comment under his breath.
As this scene continues, Basil becomes increasingly irked, especially when Mr. Leeman asks for breakfast in bed the following morning. Basil's response to this is a classic:
Mr. Leeman: . . . .I'm sorry?
Basil: Well, most of our guests manage to struggle down in the morning.
This scene provides just one instance of Basil’s general attitude to his guests. Along with the other instances, there is a non-linguistic incongruity, which was probably detected by the subjects - the incongruous treatment of guests by someone in the services sector. In this situation it is incongruous to see a hotel owner being so rude to a guest. Such a situation can be amusing. There are more incongruities in this scene, however, which stem from the dialogue. If the subjects fail to comprehend the dialogue, there are very few visual cues to laughter. For example, Basil’s enquiry about Mr. Leeman’s legs is not a normal response to a hotel guest’s request for breakfast in bed. It is highly incongruous and humorous. To go back to Palmer’s (1987) terminology, Basil’s behaviour is implausible, yet there is a certain plausibility in his tired grumpiness and resentment.
Another example comes after Sybil has offered Mr.Leeman various breakfast alternatives
(“tea or coffee” / “full breakfast or continental”):
Basil: Rosewood, mahogany, teak?
Mr. Leeman:. . . I beg your pardon?
Basil: What would you like your breakfast tray made out of?
The humour here lies in the incongruity of such a question. The vocabulary is difficult and obviously prevented the subjects from understanding the joke. Even if they could have read the piece, they would not have understood it.
The subjects also failed to catch the humour in Basil’s monologue, delivered, along with the breakfast, to Mr. Leeman, who has by now ceased to be. This scene also features references to car strikes at British Leyland, so it is quite obscure socioculturally, especially as British Leyland is by now part of British industrial history. To understand Basil’s jibes, one would have to be aware of:
a. the extent of the labour unrest at British Leyland in the 1970s;
b. the widespread perception at that time of the British car industry as grossly inefficient;
c. the rich comic potential of this situation, resulting in frequent comic portrayals of car-workers as idle layabouts.
Hence Basil’s acid comments:
Taxpayers pay ‘em millions each year, they get the money, go on strike. It’s called Socialism. I mean if they don’t like making cars why don’t they get themselves another bloody job designing cathedrals or composing viola concertos? The British Leyland Concerto in four movements, all of ‘em
slow, with a four-hour tea break in between. I’ll tell you why, ‘cos they’re not interested in anything except lounging about on conveyor belts stuffing
themselves with my money.
Not only learners but also, say, many English people of university age, would be lost by a lot of these references. The average language learner would probably also miss the fact that this monologue of Basil’s not only sends up car-workers, but also pokes fun at a particular kind of person, of whom Basil is the archetype, who is intensely wary of the working class.
One last example of a piece which the subjects failed to react to is from the scene described earlier, of Miss Tibbs in the wardrobe. At one stage, Polly tries to guide Basil's attention to Miss Tibbs' arm, which is sticking out of the wardrobe door:
Section 3.3:Second Episode- "The Hotel Inspectors"
As outlined in the previous chapter, two questionnaires were used in this session. I shall look now at the responses to the first questionnaire.
Question 1- Did you find the programme funny? Give reasons for you answer.
Five of the subjects gave a categorical 'yes' to this question, with the other two (one Spanish and one German speaker) a bit more doubtful. The Spanish speaker considered this episode to be funny, but not hilarious, and the German speaker said it "was not too bad". Of the five who definitely thought it funny, three pointed to the constant misunderstandings that occur. Reference was also made to the "word games", and the relationship between Basil and Sybil. The two who did not find it so funny described some scenes as too "silly", repetitive, "slapstick", and exaggerated.
Question 2- What were the funniest moments?
For question two, the subjects chose mainly examples of non-verbal humour for their funniest moments: the numerous times Basil strikes Manuel; the ch' gestures and expressions; the scene where Basil tries to open a wine bottle, with hilarious consequences; when Manuel keeps putting one of the guests at the wrong table; and when Basil instructs Manuel to bring some cases up to room 7, with the help of cards with numbers and pictures on them (Manuel replies by lifting up his own card on which is written 'OK'). These responses suggest that while the subjects could easily appreciate the non-verbal humour in the programme, much of the verbal humour was beyond them. However, some subjects did mention certain humorous dialogues. One was that between Basil and Mr. Walt about food and wine, which contains some very funny lines:
Walt: . . . A Bordeaux is a claret.
Basil: Oh, a Bordeaux is a claret. But they wouldn't know that. You obviously drink a lot . . . wine, I mean . . . . .
Polly: (brilliantly) No, no. He told me to shut up.
Hutchison: (to Polly) You what? He said it to me.
Basil: Ah, no, I was looking at you but I was talking to Polly. (still looking at Hutchison) Wasn't I, Polly?
Polly: (straight to Hutchison) Oh, yes.
Basil: (still to Hutchison) Ah! Did you notice then . . . that I was looking at you but talking to her?
Polly: (looking at Basil) You see, he was looking at you but talking
to me. (to Basil) Wasn't he?
On the whole the subjects felt that the situations were unrealistic and exaggerated. One (a German speaker) thought that the situations were realistic, but not Basil's way of coping with them. Another German speaker thought the characters were realistic, but not the situations they found themselves embroiled in. One Spanish speaker, however, felt that the situations were basically realistic, though a bit exaggerated.
Questions 4 and 5- Do you think the humour was very British? Explain your answer./ Was the humour very different from that of your language? How?
The subjects answered 'yes', although with different explanations. The humour was described as typically British in its irony, double meanings and misunderstandings; its lack of realism; its use of word play; its exaggeration; its strong visual content; and its sarcasm. How did the subjects feel the humour was different from humour in their L1s? For one, "irony is emphasised in Spanish humour". But another Spanish speaker thought British humour was more ironic. Spanish humour was also described as more realistic. For the German speakers, one thought German humour was more "verbal", though another thought "there is more emphasis on the language" in British humour. Another did not feel there was much difference, except that German humour might feature more exaggeration.
Question 6- Do you have any other comments?
There were none.
I shall now examine the findings from the second questionnaire used in this session.
Question 1- How funny did you find the conversation between Basil and Sybil in the office? Explain your answer.
This dialogue is a fine example of the constant bickering and sniping that marks Basil and Sybil’s relationship. It also highlights Basil's frustration with his lot, and his contempt for the guests. The subjects' reaction to this dialogue was very muted, and the responses on the questionnaire confirmed that this was an extremely difficult stretch of dialogue to grasp, containing uncommon lexical items, and spoken quite quickly. The humour is very cutting, very close to the bone. In another context it could be interpreted as being serious. The tone of the dialogue is viciously sarcastic, apparently too much so for the subjects, as in the example:
Basil: Oh dear, what happened? Did you get entangled in the eiderdown again? . . . Not enough cream in your eclair? Hmmm? Or did you have to talk to all your friends for so long that you didn't have time to perm your ears?
Sybil: Co-operation - that's a laugh. The day you co-operate you'll be in a wooden box. I've never heard such rudeness.
Question 2- Why was Basil’s initial reaction to Mr. Hutchison a negative one?
The humour in this scene works on different levels - the level of discourse, and the word play contained within it. I shall look just at the former, and see if the subjects picked up on it. Mr. Hutchison is presented as a comic and irritating character. From the moment he opens his mouth he comes across as pompous and overbearing. His language is totally inappropriate:
Basil: . . . I beg your pardon?
Hutchison: (loudly) It matters not one whit, time is not pressing on me fortunately. Now some information please. This afternoon I have to visit the town for sundry purposes which would be of no interest to you I am quite sure, but nevertheless I shall require your aid in getting for me some sort of transport, some hired vehicle, that is, to get me to my first port of call.
Basil: Are you all right?
Question 3- Were you sympathetic to Basil in his confrontations with Mr. Hutchison? Explain you answer.
Four of the seven subjects were sympathetic to Basil. His behaviour was "very reasonable" in the circumstances, and considering Hutchison's personality. Two subjects were unsympathetic on the whole but admitted they could understand Basil's reactions in some cases. The last subject was totally unsympathetic, describing Basil's behaviour as "ridiculous". The question was useful to see how well the subjects appreciated the character of Hutchison. Mr Hutchison is portrayed in a consistently negative light, and indeed represents a stock comic character, both self-important and rude.
Question 4- Can you remember any excuses Basil made for his behaviour?
As we have already seen, Basil frequently breaks the quality maxim by
lying. Three subjects recalled the scene near the end when Basil is attacked
by an irate Mr. Hutchison in front of Mr. Walt (who Basil thinks is a hotel
inspector). Basil "explains" to Mr. Walt how Mr. Hutchison is in fact an
old and valued customer who always likes to perform mock fights. What makes
Basil's excuses so amusing is that they are so obviously lies, a fact made
clear by John Cleese’s expressions and gestures. The subjects were able
to pick up on this, especially as Basil’s “explanations” were accompanied
by the ferocious and clearly unamused reactions of Mr. Hutchison.
Section 3.4:Third Episode- "Gourmet Night".
Once again, I used two questionnaires in this session, the first more general than the second. I shall look briefly at the results of this first questionnaire, before dealing with the more detailed one.
Question 1- What examples of sarcasm did you notice?
The subjects noticed one example of sarcasm - Basil's run- in with the Heath family, especially their son Ronald. Other examples which were mentioned are not really examples of sarcasm: asking Mrs. Hall if she wanted a short or . . . (this could have been delivered in a sarcastic way, but was in fact unintentional) ; and ignoring Polly when she tries to tell him that Kurt, the chef, is drunk.
Question 2- What embarrassing situations did Basil get himself into? How did the situations arise?
The subjects mentioned Basil's embarrassment with the Halls (after realising they did not remember him, and after asking how their daughter was, to be told she was dead); and when introducing the Halls to the Twitchens. In the latter case however, the subjects thought Basil had simply forgotten the Twitchens’ name. They did not connect Basil's pronunciation of "Twitchen" with Colonel Hall's nervous twitch. This is another example of phonological ambiguity as a basis of humour. The play on “Twitchen” and “twitching” was too difficult for the subjects to grasp. The gag is rounded off neatly when Mr. Twitchen does eventually introduce himself to the Halls. His name does not sound like “twitch” at all.
Question 3- Find some examples of Basil’s contrasting behaviour with people he sees as (i) inferior and (ii) superior to himself.
The subjects could see that Basil's behaviour shifts continually, depending on who he is with. He tries to be "polite and well-mannered" with those from a higher social background. This is in contrast to his rudeness to, for example, Polly and Manuel.
The second questionnaire looks in more detail at two extracts from the episode. The first scene involves Basil and a family, the Heaths, over dinner. The scene is a fine example of Basil's condescending attitude towards guests he classes as "riff-raff". On the other hand, Basil's attitude to the Heaths can almost be justified by their sheer awfulness. From the start, Basil mocks the Heaths' crass ignorance, while presenting a charming facade. By the end of the conversation, Basil's sarcasm is so obvious, we know he takes the Heaths for complete idiots. The funny thing is that they are so stupid they do not get his sarcasm. This point is driven home at the end when Mr. Heath comments that Basil is a "nice man".
Question 1- What is Basil’s attitude to the family?
Here are the responses on this topic:
"First, [Basil]'s very polite but when he talks to the boy he changes completely, his attitude now is sarcastic. He doesn't care about the boy's tastes"
"[Basil] doesn't really like them"
"He doesn't like the boy Ronald, and I think he is annoyed by Mrs. Heath".
In this scene Basil is only rarely openly rude to the Heaths. On the surface he tries to maintain a composed, polite manner. However, from his tone and his use of decidedly unsubtle sarcasm, he demonstrates his complete contempt for them. Interestingly, two of the four subjects ( one German speaker and one Spanish speaker ) did not think Basil was rude -
"I believe that he controls himself"
"In the beginning he is friendly to them, and even when the boy turns out to be very difficult he tries to control himself and to remain polite".
Of the other subjects, one thought Basil was rude, though only to Ronald. The other thought Basil was rude, especially at the end of the dialogue.
Question 3- How does Basil speak to them?
One subject noted that, though Basil tries to keep calm, "his words
have a double meaning attacking the child continually". Another subject
wrote that Basil "tries to control himself", and that "when he is sarcastic
his impoliteness is not obvious". However, another felt that Basil, far
from being polite, "becomes more and more offensive during the conversation".
Question 4- Did you think the dialogue was funny? Explain your answer.
All the subjects agreed that the scene was funny. They reacted positively on the first viewing, and also on the second, when they had the script to consult. Subjects remarked on the boy's attitude, saying it was one of the principal sources of humour in the scene. Basil's sarcasm was also mentioned. However, the following exchange seemed to evade the subjects' comprehension, even with the script in front of them:
Basil: Yes, yes, he should be.
Question 5- What do you think makes the conversation humorous?
One subject mentioned "the play of words" in the "fight between Basil and the boy, always interrupted by [the boy's] mother's comments". Another subject talked about "the way Basil speaks (very distinct and clearly) and the contents of his utterances (rather impolite and impatient) mixed together". Basil's habit of talking too much to confuse the Heaths was also pointed out, as was the fact that Basil began "losing his temper more and more".
Question 6- What sort of people or attitudes does this piece make fun of?
This final question focuses on socimatters. Some of the characters and attitudes were quite easily identified by the subjects. These included the spoilt child, the henpecked husband, the domineering wife, and difficult customers. All these probably exist in some form in many other cultures. Other aspects of this scene, however, were too subtle and culture-specific for the subjects. One of the major chunks of sociocultural background information required for this scene is that concerning traditional class differences in British society. Two of the subjects said nothing about this. The other two did, and it is revealing to look at their comments. One merely mentioned that there were class differences, but did not elaborate; the other incorrectly stated that the Heaths were upper class and had a snobbish attitude. In fact, the Heaths are patronised by Basil for having no class or style at all. The Heaths are an average lower middle-class family, whose ignorance is revealed throughout the conversation. For example, their ignorance in culinary matters is displayed, making fun of English xenophobia:
Basil: Well, these are proper French fried potatoes. You see, the chef is Continental.
Ronald: Couldn't you get an English one?
The other extract from this episode examined in more detail, is the one where Basil is "introducing" himself to Colonel and Mrs. Hall. They are respectable pillars of the community, symbols of the clientele Basil would love to attract. We see Basil's fawning in all its glory. His breezy manner is quickly punctured by the realisation that Colonel Hall does not have the slightest recollection of ever meeting him. He steadily loses his self-confidence. Things get worse when Basil asks the Halls how their daughter is. Sybil whispers to him that she is dead, and from that point Basil loses all control. His embarrassment is multiplied by his unwitting references to Mrs. Hall's height (or lack of it). It is a very funny piece, containing much wordplay, yet quite straightforward in terms of the vocabulary used.
Question 1- Did you find this extract funny? Explain your answer.
The four subjects found the piece very entertaining. Two of the subjects referred to the constant verbal misunderstandings. All of them were amused by Basil's desperate efforts to impress Colonel Hall, and by how he became more and more flustered as the conversation progressed. Examples brought up by the subjects were Basil forgetting his own name, and thinking that Mrs. Hall was sitting down, when in fact she was standing up.
Question 2- What example of English behaviour is made fun of?
The piece makes fun of social conventions, particularly the use of polite small talk. All the subjects seemed to grasp this notion to some extent. However, only two drew attention to the Colonel at the beginning of the conversation, when he takes the habit of discussing the weather to absurd lengths. The Colonel, of course, is a stock comic character - the retired military type, sternly conservative. It is hard to know how comprehensible such a character might be to people from different cultural backgrounds.
Question 3- What does the piece tell us about Basil’s character?
Only one subject highlighted the crucial point that Basil’s manner with the Halls was dictated by their high social standing just as his contrary behaviour with the Heaths was determined by their lower social status. One other subject came close to this, saying that Basil tends to get nervous in the presence of "important" people.
Question 4- What did you think of the plays on words?
The subjects appreciated the plays on words, which were not too difficult, mainly focusing on Mrs. Hall's stature:
Basil: Yes, a short, or . . . oh!
Sybil: A sherry . . . how about a sherry?
Mrs. Hall: A sherry - lovely.
Basil: Oh good. Large, or . . . or . . . not quite so large?
Col. Hall: Two, small and dry.
Basil: Oh . . . I wouldn't say that.
Col. Hall: What?
Basil: I don't know . . .
Col. Hall: (irritably) Two small, dry sherries.
Basil: Oh, I see what you mean! Sorry!
The subjects tended to find the above extract, and the moment when Basil and Sybil are looking around, trying to see Mrs. Hall, as the funniest parts of the scene. This may well be because these parts required less sociocultural and pragmatic knowledge than the earlier parts, which touch on social conventions and class relations.
In the next chapter I shall give an overview of the findings and discuss their significance within the framework laid down in Chapter One.