Studies in political humour

Studies in political humour: In between political critique and public entertainment. Villy Tsakona and Diana Elena Popa. (Discourse approaches to politics, society and culture 46.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2011. Pp. x, 290. ISBN 9789027206374. $143 (Hb).

Reviewed by Ksenia Shilikhina, Voronezh State University

This book unites two diverse areas associated with two diverse modes of communication–politics and humor. The book includes eleven articles that adopt a variety of methodological perspectives: from discourse analysis and sociolinguistics to culture studies and theater semiotics. The articles, however, converge in their view of humor and its function in political discourse. Firstly, it is a way of expressing criticism and social control, and, secondly, it serves as a vehicle for promoting dominant values.

The contributions are grouped into three parts: the first focuses on humor used by politicians, the second on political humor in the media, and the third on humorous discourse in public debates. The introductory chapter is aimed at readers who are new to political humor. It introduces basic concepts of linguistic humor research and outlines genres and functions of political humor.

The first part of the book unites articles that analyze humor produced by politicians in various official settings (e.g. German Bundestag, Greek parliament, and Polish television debates). The official scene is traditionally perceived as incompatible with humorous discourse. However, data from different cultures show that humor is widely used in parliamentary discourse as a tool for avoiding serious discussions and for expressing public denigration and ironic criticism of opponents.

In the second part, the authors investigate cases in various cultures in which politicians and political views are the targets of humor. Satirical performance is a popular way of discrediting the public image.  The authors analyze satirical plays in post-Communist Romania, impersonations of Silvio Berlusconi staged by a popular Italian comedian, and satirical cartoons in Italian mass media. Because this kind of humor involves large audiences, it has become an important part of both political discourse and popular culture. Inevitably the question of censorship in different cultures comes to the fore to demonstrate the limitations of political satire.

The third part discusses the ethical aspects of humorous discourse. Liisi Laineste adopts a culturally embedded perspective and focuses on the use of ethnic jokes for political purposes in Estonia. The article by Vicky Manteli addresses humor in postmodern Greek theater. The political doctrine of Stalinism is in many ways analogous to the discourse of postmodern Greek theater, and both are targets of humor.

The final chapter, written by the editors, claims that political humor in its multiple forms and contexts is not simply a way of expressing discontent with certain political views or actions, but also a tool for constructing social identity. In this sense, humor is an integral part of political discourse and, as such, can be subject to linguistic analysis.

Although the diversity of social and cultural contexts in which political humor occurs might seem eclectic, this book shows how unified the field of humor studies is in its recognition of this diversity. A strong point of this book is its elicitation of responses to key questions in humor research in linguistics. The contributions included explicate the most important features of political humor and the wide range of functions and effects it can potentially produce.