The European Journal of Humour Research

Vol 6, No 1 (2018)

“I get it, but it’s just not funny”: Why humour fails, after all is said and done

Adrian Hale


Failed humour can be explained by communicative gaps, at either the semantic or pragmatic levels, but sometimes, after all is ‘said and done’, people resist humour for purely discursive reasons. Some may recognise the divisive nature of a humorous text, and experience conflicting feelings. Others may welcome humour purely because of its appeal to ideology, while the text itself may not be considered as being very funny. Then there are people who ‘go along with the joke’ purely to avoid losing face. Political humour is a site of great power, where the stakes are high. For example, Donald Trump rejected Baldwin’s SNL parody, finding his ‘alter ego’ “unwatchable” and “not funny”. Other politicians, and members of the public, however, choose to respond to political humour in diverse ways. The reception of humour, therefore, is more complex than it appears. We might resist humour because of a deficiency in linguistic competence, but we might also resist humour because of literacy competence. This paper will theorise that there exists a ‘default setting’ in a person’s discourse, such that when encountering an instance of humour, we all employ a discursive defence mechanism (DDM), and that there are ‘triggers’ which provoke this DDM.


Attardo, S. (1994). Linguistic Theories of Humor. New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Attardo, S. (2001). Humorous Texts: A Semantic and Pragmatic Analysis. Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin/New York.

Attardo, S. (2005). ‘Humor’, in J. Verschueren, J.-O, Ostman, J. Bolmmaert, & C. Bulcaen (eds.), Handbook of Pragmatics: 2003-2005 Installment (2nd edn.). Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp. 135-155.

Attardo, S. (2008). ‘Semantics and pragmatics of humor’. Language and Linguistics Compass, 2 (6), pp. 1203-1215.

Bachman, L. (1990). Fundamental Considerations in Language Testing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bell, N. D. (2009). ‘Responses to failed humor’. Journal of Pragmatics, 41 (9), pp. 1825-1836.

Bell, N. (2015). We Are Not Amused: Failed Humor in Interaction. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.

Bell, N. & Attardo, S. (2010). ‘Failed humor: Issues in non-native speakers’ appreciation and understanding of humor’. Intercultural Pragmatics, 7 (3), pp. 423-447.

Bernstein, B. (1964). ‘Elaborated and restricted codes: their social origins and some consequences’. American Anthropologist, 66 (6-2), pp. 55-69.

Brown, P. and Levinson, S.C. (1987). Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bucholtz, M. and Hall, K. (2005). ‘Identity and interaction: A sociocultural linguistic approach’. Discourse Studies, 7 (4-5), pp. 585-614.

Canale, M. (1983). ‘From communicative competence to communicative language pedagogy’. Language and Communication 1, pp. 2-14.

Canale, M. and Swain, M. (1980). ‘Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing’. Applied Linguistics, 1 (1), pp. 1-47.

Celce-Murcia, M. (2007). ‘Rethinking the role of communicative competence in language teaching’. In Soler, E. A and Jordà, M. P. S. (eds.), Intercultural Language Use and Language Learning, Berlin: Springer, pp. 41-57.

Clark R. (1994). ‘Developing critical literacy: the gulf between them: the truth and other media fictions’. Changing English, 1 (1), pp. 192-216.

Critchley, S. (2002). On Humour (Thinking in Action). London: Routledge.

Curtin, J. (2006). ‘Joan Kirner: The first feminist’, in Strangio P. and Costar B. (eds.), The Victorian Premiers, 1856-2006, Sydney: The Federation Press, pp.351-362.

Davies, C., Kuipers, G., Lewis, P., Martin, R. A., Oring, E., & Raskin, V. (2008). ‘The Muhammad cartoons and humor research: A collection of essays’. Humor, 21 (1), pp. 1-46.

Dessem, M. (October 15, 2017). ‘Love Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump impression? Here is Some of it. Slate’. Retrieved 16-10-2017 from:

Dyck, K.T.H. & Holtzman, S. (2013). ‘Understanding humor styles and well-being: The importance of social relationships and gender’. Personality and Individual Differences, 55(1), pp. 53-58.

Eveline, J., & Booth, M. (1997). ‘Who are you, really? Feminism and the female politician’. Australian Feminist Studies, 12 (25), pp. 105-118.

Fairclough, N. L. (1985). ‘Critical and descriptive goals in discourse analysis’. Journal of Pragmatics, 9 (6), pp. 739-763.

Fairclough, N. (2003). Analysing Discourse: Textual Analysis for Social Research. London: Routledge.

Fominaya, C. F. (2007). ‘The role of humour in the process of collective identity formation in autonomous social movement groups in contemporary Madrid’. International Review of Social History 52 (S15), pp. 243-258.

Freud, S. (2003). The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious. Transl. by Crick, J.. London: Penguin..

Friedman, S. & Kuipers, G. (2013). ‘The divisive power of humour: comedy, taste and symbolic boundaries. Cultural Sociology, 7 (2), pp. 179 –195.

Goffman, E. (1967). Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior. New York: Doubleday.

Gruner, C. R. (2000). The Game of Humor: A Comprehensive Theory of Why We Laugh. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers.

Hale, A. & Basides, H. (2013). The Keys to Academic English. Melbourne: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hale, A. (2016). ‘Gender bender agenda: Dame Edna, k.d lang and Ivana Trump’. European Journal of Humour Research, 4(3), pp. 1-23. doi:10.7592/EJHR2016.4.3.hale.

Hale, M. (February 13, 2017). ‘Has SNL exhausted the Trump material or are they just exhausted?’ The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 7-8-2017 from:

Hall, S. (1980). ‘Encoding/decoding’, in Hall S. et al. (eds.), Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies, 1972-79, London: Unwin Hyman, pp.128-139.

Hall, K., Goldstein, D. M., & Ingram, M. B. (2016). ‘The hands of Donald Trump: Entertainment, gesture, spectacle’. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 6(2), pp. 71-100.

Hay, J. (2001). ‘The pragmatics of humor support’. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 14 (1), pp. 55-82.

Hertzog, T. R., & Anderson, M. R. (2000). ‘Joke cruelty, emotional responsiveness, and joke appreciation’. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 13 (3), pp. 333-351.

Jones, C. (May 2017). ‘Alec Baldwin gets under Trump’s skin: Comedy and tragedy in an age of political chaos.’ The Atlantic. Retrieved 16-10-2017 from:

Kasper, G. (1992). ‘Pragmatic transfer’. Second Language Research, 8, pp. 203-231.

Kintsch, W. (1998). Comprehension: A Paradigm for Cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kintsch, W. (2005). ‘An overview of top-down and bottom-up effects in comprehension: the CI perspective’. Discourse Processes, 39 (2-3), pp. 125-128.

doi: 10.1080/0163853X.2005.9651676

Kirkpatrick, A. (2007). World Englishes: Implications for International Communication and English Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kissane, K. (September 6, 2011). ‘Extremists on all sides exploit taboos.’ The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 11-7-2017 from:

Klausen, J. (2009). The Cartoons That Shook the World. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Koestler, A. (1964). The Act of Creation. New York: Dell.

Kuipers, G. (2009). ‘Humor styles and symbolic boundaries’. Journal of Literary Theory, 3 (2), pp. 219-239.

Kuipers, G. (2015). Good Humor, Bad Taste. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Lee, D., & Gunesekera, M. (2006). ‘Humor in spoken academic discourse’. NUCB Journal of Language, Culture and Communication, 8 (3), pp. 49-68.

Macklin, J. (June 6, 1999). ‘The evidence is the naked truth.’ The Australian. Retrieved 17-10 2017 from:

Manning, H.R. (2008). ‘Australian cartoonists’ caricatures of women politicians – from Kirner to Stott-Despoja’, in Phiddian R. and Manning H. (eds.), (2013), Comic Commentators: Contemporary Political Cartooning in Australia, Curtin University, Perth (Australia): Network Books, pp.125-147.

Maslin Nir, S. (December 21, 2016). ‘Pocket change: Alec Baldwin will continue as Donald Trump at $1400 an SNL show.’ New York Times. Retrieved 2-2-2017 from:

Mayerhofer, B., Maier, K., & Schacht, A. (2015). ‘Priming interpretations: contextual impact on the processing of garden path jokes’. Discourse Processes, 53 (8) pp. 675-694.

doi: 10.1080/0163853X.2015.1092373.

Moir, Alan. 2006, ‘February 11. When to draw the line.’ The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 27-11-2010 from:

Moran, R. (July 31, 2017). ‘Late night TV writers are 'bored’ by Donald Trump.’ The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 7-8-2017 from:

Mosbergen, D. (October 16, 2017). ‘On 'SNL,’ Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump can’t stay on message either.’ The Huffington Post. Retrieved 16-10-2017 from:

Nesi, H. (2012). ‘Laughter in university lectures’. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 11 (2), pp. 79-89.

Palmer, J. (2004). Taking Humour Seriously. London: Routledge.

Partington, A. (2006). The Linguistics of Laughter: A Corpus-Assisted Study of Laughter-Talk. Abingdon (UK): Routledge.

Priego-Valverde, B. (2009). ‘A double voicing analysis’, in Norrick, N. R. & Chiaro D. (eds.), Humor in Interaction, 182, Amsterdam: John Benjamins, pp.165-186.

Rampton, M. B. H. (1990). ‘Displacing the ‘native speaker’: Expertise, affiliation, and inheritance’. English Language Teaching Journal, 44 (2), pp. 93-101.

Raskin, V. (1985). Semantic Mechanisms of Humor. Dordrecht: Reidel.

Raskin, V. (ed.). (2008). The Primer of Humor Research. Humor Research series vol. 8. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Reid, A. (2006). ‘Key competencies: a new way forward or more of the same?’, Curriculum Matters, 2, 43-62.

Rose, F. (2014). The Tyranny of Silence. Washington: Cato Institute.

Ross, A. (1998). The Language of Humour. London: Routledge.

Saturday Night Live (SNL) Archives (2017). Impressions: Donald Trump played by Alec Baldwin. Retrieved 17-10-2017 from:

Savignon, S. (1991). ‘Communicative language teaching: State of the art’. TESOL Quarterly, 25, pp. 261-277.

Spencer-Oatey, H. (2002). ‘Managing rapport in talk: Using rapport sensitive incidents to explore the motivational concerns underlying the management of relations’. Journal of Pragmatics 34 (5), pp. 529-545.

Stevens, C. R., & Campbell, P. J. (2008). ‘Collaborating with librarians to develop lower division political science students’ information literacy competencies’. Journal of Political Science Education, 4 (2), pp. 225-252.

Tsakona, V. (2009). ‘Language and image interaction in cartoons: Towards a multimodal theory of humor’. Journal of Pragmatics 41 (6), pp. 1171–1188.

Wajnryb, R. (2005). Expletive Deleted: A Good Look at Bad Language. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Weinstein, N., Hodgins, H. S., & Ostvik-White, E. (2011). ‘Humor as aggression: Effects of motivation on hostility expressed in humor appreciation’. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100 (6), pp. 1043-1055.

Wulff, S., Swales, J. M., & Keller, K. (2009). ‘“We have about seven minutes for questions”: The discussion sessions from a specialized conference’. English for Specific Purposes, 28 (2), pp. 79-92.

Zajdman, A. (1995). ‘Humorous face-threatening acts: Humor as strategy’. Journal of Pragmatics, 23 (3), pp. 325-339.