The European Journal of Humour Research

Vol 2, No 4 (2014)

Mad rant or “taking the piss?”: A case study of when attempts at humour go wrong

Bronwyn McGovern



In 2010, Brother a well-known local identity living on a busy street corner in Wellington, told court appointed psychiatrists he boogied with the dead and was enjoying life in 1984. Though academic writing on the homeless experience unanimously proposes that street life existence is essentially ‘no laughing matter’, and while Brother’s talk could be dismissed as the ramblings of a mad man, here I argue that his banter can be understood as displaying an acute sense of underdog humour (Coser 1959). Drawing from participant observational research spanning a three-year period and forming the empirical component of my doctoral work, I examine humour as a “quintessentially social phenomenon” (Kuipers 2008: 361) that is often particular to a specific time and place. Speaking to broader themes of sociality, spatiality, embodiment, domination and resistance, I reveal how humour is used by Brother to manage a life lived in public. I also consider how Brother’s jovial talk and actions disrupt mundane understandings of ‘normal’ boundaries. In arguing “agency and structure” collide in the case of Brother, I look at how this evokes a simultaneous “making, remaking, and unmaking” of the person (Hacking 2004).


Amster, R. (2003). ‘Patterns of exclusion: Sanitizing space, criminalizing homelessness’. Social Justice 30 (1), pp. 195-217.

Bylaw tweaking is a risky business. (2004). The Dominion Post, April 26.

Clapham, D. (2008). ‘Homelessness and social exclusion’, in Abrams, D., Christian, J. & Gordon, D. (eds.), Multidisciplinary Handbook of Social Exclusion Research, Chichester, England: John Wiley & Sons, pp. 79-94.

Coser, R. L. (1959). ‘Some social functions of laughter: A study of humor in a hospital setting’. Human Relations 12 (2), pp. 171-182.

Duneier, M. (1999). Sidewalk. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Francis, D., & Hester, S. (2004). An Invitation to Ethnomethodology: Language, Society and Interaction. London: Sage.

Garfinkel, H. (1967). 1984. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Cambridge, England: Polity Press.

Goffman, E. (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Goffman, E. (1961a). Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients. Garden City, New York: Anchor.

Goffman, E. (1961b). Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill Company.

Goffman, E. (1963a). Behaviour in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings. New York: Free Press of Glencoe.

Goffman, E. (1963b). Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Hacking, I. (1995). ‘The looping effects of human kinds’, in Sperber, D., Premack, D. & Premack, A. (eds.), Causal Cognition: A Multidisciplinary Debate, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 351-383.

Hacking, I. (2002). ‘Inaugural lecture: Chair of Philosophy and History of Scientific Concepts at the Collège de France (16 January 2001)’. Economy and Society, 31 (1), pp.


Hacking, I. (2007). ‘Kinds of people: Moving targets’, in Marshall, P.J. (ed.), Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol. 151, pp. 285-318.

Hull, G. A., & Zacher, J. (2007). ‘Enacting identities: An ethnography of a job training programme’. Identity 7 (1), pp. 71-102.

Hunt, T. (2010). ‘The man behind the blanket: Courtenay Place won’t be the same without him’. The Dominion Post, June 19, p. 4.

Kawash, S. (1998). ‘The homeless body’. Public Culture, 10 (2), pp. 319-339.

Kuipers, G. (2008). ‘The sociology of humour’, in Raskin, V. (ed.), The Primer of Humour Research, Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 361-398.

Laurenson, P., & Collins, D. (2007). ‘Beyond punitive regulation? New Zealand Local Governments’ responses to homelessness’. Antipode 39 (4), pp. 649-667.

Lee, B. A., Farrell, C. R., & Link, B. G. (2004). ‘Revisiting the Contact Hypothesis: The case of public exposure to homelessness’. American Sociological Review 69 (1), pp. 40-63.

Miller, H. (1991). On the Fringe: The Dispossessed in America. Toronto: Lexington.

Mitchell, D. (1995). ‘The end of public space? People’s park, definitions of the public, and democracy’. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 85 (1), pp. 108-133.

Mitchell, D. (1998). ‘Anti-homeless laws and public space: Begging and the First Amendment’. Urban Geography 19 (1), pp. 6-11.

Netdoctor (CTscan). (2013). URL: [Accessed 15 March 2013].

Nicholls, C. M. (2009). ‘Agency, transgression and the causation of homelessness: A contextualised rational action analysis’. European Journal of Housing Policy 9 (1), pp. 69-84.

O’Brien, M., & de Haan, I. (2002). ‘Empowerment research with a vulnerable group – homelessness and the social services: The story of a research project’. Social Work Review 14 (1), pp. 29-35.

Parsell, C. (2011). ‘Homeless identities: enacted and ascribed’. The British Journal of Sociology 62 (3), pp. 442-461.

Pascale, C. (2005). ‘There’s no place like home: The discursive creation of homelessness’. Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies 5 (2), pp. 250-268.

Phelan, J., Link, B. G., Moore, R. E., & Stueve, A. (1997). ‘The stigma of homelessness: The impact of the label “homeless” on attitudes toward poor persons’. Social Psychology Quarterly 60 (4), pp. 323-337.

Pogrebin, M. R., & Poole, E. D. (1988). ‘Humor in the briefing room: A study of the strategic uses of humour among police’. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 17 (2), pp. 183-210.

Radley, A., Hodgetts, D., & Cullen, A. (2005). ‘Visualising homelessness: A study in photography and estrangement’. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology 15 (4), pp. 273-295.

Ritchie, L. D. (2011). ‘“You’re lying to Jesus!”: Humour and play in a discussion about homelessness’. Humour: International Journal of Humour Research 24 (4), p. 481.

Sacks, H. (1989). ‘Lecture Four: An impromptu survey of the literature’. Human Studies 12 (3/4), pp. 253-259.

Sacks, H. (1992). Lectures on Conversation, Vol. 1. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Sanders, T. (2004). ‘Controllable laughter: Managing sex work through humour’. Sociology 38 (2), pp. 273-291.

Silverman, D. (1993). Interpreting Qualitative Data. London: Sage.

Terry, C. M. (1997). ‘The function of humour for prison inmates’. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 13 (1), pp. 23-40.

Tratt, D. (2005). ‘Blanket politics’. Capital Times, 1 December. URL:

Ungar, S. (1984). ‘Self-mockery: An alternative form of self-presentation’. Symbolic Interaction 7 (1), pp. 121-133.

Urban Tarzan. (2007). The Eastern Press, October 12, pp. 2-8.

Wilkinson, A. (1983). ‘On the Skids: The management of respectability on skid row’, in Hill, M.S., Bowman, R. & Carr-Gregg, C. (eds.), Shades of Deviance, Palmerston North, NZ: Dunmore Press, pp. 14-25.

Wellington City Council. (2004). Homelessness Strategy. URL:

Wong, S. (2010). ‘Blanket Man mystery solved’. Marlborough Express, 4 June.

Wright, E., & King-Jones, A. (Directors). (2003). Te Whanau O Aotearoa – Caretakers of the Land [Film documentary]. URL: