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Figures of Fun: Humor and Stereotype in Monty Python’s Depictions of Intercultural Communication

22 August, 2014

by Jessica McIntyre (MAA student at Macquarie University)

Depictions of humorous and often exaggerated cultural stereotypes can be used either constructively or destructively to identify and explore the tensions at the boundary-lines of intercultural interactions. The skits of British comedy troupe Monty Python provide a fascinating illustration of this and they demonstrate how humorous stereotyping can be used to promote intercultural competence. Below I briefly explore why people may use humor and stereotype when depicting culture and what it accomplishes. There are positive ways that comedians can use humor to open dialogue about social and cultural issues and connect people from different backgrounds by overriding the negative uses of cultural stereotyping.

The Humor Impulse in Depictions of Culture

Why do human beings have an apparent need to use humor, and in particular stereotypes, when dealing with the boundaries between their culture and the culture of a perceived “other”? Various theorists have explored the reasons for this impulse (Bremmer & Roodenburg 1997; Carty & Musharbash 2008; Holmes & Hay 2010; Redmond 2008; Winkler Reid 2013). As Holmes and Hay point out, determining the purpose of the speaker when making a joke can be difficult and often requires a combination of context, verbal and non-verbal clues (2010:7). Holmes and Hay suggest various purposes for the use of humor aside from the explicit intention to cause laughter. These range from control, conflict and defensive coping strategy to sharing with others and creating solidarity (2010:7). However as Bremmer and Roodenburg point out (1997:3), the common assumption that humor is “transcultural and ahistorical” is false. In fact, humor in the modern sense of comical mischievousness was historically seen as a distinctly English trait as recently as 1765 (Bremmer & Roodenburg 1997:1-2).

One of the ways that humor and the use of stereotypes can appeal to people is that the use of distancing of even traumatic historical events between cultures can open dialogue about those events. This also allows the release of laughter around things that would perhaps have been impossible to laugh at by those directly experiencing the original events, such as the violent oppression of one culture by another (Redmond 2008:3). Monty Python employ just such a technique in their “Mr Hilter” sketch.

It is perhaps the presentation of these despotic authority figures as objects of ridicule that allows the laughter at something so otherwise uncomfortable (Redmond 2008:3).

Another reason that people use humor is to create a safe arena for the examination of controversial or dangerous social issues. Driessen raises the point that political humor, for example, is much more common and developed in contexts where there is political repression. He gives the example of the prevalence of political humor in Franco’s Spain compared to the dearth he has observed in democratic countries (1997:22-224). Monty Python also uses humor for such a purpose to some degree. Their Flying Circus sketches were written and performed during an era of economic unrest in Britain, resulting in this sketch where the paintings at the National Gallery go on strike (Free 2013:86).

Another example of this is the “Execution in Russia” sketch where an English tourist awaiting execution politely assists them resulting inevitably in his own execution.

Finally, people instinctively use humor to connect with others across boundaries, such as perceived cultural differences that might otherwise potentially divide them. This can be seen on school playgrounds when groups of classmates use such humor to create a close social group amongst their peers from various cultures (Winkler Reid 2013:2-3). In this way, people can be observed to use humor and cultural stereotypes to laugh at themselves and their differences from others, rather than to isolate themselves in mono-cultural groups. This use of humor can stray into a dangerous area when witnessed by outside observers and is always more comfortable when the speaker is mocking their own culture than when they turn the lens on their friends’ cultures. Despite this, I have witnessed groups of friends from a variety of backgrounds mercilessly lampoon each others’ cultures with apparently no bruised egos in the aftermath but on the contrary a great deal of bonding amidst the hilarity.

The Dark Side of Stereotypes

The darker side of social inclusion through humor is the part laughter can equally play in social exclusion. As Carty and Musharbash demonstrate (2008:214), laughter creates “social rupture”, separating those sharing the joke from those marked as “other” by their failure to understand or enjoy the joke. Laughter in an intercultural setting can be aggressive and provoke fear or result as a response to fear, anxiety or embarrassment (Carty & Musharbash 2008; Driessen 1997). Monty Python actually use the intercultural tension provoked by mockery and laughter to create this comical scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Gilliam & Jones 1975).

The conspiratorial sniggering of the French knights on the battlements is played overtly for laughs, but by the use of hyperbole it manages to expose the tensions at the edge of English/French intercultural relations as farcical. This holds the intercultural aggression up for ridicule.

One of the most common problems with cultural stereotypes and intercultural attempts at humor is the danger of trivialising or oversimplifying issues and essentialising other cultures. Indeed, essentialisation is a risk when any intercultural communication takes place and the container model of culture is always in some danger of stereotyping. Humor is just another aspect of these interactions between cultures that can be misused either deliberately or unintentionally. In the latter case, part of the problem is that most forms of humor that manage to transcend language and cultural barriers are inclined, by necessity, to be simplistic, visual and crude because higher-level humor requires a lot of contextual knowledge. Part of that context tends to be cultural (Reimann 2010:25). Monty Python’s humor, even though it does incorporate some visual “slapstick”, is mostly of this highly-contextualised form. Therefore the question of intercultural appeal remains a difficult one that may require further study.

Another problematic aspect of humor is when a stereotype contributes to a racist dialogue. Humor can be used to reinforce rather than to identify and explore difference. It can both depend upon and add to power relationships based around race. An example of this is a South African joke that portrays an elderly white woman threatening young black men in a car with a gun before realising the car is not actually hers. The humor only works in this joke if the audience assumes that carjacking is generally a crime committed by black people against white people (Schonfeldt & Aultman 2014:26-27). Monty Python’s “Communist Quiz” sketch veers in this direction. It portrays an arguably racist caricature of Mao Tse-Tung. Free argues (2013:88) that the Pythons held nothing as sacred thus excusing the racism of the portrayal. However, this is problematic as the other Communists in the sketch, a Russian, a German and an Argentinian are not portrayed in such racially caricatured impersonations.

Further to the risk of racism is the potential for humor in the form of cultural stereotyping to demean and hurt individual members of that culture. This is done by hiding behind the dismissive attitude encapsulated in the phrase, “It’s only a joke”. This is most often a problem when, as illustrated above, there is an asymmetrical relationship between the culture of the joke-teller and the culture of the group joked about. Davies demonstrates (1990:43-44) that one of the main elements of cultures that are the butt of jokes about stupidity is that they are geographically close to the culture the joke-teller comes from. This is most telling when the culture of the joke-teller is also dominant in some way over the culture they are joking about. Furthermore, the use of rhetoric in such humor reinforces the presentation of ambiguous facts as “truth” (Weaver 2014:417). Monty Python tend to avoid this pitfall by making their own culture the butt of jokes, too many to list here, about cultural idiosyncrasies.

The Power of Humor

On the other hand, comedians have used the tool of humor and even stereotype positively to identify, explore and overcome some of the boundaries between cultures and to open up intercultural communication. Monty Python use incongruity very effectively, revealing the absurdity of both “English ordinariness” and matters of historical import by juxtaposing them in their sketches (Free 2013:85-86). One of the most famous examples of this juxtaposition is the “Spanish Inquisition” sketch. It functions by exposing the ridiculous nature of the British phrase redolent of the English cultural protection of privacy and aversion to questioning, “I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition”, with the quite literal intervention of a group of Spanish cardinals who leap into a series of middle-class English living rooms whenever someone utters the phrase (Free 2013:85). The slightly affronted but not alarmed response to these invasions adds to the stereotype of the English middle-classes as coldly unemotional and “proper”.

One of the most powerful ways humor opens up a dialogue about something uncomfortable or threatening is what Carty and Musharbash refer to as a “rhetorical Trojan horse”. This technique causes an audience to engage with a seemingly unthreatening joke and bond over their mutual laughter in order to sneak in a controversial topic for discussion (2008:215). Monty Python do not have a live audience, as with the example in Carty and Musharbash, but they do open up a dialogue about some uncomfortable topics. Examples include war, as in the “Funniest Joke in the World” sketch.

And religion, as in the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Jones 1979) which tries to subversively address issues around Christianity by creating a parallel story next to the story of Christ without directly attacking Christianity itself. Blessed are the Cheesemakers!

Unfortunately, this tactic did not manage to evade the offence of Christian lobby groups who could still recognise the lampooning of their customs and culture.

Another way in which humor can be very powerful for intercultural communication is in exploring the tension between two cultures that may not be addressed by more formal or serious interactions. This is particularly true because formalised interactions tend to focus on similarities between cultures in order to achieve harmony. Asking individuals to notice and discuss strange or shocking elements of other cultures they interact with can open dialogue about these tensions in a constructive way. However this does need to be done in an atmosphere of mutual respect and genuine interest (Timmer, personal communication, May 20, 2014).

Humor can also be used by cultural groups, to signal identity and maintain “ethnic” boundaries (Holmes & Hay 2010:133). This can, create an atmosphere of cultural self-confidence that allows for more confident interaction with other cultures. This is particularly so when a power imbalance is again involved, such as between the Maori and Pakeha (white New Zealander) cultures described in Holmes and Hay’s article (2010).

Finally and arguably most importantly for intercultural communication and intercultural competence, humor and stereotyping can be used to create a form of bonding and connection across the differences between entire cultures and hierarchies within them (Winkler Reid 2013:11).

While humor identifies, explores and sometimes creates boundaries, it also crosses them very quickly when people recognise and laugh at a joke together. Monty Python use this tactic for many of their cruder visual “slapstick” routines but also by caricaturing authority figures. An example of this is in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Jones 1979) where the Roman soldiers are so very recognisably “British” in their Roman-ness that one assumes it is a deliberate ploy to mock the authority and entire concept of empire across cultures in general: “Throw him to the floor.”

As Kris points out (Redmond 2008:260), this is an exercise that invites the audience to join with each other and the comedians in a metaphorical act of aggression against the authority represented.

We can see, therefore, that humor and cultural stereotypes can be used in both destructive and constructive ways to communicate interculturally. There can certainly be problems with trivialising cultural issues, using laughter to demean and exclude, and the risk of racism is ever-present. Nevertheless, people have still often felt the need to express themselves through humor and to use cultural stereotypes to safely identify and discuss potentially uncomfortable or dangerous issues arising from current political situations or past acts of cultural oppression. This tactic is generally most successful when, as Monty Python tend to do, the joke-maker lampoons their own culture at least as often, if not more than the cultures of others.


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