Power and Humor

Originally published 10/22/2003.

NPR’s All Things Considered ran the third in a four-part series on Power, focusing this time on power and communication. Who better to talk about that subject than Deborah Tannen, the author of You Just Don’t Understand? Quite frankly, just about anyone.

Tannen’s best-selling book (it was on the New York Times’ bestseller list for 4 years) spends a great deal of time talking about the issues surrounding power and communication, and NPR’s Susan Stamberg used this as a launching point for the discussion of humor in communication as a method of control.

Tannen’s take on humor, apparently, is that it is an attempt at controlling a relationship. “Look at comedians, for instance,” she said in the interview, yukking it up with Stanberg. “When they make the audience laugh they say, ‘I killed ’em.'”

This is only one side of the story, of course. When a comedian goes up on stage to an unreceptive audience, he will say that he “bombed” or “died onstage.” Trust me. As an open-mic comic, I’ve had my share of dying on stage.

Tannen also makes the bizarre statement that men use humor as a way of controlling relationships, and women seem to accept this as a way of course. “When you ask women why they got married, they’ll usually say that ‘he made me laugh.’ When you ask men why they got married, they’ll say, ‘she laughed at my jokes.'”

This, apparently, is proof positive that humor is a controlling tactic. This is also proof positive that Tannen is either completely full of crap or has never been married. Either way, it’s also evident that she doesn’t understand humor or comedy at all.

Making a joke is an expression of vulnerability, not dominance. Nothing is as humiliating as making a joke to which no one laughs. Nothing is as ego-blowing as someone telling you that you’re not funny when you’re trying to be. Moreover, nothing is as painful as when a man attempts to impress a woman with humor only to be snubbed.

Who’s got the power? In comedy, the audience always has the power. It is up to the audience to determine whether or not the comic is funny, whether or not they “like” him, or whether they’ll turn on him. It is indeed true that the relationship between the comic and the audience is often sometimes adversarial (after all, “laughter” is “slaughter” without the “s”), but the power certainly goes both ways. A successful comic manages to negotiate that balance of power with the audience, not mandate it.

Likewise, the man who tries to hard to impress a woman with unwanted, inappropriate, or obnoxious humor will lose all semblance of control within the (inevitably short-lived) communication relationship. In other words, the woman – by withholding laughter – is completely in control.

Tannen, as a communication “expert”, should have known better. Or maybe she was just trying to be funny.