1 The danger with a term like "joke" is that it can come to be understood as a kind of inert textual object or an authorless production plucked from the ether, the meaning of which might be understood or analyzed independently of the context of its use. Whatever might be said about the so-called technical (i.e. context-free) features of jokes-for instance, their inherent semantic or logical structure-our preference was to treat jokes as social action in situ, as performing some range of functions for the social actors bound up in their use. We wanted to know what people do with jokes and we wanted to understand the social consequences of what they do.
2The submissions we have selected allow us to consider the social character of joking from many vantage points. Our collection of papers provides for a complex and layered sense of the functionality of joking, from micro-oriented interactional functionality to macro-oriented cultural functionality. The term "social actor" has also proved impressively malleable, as our collection of papers shows writers, readers, comedians, audiences, mothers, daughters, friends, and even members of sociocultural categories participating as social actors in a dynamic social space, one that both shapes and is shaped by the jokes told within it. The fact that so many topical domains and disciplinary perspectives could be woven together under a single term like "joke" might just be the product of two editors' dogged persistence to thematicize the world to their liking, but we prefer to think of it as a testament to the ubiquity and the importance of joking in this social world of ours.
3This issue will be organized around three main themes, though readers should note that there are many conceptual linkages criss-crossing the landscape here. We do not treat these groupings as the only plausible ones, nor do we deny that many papers have a strong presence in all three themes. The purpose of the themes (other than satisfying the editors' aforementioned and increasingly desperate cravings for analytic segmentation) is merely to appreciate that jokes and humor can be addressed profitably from numerous and distinct research questions and orientations while still sharing many key insights. Theme one will be called 'Transgressive Joking'; theme two will be called 'Grappling With the Theorists'; theme three will be called 'What Do Jokes Tell us About Culture?'
Theme one: Transgressive Joking
4It has long been acknowledged that jokes can provide us with interactionally, culturally, or sociopolitically "safe" ways to express ourselves in potentially problematic ways. Joking formulations are typically built with a kind of ambiguous plausible deniability such that the ways in which we tell and receipt jokes are not understood unilaterally or simplistically as a reflection of our true sentiments. Do we mean what we say in jokes are are we just kidding? It is precisely this kind of amiguity that makes jokes a safe way to undertake transgressive communication. But what else might be accomplished in and through transgressive humor?
5Our feature article by Philip Glenn, "On Sexism in Conversational Joking," addresses this very question. Using Conversation Analytic methods, he demonstrates how males use transgressive sexist joking to manage affiliation and disaffiliation with dominant norms of masculinity within personal relationships. Of particular interest here is the notion of joke recipiency as a sequential position for which alignment with-or distancing from-the joke is especially relevent. Through his analysis, we see how transgressive jokes can become a powerful resource for the expression of relational norms and the expression of larger cultural values. Similarly, "The Gossip of Ideology" by Bill Mohr shows how transgressive joking functions as a means to transmit ideological messages in the guise of ostensibly innocuous jokes. Mohr's piece demonstrates that social influence and even indoctrination can be located in the jokes we tell one another.
Theme two: Grappling With the Theorists
6Although a few larger theoretical frameworks are often drawn upon in humor research (incongruity theories; superiority theories), the two selections in this section make use of more focused theoretical perspectives in that each piece engages the work of a single theorist. Gemma Blackwood's article "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore" applies Zizek's concepts to understand how and why the American public responded differently to the cynical comedy of Jerry Seinfeld and the "kynical" comedy of Bill Maher. Whatever relief might be provided by expressing humorous frustration with "the system," it would seem that there are socially constructed boundaries beyond which particular audiences in particular historical contexts will reject humorous treatment of contemporary issues. Still, it may be argued that the elucidation of boundaries is yet another central function of jokes. Aaron Smuts, in a paper entitled "Problems with the Attitudinal Endorsement Theory of Joke Appreciation," provides an illuminating response to de Sousa's claim that joke appreciation by a joke recipient reveals that recipient's attitudinal orientation to the content of the joke. Smuts provides an alternative formulation in which it is mutual access to a common set of socially constructed stereotypes or presuppositions that provides for a recipient to "get" the joke without necessarily endorsing the wisdom or accuracy of those presuppositions.
Theme three: What Do Jokes Tell us About Culture?
7Jokes may not be unique in their ability to both reflect and shape the cultures from which they originate, though the particular ways in which they reflect or shape the cultural landscape may be unique. Starting from this proposition, we see the next four papers all dealing with the ways in which jokes can both encapsulate existing cultural understandings and project and shape emerging cultural understandings. Diane Wiener's "Performativity and Metacommentary in Jewish American Mother Light Bulb Jokes" operates on at least two definitions of culture. Not only does her analysis play off of an ethnic and religious dimension of culture, but also the cultural understandings associated with the role categories of mother and daughter within that culture. "Big Things: Larrikinism, Low Art and the Land" by Stephen Stockwell and Bethany Carlisle examines the meaning of large roadside attractions/objects in the Australian landscape. While some nations have embraced the construction and display of big things as symbols of national pride and efficacy, Stockwell and Carlisle argue that the big things on display in Australia (e.g. a giant banana) embody absurdism and reflect a larrikin spirit of irony and anti-authoritarianism. In her piece "Viagra and 'Getting it up': It's a joke if you can't and it's a joke if you can!?" Tiina Vares shows how the newly emerging crop of Viagra jokes provides for the articulation of cultural assumptions regarding both male and female sexuality while building out of close empirical and critical analysis of a handful of specific Viagra jokes. Robert Lloyd, in our final article, "Sitting Targets and the Joking Relationships," provides a quasi-ethnographic account of British comedy clubs. Through his development of an inductively driven typology of different comedians' stylistic approaches, he shows how the comedian and the audience develop a kind of micro-culture of the club with its own unique expectations, values, and interactional patterns.
8When the editors were children, we and our friends had a stock of prefabricated, 'self-containedly funny' jokes drawn from joke books or heard from others. Joke-telling was a ritualized group activity of hauling out a joke that matched the kind of jokes others were telling at the time. There were many kinds of jokes, such as long shaggy dog stories, 'three nationalities' jokes, knock-knock jokes, short question-answer jokes (in categories e.g. "Why did the chicken cross the road?"), or better yet question-answer jokes that formed series (e.g. "Why did the Koala fall out of the tree? It was dead." "Why did the second Koala fall out of the tree?" "Peer pressure."). Now this kind of joke-telling among friends seems largely alien to us; alien because we can't remember the damn jokes, and alien because joking now seems to be more a matter of finding situated humor. The jokes themselves are (almost) nothing without their context. We wonder, though, whether the now-common practice of forwarding jokes in email is a throwback to the group joke sharing that we used to love. These jokes though, are not told in a group, but told to a group, and are frequently accompanied by no more context than a single-word such as "enjoy!" As such, 'forwards' lack even the childhood group sharing context, and in the increasingly long disclaimers that seem to accompany forwards these days (e.g. "I wouldn't normally forward anything but this is really funny") there is evidence that people have recovered from the openness of novelty and now find the lack of context annoying. We have even heard others express open hostility to people who forward jokes too often or too indiscriminately. Intuitively it seems strange that sharing a joke with your friends might create a social problem, but that is where email has brought us-or rather, it is reinforcing the practices of earlier forms of communication: say it in context or beware the self-shaving poodles.