‘I’ve heard this one before’ Oral History and Humour

Humour pervades almost all of our social interactions. We employ it in different ways, which are appropriate to different audiences. From breaking the ice at a party to discussing traumatic events from our past, we accommodate our humour to different circumstances. But how do we accommodate our humour in an interview setting? Relatively little has been written on the use of humour in oral history. Unsurprisingly, for my oral history project, this is an issue I would like to redress.


There is not a complete vacuum in terms of the writing on humour in oral history. The folklorist Elliott Oring discussed how he used humour in interviews to create a ‘spirit of play’ and elicit greater information from his subjects. More recently, Neal R. Norrick has attempted to open the discussion of humour in oral history. By taking oral histories from American retirees he isolated humorous passages, and analysed them from his perspective as a linguist. Norrick makes some very important contributions, but for my oral history project I would like to take a different trajectory.


Firstly, instead of taking generic oral histories and analysing their use of humour, I would like to ask interviewees to discuss, and be reflexive about their use of humour when discussing the past. Most likely, this would mean that people with an expertise in comedy, such as stand-up comedians, would be ideal participants for such a study. However, I am still hopeful that this approach will be appropriate for interviewee’s who do not have a specific background in comedy.


Secondly, I am keen to investigate the frequently used argument that humour is used to negate the reality of a memory. By going beyond this use of humour, the oral historian may be able to find a deeper and more accurate account. Caution here is clearly required. For on purely ethical grounds, it is not the place for the oral historian to attempt to expose serious psychological scars from an interviewee’s past.


Thirdly, such an analysis of humour in oral history is of interest to me, for the possibility of exploring a specifically British usage humour. It is with caution that I homogenise the humour identity of over sixty million people. Humour is heavily dependent on a variety of factors such as region and social class. But if there can be said to be any peculiarity to Britain’s humour identity, then this must be reflected in a more nuanced and specific analysis of humour within oral history.