‘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.

Generational Transferring of Oral History

Reading about and discussing group oral history interviews last class got me to start thinking about alternative ways of conducting oral history interviews than the traditional one-on-one method. Although the group interviews had several downsides, including individuals being silenced by the rest of the group or topics being rapidly changed, they offered unique insights into how individual memory can be influenced, suppressed, and even altered by the power of collective memory. This alternative approach made me interested in how memories can be transferred across generations, from those actually experiencing events to their descendants merely retaining the accounts which they are told.

Both of my grandmothers have long had an interest in retaining and uncovering the family history. I grew up hearing stories about their lives, and stories that they remember being told by older members of the family, whether it was their parents or other extended family members. When I try to recall some of these stories, many of them are vague and seem very distant from myself. Others, I can almost quote word for word because they were told to me many times. Some of them I found more interesting than others, and will occasionally share them in conversation when topics make me recall them. However, I am stuck thinking about the accuracy of these memories. After all, we know that our own memories are fallible, and that they are constantly changing throughout the course of our lives. How much more would these alterations to memory build up if they are also transferred between multiple people? It is like trying to play the telephone game.

This research would not be an effective way of gaining information about a particular event, however, like the group interviews, it has an alternative benefit. Looking at how memories can be transferred between multiple people can help oral historians, psychologists, and sociologists to better understand memory retention and transmission levels of people who are not primary owners of the memory.  This can help to analyze how contributing factors, such as changing public perception and personal interests, influence the levels of retention. With the telephone game, the purpose is to see if, or to what extent, meaning can be transferred from the original individual to the last individual through multiple participating bodies. This would be interesting to see if the core meaning of memories can be effectively transferred, despite the fact that subsidiary details may be altered or tweaked by memory over time or the desire of the teller to increase the stories interest value for the listener.