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Cristina Pennarola » 5.A written-spoken genre: the political joke

The political joke

Lesson Plan

  • Some definitions of jokes
  • Semantic script theory of humour
  • The communicative context
  • An overview of the political joke
  • The butt of political jokes
  • The riddle
  • The lightbulb joke
  • Analysis of jokes
  • Jokes in the language classroom

Some definitions of jokes

We take it as evidence that a text is a joke if it appears in a published form explicitly labelled as being a joke (e.g. a jokebook, a web-site of jokes, examples in an academic paper on jokes) or if we have eperienced it being delivered in circumstances which imply that others regard it as a joke (Ritchie 2004: 15).

Jokes come in numerous shapes and sizes ranging from very long and highly structured ’shaggy dog stories’ to short almost spineless one-liners. Whatever the type of joke, for it to qualify as such, what is commonly known as a punchline must always be present (Chiaro 1992: 48).

First, in order to be a joke, any text should be partially or fully compatible with two different scripts and secondly, there should be a special relation of script oppositeness (Raskin 1985: XIII).
Script: a mental picture of a typical series of events which represents the speaker’s knowledge of the world. For example, according to the script of an Italian pub, the orders are collected by a waiter at each table, whereas, according to the script of an English pub, people need to go to the cash desk and place their orders.

Semantic script theory of humour

A text is humorous if

  1. It is compatible with two different scripts
  2. They are in opposition


Tony Blair is a real politician. He is willing to do anything for the working classes, except join them.
Script 1: Tony Blair is a good politician.
Script 2:
Tony Blair is not a good politician.

Two Martians arrive on a devastated earth. One asks, “What happened here?” He is told, “Negotiations with the Taliban were going well until Berlusconi decided to tell the one about the imam and the stripper.”
Script 1: life on earth is going to end one day because of natural catastrophes or nuclear war.
Script 2: the world will come to an end because of Berlusconi’s dangerous sense of humour.

The communicative context

The meaning(s) of jokes may be dramatically affected by context of utterance, addresser and recipient, especially as most of our wisecracks stem from fleeting circumstances. For example, Tony Blair could turn to his advantage a cell phone interrupting one of his speeches: We must act on climate change. [Cell phone rings.] I hope that’s not the White House telling me they don’t agree with that (Georgetown University, May 26 2006).

Also a Bush joke may assume an entirely different meaning, self-ironical and self-commendatory, when delivered by President Bush in one of his cleverly prepared speeches. Mr. Berlusconi is also known to occasionally tell jokes about himself as a form of humorous self-reference, though, like most Italian politicians, he doesn’t seem to appreciate satirical portraits.

An overview of the political joke

In the western world of the “enlightened” states, inspired by the principles of democracy and freedom of thought, the political joke can be mostly regarded as light, uncommitted entertainment not intended to change things, only to make them appear funny.

From ancient Greece and the Roman Empire to the German National Socialist regime of the early 20th century and the Communist rule of the Soviet era, the political joke is regarded as “a safety valve“, “the people’s voice” against the oppressors, though lacking the power to alter things (Benton 1988: 19; Larsen 1980: 3).

In times of crisis jokes may well play a subversive role by “puncturing the state’s swollen pretensions and exposing the greed, stupidity, cruelty and hypocrisy of its leaders” (Benton 1988: 40), but in the end they are simply meant to relieve collective frustrations, rather than overthrow dictatorial governments (Benton 1988: 54; Larsen 1980).

The butt of political jokes

Politicians are not generally favourably regarded even in democratic governments; at best they come to be regarded as purposeful individuals wishing to impose their visions of the world, at worst as clever manipulators manufacturing consensus to their own personal ends.

The satirical portrait of a political figure is based on the magnification of some typical flaws:

  • Ignorance
  • Corruption
  • Sexual behaviour
  • Unpopularity

Why did the post office have to cancel the Tony Blair postage stamp? People kept spitting on the wrong side of the stamp.

Have you seen the New Labour candidate doll? When you wind it up, its mouth opens and closes, but it doesn’t say anything.

The riddle

Question and answer is a conventional joke format which seems to blur the serious political question and contaminate it with nursery lore; many political jokes come in this parodic packaging. The juxtaposition of utterly remote items (Labour and violins, Mickey Mouse and George Bush, God and politicians) trivializes the focal element in the riddle and also deflates the pomposity associated with policy-making (Chiaro 1992: 68 ff):

Q: Why do Labour governments resemble a violin?
A: Because they are held on the left but played on the right.

Q: What did Mickey Mouse get for Christmas?
A: A George W. Bush watch.

What’s the difference between God and Berlusconi? God doesn’t think he is a Berlusconi.

What’s the difference between God and Tony Blair? God doesn’t think he’s Tony Blair.

The lightbulb joke

Some riddles manage to convey the complexity and absolute senselessness of political dynamics via an odd juxtaposition of ordinary daily items and consequential political affairs or high-flown rhetoric:

How many members of the Bush Administration are needed to replace a lightbulb?
SEVEN: (1) One to deny that a lightbulb needs to be replaced, (2) one to attack and question the patriotism of anyone who has questions about the lightbulb, (3) one to blame the previous administration for the need of a new lightbulb, (4) one to arrange the invasion of a country rumored to have a secret stockpile of lightbulbs, (5) one to get together with Vice President Cheney and figure out how to pay Halliburton Industries one million dollars for a lightbulb, (6) one to arrange a photo-op session showing Bush changing the lightbulb while dressed in a flight suit and wrapped in an American flag, (7) and finally one to explain to Bush the difference between screwing a lightbulb and screwing the country.

in the Bush joke, for example, the lightbulb stands for Bush’s current policies (answers 1 to 3) and for lethal weapons (answers 4 to 6) but it reverts to its literal meaning in the final twist.

Analysis of jokes

  • Who or what is the target?
  • Does it have a realistic or fantasy setting?
  • Whose point of view is foregrounded?
  • Are there other points of view?
  • Does it reinforce or demystify stereotypes?

Denotation or content

Connotation or ideological meanings

Jokes in the language classroom

Jokes are very suitable to use in the language classroom because:

  • they are fun
  • they’re authentic materials related to contemporary issues
  • they reflect and magnify cultural norms and stereotypes
  • They have a wide circulation both as written texts (anthologies, newspapers, magazines, the Internet) and as oral texts (conversation, TV shows, etc)
  • They use simple language (short sentences, present tense, core vocabulary)
  • They adopt simple text conventions (brief narrative sequence or riddle)
  • They can be used for socialising

I materiali di supporto della lezione


Benton G., 1988, “The Origins of the Political Joke”, in C. Powell, G.E.C. Paton (eds.) Humour in Society, New York, St. Martin's Press, pp. 33-55.

Billig M., 2002, Laughter and Ridicule. Towards a Social Critique of Humour, London, Sage.

Billig M., 2005, “Comic Racism and Violence”, in S. Lockyear and M. Pickering (eds.), Beyond a Joke. The Limits of Humour, London, Palgrave, pp. 25-44.

Chiaro D., 1992, The Language of Jokes, London, Routledge.

Dale I. and J. Simmons (eds.), 2002, The Tony Blair New New Labour Joke Book, London, Robson Books.

Larsen E., 1980, Wit as Weapon. The Political Joke in History, London, Frederick Muller.

Pennarola C., 2008, Of B's and Stings: The Bush, Blair and Berlusconi Jokes Across English and Italian, in D. Chiaro and N. Norrick (eds.) Textus. Exploring Humo(u)r, Laughter, Language and Culture, 1 (XXI) 1, Genova, Tilgher, pp. 121-145.

Raskin V., 1985, Semantic Mechanisms of Humor, Dordrecht, D. Reidel.

Ritchie G., 2004, The Linguistic Analysis of Jokes, London, Routledge.

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Progetto "Campus Virtuale" dell'Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II, realizzato con il cofinanziamento dell'Unione europea. Asse V - Società dell'informazione - Obiettivo Operativo 5.1 e-Government ed e-Inclusion