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Comedic Tastes as Social Relations of Class: The Example of Youth from Cultured Class Fractions

Les goûts humoristiques comme rapports sociaux de classe. L’exemple des jeunes des fractions cultivées
Ludivine Balland
Traduction de Daniela Ginsburg
Cet article est une traduction de :
Les goûts humoristiques comme rapports sociaux de classe. L’exemple des jeunes des fractions cultivées [fr]

Résumés

À partir d’une enquête sur la réception de séries comiques, cet article actualise l’analyse des goûts sociaux et des morales de classe en prenant l’humour pour objet. Les résultats qui y sont développés se concentrent sur un échantillon constitué de jeunes gens des fractions cultivées des classes moyennes et supérieures. En partageant leurs goûts et leurs dégoûts humoristiques, les individus interrogés se situent socialement et expriment ce à quoi ils aspirent mais aussi ce qu’ils rejettent en termes de consommation culturelle, de styles de vie, etc. L’article rend compte de la mécanique symbolique à l’œuvre dans l’expression de ces goûts humoristiques clivés et hiérarchisés et cherche à démontrer la manière dont l’humour, comme affect de classe, articule des dimensions sociales et morales.

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Texte intégral

  • 1 I would like to thank my friend and colleague Sandra Vera Zambrano, with whom I co-led field interv (...)
  • 2 To express the double relation to oneself and to others that is contained in laughter, Laure Flandr (...)

1Humor represents a heuristic entryway for analyzing social likes and dislikes in practice1. Within the context of a reception study of comedic series, when asked what makes them laugh and what doesn’t, what they find funny and what they don’t, interviewees fairly systematically evoked what they like and what they hate, as well as what they cannot stand. Thus, by examining comedic tastes, the study brought to light socially situated schemas of aesthetic and moral classification. Tastes in comedy do not exist in a sociological vacuum; they correspond to social positions. This is true both for norms that are valorized (including not only what is funny but also what is just, what is good) and for those that are rejected. Such perceptions draw a line between a “them” and an “us.” In other words, as Laure Flandrin’s analyses of laughter suggest, comedic tastes underlie “a social definition of the self that closely combines a principle of identity (‘who you are’) and a principle of opposition (‘who you laugh against’)” (Flandrin 2011: 19)2. Such preferences constitute a relation to the self that is expressed in opposition to others, and they are tightly connected to socially anchored cultural hierarchies (Bourdieu 1984; Kuipers 2006). In this respect, by examining comedic tastes, the present article continues the task of analyzing the distinctive dimension of culture (Friedman & Kuipers 2013).

2The present study follows in the wake of reception studies that have demonstrated the socially differentiated nature of audiences’ readings (Hall 1980; Morley 1980; Le Grignou 2003) and have shown that they engage affects such as pleasure, agitation, and anger (Bianchi 1990; Ang 1993; Pasquier 1997). In keeping with the works of the Columbia School, our position is that receivers are not a homogenous mass but rather are composed of social groups bearing different relations to the social world and thus to cultural and political products (Dayan, Katz, Liebes & Maigret 1993; Mauger, Poliak & Pudal 1999). In this way, social belongings filter the activity of reception. With regard to reading, Gérard Mauger and Claude Poliak remind us that the public “approaches the imaginary territories of represented worlds not only with expertise and experiences but also with representations and schemas of interpretation that come into contact with those underlying the world of the text” (Mauger & Poliak 1998: 4). Emmanuel Pierru has shown that among factors of social belonging, “weighty” variables (such as having a degree) play an important role in reception (Pierru 2004). The receiver is not passive. Dominique Pasquier has shown that in the case of television soap operas, viewers are actively engaged in the activity of reception, which is always individually negotiated. A viewer’s reading of what is offered to them will differ depending on where they are located socially (Pasquier 1999). Furthermore, these readings will involve “taking positions that are both spectatorial and moral” (Pasquier 1999: 159). In other words, examining the reception of cultural goods (whether books, movies, or TV series) makes it possible to analyze the sociological implications of moral positionings.

3The activity of receiving comedic series is based on a triadic relationship between the protagonist, the recipient, and the audience (Charaudeau 2006). The audience is always implicitly complicit in the humorous situation unfolding on the screen, called upon to be witness to the humoristic act and invited to “share the offbeat vision of the world offered by the speaker” (Charaudeau 2006: 8). Humor is a call to complicity that can be playful, critical, or cynical (Chareaudeau 2006) depending on the way in which it challenges the world, the implicit contract it makes with the viewer, and the categories of judgement the latter applies. As Bernard Lahire, writing in the wake of Roger Chartier, puts it, cultural goods (books in his case) are characterized by a set of formal properties that can encourage certain modes of reception while ruling out others (Lahire 1993). The same is true of comedic series, whose humoristic processes are inscribed within larger processes (i.e., a series’ format, length, tone, narrative, how it is shot). Although there can be “reading as poaching” of TV series (de Certeau 1984) and of their forms of humor, reception remains framed by flexible reading contracts, reading pacts. As such, and as Bernard Lahire suggests, “cultural differences become visible […] in different ways of appropriating a work” (Lahire 2009: 8).

4Continuing in the footsteps of the aforementioned works, the research material we collected shows that tastes in humor remain divided and hierarchically ordered. The interviewees not only describe what they like in humor, but evaluate their practices in relation to others by attributing a higher value to their own practices or by affirming a view of the world that is specific to what they are. As Isabelle Charpentier shows with regard to receptions of Annie Ernaux’s work, we find that expressing taste in humor is a way of actualizing or consolidating representations of the social world and of oneself (Charpentier 2009). Humor is a means by which individuals “decompress”: discharge certain social tensions that are unspeakable in everyday life and resolve conflicts, sometimes intimate ones, that call into question their positions, which they can reaffirm through the process of humor. In expressing their tastes in humor, individuals express what they are socially, what they aspire to (in terms of culture, style of life, etc.), and what they reject (Kuipers 2006). Thus, humor can be considered what Charpentier calls a vector of “deployment of the self” (Charpentier 1999), and in this sense, tastes in humor are embedded in social relations.

5How do tastes in humor allow us to understand social hierarchies? How are social and moral perceptions articulated within them? What symbolic mechanism is at work in the expression of these tastes? In this article, I will focus on the segment of the sample comprised of 34 young people from the cultured fractions of the middle and upper classes. Yet the analysis remains relational: I draw on the entire sample, since certain members’ tastes in humor take on meaning in relation to others’. The decision to focus on young people from cultured fractions allows us to understand in finer detail the embeddedness of this symbolic mechanism within a group highly endowed with cultural capital. This makes it possible to confirm what numerous works have shown: the importance of capital within the production of distinctive hierarchies (Bourdieu 1984; Lahire 2009; Kuipers 2006, 2008). As Olivier Donnat emphasizes, “all the data available shows that in spite of deep changes over the past decades, education level and social origin remain determining variables for understanding intensity and forms of interest in culture” (Donnat 2002). Different social groups have different levels of cultural capital, and these differences are reflected in the competing aesthetic, cultural, and moral norms that confront one another on an unequal footing within the social space (Balland & Vera Zambrano 2015).

  • 3 This study was designed and led by Giselinde Kuipers at the University of Amsterdam (Sandra Vera Za (...)
  • 4 Giselinde Kuipers has published a series of works based on this study. See in particular Friedman (...)

6The analyses presented here are based on a comparative European study (conducted in France, Italy, Poland, and the Netherlands) entitled “Globalisation of Humor”3. That study looked at the reception of American comedy series to determine whether the reception practices of series have become internationalized as a result of the creation of a transnational televisual field4. The study’s protocol, which was identical across the four countries, was based on group interviews. In France, these interviews, lasting between two and half and four hours, were carried out in Toulouse between 2007 and 2010 with a sample of 78 individuals of various social characteristics (in terms of sex, education, and age).

7Group interviews make it difficult to examine the details of individuals’ social trajectories or the impact of these on relations to humor (Flandrin 2021). And, reception studies have shown the importance of biographical approaches for analyzing how social developments and biographical ruptures anchor the ways in which works of culture are taken up (Charpentier 1999, 2009). However, we posit that although a more synchronous, less micro-sociological focus (achieved in group interviews) may lose some of the nuance of biographical analysis, it does make it possible to see how social patterns are activated situationally. Group interviews are also criticized for the homogenizing effect they have on the statements gathered; divergences in points of view tend to be marginalized. And indeed, this method tends to highlight similarities between individuals within a single group (versus intra-group variations, which do not systemically appear or which may remain unexpressed). While aware of this bias, we nevertheless sought to reduce it by creating interview groups of individuals with pre-existing affinities (that is, co-interviewees were all friends or acquaintances). Within an understanding of group interviews as social relations (Braconnier 2012; Comby 2011), the goal was to seek the most realistic exchanges possible, in spaces familiar to the interviewees. It quickly became clear that the advantage of natural groups is that they encourage honest discourse about actual cultural practices: group members are less likely to express only the “legitimate” discourse around “legitimate” cultural practices, since they are already familiar with one another and more or less shares relatively homogenous tastes in comedic series (Balland & Vera Zambrano 2015). In spite of the relative homogeneity of the statements made, we observed that differences could nevertheless be expressed, since camaraderie allowed for an exchange of points of view. Furthermore, the advantage of groups lies in the type of interactions they produce. Our interviewees systematically built on each other’s statements. We were surprised to find that their exchanges regarding the research subject were marked by humor and complicity. They played with words and deployed various humoristic strategies (Charaudeau 2006), trying to make each other laugh and laughing at their fellow group members’ statements. Since the research subject itself was also a comedic scene, this allowed the observer to refine their understanding of the interviewees’ tastes. In other words, using group interviews made it possible to understand interviewees’ actual interactions, reactions, and positionings, which we connect to their positions.

8The flexible framework of the study made it possible to incorporate questions and reflections that were somewhat marginal to its main focus (Balland & Vera Zambrano 2015). Sandra Vera Zambrano and I found it important, without altering the study’s objectives, to include a set of questions about individuals’ cultural practices, living conditions, media habits, what they like or don’t like watching (with whom, how, etc.), and what makes them laugh (how, why). The idea was to leave more room for interviewees to narrate their experiences while anchoring them in their everyday life. Thus, the interviews lasted longer than those conducted in the other countries. Discussions included playing clips from six series in the study’s corpus, which opened the conversation to other series (Dawson’s Creek, Kaamelott, etc.) that the interviewees drew on to clarify their thoughts, making it possible at the same time to observe their reactions and attitudes (body postures, emotions expressed, the exchanges between them). My aim in this article is to re-examine the study data by shifting the focus away from the question of logics of reception and toward that of tastes in humor.

9By its very nature as a non-serious object, humor makes explicit power relations that are sometimes euphemized or denied in everyday relationships, where interactions are subject to constraints (Bourdieu 1993: 90-91). Comedic series thus make it possible to investigate social tastes in a roundabout manner. Because they are perceived as anodyne and non-legitimate, in discussing them, interviewees’ speech is often less controlled, and they feel less constrained by questions of legitimacy.

Box 1. The Series Shown During the Interviews

  • 5 It is reasonable to assume that the transformation in the supply of series (platforms for accessing (...)

The space of comedic series has evolved considerably since the time of the study—in particular, the number of series available has increased dramatically with the advent of on-demand streaming services and providers such as Netflix and OCS5.

The series chosen by Giselinde Kuipers for the study—Sex and the City, The Simpsons, The Nanny, Everybody Loves Raymond, Seinfeld, and Friends—are award-winning American comedy series that enjoyed widespread commercial success and were broadcast in the four countries of the study. They each follow a cast of characters who evolve within different social universes. The choice of series allowed for the depiction of a variety of situations, presenting participants with unique social encounters (for example, between a Jewish working-class young woman from Queens and an aristocratic English family in Manhattan, or between a tight-knit group of four upscale women living in New York), different lifestyles (lower middle class, working class, upper class), diverse or distinctive styles of humor (more or less dialogue-based, “Jewish-American” humor, a cartoon), and works with greater or lesser legitimacy within the space of TV series. Showing these series gave the interviewees a chance to react to atmospheres, colors, the look and feel of images, corporeal details, physical expressions, etc. In turn, interviewees mobilized other series that they described, evaluated, adored, or rejected, allowing them to refine their positionings.

10We will see, first, that the comedic tastes of cultured young people are based on taking distance from ordinary situations and social hierarchies. It is about laughing at the absurdity of the world and leaving behind everyday life with its rigid norms; laughter makes it possible to symbolically acquire some room for maneuver. Next, I will examine in detail these young people’s taste for sarcasm and irony [second degré], which is central to what they consider good humor. This will allow us to analyze some of the features of this cultured humor and to bring out the ways in which social and moral systems of classification are intertwined within it. Finally, I will show that the laughter in question here oscillates between laughter at oneself and laughter at others.

1. Subversion of the Everyday and its Social Hierarchies

1. 1. Laughing at the Absurdity of the World; Using Humor to Gain Room to Maneuver

  • 6 All of them, regardless of social belonging, cultural capital, and gender.

11What the interviewees appreciated in comedy series has to do with what could be called the subversion of the daily life. They all highlighted6 the importance of being able to recognize oneself in the situations depicted. But for it to be funny, this ordinary world must be subverted. Humor is a way of circumventing the social constraints the interviewees experience or witness in everyday life. This is similar to what Laure Flandrin calls “taking-down-a-peg laughter” in her description of laughter directed at various figures of power (Flandrin 2021) or what Patrick Charaudeau calls “playful collusion”, which involves laughing at the fatality of the world by offering an off-beat and often absurd view of it (Charaudeau 2006: 39). Regardless of their social belonging, interviewees all evoked the idea of standing back or taking a distance from everyday norms. Spontaneously, the elements they considered the funniest were “unpredictable”, “surprising”, “improbable”, “reversing”, “aberrant”, “unhinged”, or “zany” situations. While the meanings of these terms differ, there are nevertheless similarities. The humor favored involves socially unexpected situations that disturb the order of things. Social boundaries and hierarchies are transgressed within the space of an episode. In his study of Rabelaisian laughter, Mikhail Bakhtin shows that spaces of laughter in the Middle Ages were often situated at the margins of official spaces and allowed a momentary interruption of norms and hierarchies, a suspended moment: “For a short time life came out of its usual, legalized and consecrated furrows and entered the sphere of utopian freedom. The very brevity of this freedom increased its fantastic nature and utopian radicalism, born in the festive atmosphere of images” (Bahktin 1968: 89). Other works have shown the role that the practice of humor plays in resistance to the social order. For Anton Zijderveld (1982), one of the main characteristics of humor is that it plays with the meanings of a situation and thus with the social order itself, allowing it to be renegotiated. He explains that humor allows individuals to become more conscious of the false naturalness of the social world by taking them “through the looking glass”.

12The data confirms the importance of this subversive function that cuts across social groups. Flandrin describes such laughter as a comic relation of instability: laughing at the powers that be, being aware of their instability and the fact that domination is never set in stone. The interviewees explain that social encounters, the worries of everyday life, and ordinary situations are perceived as very funny when they are sufficiently off-kilter that they are no longer simply ordinary but destabilizing. An exasperated employee responds absurdly and inappropriately to his boss; a serious man on his way to an important business meeting manages to avoid a series of obstacles but slips and falls before entering the room, thus missing his meeting; children organize a surprise party, complete with clown, for their mother who suffers from her family’s lack of consideration, and end up attacking it for not being sufficiently polite to her and sparking a brawl. These scenes, which the interviewees recounted during their interviews and judged to be funny, can be interpreted in different ways, but they are above all ordinary social situations (work-related, familial) that are marked by sets of constraints from which these fictional characters distance themselves through the absurd. Such fictional situations and the laughter they provoke are ways of escaping the norms of everyday life.

[Discussing Malcolm in the Middle] Karim (high school senior): “It brings back dreams from when you were a kid, things you would have liked to do, crazy things […] It makes you a bit nostalgic for before, when you could do insane things […] a time when there was no pressure on you.”

13Such subversion by proxy (which unfolds before the viewer, but through the interposed screen) creates a space of freedom for the interviewees. Characters’ excesses, their wackiness, described as “absurd” or “crazy” with respect to the social expectations of the universes in which they live, are precisely the basis of their humor, for the role constraints of everyday life do not allow individuals to swerve out of line in this way—such behavior would be punished (by one’s peers, family, or the hierarchy). Thus, in the words of the interviewees, it is a matter of “decompressing”, of releasing the “stress of the day” through laughter that allows them to play at the margins of social constraints. These humorous situations also allow them to untangle the complexity of everyday life, by seeing it differently. Zijderveld (1982) has shown that the unmasking of the social world can occur through a displacement in which the individual sees themself and their environment differently: slightly deformed, in a way that gives it a different meaning. Always subversive, humor can even constitute “an assault” on reality, by proposing an alternate conception of the social world. This deformation of the everyday is perceived as funny; the best moments of the day are condensed in a comic situation in which banality can be left behind.

  • 7 The IEPs (Instituts d’études politiques) are prestigious institutions of higher education (“grandes (...)

Amandine (3rd year IEP student7): “In 20 minutes you have the best moments of the day… Whereas in your life, it’s never that funny. You experience situations that are similar to what you see but which are always less funny […] and it’s not done in the same way… It can be serious subjects but turned absurd…”

1. 2. Playing with Categories and Fluctuating Symbolic Meanings

  • 8 I am very grateful to Charles Suaud for his remarks and analyses concerning this passage.

14All the interviewees emphasized in their statements the importance of disturbing the social order through humor, which here is akin to playing with the margins. Among the interviewees from the cultured fractions, this is expressed more specifically through attention to language, which can convey irony [un second degré]. What is it that these unique ways of playing with language allows8 ? Reduced to their symbolic dimension, plays on words are subversive because they make it possible to play with the categories of perceptions contained in words: pleasure here comes from the freedom that allows the individual to escape and move about at will in a symbolic world, and thus to take distance from the world of things. On the basis of the data analyzed, two types of subversion can be identified.

15The first has to do with what could be described as subversions of order and apply first and foremost to the social order. Fictional characters extricate themselves from relations of domination, whether hierarchical, political, or gender-based. It may be a matter of inverting social roles or subverting the order of things. Or there may be logical subversions that arise out of playing with absurdity, when the laws of reasoning are contradicted (playing with the scale of things or the logical improbability of situations). Here, “the rules of logic, the expectations of common sense, the laws of science and the demands of propriety are all potentially in abeyance. Consequently, when recipients are faced with a joke, they do not apply the information-processing procedures appropriate to serious discourse” (Mulkay 1988: 37).

  • 9 This corresponds to the 5th year of higher education in France.

“Interviewer: What kind of humor is it?
Sébastien: (2nd year Master’s student in English9): It’s always… It’s totally improbable, you never know what’s going to happen and so that, that’s funny… […]. Everyone sits down on the couch and the couch flies off and the entire city is invaded by the couch…”

  • 10 A French comedic series that offers an off-kilter view of the legend of Arthur, in which King Arthu (...)

16Lastly, there may be chronological subversions, including all forms of anachronism and playing with history. Kaamelott10 is one example of this: in the context of medieval times, characters use slang or contemporary expressions.

17The second type of subversion involves subverting classifications: here, humor moves across multiple dimensions, combining chronological, logical, and social subversions. In this space, a physical trait or word might refer to a social, aesthetic, or political characteristic. A signifier, by virtue of the many meanings associated with it, corresponds to several signifieds. For example, some interviewees who were not familiar with the series Seinfeld immediately identified it with “American Jewish” humor which they associated with the comedy of Woody Allen, and therefore loved it.

18The taste for transgression is one way for interviewees to transform the objects of everyday life by separating them from their practical functions. It corresponds to an operation of derealization, in which words serve as liberation from the (univocal) meaning of the real. In this space freed from the bounds of sense, an idea or word reflects a multitude of meanings. However, a taste for subversion is not the only principle on which the comedic tastes of the cultured fractions are based.

2. The Taste for Sarcasm and Irony

2. 1. Favoring what is Intellectual and Transgressive

  • 11 Quotation marks indicate terms and adjectives used by the interviewees.

19The kind of humor preferred by young people from the cultured fractions requires a level of irony [un second degré]. Of course, they might laugh at someone slipping on a banana peel or occasionally use juvenile humor. But when it comes to describing their favorite form of humor—what the interviewees consider “good humor”—the words they use are “sarcastic”, “political”, “cynical”, biting”, “ironic” [second degré], “British”, “transgressive”, “dark”, “searing”, “difficult”, or “caustic”11. Such humor is “negotiated” (Hall 1980); that is, it is described as intellectually demanding, and taking it in, making it one’s own, requires effort. It cannot be reduced to that which is simply funny. It is not the direct expression of a comedic situation and stands in opposition to any form of facility. Thus, almost all the interviewees deplored laugh tracks on TV series like Alicia for who “they don’t have to [her] when [she] should laugh” (Alicia, 2nd year Master’s student in Law) or Laura:

“Laura (4th year IEP student): What doesn’t make me laugh at all are laugh tracks, I hate them. It’s a way of treating people as if they were mentally retarded, explaining to them when to laugh. It’s a turnoff, even if it was going to be funny, even if I might have liked it, I can’t… !
Didier (4th year IEP student): Yea, it’s really annoying.”

20There is an educational pre-requisite for the taste for irony endorsed within this group. The study participants particularly appreciated “political” and “critical” humor, since it conveys a reflexive view on the world. But such reflexivity has certain requirements, notably the capacity to connect a comedic situation to political and social stakes, and to take distance from the world of things (the comedic within an ordinary situation) by transforming it into a serious and intellectual object.

Henri (2nd year IEP student): “On South Park, they manage to take quirks of a society, American society, and to ridicule it… Without ever taking themselves seriously. There is a political meaning behind it… They tear into, they criticize everyone all the time… and with a lot of detachment, a lot of humor.”

  • 12 The author sees such “gateways” as both separations and distinctions, “thresholds that not everyone (...)

21Cultured laughter is not produced by the comedic situation as such but by the possible relation this situation may bear (or that the comic series allows for in terms of flexible framing) to more legitimate issues. Such an academic relationship to the world is shared by the most privileged social groups. It is a required component of some students’ training (notably those studying law or political science); such programs fundamentally encourage students to draw connections between heterogeneous objects and to take seriously the social world and their place within it. More broadly, Pierre Bourdieu has shown that the cultured classes’ relation to culture—indigenous knowledge of which is transformed into a taste for decoding—is the essential condition of aesthetic judgment (Bourdieu & Darbel 1990; Bourdieu 1984). In the same way, reflexivity with respect to a comedic situation is the result of familiarity with a series’ aesthetic, linguistic, and social codes, the originality of which the interviewees grasp. This operation of decoding is a source of pleasure. Humor is no longer a base object; it becomes spiritual, “almost a philosophy of life” (Jean-François), even a “Bible” (Justine), associated with adjectives that aggrandize it (“exceptional” [grandissime], “absolutely great”). The interviewees perform this work of elevating a comedic situation, in which the humor relies on a reflexive effort—what Friedman and Kuipers call “the desire for comic ‘difficulty’” (Friedman & Kuipers 2013: 183). Thus, they valorize “intellectual” humor and insist on the importance of language and “subtle” and “nuanced” wordplay, “biting” replies. Language is a gateway (Goblot 1925)12 in two respects for these culturally and socially privileged interviewees who have a taste for words and who also prefer the original versions of series, which pre-supposes in addition a command of English:

[Regarding Ross on Friends]
“Karim (High school senior): He’s the one who’s totally into Rachel, he acts kind of doofy (tone of amusment).
(Laughs)
Guilhem (High school senior): He’s really good. And in English his jokes are a lot funnier than in French. In French, his character is maybe one of the least funny, I find… in the original version he’s a lot funnier.
Karim: Language is really important because there are nuances, puns for example… Some jokes, it’s not basic English that you need but higher-level English; there are nuances that don’t make sense when they are translated into French, it’s more…”

  • 13 A French humorist known for his dark humor, his anti-conformism, and his sense of the absurd, which (...)

22The interviews make apparent that the most sought-after humor is either dialogic humor (like that of Pierre Desproges13) or British humor (exemplified by Monty Python, in which situational humor and the grotesque accompany intellectual and cynical postures), where there is a kind of distance that is considered “burlesque”, “over the top”, or “great”. Whether it is a matter of irony or of wordplay in French or English, there is always appreciation for discrepancy, for space to revisit the meaning of a situation. It is perhaps telling that these interviewees spontaneously valorize the “absurd” dimension of comedic situations; from a semantic point of view, the absurd “is a questioning of [interpellating] meaning, and perhaps above all […] of the value of language. [The absurd] is always defined not so much by a lack of meaning but rather the impossibility of finding this meaning when one looks for it” (Aron, Saint-Jacques & Viala 2002, “Absurd”). We shall see that this intellectual usage of the space created by disparities and dissonances applies to both language and morality. It is acclaimed and considered a source of good humor.

23Within the space of the comedic series accessible to interviewees at the time of the interviews, Kaamelott crystalizes such “demanding” literary humor in more than one respect, since it pre-supposes historical knowledge both of the legend of King Arthur and of the various forms of language employed (a mixture of medieval and contemporary expressions; characters’ regional accents), which allow for the subversion of the historical frame by means of the heterodox elements inserted into it.

“Interviewer: For you, which are the funniest TV series, either French or American? Which would you recommend?
Jean-François (2nd year IEP): For me, it’s Kaamelott and South Park, I think, as far as American series.
Interviewer: Kaamelott?
Jean-François: Kaamelott, I mean, Kaamelott for me for the last two years, that show has been my mentor […], it’s totally random, it has absolutely great back-and-forth, it’s exceptional, when you see King Arthur shooting off retorts to his wife, it’s, it’s almost a philosophy of life! But I didn’t like the last season… It’s not funny anymore, it’s not as good, it’s not cynical enough anymore, it’s almost more sentimental, whereas before it was…
Charles (2nd year IEP): Absurd.
Jean-François: That kind of back and forth, I find it really, really good, it’s great.
Charles: Yea, yea.”

“Clothilde (2nd year Master’s student in law): The one that slays me is Kaamelott!
Interviewer: Kaamelott?
Clothilde: It’s about King Arthur, it’s a parody, they play with history, and the characters are completely idiotic! It’s nuanced, it plays on the subtlety of language, and the king, he’s totally disillusioned.”

24In addition to its “demanding” nature, there is a moral cost of admission to intellectual humor: it is “impertinent”, “disturbing”, “dark”, “cruel.” This transgressive dimension of humor, which is valorized here, makes it possible to criticize and discredit certain social conventions in the realms of family, sex, and politics that are considered to be conservative (independent of interviewees’ political beliefs).

“Laura (4th year IEP): There’s an American series that makes me laugh, Seventh Heaven, because it’s pathetic!
(Laughs)
Nicolas (4th year IEP): Oh yea, the pastor…
Laura: In fact, it’s a Puritan American family, and it’s funny because his daughter smokes a cigarette and he panics, he doesn’t know what to do, he wants to send her to boarding school… He wonders how to put her back on the right path, on the moral path…
(Laughs)
Interviewer: It’s supposed to be funny?
Nicolas: Not at all! You learn how to be a dad, a mom, all that…”

25In their study comparing humoristic practices among different social groups in England and the Netherlands, Sam Friedman and Giselinde Kuipers demonstrate the taste for deliberately transgressive humor among the privileged classes with high levels of cultural capital (Friedman & Kuipers 2013: 185). Analysis of the interviews conducted in France confirms this tendency. We observe that a preference for transgressive humor may be expressed as a distancing from the initial emotional reactions provoked by a situation (such as disgust, offense, compassion), which allows for what could be described as the ascetic pleasure of a comic situation (that is, it is stripped of emotional charge and pathos). Forms of social inappropriateness are highly appreciated here since they explicitly contravene elementary social rules. Pushed to the point of paroxysm, this transgressive posture is a way of laughing at those who are dominated (whether the poor, women, Black people, foreigners, or people with illnesses). Such rejection of affects is comparable to Bourdieu’s description of pure taste in Distinction, which involves “a systematic refusal of refusal of all that is ‘human’ […] namely the passions, emotions and feelings which ‘ordinary’ people invest in their ‘ordinary’ lives […]. Rejecting the ‘human’ clearly means rejecting what is generic, i.e., common, ‘easy’ and immediately accessible, starting with everything that reduces the aesthetic animal to pure and simple animality, to palpable pleasure or sensual desire.” (Bourdieu 1984: 32). The American series Married…With Children (which follows Al, a racist and misogynistic shoe salesman, Peggy, his apparently dominated housewife, and Kelly and Bud, their two children, who are depicted as idiotic and lacking a moral compass); the character of the father-in-law on Kaamelott (an irascible and barbaric lord who likes to torture his subjects for pleasure); and Samantha on Sex and The City (the director of a public relations agency who racks up sexual relationships without becoming emotionally attached), were all repeatedly cited by interviewees to describe this pleasure of transgression. Once again, the humor here is not accessible or obvious, but rather is reserved for those who can recognize it in the first place (as being not solely mean, horrible, or racist) and who can add to it a second layer of interpretation (irony, second degré).

  • 14 Virginie Marcucci has shown that the series Desperate Housewives is both modern and conservative, a (...)

26Analysis also shows that the interviewees appreciate transgressive humor for its potential connections to more serious stakes. Intellectual and ironic humor is transgressive since it makes it possible to criticize politics in general, scandals, and petty-bourgeois forms of moralism (by deploring puritanical and conservative attitudes and the lifestyles associated with them). This transgressive posture with regard to the morals scrutinized in TV series is, however, the expression of a morality that is not presented as such and comes into contact with other socially situated morals. Thus, the interviewees consider The Simpsons and South Park to be harsh critiques of politics that primarily concern the United States and target only certain aspects of politics (various forms of economic and political radicality, the personality of politicians, scandals regarding morality in general, rather than the functioning of the political system or the dominant ideologies it transmits). Similarly, while Sex and the City is valued for being transgressive thanks to the seemingly liberated sexual norms of the characters, we must not forget that the social basis of the series is New York’s Upper East Side, and that it depicts the love lives of four heterosexual, well-to-do, single women in their thirties. Its supposedly transgressive sex scenes in fact involve only one of the characters (Samantha) and these make up only parts of episodes, appearing alongside shopping excursions and friends’ nights out. And, ultimately, all the characters (except Samantha) end up finding professional and personal happiness by getting married and starting a family. Thus, the transgressions valorized are quite relative with respect to the interviewees, since they do not call into question the values and hierarchies of their own social universes. They are closest to forms of irreverence towards elementary social conventions, in which the social order as a whole is respected. In this way, they draw on the “blurry ideology” transmitted by these series, which allows them to be taken up in seemingly contradictory manners (Marcucci 2013)14.

2. 2. Systems of Classification and Moral Oppositions

27If we take seriously the semantic universe mobilized by the interviewees, it appears that their schemes of perception concerning “good humor” (i.e., what they consider to be good humor) refer to principles of classification of the social world, insofar as all rhetoric (including scientific discourse) transmits an unconscious and hierarchical system of relations (Bourdieu & Boltanski 1976).

  • 15 The terms in quotation marks are those used by interviewees themselves; the others were added to de (...)
  • 16 I have demonstrated a similar point regarding rhetoric around the school crisis (Balland 2009).
  • 17 Sam Friedman and Giselinde Kuipers demonstrate that respondents from privileged classes with high l (...)

28The words chosen by the interviewees are not anodyne; rather, they implicitly echo a system of ideological oppositions (that is, representations linked to positions within the social space) that is simultaneously aesthetic, moral, and social. “Intellectual” refers not only to intelligent humor; it is connected to what is high, pure; to the head, “language”, “repartee”, “subtlety”, “nuance”, delicacy, beauty, the “mind”, cultivation; to what is straight, vertical, cold, “cruel”, “cutting”, “caustic”, precise, rugged, rigorous, pointed, hard, “biting”, quick, elegant, “ironic” [second degré], “distanced”, active, “serious”, “engaged”, courageous, “great”, grand, and true. Thus, it is opposed—not only word for word but also morality for morality (Bourdieu & Boltanski 1976)—to “bad humor”, which is connected to what is “low” and impure; to the body, “jokes”, “poop and pee”, “slapstick”; to what is “crude”, “crass”, “coarse”, “mediocre”, “vulgar”, “gauche”, ugly, “dreadful”, “horrible”, “exasperating”, “cheap”, “unrefined”, “sentimental”, soft, slow, “literal” (premier degré), accessible, “bland”, “formulaic”, “spelled out”, horizontal, hot, passive, “ordinary”, “petty”, “stereotypical”, “normal”, “average”, “overplayed”, “fake”, and “beauf (low-class, low-brow, or hick)15. The force of this system of oppositions is that it is specific (that is, here it relates specifically to humor), but can be generalized to other objects (food, public issues, culture, etc.); thus, it can be mobilized without necessarily being made explicit. In this respect it is similar to the classifications highlighted in Luc Boltanksi’s and Pierre Bourdieu’s work on dominant ideology (Bourdieu & Boltanski 1976). In particular, its efficacy lies in the fact that each signifier mobilizes several meanings, making it possible to evoke this social unconscious obliquely, while keeping it vague and blurred16. Even if they mobilize only a part of it, all the interviewees from the cultured fractions base themselves on these same categories of perception to characterize good and bad humor. The schemas of classification that emerge subsume the question of humor under cultural and moral tastes and styles of life17. When asked to describe what they like and dislike, the interviewees simultaneously use aesthetic categories (beautiful, refined, ugly, dreadful) and moral categories (good, crude, mediocre) that are socially situated—the mediocre and the coarse are connected to what is “low-class” [beauf] (and to what one is not). Cultural capital is central to understanding the form of these divides.

Box 2. From the Other Side of the Mirror: Sarcastic Humor among Youth with Low Levels of Cultural Capital

In contrast, the interviewees with less cultural capital had a very different view of sarcastic humor. In general, what they considered good humor was closer to “gags” and “jokes”, based on “situational comedy” that depicts “a funnier version” of everyday life. This humor is said to be “fun/goofy” [rigolo], “stupid”, “excessive”, “comic”, “a hoot”, “caricatural”, “crazy,” and “exaggerated”. American series are clearly favored over French ones, whose humor is considered more of “a drag”, and sometimes “incomprehensible”. Kaamelott is the typical example of what is considered not funny, its price of admission too high:

“Interviewer: And Kaamelott, do you know that show?
Jessica: It’s not great.
Samia: Yea, I don’t find it funny at all.
Jessica: I don’t find it makes me laugh, it’s not funny at all! You never know where the joke is…
Aicha: Yea.
Jessica: I don’t like it.
Interviewer: Why don’t you like it?
Aicha: He cheats on his wife, the queen, he’s married to the queen, he never has sex with her…
Interviewer: At the same time, it’s similar to Malcom in the Middle in terms of morals?
Jessica: Nah, I don’t know, it’s not the same…
Jonathan: Yea but Malcolm is funny, this isn’t funny!
Interviewer: You don’t see the jokes?
Jonathan: Nah.
Aicha: Nah.
Jessica: It might be because we don’t understand everything…
Aicha: And maybe because we don’t know the history!
Samia: Yea, that too.”

  • 18 With the exception of the series Un gars, une fille.

Among the interviewees in this group, not every situation can be laughed at. While they too valorize the transgressive dimension of humor, not all transgressions are possible, in particular those that affect the moral order and humor that humiliates another. The humor they valorize is above all “for laughing” (often at oneself) and “relaxing”, and is opposed in all respects to sarcastic humor, the goal of which is “mockery”, and which is considered “mean”, “hurtful”, “cynical”, “subtle”, “French18”, “humiliating”, “tiresome”, “dark”. In other words, the categories used by young people from the cultured classes also appear among this group as aesthetic and moral categories. However, they are mobilized in a different, and almost opposite, way: the working-class youth agree with their cultured peers that the high, the “subtle”, the “sarcastic” are “cruel” and “mean”. But they reject these morally (and consider them “not funny”), whereas the other group valorizes them as “good” humor.

29These aesthetic and moral tastes are hierarchical and take on meaning in relation to one another. It is not only a matter of describing what one likes in comedy, but, implicitly, of evaluating one’s own practice in relation to that of others. These hierarchizing mechanisms are at the same time distinctive, since they draw a distinction between “them” and “us”, and mark a distance from what one is not—and, in the case of those individuals privileged with high cultural capital, from that which is socially lower (Friedman & Kuipers 2013; Balland & Vera Zambrano 2015). Humor is an ideal access point for demonstrating these mechanisms of hierarchization and distinction within the social space.

3. Laughing at Oneself and at Others

3. 1. Social Resemblance and Reading Pacts

30Social resemblance is important in the expression of comedic tastes. Comedic series are “fictional worlds filled with values, which offer us a point of view on our own situation, such that in trying to situate them, we investigate our own situation” (Scholes 1986). Sandra Vera Zambrano and I noted that whereas all the interviewees (regardless of social background) enjoy a variety of series, they prefer to watch those series to which they feel closest socially, in particular because they can identify (at least loosely) with the characters, the story, and the lifestyles depicted (Balland & Vera Zambrano 2015). Among the (mostly young) interviewees from the middle and upper classes, the favorite series were Friends, Sex and the City, and Un gars, une fille.

[Regarding the series Un gars, une fille]
“Interviewer: What makes it funny?
Clothilde (1st year Master’s student in Law): Because it really reflects… I mean, it’s us! It’s us with features a bit exaggerated but that’s what’s funny.
Justine (1st year Master’s student in Law): It’s about a couple and we all recognize ourselves in it. Myself, one time, several times even, I recognized myself in it […].
Justine: And it’s several situations actually. It’s Chouchou and Loulou. Chouchou is the guy and Loulou is the girl. And they might be in the mountains, or at some friends’ house…
Alicia (2nd year Master’s student in Law): At Janette’s house!
Justine: Oh yea, Janette is their best friend… Or at the mother-in-law’s house, with little comments.
Alicia: It’s also how it’s filmed, it’s as if we were seeing them across from us and it’s centered on the main characters, you never see the others, or you only see them with a hat covering their face. There’s only two characters. And it’s really slices of life, it’s funny.
Clothilde: And you recognize yourself, yea.”

  • 19 For an analysis of the audiences of Friends, see Esquenazi 2002.

31We see here that the material dispositive (filming at eye level, presenting the show in sketches) contribute to the reality effect by making situations and characters seem realistic, and by thus allowing for a logic of identification (Mille 2011). But humor is also expressed in opposition to other forms of humor or lifestyles. The educated middle- and upper-class youth thus see themselves in the series Friends,19 in particular in the lifestyle it depicts (well-off young people on the path to professional success living with roommates, albeit in a setting structurally different from the interviewees’ own; that is, in large apartments near Central Park). Similarly, Sex and the City is appreciated by educated middle- and upper-class women who project themselves into the characters’ economic and social successes. The social success enjoyed by these characters (living in luxury on the Upper East Side) is, however, quite distant from the lives of our interviewees. Nevertheless, such discrepancy from above is not problematic for them.

32And yet, the principle of comedic tastes goes beyond this process of identification and is anchored in a reading pact that guides the process by which series are taken on. Among the youngest interviewees, The Simpsons was the most appreciated series. Although it does not depict an upper-class family to which the cultured interviewees feel socially close, the series’ critical view of U.S. society and of the supposedly mainstream lifestyle of the lower-middle classes is a vector of laughter that arouses their interest and adherence. The flexible relative homology between comedic series, their characters, and their audiences can be expressed in the opposite way: series too socially distant from interviewees may be rejected. Thus, Sex and the City is rejected by working class youth who, in addition to what they consider its overly sexual nature, highlight a very large social gap (“it’s too much, it’s not a series for me”, says Jessica, describing characters whose lifestyles are too much of a mismatch for her).

  • 20 Discussing the series Hélène et les garçons, Dominique Pasquier reminds us that television viewers (...)

33Sandra Vera Zambrano and I observed that within comedic series interviewees tend to reject characters and lifestyles perceived as socially lower. But once again, it appears that social distance and proximity are not the only factors that explain comedic tastes. The humor present in social universes that the interviewees see as inferior is rejected, if the reading pact does not allow them to project themselves into those universes with some distance (through processes that make it possible to criticize a lifestyle or certain socially situated characteristics and to transgress certain roles). This requires both an activity of negotiating20 the content proposed (Pasquier 1999), and also that the interviewees be aware of the space of comedic series and where they fit in socially (their presumed audiences, the TV networks that create them, etc.).

34While some series are well-known enough to be situated in this way, this is not the case with others that are more limited in reach, leading certain interviewees to make decoding errors (Hall 2004). Thus, the series Seinfeld is for the most part valorized by interviewees from cultured fractions (as being “subtle”, “funny”, “refined”, “excellent”), who sometimes even seek to universalize its humor (“it speaks to everyone”, says Thomas). But when interviewees do not succeed in situating it within the space of series as distinctive, they consider it “a mediocre little series” (“unwatchable”, “stupid”, “banal”, “unoriginal”, or “middling”), similar to the series Everybody Loves Raymond (a comedic series not very well known in France that depicts the everyday life of an Italian-American family living in the suburbs). These adjectives refer to the same schemes of opposition described above, mixtures of aesthetic and moral categories. The series Everybody Loves Raymond proposes a narrative and formal framing—what Dominique Pasquier calls a “mise en television” (Pasquier 1999)—that invites the viewer to slip into the everyday life of this lower-middle-class family, without distancing the characters’ lifestyles. Given the schemes that interviewees from the cultured categories tend to mobilize, this reading pact does not allow them to project themselves into it, and none of them favor it. It is within this relationship between logics of identification and a reading pact that the comedic tastes of the interviewees are actualized.

3. 2. Laughing Against: The “Beauf” as Object of Contempt

35In terms of comedic tastes, age and sex are important, but cultural capital and social origin are the factors that tend to be the most decisive when it comes to comedic series (and when social origin and cultural capital do not overlap, it is the latter that is more determinant). For interviewees, proximity, whether social or cultural, to a series or to certain characters and their experiences is a way to laugh with: despite the interposition of the screen, interviewees put themselves alongside the characters (or one character) in order to laugh along with them at a situation.

[Regarding The Nanny]
“Valérie (2nd year Master’s student in Psychology): Her character (Fran) always annoyed me, irritated me. Her almost-hooker outfits, I mean… The only kind of good part… It’s the butler’s relationship to the other one because he’s sarcastic.
Audrey (3rd year student in Biology): The butler is the only one, personally, who I liked! Niels! […] I like how he talks, it’s snobby!
Olivier (PhD student in law): The butler is the only funny character because he takes shots at the blonde lady [Miss Babcock, Mr. Sheffield’s business associate]. That’s pretty much the only thing that’s funny because it’s tit for tat. Because there, you get into a different category of humor, so it’s pretty funny. There is a gap between his [the butler’s] hoity-toity English and the other lady, who is stereotypically American, with her chewing gum and accent that must be so thick you could cut it with a knife, who’s not ashamed to talk about things with crude words and all […].”

36As these extracts show, looking for proximity (allying oneself with one character and their humor in order to laugh with them) does not rule out taking distance from another character or situation, when the two mock each other; then, the viewer laughs at the other. Among the interviewees from the cultured fractions, distance-taking often has the form of a critique of the “ordinary”, referring the humor to which they do not feel close. Everybody Loves Raymond crystallizes such rejection; the interviewees from the cultured fractions all see it in a more or less nuanced way as being about “a shoddy little average family”, as a series that is “a bit beauf”, with “horrible” characters. The category of the “beauf” thus recurs frequently, associated with what the cultured-fraction interviewees consider to be bad humor:

Jean-François (2nd year IEP): “There’s always the good old family of beaufs […] with junk food, the guy who spends his day in front of the TV, who’s absolutely useless […]. The beauf, he’s the average guy, kind of a loser, you imagine him with his beer and his beer belly […], he spends his time eating donuts and works for 50 dollars a day.”

[Regarding Everybody Loves Raymond]
“Alicia (2nd year Master’s student in Law): It’s the cliché of the little family that lives in the suburbs, with his parents who live next door, with his little family, his wife and his kids […]. Physically, there isn’t a single thing that distinguishes him, it’s just ordinary people actually.
Caroline (1st year Master’s student in Biology-Health): The beauf life, you see them there, yea, it’s the life of beaufs, it’s stereotypes, the dad just drinks endless beer in front of the TV.
Laureline (1st year Master’s in Administration): His only passion is eating donuts.
Caroline: (imitating Homer Simpson): Mm, donuts.
Laureline: He drinks beers, he hangs out with his friends […].”

  • 21 TF1 is one of the most popular French television channels.

“Alicia (2nd year Master’s in Law): It’s really the average American family […] less funny, less off-the-wall. This one, it’s a bit of normality.
Justine (1st year Master’s student, Law): And it’s heavy-handed, the thing with the cookies, the dad who takes a cookie and it’s hot. That doesn’t do it for me […]
Clothilde (1st year Master’s, Law): [The beauf] is the guy who has no culture, who is stuck in front of TF121 and who watches stuff… A bit of a voyeur.
Justine: A kind of proletarian class or not much social mobility. His house, his dog, his TV.
Alicia: The beauf, it’s Al Bundy (from the series Married…With Children).
Justine: Exactly.
Alicia: That’s what beauf is, it’s the shoe salesman.”

37These schemes of moral and social perception express (most often unconsciously) a distancing from socially lower practices and individuals. They are first and foremost a relationship to one’s own practices: those of the interviewees from cultured fractions (the “we”), are implicitly valorized and generalized as normal practices (found in all social groups). They also are relations to others (other practices and individuals), whose value is considered to be lower, and from which distance is taken. The choice of words here is fundamental. The “beauf” does not belong to the middle class (most of the interviewees consider themselves to belong to the middle classes), he is average (“the average guy”) and connected to what is low, to absence (“shoddy little family”, “there isn’t a single thing”, “has no culture”), whose social position (“sort of proletarian class”, “shoe salesman”, who “works for 50 dollars a day”) is perceived through the perceptual schemes of the dominant classes that combine position, attitudes, and values. Thus, the quickness, modernity, and movement unconsciously connected with the dominant classes are opposed to the supposed slowness (physical and intellectual—“literal” [second degré], “sitting”, “heavy-handed”, “unrefined”), archaism, and immobility of the working classes (“not too much social mobility”, “stuck”, “his parents live next door”, “doesn’t evolve”). In addition to having a devalorized sense of humor, the “beauf” is also taxed with social, educational, personal, and physical characteristics that make him socially undesirable (“loser”, “mediocre”, “horrible”, “has no culture”) and even disturbing (“a bit of a voyeur”), thus recalling a tried-and-true rhetorical structure that associates the working classes with stupidity and danger (Chevalier 1958). Nothing distinguishes him, for he does not have the disposition for distinction found among the more bourgeois classes (“he’s ordinary”, “physically, there isn’t a single thing that distinguishes him”). He becomes the object of social disgust. What is “beauf” can only be funny if it is “off the wall”, “over the top”; in such cases, what is funny is the gap that is depicted, allowing for mockery:

“Alicia (2nd year Master’s in Law): The one I also liked is Fran’s mother, I think she’s my favorite. The mother and the grandmother!
Interviewer: Why?
Alicia: I don’t know, it’s beauf! All the jokes around food, ‘Oh I’m a little hungry, I’m going to make myself a chicken!’ It was completely…
Clothilde (1st year Master’s in Law): Over the top!
Alicia: Yea and grandma Yeta, she’s something else!
Alicia: It’s the granny in sequins, wearing neon, with her banana!
Interviewer: It makes you laugh?
(All together): Yes!
Interviewer: What makes you laugh?
Justine: It’s the granny who shows up with her survival sequins.
Interviewer: And so, what did you like in the series?
Justine: What sticks with you is that it’s a gal from a social milieu that’s not at all elevated, whose manners are not classy at all, and who shows up in a very high-class setting… It’s mostly that.”

38Under what conditions do the ordinary lives of ordinary people become interesting and funny? When these people become less ordinary: that is, either they make fun of themselves or they are “so ridiculous” within ordinary situations that it is no longer possible to take them seriously or for them to take themselves seriously. Such reversal is considered by the interviewees to be hilarious, burlesque, or “great”. It transforms “heavy-handed” humor (that is, the kind that is devalorized as being bad) into humor that is “heavy-handed” but “very funny”. These operations are common among the interviewees and require that the framing of the series allow for such reinterpretations. This operation thus transforms disgust into affinity through an interpretive move that makes the “pathetic” “funny”: the “ridiculous” becomes “off-the-wall; the “absurd” becomes “over the top”; the “ugly” becomes “kitsch”. This interpretation of the meaning of series, which takes the form of social mockery, is here based on a (dominant) social position within the social space. Some interviewees even declared that they watch a series solely in order to make fun of the characters and what they represent—otherwise, watching that series would be just “banal”:

  • 22 Evening soap opera series that depicts life in a fictional neighborhood of Marseille, considered to (...)
  • 23 Evening soap opera series that depicts the lives of three women, and which is also considered to be (...)

“Justine (1st year Master’s student in Law): And then there was a show that really impacted me, 7th Heaven. It’s super Protestant, Puritan… And it was really sappy…
Clothilde (1st year Master’s in Law): Yea, it was morality lessons the whole episode long […]
Alicia (2nd year Master’s in Law): […] I would watch it with my sister and we took it super ironically [au troisième degré]: ‘Oh wow, oh my God, she didn’t have sex!’; ‘Oh la la, she came home at 10:30 instead of at 10!’ But we watched it, we would be the first to say, ‘Come on, come on, 7th Heaven is on.’
[Regarding Plus belle la vie22] “Nicolas (4th year IEP): I can watch things like that but I don’t laugh at them at face value [le premier degré]. It’s more like watching them sarcastically because it sucks.”
Thomas (senior in high school): “Sous le soleil23 (the series) is funny, but it’s not meant to be.”

Conclusion

39As a seemingly unserious object, there is a sense in which comedy liberates individuals to speak freely and to express not only what makes them laugh but also what they like and what they hate. In this way, tastes in comedy make it possible to understand the distribution of social tastes. This is particularly true for comedic series, which anchor different forms of humor in socially situated fictional universes to which individuals feel more or less close. Comedic tastes, which are not limited to the sphere of humor, thus make visible a set of social representations linked to lifestyle, aesthetics, morality, and social relations, as has been demonstrated in other countries (Friedman & Kuipers 2013). Analysis allows us to access socially situated schemes of moral and aesthetic classification that are transferrable and hierarchical. The interviewees valorize certain social and cultural models while distancing themselves from others. Social positioning is crucial here, and in particular the highly explanatory cultural capital of these hierarchies. But this positionings are actualized within material dispositives: not just what series portray, but also their format, how they are filmed, and the forms of humor they deploy all constitute elements of framing that allow viewers to engage with them. By focusing on the comedic tastes of young people from cultured fractions, this article has shown that there are connections between social relations, categories of comedic understanding, and moral and aesthetic dispositions. Comedic tastes make visible the symbolic struggles that structure the social space. They make it possible to actualize representations of the social world and of what one is, socially and culturally. Although humor is not central to these struggles, it is involved in the production of these representations, and thus is similar to the role played by mental categories in such production (Suaud 1997; 2014).

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Annexe

Appendix 1. Interviewees Quoted

First Name

Educational Level at Time of Interview

Father’s profession24

Amandine
Christelle
Laura

3rd year IEP
3rd year IEP
3rd year IEP

Journalist
Middle school principal
Artist

Audrey
Véronique
Valérie

3rd year Biology
1st year Master’s Applied Foreign Languages
2nd year Master’s Psychology

Farmer
Generalist Doctor
Head of a small/mid-sized business

Karim

Thomas
Guilhem

High school senior
High school senior
High school senior

Professor
Architect
Director of legal affairs

Alicia

Justine
Clothilde

2nd year Master’s Law
1st year Master’s Law
1st year Master’s Law

Generalist doctor
Upper-level civil servant
Upper-level civil servant

Jean-François

Charles
Harold

2nd year IEP
2nd year IEP
2nd year IEP

Diplomat
Generalist doctor
Head of a small/mid-sized business

Olivier

Pierre
Virginie

Doctoral student Law
Doctoral student Law
2nd year Master’s Political Science

Generalist doctor
Generalist doctor
High school teacher

Bastien

Yohan
Marc

1st year Master’s Law
2nd year Master’s Law
2nd year Master’s Law

Specialist doctor
Architect
Unknown

Jean-François

Henri
Harold

2nd year IEP
2nd year IEP
2nd year IEP

Generalist doctor
Head of a small/mid-sized business
Head of a small/mid-sized business

Laura

Nicolas

Didier
Jeanne

4th year IEP
1st year Master’s Sociology
4th year IEP
4th year IEP

Artist
Doctor
Lawyer
Civil servant

Laureline

Fanny

Léa

Jessica
Charlotte
Caroline
Sébastien

1st year Master’s Administration
1st year Master’s Communication
1st year Master’s Communication
Art school
4th year IEP
1st year Master’s Biology
2nd year Master’s English

School teacher
Baker
Engineer
Engineer
Mason (laborer)
Engineer
Real estate agent

Jessica

Samia

Milana

Aicha

Ivan
Jonathan

High school senior
High school senior
High school senior
High school senior
High school senior
High school senior

Bus driver
Retail worker
Plasterer
Nurse’s aide
(No answer)
Plumber

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Notes

1 I would like to thank my friend and colleague Sandra Vera Zambrano, with whom I co-led field interviews for this study (Balland & Vera Zambrano 2015).

2 To express the double relation to oneself and to others that is contained in laughter, Laure Flandrin uses the phrase “positional affect”, which she defines as “a socially constituted emotion expressing one’s position in opposition to others” (Flandrin 2011: 3).

3 This study was designed and led by Giselinde Kuipers at the University of Amsterdam (Sandra Vera Zambrano and I acted as research assistants for the French portion of the study and were in charge of the group interviews).

4 Giselinde Kuipers has published a series of works based on this study. See in particular Friedman & Kuipers 2013; Kuipers 2015a; 2015b.

5 It is reasonable to assume that the transformation in the supply of series (platforms for accessing them, a significant increase in the number available, diversity in terms of modes of production, etc.) has had effects on how they are accessed and viewed. The effects of these changes on the social logics described here must be analyzed.

6 All of them, regardless of social belonging, cultural capital, and gender.

7 The IEPs (Instituts d’études politiques) are prestigious institutions of higher education (“grandes écoles”) for political science in France.

8 I am very grateful to Charles Suaud for his remarks and analyses concerning this passage.

9 This corresponds to the 5th year of higher education in France.

10 A French comedic series that offers an off-kilter view of the legend of Arthur, in which King Arthur struggles to rise to the task given to him by the gods.

11 Quotation marks indicate terms and adjectives used by the interviewees.

12 The author sees such “gateways” as both separations and distinctions, “thresholds that not everyone crosses serve scarcely no other purpose than to protect and preserve the set of personal qualities known as ‘distinction’, which allow one to mix with others without being mistaken for them” (Goblot 1925: 35).

13 A French humorist known for his dark humor, his anti-conformism, and his sense of the absurd, which draws on a wealth of literary knowledge

14 Virginie Marcucci has shown that the series Desperate Housewives is both modern and conservative, and that the series’ ambiguity rests on a “blurry ideology” (Marcucci 2013: 77)

15 The terms in quotation marks are those used by interviewees themselves; the others were added to demonstrate the system of oppositions contained in these social representations regarding humor. To do this, we looked at all the terms used by interviewees during the group interviews to describe the series and humor they value, what they liked and did not like, according their social origin and with attention to the aesthetic, moral, and social categories that emerge, drawing on the classifications of Luc Boltanski and Pierre Bourdieu in their article on the production of dominant ideology (Bourdieu & Boltanski 1976). “Beauf is a common slang term used to refer to someone considered unrefined and narrow-minded.

16 I have demonstrated a similar point regarding rhetoric around the school crisis (Balland 2009).

17 Sam Friedman and Giselinde Kuipers demonstrate that respondents from privileged classes with high levels of cultural capital frequently draw hierarchical boundaries of taste on the basis of morality (Friedman & Kuipers 2013: 189).

18 With the exception of the series Un gars, une fille.

19 For an analysis of the audiences of Friends, see Esquenazi 2002.

20 Discussing the series Hélène et les garçons, Dominique Pasquier reminds us that television viewers are not passive in front of their screens, and invites us to take seriously the activity of negotiation they engage in and the way in which the young “use television to rethink the world around them” (Pasquier 1999: 7).

21 TF1 is one of the most popular French television channels.

22 Evening soap opera series that depicts life in a fictional neighborhood of Marseille, considered to be a low-quality series but which is watched by a very socially diverse audience.

23 Evening soap opera series that depicts the lives of three women, and which is also considered to be low quality.

24 Including mention of only the father’s profession (and not the mother’s) was part of the study protocol. Cultural capital was understood in its institutionalized dimension (interviewees’ degrees) and its incorporated dimension (all the cultural practices mentioned during the group interviews were connected to data from the study Pratiques culturelles des Français: frequency, representations of, and modalities of going to museums, the theatre, and concerts, which can inform us of families’ “lifestyles” and cultural capital) (Donnat 2009).

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Référence électronique

Ludivine Balland, « Comedic Tastes as Social Relations of Class: The Example of Youth from Cultured Class Fractions »Biens Symboliques / Symbolic Goods [En ligne], 11 | 2022, mis en ligne le 25 décembre 2022, consulté le 31 janvier 2023. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/bssg/1278 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/bssg.1278

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Auteur

Ludivine Balland

Lecturer in sociology, université de Nantes, Centre nantais de sociologie (Cens)

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