I have been thinking  about the parallels between semiotics and comedy a lot recently. This is partly because I have just finished a mind blowingly interesting project on the semiotics of humour. And partly because, having done poetry open mics for quite some time, I have started a stand up comedy course recently too and am immersing myself in the world of what makes things funny.

It is definitely out my comfort zone. Building rapport with the crowd draws more on qualitative research chops for connecting with a bunch of randoms in a focus group than the ivory tower seclusion of semiotic thinking. But the writing itself is highly semiotic – it is all about what you have noticed, that others probably haven’t noticed, its uncanny connections to other things that have kernel of truth to them and deconstructing social mores, in and out group distinctions and social etiquette and the rules we have have.

At the superficial level, semioticians and comedians have something obvious in common. Both are outsider figures who work at the margins of culture and are often seen as eccentric provocateurs. Greg Rowland in his paper the Slag of All Semioticians said his clients seemed to view and treat somewhere between Moses and an idiot savant. And semioticians study humour too. Canadian Paul Bouissac, who gave a Keynote on Catchy Memes at Semiofest 2017 has written extensively on clowning and the circus, a highly semiotic entity. Malcolm Evans deconstructed the idea of the 'fool' in Shakespeare as a sort of carnivalesque sage / prophet.

But if we look closer we can see more parallels. Both of them are disciplines that rely on:

1. Observational detail

2. Surprising connections

3. Revealing cultural norms

4. Insight and epiphany

5. Subverting the status quo


1. Observational Detail

in an interview recently a comedian wrote that comedy was about seeing things in a way that Michael McIntyre - naming something that has not been named, which leads to a relatable insight = funny. This is something we need to be alive to and skilled at as semioticians in order to meet the clients's brief.  Or Mo Gilligan pastiching different types of rapper in his routine - something others vaguely note, but don't see with such clarity. Pastiche and parody in general are based on keen observations.

2. Surprising Connections

One of the comedians I spoke, Stuart Goldsmith who runs the excellent Comedian's Comedian podcast waxed lyrical about the imaginative and lexical brilliance of a comment once made by Charlie Brooker to describe a contestant on Big Brother. "Dot Cotton as reflected in a dented kettle". Making these surprising connections show the genius of vision and insight and is common to both disciplines. And so called 'benign violation' is the basis of the way most jokes are said to work. The listener's expectations as they listen to the set up are violated, benignly in the punchline. When we think of imagination we think of an Eddie Izzard talking about how Darth Vader would negotiate the canteen at the Death Star - cramming together the fantastical and the mundane to create funny incongruity. A main school of humour theory holds that surprise and resolution of that surprise by a satisfying punch line are absolutely key to humour.

3. Revealing cultural Norms

So much, too much to mention in this section- comedians are constantly naming culture and showing up its flaws. Comedy of Manners and social satires as well as pastiche and The Two Ronnies in their famous class sketch.  Dave Chappelle’s or Key and Peele’s soisticated deconstruction and multi-layered – and Ali G’s ambiguous minstrelry and playing with social taboos in the US for instance. And Ricky Gervais and Larry David in Curb your Enthusiasm scurrilously plumb the depths of awkwardness. Indeed in the book Awkwardness: An Essay – Kostko writes about the penchant for awkward or cringe humour being about social rules. He gets quite technical when he talks about awkwardness as the social tension that eventuates when we or others transgress or are unable to properly negotiate cultural or social norms. Which, let's face it, in the hyper cycling, accelerationist, liquid modern world we live in nowadays, is pretty endemic for anyone who doesn't live in a cave. Social norms and mapping and understanding their limits is inherently semiotic. And in the hands of someone like Azeez Ansari, in Master of None it becomes the wellspring of great humour.

And when we talk about humour. What about the UK?

Humour has long been an inextricable part of Britishness both in terms of wit and word play but also British traits such as phlegmatic pluck in the face of adversity, a taste for piss taking and sharp satire, puncturing pomposity and comical nihilism.

The culturally omnivorous demonstrate cultural capital through appreciation of more sophisticated comic styles on social media. Arguably its technocratic humourlessness and the faceless arrogance this represented was a fatal blunder for the Remain campaign in the 2016 EU Referendum in the UK. Donald Trump’s mock indignation, clown like celebrity demeanour though appeared more likeable than did Hillary Clinton's. Though, it seems that no-one is laughing any more!

4. insight and epiphany

Andrew Stott writes in the book Comedy: A Critical Idiom:

“Jokes therefore emerge from within the social framework and are necessarily produced in a relative relationship to the dominant structures of understanding and epistemological order. Despite the violation of the social order implied by joking, the joker enjoys a kind of immunity through the belief that his or her wit represents insight into a different type of consciousness… the joker appears to gain privileged access beyond the social construct... Joking reveals the practical limits of cultural structures…” 

This is where humour gets dangerous. We would normally think of Richard Pryor and his meditations on race, Bill Hicks’s mordant take on politics and religious in the 90s US. Chris Rock’s broke through ‘black respectability’ and intra-racial taboos with his famous N word routine. And in the UK someone like Paul Chowdry deconstruction of acceptable racism in his shows What's Happening White People ? and Political Correctness in PC's World or Hannah Gadsby looking at rape culture... And Jess Thom who has Tourette's and others with disabilities foregrounding of societal blind spots in being unable to deal with someone's unique needs.

5. Subverting the Status Quo

Andre Stott, in his book Comedy: A Critical Idiom, writes:

“Instances of humour, joking or irony invoke a separation between ‘authorized’, egocentric or rational versions of the world and revealed alternatives, commenting on established conventions as they go.”

Comedians are often troublemakers. Dissident anti-Assad Syrian theatre group Masasit Mati  for instance. The Five Star Movement in Italy was headed up by a stand up, Beppe Grillo. Soviet Union's collapse was said to have been heralded by the emergence of scurrilous and subversive jokes. These are more blatant examples. My Jeremy Corbin comic book is my favourite example of this.


But comedy can also be lethal. I once met the Colombian radio satirist Jaime Garzon through friends on a trip to Bogota in 1995. I was later shocked to hear he had been gunned down in 1999, because of his mockery towards political figures on his radio show.

So yes. Comedy can certainly be dangerous.

But with the so called Culture Wars, comedy has become increasing political. Of course we also see an emerging hybridity between humour as politics, the need for satire in a world going mad and where any covert ideologies are increasingly being called out. We know that a shared joke is the quickest ways to build rapport. And to determine shard views 4Chan, Breitbart and Black Twitter shared very different forms of funny! The Left laughs at the Right for being out of touch, privileged and unaware and the Right scoffs at the Left for being up tight, sanctimonious and oversensitive. As do The Spectator and The Canary within UK politics for instance. Political scientists have even coined the term ‘Unlaughter’ to describe conscientious withheld mirth because of not 

The semiotician is often the provocateur in the room, allowed to play the fool – as Malcolm Evans has said in order to challenge received wisdom. And as in King Lear to – a semiotician I was once told by a US client that he admired my ability to be provocative but said that too many of me in an organisation and it would fall apart – which I took as a (sort of a) back handed compliment!


So what are the overall take outs here? Well comedians could probably learn from a semiotic breakdown of comedy for sharper cultural understanding. Some rare comics like Stewart Lee deconstruct their own routine and its scaffolding of meaning, ‘meta comedy’ but that is not the norm. The laughter is usually the signal that insight has landed, and the joke suffers through added explanation. But there is no doubt that doing a deep cultural analysis yields jewelled nuggets of great value for any stand up.

And education and edification is becoming a bigger part of comedy as humour becomes the palatable way to deliver difficult truths.

And semioticians could learn from comedians in terms of how they communicate their insights. Ricky Gervais’s subtle inflections of UK class and post colonial melancholia Simon Manford on class. Bill Bailey does very clever things with the meanings in music and connotations of different genres as well as the tonal character of minor and major chords. Noel Fielding’s flights of fancy draw on surrealism and confounding expectations. But they all do it by and large by hiding the working and presenting only the juice.

As Chris Head – a stand up comedy coach (and tutor for my course), who gives courses to creative agencies - said recently in a recent issue of Creative Review, he suggested humour is a just a way to make a point more memorably. "Essentially, comedy is communication messages, ideas, opinions and thoughts in an appealing way that the audience can understand and buy into"

And there is of course a close link between comedy and brand communications.

Stand up gigs in the 1990s in the UK famously used to be full of ad execs hoping to nab an award winning catchphrase for their new ad campaign. But more recently corporates have cottoned on to the more subtle use are using it to create empathy – the think:  the visual wit of Pret-a-Manger bags, TfL with their tannoy announcers. Humour is now for creating empathy and rapport. 

Both comedy and semiotics are critical perspectives that help us see prevailing social or cultural norms and to help us imagine alternatives. Both show up incongruities and break codes and lead to epiphanies. Both can be used to cement or to challenge the status quo. After all, we only have to recall The Name of the Rose, the Umberto Eco novel in which mysterious murders committed in a monastery are finally revealed to be buy a monk trying to prevent the discovery and dissemination of a forbidden manuscript, a treatise on comedy. In the murder's eyes it was highly threatening since ridicule can shake the foundations of one’s solemn faith.

Both semioticians and comedians are somewhat like Socratic gadflys that are there to provoke us to question the Establishment. Or like Gramscian 'organic intellectuals' keeping tabs on power as it mutates and challenging narrow, hidebound technocracies.

I see semiotics as akin to other critical and subversive perspectives such as hip-hop culture, street art as well as stand up. They all foreground are all about inter-textual linkages, witty one liners, outrageous metaphors, pastiches, parodies, and the like.

As scholar Stephanie Koziski noted, comics have more in common with anthropologists than either group is willing to admit: “The comedian and the anthropologist share a way of seeing. This involves the capacity to stand outside themselves and to empathise with people who are different in order to more fully understand their actions and beliefs”. This is why both anthropology (for which read semiotics) and comedy tend to be the refuge of cultural outsiders and those with “double consciousness”. This is taken from The Humor Code: A Global Search For What Makes Things Funny. Peter McGraw and Joel Warner. Notice the use of the word 'code'!

Like this middle class precariat, mixed race Londoner! 

So, I'm not promising to inject more gags into my presentation but I do see rich cross-fertilisation here. I have in a mind a one man show. Semiotician Impossible. One man’s struggle to make meaning out of a firehose of visual culture… Would you come? In the mean time I'll shortly be presenting Sixty Seconds of Semiotics – a time compressed humorous take on ads and visual culture.

And semiotics related joke. Well, I quite like this one:

Why did the semiotic architects firm go bankrupt? Because they kept de-constructing their own buildings. 

This was a joke curated, ironically enough by Thierry Mortier, a Semiotic Architect and regular attendee at Semiofest Tallinn, 2016.