Making funny work: How lucrative is humour?

UNIVERSITY NEWS LAST UPDATED : 22 DECEMBER 2016

Humour has long been recognised for its power to hurt, to offend and to ridicule, but it also has the capacity to entertain, to bring people together and make work life easier. 

New research now argues that humour is not only useful to motivate workers, but it also functions to mask the tiresome and precarious working conditions under which a lot of people within the cultural industry work. 

Taking work with a ‘pinch of salt’ makes work seem easier, especially if people are working under hard conditions. 

By taking humour seriously, the study by Dr Anne Graefer, lecturer in Media Theory at Birmingham City University (UK), explores how humour is put to work in affective capitalism – where emotions are used to make money. 

Citing examples from celebrity gossip bloggers such as Michael K (Dlisted) and Brendon (What Would Tyler Durden Do?), Dr Graefer found that rather than their popular portrayal as spontaneous, carefree and non-mainstream figures, these writers are, in reality, enduring tedious and time-consuming labour patterns in order to always appear alert and funny. 

Birmingham School of Media

Birmingham City University

Humour needs to seem effortless in order to fulfil its aim of being funny and the research explains that gossip bloggers must hide the hard work that goes into the production of  a humorous post – as the illusion that their work is one of pleasure and creativity sets them apart from the corporately-backed world of mainstream entertainment news media. 

The study, published in the journal ‘ephemera’, argues that, while the wider entertainment industry is already part of an economy in which emotions are manipulated for the sake of profit, bloggers are operating in a new online workplace which never closes and their audiences remain omnipresent. 

Dr Anne Graefer, lecturer in Media Theory at Birmingham City University, said: 

“The working conditions of bloggers typify how people nowadays work, where it is easy to get sucked into economic systems that determine every aspect of our private lives and the boundary between private persona and product is blurred. 

“Analysing humorous celebrity gossip blogs through the lens of labour reveals the blogger as being under constant pressure to ensure their website remains up to date and relevant. I came across many examples where there was a desire to keep readers engaged and amused even if the blogger felt exhausted – both mentally and physically.” 

Alongside a constant compulsive productivity – fuelled by the fear of missing out on breaking celebrity stories – Dr Graefer found that, humour is used to create a product that seems genuine, distinguished and different from anything else available. 

Humour provides an ideal tool for the creation of these emotional products and audiences love them because they seem to exist outside of economic considerations. This however, according to Dr Graefer, is clearly a fallacy. 

She argues that humour lies at the heart of the economy in advanced capitalism. It plays a central role in successful gossip blogs, with only entertained users clicking, commenting and sharing stories that generate vast amounts of data which can be sold to advertisers. 

However, Dr Graefer’s research also raises the issue of less commercially successful blogs and points out the it is laughter and recognition – rather than a reliable monthly income – that are often the payment or compensation of a blogger’s work. This shows that humour is central, not peripheral, to self-exploitative work which marks affective capitalism.

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