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Humour greases the wheels of cultural production

Humour plays an important part in efficient media production. Media work consists largely of emotional labour. That is, more than physical tasks that are independent of someone’s state of mind, media work often requires giving of one’s self to provide an emotional performance. This is obvious with actors and presenters but it is equally true of producers, directors, floor managers and so on. As media workers often point out, production depends on a particular emotional tone that avoids overt conflict. A television studio, for example, will generally have an atmosphere of overt camaraderie and good humour often manifested through slagging and banter among colleagues.


Of course, media work is highly pressurised and competitive. Increasingly, media workers lack job security. The chances of getting the next job often depend on how well one performed in the last. Work in the press, radio and television involve extreme time pressure. Media companies are also the site of frequently vicious workplace politics. It seems odd then to claim that media work might be characterised by an amicable and good humoured workplace culture. However, the presence of camaraderie, politeness and humour make perfect sense in media production because they preserve an atmosphere conducive to emotional labour.


In exploring humour I’ve looked at research from anthropology, sociology, organisational and managerial studies and so on. Surprisingly, as far as I am aware, nothing has been written specifically on the role of humour in media production (All suggestions welcome). Considering research from other fields, it seems that humour may serve three main roles in media work. These are, resistance, coping and control.


Humour offers a means of symbolic resistance against management, routines and workplace pressures. This type of symbolic protest can create solidarity in groups that occupy difficult and insecure positions. Jokes can sometimes offer media workers the chance to put across objections in jest that they would not venture in earnest. There is some slim possibility then that resistance expressed through humour may affect procedures.


Humour provides a means of handling difficult situations with long hours in pressurised and unpleasant environments. Self-deprecating humour strengthens ties within a group and, contrary to what one might think, can bolster a sense of identity and cohesion (Zijderveld 1983: 51)*. As such it may help to build stronger and more efficient work teams.


In the same vein, having a laugh can be harnessed by managers as a means of generating consensus and maintaining efficiency. It is essential to striking the right emotional tone. This is most obvious among studio floor managers or producers dealing directly with ‘talent’. Humour offers a means of tempering criticism and offering instruction without appearing to attack media workers’ reputation, autonomy or integrity. It permits criticism while preserving flattery.


Beyond media production there are broader questions about the serious side of humour in society? It’s worth thinking about how we use jokes to resist and cope with pressures in everyday life. We also probably need to be more conscious of how humour in public life can be used as means of distraction, flattery and emotional management? Within media production research, however, it appears that humour has long been overlooked as a type of social lubricant that preserves efficiency in emotional labour despite the pressures to the contrary.


*Zijderveld, A.C. (1983) ‘The sociology of humor and laughter’. Current Sociology,

Vol.33. 1–103.