“Some Good Clean Fun” – Humor in an Advertising – Part 4

As Long as It’s New…
As mentioned above, a norm of newness, in relation to humor, appeared to persist within
Keys. The almost dogmatic importance to newness ascribed by staff members stands in
interesting contrast to the laid back, jokey atmosphere of the organization. This was
implied above but it is best illustrated in the description of a conflict that arose one day,
which occurred as a result of recent activity on the emailing lists. Firstly, it is important
to note that conflict at Keys, in the context of the emailing lists, was rare. None of the
examples presented so far led to a serious argument between Keys staff members; both
email responses and verbal discussion around these emails were joking and light-hearted.
Where conflict did arise, it involved people who were perceived to be sending old jokes,
which had been seen before by the team. These accusations tended to be leveled at
members of the planning team. One day, Keys’ IT manager sent an email message
describing a new spam filter program he was working on. This would enable the
blocking of unwanted email from outside Keys, for example, unrequited advertisements
and notices from unknown sources. In planning this filter, he requested everyone in the
organization to send him a list of email addresses from which they have received spam in
the past. One of the design directors proposed to filter the addresses of the planners,
indicating that he considered their “humorous” emails to be as interesting and funny as
spam. This led to a number of conversations in the office, in which the planners were
discussed as providing the majority of old and unfunny mails. JP, a junior planner was
really upset about this, which he made clear in conversations with his colleagues.
Furthermore, in the following days he responded to almost every humorous email that
was sent by saying that it was rubbish. Both he and his planner colleague also began
adding sentences such as “I don’t know whether this has been sent around before…”, to
even ordinary work-related emails. However, this incident did not stop the planners from
continuing to send humorous emails. In fact two days later, JP sent an email about a guy
who called himself “bloodninja”, and made fun of other people by chatting with them in
online sex forums. The directors and developers who had previously mocked him
responded that this was so funny, that they considered JP to have “totally redeemed
himself”. One of the creative team could not resist, sending another email, agreeing that
the “bloodninja” email was very funny, even “two years after it first came around… ;)”.
This series of email interactions was continually referred to in the days and weeks
afterward, for example, one staff member sent around some jokes, acknowledging that
they were old, but saying that this was okay to do, since the planners were not at work
that day.
In summary, it appeared that in Keys being funny and being new was more important
than maintaining a hierarchical status quo of behavior, displaying sensitivity for one’s
colleagues or even than staying within socially accepted boundaries of decency. The
traditional boundaries of social niceties did not apply; it was generally acceptable to

make fun of one’s colleagues’ personal situations, to be “disgusting” or politically
incorrect, as long as the content of the email was new. This shows an interesting paradox
found within this performative reenactment of humor as an organizational norm. While
on the one hand, there were few a-priori restrictions on what content might be considered
funny, on the other hand, perhaps counter to initial impressions, there were in fact strict
implicit limitations on the kinds of humor that could be sent around. Sharing old,
already-seen humor was taboo: to do so would involve the sender being derided and
publicly mocked. In the example above, JP transgressed the norm of newness and had
been publicly chastised, via the email list upon which he had continually distributed old
jokes. Having been sanctioned in this way, he was then forgiven and brought back into
the fold, the implication being that his lesson had been learned. In summary therefore,
email jokes were expected to always be moving towards something different and
unforeseen; they were expected to be new.

Discussing Humor at Keys
At Keys, the specific flavor of politically incorrect humor operated as something of a
complex norm, inscribed by managerial control and gender (Butler, 1993). Nationality
also played a role. Interestingly, these norms are in turn inextricably linked to email
humor, in terms of the ways in which they are enacted in day-to-day life at Keys.
Conceptions of gender, nationality and power are performed through email humor.
Returning to the literature on control and subversion with regards to email humor
therefore, given our story of the ongoing play of the norm of politically incorrect humor,
we concur with the view that humor has something of a role to play in opening up
aspects of the status quo and control relationships for questioning and for critique
(Hochschild, 1983; Hodgson, 2005; Kenny, 2009). This was apparent when emails from
management that suggested cleaning the upstairs kitchen were replied to in a joking
manner, and when the managing director’s wife was made fun of. However, these
incidents indicate that humor is more than a means by which existing control structures
are satirized and resisted; humor at Keys was, finally, ambivalent in its relation to
control and subversion (Collinson, 2002; Hodgson, 2005; Kavanagh and O’Sullivan,
2007; O’Doherty, 2007). This may be a result of the particular context of Keys; firstly,
the “teasing” between staff and management is perhaps understandable, given that Keys
is a young organization and the elevation of many of the directors described here to the
status of manager is a relatively recent occurrence. In addition, given the creative nature
of Keys’ work, the importance of email humor in opening up of new ways of thinking
was recognized by managers as important in developing this creativity (Bolton and
Houlihan, 2009). Thus, at Keys, “‘subversion’ carries market value” (Butler, 1990: xxi).
We have seen that although the role of humor in control, subversion and the operations
of norms of gender and nationality appeared ambivalent and complex, the norm of
continuous driving towards newness, towards the next laugh, persisted. As was shown
above, even when the managing director’s reaction to the group sex joke put a stop to the
birthday card tradition, the incident itself became a source of new humor; it remained
alive and proliferated beyond the occasion itself. Similarly, even where sexist jokes
prompted the creation of a boys-only emailing list, this list was used a few times, fizzled
out and died off. These examples have parallels with the aftermath of the “public
chastisement” of the person found guilty of sending old humor around, described above.

In the weeks afterwards, this incident was itself taken up by email senders as a source of
fun (including the culprit, who made fun of himself). In all cases described here, the
humor was continuously moving and shifting, using whatever was new, the latest
situation, in order to make fun. The question remains as to how we might further unpack
this newness.
Butler’s re-reading of the Lacanian Real shows how processes of normative re-enactment
hold potential for showing the final “groundlessness of the ground” of taken-for-granted
aspects of social life. Her introduction of ideas of differance into our understanding of
such re-enactments and conception of their final inscription by a myriad of other
identifications, shows the potential for subverting the ways in which the “ground” is re-
enacted (Butler, 1990: 179). Drawing on this difference, this “unknowingness” in
Butler’s concept of normative reproduction, it is the element of chance within each
citation of the norm, this unpredictable shift in the re-citation of an accepted way of
knowing the world, that produces this compelling “newness” and that makes the email
funny. With any citation, the action itself changes slightly the meaning of the cited and
thus, humor drifts. This drift can be seen in the example given in Figure 1. The element
of chance in the performative citation of humor means that it is never possible to
determine in advance whether something will or will not be funny to the rest of the
organization, since humor itself is a shifting concept. Importantly, this drift in humor
as a quest for newness implies that as soon as the extreme becomes the norm, the
“carnival” (Rhodes, 2002) may be turned on its head and itself become the target of
parody, as was observed above. Following Butler, we therefore argue that the humor
we encountered is not something stable, that can be frozen, captured or spoken about but
rather it is always-already moving away from definition. Drawing on Butler’s conception
of social entities as non-essential and fragile, we thus see humor as a “nicely
impossible” ideal: an entity that is always in flux (Critchley: 2007: 19).
This approach forms a contribution to contemporary debates on workplace humor. As
Bolton and Houlihan argue, questions must be asked regarding “what is humor at work,
and what does it do?” (2009: 557, emphasis added). In this paper, we argue for moving
away from a static conception of humor and questions about what it “is”. Instead, at Keys, humor represents something of an ongoing quest for newness that always remains
unfilled, an “always becoming” that continually escapes apprehension (Butler, 1990).
Finally, while some studies have focused on the growing ubiquity of email use at work
(Sharma and Gupta 2004, Tassabehji and Vakola 2005) and the many ways in which it
can be used in such settings (see for example Whittaker et al. 2005; van den Hoof et al.,
2004; Weber, 2004), as yet there is a dearth of in-depth, participant observation studies
on the use of humor in organizational email lists. It is therefore hoped that this paper
forms a further contribution to this topic. In concluding, we return to the political
potential for humor to subvert given forms of power and ask: what next?

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