Laughter and Humor in Interaction International Conference

July 05, 2011

Laughter, jokes, irony, and play were at the front and center of attention in the International Conference on Laughter and Humor in Interaction on June 23 and June 24. Sponsored by Emerson’s School of Communication, the conference brought together 35 scholars from 12 different countries for papers and discussions on the forms and functions of humor and laughter in everyday conversations as well as in oncology visits, job interviews, speech therapy sessions, broadcast news interviews, and more.

The conference was organized by Phillip Glenn, Professor of Communication at Emerson College, and Elizabeth Holt, Senior Lecturer in English at Huddersfield University, UK. Glenn and Holt are editing a book of studies of laughter to be published in 2012 by Continuum Press, and the conference provided an opportunity to showcase some of the chapters as well as exploring related themes.

In addition to scholars presenting their work, attendees included Emerson alumni. Communication Studies faculty members John Anderson, Angela Cooke-Jackson, and Angela Hosek, and Comm Management graduate student Ada Renedo chaired panels.

After a welcome from Janis Andersen (Dean of Emerson’s School of Communication), the first day began with Liz Holt and Phil Glenn’s brief overview of issues in the analysis of humorous talk and moments of laughter. Plenary speaker Wayne Beach of San Diego State University presented his research on irony and laughter in oncology visits. Wayne has major grants from the National Cancer Institute to study communication in cancer care, and in this presentation he showed how ironic statements help patients and doctors manage optimism and get through delicate moments. 

Following concurrent presentations (by participants from France, China, the USA, and Japan), Liz Holt presented an analysis of how participants in interactions frame and respond to actions as serious or not-serious. Then during group data sessions participants examined an audio recording and transcript of a real-life phone call, consider how joking and laughter arise and how they shape activities and relationships.

The afternoon’s concurrent sessions featured talks on children’s teasing and humor and on laughter in political news interviews. Capping off the first day, participants were treated to a staged reading by John Anderson, an Emerson faculty member specializing in the performance of  literature. John read selections on laughing and humor from L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, Geoff Ryman’s Was, Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories, plus passages from theorist Mikhail Bakhtin on the subversive power of laughter.

The second day kicked off with a plenary address by Alexa Hepburn, a leading conversation analyst from Loughborough University, UK.  Alexa argued compellingly that scholars should be cautious about using terms like laughter and not serious without first coming to grips with the social actions that people accomplish through their talk.

Alexa’s talk gave way to a morning of concurrent panels on laughter and humor in uncomfortable moments, managing troubles and disagreements, criticizing and complaining, and talking about death – as well as a presentation on humorous dialogue in Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

In the afternoon, Phillip Glenn presented his analysis of delicate moments when interviewees laugh during employment interviews. Other presenters spoke on laughter and humor in classroom interactions, controversies, face threats, mediated interactions, radio programs, and stand-up comedy. Participants reconvened for a closing discussion concerning points of convergence and divergence across the many presentations and suggestions for continued research.