Subversive and deniable: The British and their love hate relationship with the cheap innuendo
Delia Chiaro
University of Bologna


In today’s highly sexualised societies that appear to embrace abundant talk about sex, is there still a place for innuendo?

Sexual innuendo undoubtedly occupies a prominent position within the British comic tradition.  From Donald McGill’s cheeky seaside postcards to the allusive puns of the cinematic Carry On tradition; from Chaucer, through to Shakespeare, Sterne and beyond, smutty banter has always been part and parcel of British culture. However, the allusive remarks of the hosts of the BBC’s Great British Bake Off, Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins who frequently refer to [cakes’] “soggy bottoms” and “cracks”, as well as to “hot buns” have recently been cause of complaints on behalf of numerous viewers.  The Daily Mail has even gone as far as maintaining that their “smutty” innuendos made the show no longer fit for family entertainment.

Following an overview of the cheap, sexual innuendo in English literature, stage and screen, my talk sets out to explore the relationship between joker and recipient arguing that any lewdness detected by anyone choosing not to get a joke exists solely in the (filthy) mind of the complainant.

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That’s not funny! Humor, taboo and the regulation of discourse
Giselinde Kuipers
University of Amsterdam


In contemporary liberal democracies, very little is taboo in the strongest sense of the word: circumscribed by restrictions and prohibitions to the extent that it has become practically unspeakable, untouchable and invisible. Instead, everything can be discussed, but there are unwritten rules regulating how things can – and cannot – be discussed. For instance, some topics and activities can only be discussed using specialized discourses: medical, therapeutic, confessional, religious, or legal discourse. Such topics are often particularly off limits for non-serious – playful or humorous – discourse. Death, disease, disasters, but also religion or other sacred institutions are “not funny”: they are not supposed to be joked about. Thus, tabooization takes on a specific form: the regulation of discursive type, and in particular the suppression of non-serious discourse.

However, this taboo on humorous treatment of topics als increases the humorous potential of these topics: the precise fact that they are off limits makes them the topic of, for instance, sick humor, transgressive humor, or adolescent humor. Moreover, this type of humor often kindles “humor scandals”: because it touches on socially sensitive topics it highlights societal rifts. Thus, the tabooization of joking about serious topics is a double-edged process: while it is meant to suppress the humorous potential of specific themes, it also augments – in specific settings—its potential to arouse laughter.

In this lecture, I will explore the relation between humor, taboo and the regulation of discourse by analyzing some specific instances of humor regarding topics that are “too serious too joke about”. Using some recent examples from various countries, I will explore 1. What sort of topics of considered off limits for humor; 2. Why, how and under what circumstances people do joke about these topics; 3. How the regulation of discourse is attempted in these cases: how do people respond to the breaking of this taboo? When and how do they fail or succeed in this regulation?