About the project

What is this project about?

The “Humour in the European Public Sphere” project, sponsored by the UNA Europa consortium, aims to showcase examples of how humour works in the public sphere. Researchers from across Europe have chosen particularly telling examples of public, often controversial, humour, ranging from cartoons and memes to performances, art works and protests.

While very different in form and style, all these cases show the capacity of humour to highlight, often in a critical vein, issues of public concern. Humour, moreover, exposes rifts and disagreements about such public issues. A critical or “edgy” joke amuses some people – often, though not exclusively, those in agreement with the viewpoints and perspectives expressed. But others, often those with different opinions, are offended, indignant, hurt, in short: they are not amused. When they make their objections public, we have a humour controversy: a moment of public contestation of a humorous expression, leading to a dramatization of social and political divides and oppositions.

For this project, we have asked scholars from across Europe to choose an example of something humorous – a cartoon, meme, performance, public joke – to highlight the role of humour in the public sphere, in their own country or in a wider international arena. For each example, contributors have answered three questions:

1. What do we see here?

2. What public issue is being addressed here?

3. What does the humour do?

This yielded a rich harvest of humorous forms and themes. The examples on this website show the cultural specificity of humour: most are hard to understand for outsiders, and while the explanations clarify things, they usually fail to make the joke (cartoon, meme, etc.) amusing. To truly be amused (or offended) at a joke, you need knowledge, but also emotional involvement: you need to care about the issue.

Yet, the examples also reveal commonalities. Across Europe, humour often emerges around similar public issues (e.g. themes like gender, migration, populist politicians), using similar humorous techniques and forms. Moreover, humour often foregrounds similar rifts, leading to similar types of contestations and controversies. To show these commonalities, we have added codes to each contribution (explained in a glossary developed specifically for this project). :

1. form/genre

2. theme

3. humorous mechanism

This will allow readers to identify patterns in humour, including sometimes unexpected similarities and connections. The website is therefore also an invitation for people around the world: to look at examples of humour in their surroundings, and to understand what humour does in addressing public issues.


What do we want to achieve with this project?

With this website, we hope to share our insights on humour in the public sphere with people around the world (not only in Europe). Many of us have been working on humour for a long time, and we would like spread our knowledge and insights with people outside Academia.

In particular, we want to show the centrality of humour to contemporary public spheres. Often cast aside as “not serious”, or alternatively, celebrated rather uncritically as the hallmark of freedom, humour is an important, influential, and unusually complex mode of communication. Humour is an essential ingredient of a well-functioning, healthy and open public sphere.

However, humour also has a “dark side”: it can exclude, offend, and hurt, often with real, lasting consequences. Therefore, although we believe that a society that is open to humour is by definition better – healthier, more resilient, more democratic — than a society that suppresses jokes, in humour controversies we do not automatically side with the joker, or the joke. Instead, we see public humour as a magnifying glass: humour in the public sphere, whether it just addresses an issue or leads to minor or major controversies, allows us to see what is at stake in public debates. And sometimes the stakes are high indeed.

Finally: an invitation: This project is a work in progress. We will continue to add new examples of humour in various public spheres. We are also happy to welcome new contributions.