Laughter in Bill Clinton’s My life (2004) interviews

Daniel C. O’Connell and Sabine Kowal


Two types of laughter of Bill Clinton and his interviewers – as an overlay of words spoken laughingly and laughter of the ha-ha sort - were investigated. The corpus consisted of 13 media interviews, all of which took place after the publication of his book My life (2004). Bill Clinton’s laughter was found to be dominantly an overlay of words spoken laughingly, whereas his interviewers’ laughter was dominantly of the ha-ha sort. In general, ha-ha laughter occurred as interruption or back channeling 30 % of the time and hence did not necessarily punctuate speech during pauses at the end of phrases and sentences as claimed by Provine (1993). Analyses of the topics laughed about indicated that Bill Clinton laughed mainly about his personal problems and his personal life, whereas his interviewers laughed mainly about politics and Clinton’s book. Accordingly, Bill Clinton’s laughter in these interviews was peculiarly monological and self-absorbed: It was generally not shared with the interviewers, either simultaneously or successively, in a genuinely contagious and dialogical fashion. Laughter did not follow upon “banal comments,” as Provine (2004: 215) has claimed, nor reflect either the “nonseriousness” claimed by Chafe (2003a, b) or the uncensored spontaneity noted by Provine (2004: 216). Instead, laughter reflected in every instance the personal perspectives of both Bill Clinton and his interviewers and was used, especially by Clinton, as a deliberate, sophisticated, and rhetorical device.

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