On the nature of “laughables”: Laughter as a response to overdone figurative phrases

Elizabeth Holt


In this article I explore the relationship between laugh responses and the turns which they orient to. I consider whether it is possible to identify properties of the prior turns that the recipient may be orienting to in laughing. Thus, I begin by briefly exploring the relationship between laughter and humour in interaction. But I point to some of the difficulties in identifying what it is that makes some discourse humorous, and I argue that laughter is not simply a reaction to the perception of humour. Laughter should be considered as an action in its own right, the occurrence of which may have nothing to do with the presence of humour. Consequently, I consider the notion of the “laughable” and whilst I agree that “(v)irtually any utterance or action could draw laughter, under the right (or wrong) circumstances” (Glenn 2003: 49), I argue it is often possible to identify recurrent properties of turns treated as laughables. These properties concern the design, action and the sequential position of the turns. Thus, it seems that speakers draw from a range of resources in constructing laughables. I illustrate this by exploring a collection of instances of figurative phrases followed by laugh responses from telephone calls. I argue that in responding with laughter, recipients may orient to a cluster of properties in the prior turn. However, because laughter is an action with its own sequential implications, rather than simply a response to a prior turn, whether a recipient orients to a prior candidate laughable by laughing will depend on the nature of his or her contribution to the action sequence.

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