Can humour and politeness be combined?

Analysis of the series "Friends"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

24 Pages, Grade: 2,7


Table of content

1. Introduction

2. Can humour and politeness be combined?
2.1. The theories of Goffman and Brown/Levinson
2.1.1. Goffman and the notion of face
2.1.2. Brown/Levinson and the FTAs
2.2. Some information on the series
2.3. The analysed episode
2.4. Comic elements in the episode
2.4.1. Insulting causes laughter
2.4.2. Lying causes laughter
2.4.3. Irony causes laughter
2.4.4. Interruption causes laughter
2.5. A comparison to everyday conversation

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

5. Appendix

1. Introduction

This paper deals with an analysis of one episode of the American comedy series Friends and the question whether the constructed conversation used there can be regarded as polite or not. Since this series is very comic, I will look at how politeness and comedy can be combined.

Concerning the notion of politeness, I will mainly stick to the theories of Brown and Levinson and Goffman, give brief summaries of their theories and discuss whether the characters in Friends violate the rules mentioned there in order to gain laughter from the audience.

I have chosen one single episode and will look deeply at several smaller parts of it in order to answer the question if humour can be used with polite behaviour or if they are not able to coexist. My thesis is that, if you are strict in keeping the rules, is not possible to be polite and funny at the same time because funny utterances can only occur in cases of violation of politeness rules.

I will not give a film analysis in this paper. I took the script of this episode and watched it in order to see where laughter is supposed to come, that means to see which phrases are supposed to be funny. These passages are marked in the script (which can be found in the appendix) by an asterisk.

2. Can humour and politeness be combined?

2.1. The theories of Goffman and Brown/Levinson

2.1.1. Goffman and the notion of face

Erving Goffman deals in his book “Interaction ritual” with face-to-face interaction in natural settings and constituted the notion of the face which is taken later on by Brown and Levinson as the base for their theory.

To him, face is “the positive social value a person claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken” (Goffman 1972, page 5). So, in every conversation every single person takes some kind of position and tries to convey the other communication partner to build up a special image of him. Everybody in a communication setting has his individual face and the aim to maintain his face and the ones of the other people around. This is politeness: to keep up all the present faces.

But this is not always as easy as it may seem. A lot of negative things can happen to faces. A person can be ‘out of face’, that means that “he participates in a contact with others without having ready a line he is expected to take” (Goffman 1972, page 8) and that can make him feel ashamed. Or a person can be ‘in wrong face’, that is when “information is brought forth about his social worth which cannot be integrated into the line that is being sustained for him” (Goffman 1972, page 8). Saving faces is a constant action and most of the time it is done unconsciously.

“To prevent threats to his face the surest way is to avoid contacts in which these threats are likely to occur” (Goffman 1972, page 15). Everybody knows situations which make him feel uncomfortable, like for example talking to superior persons, and if you cannot avoid those contacts, then you have a hard time maintaining your own face and the one of the person you talk to.

2.1.2. Brown/Levinson and the FTAs

Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson have written a famous book on politeness. I will now just give a brief summary of their theory.

The authors take Goffman’s already mentioned notion of face and define it as “something that is emotionally invested, and that can be lost, maintained, or enhanced, and must be constantly attended to in interaction” (Brown/Levinson 1987, page 62). They divide face into two parts: the positive and the negative face. The positive one is the desire of the concerned person to be liked and approved and the negative face is about the “desire to be unimpeded in one’s action” (Brown/Levinson 1987, page 13). To go one step further, they talk about positive and negative politeness. The former is “oriented toward the positive face of the hearer” (Brown/Levinson 1987, page 70) and the second “mainly toward partially satisfying H’s negative face” (Brown/Levinson 1987, page 70), where H stands for the hearer. So both parts of every face have to be respected and maintained as good as possible.

In addition to that, they talk about so-called face threatening acts (or FTAs), that are “acts that by their nature run contrary to the face wants of the addressee and/or of the speaker” (Brown/Levinson 1987, page 65). There are acts in communication which are intrinsically face threatening and cannot be avoided because you are not always able to maintain all present faces.

FTAs can appear in several strategies. They can be ‘on record’ when the communicative intention is clear and unambiguous to all the hearers around. An example for that is “I (hereby) promise to come tomorrow” (Grießhaber). This is a clear statement for everyone. On the other hand, FTAs can be ‘off record’; this is the opposite of ‘on record’ in that its content is ambiguous. If you say for example “It’s pretty cold in here”, you can either mean “Could you please close the window?” or you just want to point out the fact that it is cold in this room. It is open to the hearer what your real intention of this statement is.

An FTA may also be ‘baldly, without redress’ and this happens when a person is “doing an act in the most direct, clear, unambiguous and concise way possible” (Brown/Levinson 1987, page 69) and is used in for example requests. In case an FTA is ‘redressive’, it serves to give face to the addressee.

2.2. Some information on the series

The series Friends was shown in American television for about ten years from 1994 to 2004.[1] It was created by David Crane and Marta Kauffman and consists of ten seasons and 238 episodes which each used to run about 22 minutes.

The series is frankly spoken about the lives of six characters which are Rachel Green (Jennifer Aniston), Monica Geller (Courtney Cox Arquette), Phoebe Buffay (Lisa Kudrow), Joey Tribbiani (Matt LeBlanc), Ross Geller (David Schwimmer) and Chandler Bing (Matthew Perry). These characters work and live in Manhattan.

The whole series is mainly about the love life of each of them, there were even couples within the group. Chandler and Monica get married in the run of the series, Rachel has several times a relationship with Ross (they even get married and have a daughter called Emma) and later has an affair with Joey. They all live pretty close to each other, so they spend a lot of their free time together and know each other very well.

Except the fact that Friends was extremely famous and seen by millions of viewers, it also got a lot of awards as there is for example the Emmy Award 2002 in the category “Outstanding Comedy Series” and many more.[2]

2.3. The analysed episode

The episode I chose to discuss is called „The one after Joey and Rachel kiss” and it was the first episode of season ten. All the characters are on holiday in Barbados. Chandler and Monica are already together, Joey is there with his new girlfriend Charlie but the two of them break up during this holiday and he makes out with Rachel. Charlie on the other hand becomes attracted to Ross because they have a lot more in common (they are both palaeontologists). Phoebe spends the time in Barbados with her ex-boyfriend called Mike (at the end of the holiday they are in love again). So, it is all very complicated, especially since Ross is deep in his heart still in love with Rachel and Rachel cannot decide between him and Joey.

Chandler and Monica have by now a relatively long-lasting relationship, they even plan to have a baby. They really love each other although they do not have much in common. Monica is the strict, highly organized, fastidious chef whereas Chandler is very chaotic and sometimes extremely childish and foolish. But opposites attract and watching them arguing and laughing is quite funny. What is especially funny in this episode is the fact that Monica’s hair is extremely big and frizzy because of the air humidity and everybody (especially Chandler) make fun of it all the time.

2.4. Comic elements in the episode

The episode is 28 minutes and 2 seconds long and all in all, there are 157 artificial laughing sounds included. A lot of these jokes are caused by the fact of recurring themes, so-called running gags. So you find for example Rachel saying “She’s really making her way through the group, huh? Ah, who am I to talk?” (Reich/Cohen, lines 57,58) referring to Charlie, Joey’s new girlfriend who is actually making out with Ross in the room next door now. It’s funny to hear that from Rachel since she also was with the two of them.

Or there is Chandler saying “And she’s…turning on the TV…and watching…Miss Congeniality!” (Reich/Cohen, line 97) which is commented by Monica “Honey, if you know it through a wall, you know it too well!” (Reich/Cohen, line 98). This is referring to recurring scenes in which Chandler is displayed as a soft and sometimes nearly gay guy who is definitely not the dominant part in his relationship with Monica.

Another recurring pattern is Phoebe’s behaviour which is often very strange and unexpected. She is famous for not reacting as you would expect it and this can be seen several times in this episode, especially when she is breaking up the relationship of Mike and Precious without being very respectful or tactful.

A lot of laughter is also gained for seeing all the characters in strange situations, as there is the scene when Chandler, Monica and Phoebe pretend to say goodbye to the hotel when Ross caught them spying on him and Charlie. Seeing three grown ups hugging and kissing a wall is intrinsically funny just because you do not see that very often.

The whole scene of listening to what is going on in the rooms next door is funny because military expressions are used as for example “manning that wall” (Reich Cohen, lines 61,62) and the three characters talk to each other in a military tone like “Get over here!” (Reich/Cohen, line 41), “Other wall, people! Other wall!” (Reich/Cohen, line 114) or “Somebody switch!” (Reich/Cohen, line 69).

2.4.1. Insulting causes laughter

There are some passages in this episode in which one character is insulted more or less explicitly and these scenes are accompanied with laughter. Right at the beginning for example, there is Monica trying to make Chandler have sex with her but he is a little bit turned off by her huge hair so that she offers him to “put a pillowcase” (Reich/Cohen, line 4) over her head which is answered by him with

“You’re on!” (Reich/Cohen, line 5).


[1] In German Television, the series was broadcasted from 1996 to 2005.

[2] Single actors and actresses were also nominated and won several awards.

Excerpt out of 24 pages


Can humour and politeness be combined?
Analysis of the series "Friends"
Bielefeld University
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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527 KB
Analysis, Friends
Quote paper
Steffanie Bauer (Author), 2007, Can humour and politeness be combined?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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