Creation of Humor in 'The Big Bang Theory'. An Analysis based on Grice's Maxims

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2012

10 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Literature Review
2.1 Grice´s Cooperative
2.2 Humor and the Violation of the Cooperative Principle

3 Humor Analysis in ‘The Big Bang Theory’
3.1 Data Collection
3.2 Analysis of the Violation of the Grice´s Maxims
3.2.1 Violation of the Maxim of Quantity
3.2.2 Violation of the Maxim of Quality
3.2.3 Violation of the Maxim of Relation
3.2.4 Violation of the Maxim of Manner

4 Conclusion



I Introduction

The study of humor dates back to the ancient times when Plato and Aristotle formulated first theories as to why people laugh (Attardo 1994:18-19). In the course of centuries humor has become a complex field of study with numerous researches that have been conducted in various disciplines (Schnurr 2010: 308-309). Hence, humor has also been given attention in the field of linguistics, especially in its branches semiotics, semantics and pragmatics. Due to the extensive research by linguists like Attardo (1994), Raskin (1985) or Norrick (1993), verbal humor has become a thoroughly investigated field these days. While Raskin´s (1985) and Attordo´s (1994) research focuses on humor theories as well as analyzing the nature of jokes from a linguistic point of view, Norrick investigates the function of humor in the context of familiar conversations (Attardo 136- 137 , 145). However, it was not until recently that linguists have engaged with the analysis of humor in sitcoms; therefore comparatively few studies have been published in this area yet (Kalliomäki 2005: 4). This pragmatic approach to humor aims at investigating if humorous situations in the American sitcom ‘The Big Bang Theory’ relate to the violation of the maxims of the cooperative principle. Moreover, this study analyzes which humor strategies are produced by the violation of the Gricean cooperative maxims to elicit the audience´s laughter. The relevant research questions are:

1) Do humorous situations relate to the violation of the maxims of the Grice´s cooperative principle?
2) If 1) is the case, what are the characteristics of the humor that is produced through the violation of a maxim? (i.e. Which maxim is violated? Which humor strategies are employed by whom and in which context?)
3) Does a character create humor by intention or unintentionally?

The qualitative analysis in this paper is supposed to contribute to a better pragmatic understanding of the humor of the sitcom ‘The Big Bang Theory’. The data used in this study are obtained from the collection of scripts from season 1 and the DVD - recording. ‘The Big Bang Theory’ has become one of the most popular sitcoms in the US. It deals with four nerdy characters, the two roommates and physicists Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstadter as well as their friends, astrophysicist Rajesh Koothrappali and the Jewish aerospace engineer Howard Wolowitz. In spite of their high intelligence, they show a lack of social skills; particularly Sheldon Cooper is incapable of grasping irony and humor in general and lacks any sense of empathy. Instead of participating in social life, they love to engage with video games, comic books and their research at university. Their social awkwardness nicely contrasts with the ‘uneducated’ Penny, the desperate actress who lives opposite Sheldon´s and Leonard´s apartment. She manages to compensate the fact that she cannot compete with the geeks on an intellectual level by her good common sense. A large number of humorous situations evolve around this contrast as well as around the characters’ interaction with Sheldon Cooper. To begin with, a review of secondary literature aims at giving the reader a better understanding of the complex theory of the cooperative principle and how it can be applied to humor. The actual analysis will constitute the subsequent part. In this section research results will be analyzed and interpreted by discussing data from relevant scenes. The conclusion will review the main findings and put them into a wider context.

2 Literature Review

2.1 Grice´s cooperative principle

When Grice developed his theory of conversational implicature, he determined a guideline interlocutors usually obey to reach a common conversational goal with maximum efficiency (Huang 2007: 25).

We might then formulate a rough general principle which participants will be expected […] to observe, namely: Make your contribution such as required at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged. One might label this the Cooperative Principle (Grice 1989: 26).

This guideline distinguishes four maxims (or supermaxims) with attendant submaxims (i - viii) :

Maxim of Quantity: (i) Make your contribution as informative as required. (ii) Do not make your contribution more informative than required for the current purposes of exchange.

Grice argues that an “overinformativess” (1989: 26 - 27) leads to confusion on the part of the hearer since he is misled to think of a reason for the large amount of information.

Maxim of Quality : Try to make your contribution one that is true. (iii) Do not say what you believe to be false and (iv) do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

Maxim of Relation: Be relevant.

Maxim of Manner: Be perspicuous. (v) Avoid obscurity of expression, (vi) avoid ambiguity, (vii) be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity), (viii) be orderly. (Gice1989: 26- 27)

According to Grice, the cooperative principle (CP) and its incorporated maxims are “the basis of assumptions we seem to make” (1989: 28) in interpersonal communication. Thus, we expect people to observe the CP in conversation. By the claim

(1) Steve Jobs was the founder of ‘Apple’.

we infer, supposing the speaker adheres to the Maxim of Quality, that the speaker has adequate evidence to believe Steve Jobs was the founder of ‘Apple’. Thus, what is said corresponds to what is meant by the utterance. Both, the CP and the cooperative maxims are observed.

However, in conversational practice it is very common that speakers (S) deliberately flout at least one of the maxims. Grice also assumes the assertion of the CP to be the basis of a large number of implicatures (1989: 28) and this is where his concept of conversational implicature comes into play. If a S flouts a maxim, the literal meaning differs from what is implicated by the utterance. Still, we do not expect the S to have abandoned the cooperative principle but we search for the actual message, the conversational implicature, by assuming that he follows the CP “at a deeper level” (Huang 2007: 29). Provided that sufficient context is given and the S obeys the CP, we usually do not have a problem in grasping the implicated message of an utterance (Grice1989: 30-31). Basically, we assume that the speaker blatantly flouted the maxim to convey a specific conversational implicature. An example by Huang (2007: 29) illustrates this point:

(2) John: Susan can be such a cow sometimes! Mary: Oh, what a lovely day today!

Mary has obviously flouted the Maxim of Relation. Since John still considers her statement to be relevant to his, he will search for the implication and most likely manage to understandit; namely, ‘Mary does not like bad-mouthing others behind their back’. When it comes to conversational implicatures at least one maxim is flouted but the CP is observed.

Grice draws a distinction between flouting and violating a maxim (1989:30). When a S flouts a maxim, he deliberately disobeys the maxim but he wants the hearer (H) to infer the implicature of the utterance. By contrast, a violation of a maxim refers to conversational situations in which the S “may quietly and unostentatiously violate a maxim […] [and] may be liable to mislead” (Grice 1989: 30). Therefore, it is commonly the case that the S misleads the addressee. Maxims are frequently violated in humorous situations.

Grice´s CP has been widely appreciated and applied for further investigation; nevertheless, it has been criticized for “vagueness” (O’Keefe 2011: 88). According to O´Keefe it is complicated to define the point at which a maxim can be deemed to be flouted (2011: 89). For instance, it is difficult to determine the flouting of the Maxim of Quantity in situations like a job interview when the S is required to provide more relevant information than in a talk with friends. Hence, determining the flouting of a maxim seems more context specific than Grice assumed (O’Keefe 2011: 89). Moreover, Thomas (1995) claims there is no guarantee by which a maxim can be designated as being intentionally disobeyed. Thus, when an utterance offers more than one possible interpretation, we cannot say with absolute certainty that the implicature was originally intended (Kalliomäki 2005: 26). These points of criticism will be taken into consideration in the analytical part.


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Creation of Humor in 'The Big Bang Theory'. An Analysis based on Grice's Maxims
University of Trier
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creation, humor, bang, theory, analysis, grics, maxims
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Sören Klohe (Author), 2012, Creation of Humor in 'The Big Bang Theory'. An Analysis based on Grice's Maxims, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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