Royal Society of NSW News & Events

Royal Society of NSW News & Events

Southern Highlands Branch Meeting 2022-9

Dr Jessica Milner Davis“Judging a Jest: Humour and Censorship”

Dr Jessica Milner Davis FRSN
Honorary Research Associate
University of Sydney

Date: Thursday, 20 October 2022, 6.30 pm AEDT 
Venue: RSL Mittagong, Carrington Room 
All are welcome

Summary: Of all types of humour, satire is the one that most often falls foul of the law. Since by definition it sets out intending to criticise something, it can readily give offence. But in the present prickly age of self-entitlement, even jests supposed by their makers and (most of an) audience to be relatively harmless can have adverse results. Most societies have some kind of restraints or controls on the use of humour.

These can range from formal censorship by editorial, legal, or even political decision to internalized controls such as cultural conventions and personal taste in humour. All humourists must negotiate their way around such constraints, although Australia prides itself on having fewer than some (e.g. Japanese culture about laughter and smiling, or the PRC’s ubiquitous internet scrubbing of jokes and memes).

This talk will explore some famous Australian cases of humour that were found to be offensive: these occurred in spheres ranging from the workplace to newspaper cartooning and even restaurant reviewing. How does Australian culture—normally so indulgent about piss-taking and joking—perform when an offended party complains about humour, and where does justice lie? The answer reveals a complex interaction between reactions reflecting personal and cultural values and complaints that are driven by economic and power considerations. It also shows that the law can be a very blunt instrument when it comes to analysing humour and its effects and that public opinion may often disagree with its judgments.

Dr Jessica Milner Davis is a research associate at the University of Sydney and at Brunel University London’s Centre for Comedy Studies Research. A member of Clare Hall, Cambridge, UK, and Fellow of the Royal Society of New South Wales, she has twice served as president of the International Society for Humor Studies (ISHS: and co-ordinates the Australasian Humour Studies Network (AHSN: Her publications deal with farce, satire, the comic tradition in European theatre and cross-cultural studies of humour in Australia, the UK, Japan and China.

In 2018 she received the ISHS Lifetime Achievement Award for her interdisciplinary research and publications on humour and laughter. With legal scholar Sharyn Roach Anleu, she has edited Judges, Judging and Humour (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020) and her latest book is Humour in Asian Cultures: Tradition and Context (Routledge Studies on Asia in the World, 2022).

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