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Metaphor, humour and characterisation in the TV comedy programme Friends


The recent surge of interest in the application of Cognitive Linguistics (CL) theories to humour research has produced a fair amount of literature (Giora 1991, 2001; Coulson 2001, 2003; Brone and Feyaerts 2004; Kyratzis 2003 just to name a few). The lively debate between some of these CL scholars and Salvatore Attardo, the proponent of the General Theory of Verbal Humour (hence, GTVH), has certainly contributed to the ongoing research in this sense (cf. the 2006 special issue of Humor: International Journal of Humor Research). In particular, Brone et al. (2006: 217) argue that CL theories can offer a better explanation of the inferential process involved in humour creation and interpretation as opposed to linguistic theories of humour such as GTVH. Although in partial agreement, Attardo (2006: 356) urges these scholars and in general all those interested in the application of CL theories to humour to develop a precise formulation that can account for the mechanism at the root of this phenomenon.

This study attempts to bring together two influential approaches in CL (Conceptual Metaphor Theory, or CMT, and Blending Theory, or BT) and the GTVH. These theories are used to examine the production of humour via metaphor (‘metaphor’ is used here as an umbrella term to include phenomena based on cross-domain mapping, be they pure metaphors or similes; cf. Semino 2008: 16-17) in some instances taken from the first series of the North American TV comedy programme Friends, (M. Kauffman, D. Crane, 1994). This eclectic approach seeks to demonstrate how the scriptwriters exploit metaphors in conversation within the fictional world to convey humour and, at the same time, to reinforce some of the six main character’s specific traits and idiosyncrasies (e.g., Joey is simple minded, Rachel is a spoilt young woman, etc.). CMT can help to understand the underlying conceptual metaphor that given sets of linguistic expressions entail, which are also a sign of our conventional ways of perceiving the world and making sense of it (cf. next section). In contrast, BT can explain how central (i.e. most relevant) inferences are produced while we speak or write in a given context or situation (cf. Section 3 for a detailed explanation).

The relation between metaphor and humour is obviously central to this work as it addresses the question why some metaphors are humorous while others are not. In this regard, the general points of oppositeness and overlapping postulated by the GTVH for other types of humorous creations hold for humorous metaphors as well. However, the creative and interpreting process seems to vary for this type of humour triggers. As suggested in Attardo (this volume), potentially humorous metaphors do not seem to resolve the incongruity they imply, thus adding to the effect the text conveys. This incongruous tension can be visualised by means of the BT model that shows how the elements that are part of the source and target domain are projected into the same space (i.e. the blend).

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