The essence of being human - you’ve got to be joking

Monday 3 November 2014

Is laughter a laughing matter? Can jokes tell us something important about who we are, and what it means to be human? From 15 to 23 November, the Being Human festival of the humanities will be exploring precisely these questions.

This national festival, organised by the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, has a range of attractions that aim to explore the deeper significance of humour – something quintessentially human, but which is often taken for granted in our daily lives. These include researchers working with The Joking Computer, a program that can build billions of jokes in minutes and an evening with comedy improvisation group, the Funny Women Players, who will perform quick-fire skits based on suggestions from the audience.

This innovative celebration of the humanities will also explore the history and philosophy of laughter across cultures. Ha ha ha? Laughter and Humour Across Languages and Time, sees German language academics teaming up with well-known comedians to debate the culture of comedy over a few drinks. How do jokes work? Can jokes be translated from one language to another? To what extent are we able to understand jokes from another historical period or culture?

Not to be outdone, film scholars specialising in rom-com (romantic comedy), will invite you to ditch the pre-conceptions around the genre and look a little deeper into the history of comedy on film in a day of lively and laughter-filled debates and film screenings, at London’s Cinema Museum. Using screenings of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 masterpiece The Shop Around the Corner and Nora Ephron’s 1998 remake, You’ve Got Mail, they will show another side of one of the most popular, but least celebrated film genres, and demonstrate the relevance of studying and researching romantic comedy.

‘Laughter is a quintessentially human characteristic, but it is something that we often take for granted,’ said Dr Michael Eades, festival curator. 'While we might think of it as something that falls outside the sphere of intellectual enquiry, the fact is that scholars have been studying humour from the time of Aristotle onwards. For this year’s Being Human, I am delighted to see that we have a rich and imaginative series of events that not only reflect current research on this topic, but which also make us laugh.’

Running for nine days between 15–23 November, the Being Human festival is run in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy. Some 60 universities and 120 partner organisations across the UK, will stage more than 150 free-to-attend public events, all designed to demonstrate the importance of the humanities in the cultural, intellectual, political and social life of the UK. Being human means being able to laugh, and these insights into humour will break down any lingering suspicions that humanities research is the domain of professors in ivory towers.

Find out more about the festival at and follow the latest news about the festival on Twitter at @BeingHumanFest (hashtag #BeingHuman14).

Notes for editors:
1. For all other enquiries, please contact: Maureen McTaggart, Media and Public Relations Officer, School of Advanced Study, University of London 
+44 (0)20 7862 8653

2. Being Human: 15-23 November 2014. As the UK’s first national festival of the humanities, the Being Human festival includes more than 150 free events across the UK run by 60 universities and their 120 partners. Led by the School of Advanced Study, University of London in partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy, the festival celebrates the value, vitality and relevance of the humanities in 2014. Find out more at
or follow the festival on Twitter at @BeingHumanFest.

3. The School of Advanced Study (SAS) at the University of London is the UK’s national centre for the promotion and facilitation of research in the humanities. The School brings together 10 prestigious research institutes to offer unparalleled academic opportunities, facilities and stimulation across a wide range of subject areas for the benefit of the national and international scholarly community. The member institutes of the School are the Institutes of Advanced Legal Studies, Classical Studies, Commonwealth Studies, English Studies, Historical Research, Latin American Studies, Modern Languages Research, Musical Research, Philosophy, and the Warburg Institute. The School also hosts a cross-disciplinary centre, the Human Rights Consortium, dedicated to the facilitation, promotion and dissemination of academic and policy work on human rights. Find out more at or follow SAS on Twitter at @SASNews.

4. The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funds world-class, independent researchers in a wide range of subjects: ancient history, modern dance, archaeology, digital content, philosophy, English literature, design, the creative and performing arts, and much more. This financial year the AHRC will spend approximately £98m to fund research and postgraduate training in collaboration with a number of partners. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK.

5. The British Academy is the UK’s national champion of the humanities and social sciences. As a Fellowship of distinguished scholars and researchers from all areas of the humanities and social sciences, it promotes these disciplines and facilitates the exchange of knowledge and ideas. It funds research across the UK and internationally, and seeks to raise understanding of some of the biggest challenges of our time through policy reports, forums, conferences, publications and public events.  For more information, please visit Follow the British Academy on Twitter @britac_news.