Lawyers' use of humor as persuasion

  • 1 University of California, Los Angeles.


Legal humor is a topic of perennial appeal, and has long been a prolific source of books, articles, and scholarly commentaries which are avidly consumed by popular and professional audiences alike. However, although a number of scholars have analyzed the use of humor in judicial opinions, there is no comparable body of scholarly examinations of lawyers' use of humor in their role as legal advocates. This omission is significant, because in the American legal system, humor and wordplay serve as highly-valued evidence of forensic skill which is deemed appropriate for display both within and outside of the courtroom. Accordingly, this paper attempts to fill the gap in the existing literature by examining attorneys' use of humor as persuasive advocacy in two widely divergent settings, informal court-mandated mediation and oral argument before the United States Supreme Court. In these data, the attorneys use humor aggressively to ridicule the plaintiffs' claims, depicting them as laughable and unworthy of serious consideration, while placing themselves at the center of a comic performance which allows them to display their linguistic skills. These data thus demonstrate that humor can be a potent weapon in an attorney's arsenal.

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HUMOR, the official publication of the International Society for Humor Studies (ISHS), was established over 25 years ago as an international interdisciplinary forum for the publication of high-quality research papers on humor as an important and universal human faculty. The journal publishes original contributions in areas such as interdisciplinary humor research, humor theory, and humor research methodologies.