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International Journal of Humor Research

Editor-in-Chief: Ford, Thomas E.

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Volume 28, Issue 2


Hung out to dry: use and consequences of disparagement humor on American Idol

Beth Montemurro / Jacob A. Benfield
Published Online: 2015-04-25 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/humor-2015-0022


Humor can be a means of social control and establishing boundaries between social groups. Disparagement humor, which is belittling and degrading while laughing at a target, is such a means of social control. Through the use of disparagement humor, people establish in-groups and out-groups and audiences of disparagement can enjoy vicarious superiority, as long as they are not members of the targeted out-group. In this paper, we look at the way disparagement humor is used on a mass stage, the popular reality television program American Idol. Using qualitative content analysis, we explore the ways in which social outsiders are marked as out-groupers and the ways their outsider status primes them as easy targets for aggressive humor. We find that disparagement humor is more often directed at social outsiders than insiders and audiences are directed to view such contestants as inferior. We also find that the gender and power of judges impacted the use of disparagement humor.

Keywords: disparagement humor; reality television; American Idol; in-groups; out-groups; vicarious superiority


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About the article

Beth Montemurro

Beth Montemurro is an associate Professor of Sociology at Penn State University, Abington. Her research focuses on social constructions of culture, gender, and sexuality. She is the author of Deserving Desire: Women’s Stories of Sexual Evolution (Rutgers University Press, 2014) and Something Old, Something Bold: Bridal Showers and Bachelorette Parties (Rutgers University Press, 2006).

Jacob A. Benfield

Jacob A. Benfield is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Penn State University, Abington, who specializes in applied social and environmental psychology. His interest in humor focuses on its use as a social tool to either facilitate or hinder interpersonal relationships. Disparagement and superiority over others overlap with his more general research interests in aggressive behaviors.

Published Online: 2015-04-25

Published in Print: 2015-05-01

Citation Information: HUMOR, Volume 28, Issue 2, Pages 229–251, ISSN (Online) 1613-3722, ISSN (Print) 0933-1719, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/humor-2015-0022.

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