Why is a heritage interpreter like a comedian?

Does laughter have a role in heritage interpretation?  Would a course in stand-up comedy help me understand what it is?

This week I was interviewed as part of a research project into the social psychology of laughter. I was invited not because I had been laughing too loudly in public (yet again!) but because I wrote this post on laughter at heritage sites a few months back.

Of course I accepted the invitation. It sounded like it would be a laugh. It was. It left me feeling sparky and rejuvenated. Laughter does that to me, even talking about it apparently does it too.

Picture 5The research was being carried out by Glen Duggan of the School of Psychology at Trinity College, Dublin.

I found myself cast as someone with a professional interest in laughter. That was new to me. It made me think again about laughter and heritage interpretation.

So why do you think laughter is important? Glen asked me.

My answers were:

1. Not all laughter is helpful

Obviously there are lots of different sorts of laughter. That’s one of the things this research is looking at. I focused on the sort that makes people feed good.

2. Laughter can help people learn

Lots of good teachers know this. I think comedians often make connections in surprising, irreverant, and otherwise attention-grabbing ways. This makes their stuff memorable. Good interpretive guides do this too. Making memorable connections is fundamental to heritage interpretation.

 3. Laughter can help visitors to chill

Laughing is often associated with relaxation, with letting your guard down a bit. I think this is hugely important, especially in a country like mine where we are culturally rather formal, like introductions and require a rather large personal space.

Interpreters often have to pack people who do not know each other into a  small space (e.g. for an otter talk) or ask them to walk in a group around a heritage site. When we do this, we are effectively asking them to get physically closer to each other sooner than they would choose to. Offering them something they can laugh at together, especially if that is what I (as of two days ago) term a ‘laugh of recognition’, helps them to feel socially more at ease. More at ease means more receptive to what we have to say.

I suspect they are also more likely to stick with the activity.

Most of the good guided walks I remember have involved the group at least smiling (I am talking the UK, after all) together within the first five minutes. That’s probably not a coincidence.

This  skilled guide used laughter well during an often sobering and poignant tour of Fremantle Prison (Australian Convict Sites World Heritage Site)

This skilled guide used laughter well during an often sobering and poignant tour of Fremantle Prison (Australian Convict Sites World Heritage Site)

NOTE: I should say at this point that this is a UK-English perspective. I do recognise that other cultures are available, including several where strangers are comfortable with close proximity. (Strange, but true.)

4. Humour can build empathy

Those ‘laughs of recognition’ may be particularly important. Good guides often use humour to build empathy and identification with the subject. They tell us some facts and then might say something like, “So can you imagine how the conversation went when the King went home and told his wife that he had just given away half her fortune? I don’t envy him that one – reckon he was in the spare room that night ” … and so on. This will be accompanied by lots of body language and facial expression. This is performance, pantomime, raconteurship and very close to comedy. It draws people into the story, it brings people and places to life. It builds relationship with the subject matter.

5. Laughing is not always appropriate

I am not the best person to write on this. Inappropriate humour is an ever-present social pitfall for me. It took me several decades to realise that ‘just because you think something is funny you don’t need to say it out loud, Susan‘.

But heritage interpreters have more to worry about than simply making fools of themselves. Ours is the serious and sometimes sensitive business of sharing people’s heritage. We have the capacity to be offensive and seriously disrepectful, both of which will alienate our audience and diminish the reputation of our site and our organisation.

However the very best guides I have seen know how to  present an experience that offers emotional highs and lows.

6. The medium matters 

We have to be more careful in print than face to face.  Humour often needs a human face. People are also more flexible than panels and can say different things to different people.

I have been known to slip facetious and humorous asides into my interpretive writing.

I have been known to slip facetious and humorous asides into my interpretive writing.

I think laughter is brilliant – in  heritage interpretation and elsewhere.

So much so that, yes, I am seriously thinking of taking a course in stand-up comedy. I’ll keep you posted.


For more information on what we do , when we are not laughing, at TellTale go to http://www.telltale.co.uk/News.php

2 thoughts on “Why is a heritage interpreter like a comedian?

  1. Tim Merriman says:

    I smiled as I read your thoughts on this. My grandson wants to be a standup comic and I think he’ll make a great interpreter, but I’ll be on the front row if he does become a comic. At 17 I had similar thoughts. Hopefully I used humor thoughtfully all those years as a park ranger/interpreter and nature center director. Thanks, Susan.

    1. That made me smile a lot too, Tim. I think comedy’s loss was interpretation’s gain, in your case although I reckon you could’ve cracked both. Give your grandson my best wishes.

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