Laughing stock

Within a few days of the first TV broadcasts by the OU one newspaper picked up on the comic potential of women studying by watching television. ”The whole idea of the Open University must be a cartoonist’s as well as a student’s dream. Just imagine the problem there may be in some homes when Dad wants to watch one channel, the kids a second and Mum is adamant that she must study for her degree’ (Aberdeen Evening Express 15 Jan 1971). Numerous academic studies have supported the anecdotal view that humour and laughter helps to relieve tension and anxiety and can act as a buffer against the negative effects of stress through enabling a situation to be restructured so that it is less threatening. A selection of cartoons from the pages of Sesame 1973-1979 appeared in the publication to mark the first decade of the university, The first ten years. A special edition of Sesame to mark the tenth anniversary of the Open University, 1969-1979. These indicate some of the ways in which humour was employed as means of coping with the disruption of norms and expectations. There is housewife watching television while eating chocolates and drinking. She is addressing her spouse and saying ‘When do we eat? When do we eat? ─ You just can’t get used to being married to an intellectual, can you!’ Next to this cartoon is one which features a council road sweeper who appears to be studying for an OU degree. The absurdity of this idea is foregrounded by his innovative use of a book held in place on his broom so that he can read and sweep at the same time. A third cartoon features a wife listening to the radio at just after 6am while her husband is asleep. She appears to be both stressed and, in her curlers, irritated expression and engagement with the broadcast, a ridiculous harridan.

Another image is of a woman who is failing to multi-task, as so distracted is she by her course book that the ironing has caught alight. Her husband, who is sitting with his paper, looks on.  

While humour can play a part in resistance, the resistance can be to novelty or change. To the extent that jokes can reinforce societal role conceptions, they may function as a means of bolstering the status quo. In this instance the humour lies in the idea that working people and housewives should step out of role and reveal other aspects of their identities.

4 Responses to “Laughing stock”

  1. Chris Biggs Says:

    Dan, A few years back i came across a reel to reel tape in the library of 4 humorous songs and poems about the OU. Not sure if this link will work – – so search for “OU songs and poems”. Might be of interest.

  2. Dan Weinbren Says:

    Thanks for this tip. Sounds like we need to arrange a Libraryz-Got-Talent Sing-a-Long event. Can I put you down as tenor or bass?

  3. Chris Biggs Says:

    Neither, i’m tone deaf. But i can dance a bit!

  4. Dan Weinbren Says:

    Dancing is part of the OU history. Apart from the folk tradition that Jeff Beck’s ‘Hi Ho silver lining’ was always to be played at OU summer school discos there was also a Musics and Cultures Research Group, now defunct but with a website at
    We welcome readers who express their ideas through the medium of dance and then upload the appropriate video footage so that others can share.

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