Opinion article published in the Newcastle Herald written by Michael Meany, senior lecturer at the School of Design, Communication and Information Technology at the University of Newcastle.

A tour bus storms along the Lasseter Highway. It’s the height of summer. Perfect for a day trip from Alice Springs to Uluru. At the truck stop the bus driver warns the weary travellers that it’s going to be hot outside.

 “Take care folks, it’s 40 degrees in the shade, but don’t worry – you won’t be in the shade all day.”

The Aussies on the bus groaned. The Brits laughed. The Germans and Dutch smiled politely.

The Chinese reached for their electronic phrasebooks, which I’m guessing proved to be of little help.

Humour – it’s a seriously funny thing.

Humour is such an odd beast that it has the power to attract a group of 50 national and international humour scholars to a conference in Newcastle.

 The University of Newcastle is hosting the 19th Colloquium of the Australasian Humour Studies Network at University House between February 7 and 9.

OK. Let’s stop there for a moment. Humour scholars? Really? Three days discussing humour? How could it take three days? Surely we all know what funny is and isn’t; just have another look at the bus driver joke above – not funny.

For most people, humour, understanding jokes and having a sense of humour is just a given.

The idea of a humour scholar – that’s the odd beast. Humour does appear to be, according to the English philosopher Simon Critchley, an anthropological constant. There is no society in the world that doesn’t have a sense of humour regardless of what was hinted at in the comment about German and Dutch tourists.

Because humour is so ubiquitous that’s the reason we need to understand it.

Humour is one of the things that make us human. That’s not to say that other animals don’t play and joke around.

However, as humans, we make humour for a variety of social and personal reasons. And we understand humour from a very personal and particular point of view.

What do humour scholars do? They peer into the complexity that hides beneath the obvious.

One of the reasons humour is such an attractive topic is that it allows us to look at ourselves.

It seems that every country, maybe every society, has its favourite fall guy. In mainland Australia we make jokes about Tasmanians and New Zealanders. Canadians pick on Newfies from Newfoundland. And so on.

English sociologist Christie Davies created an exhaustive list of who picks on whom as a step to explaining why we do it.

Humour can be used to build group identity, but this power has to be used with discretion. The concept of political correctness may be just so last century. We know better now.

What is important now is not to offend people by accident or simply out of bad habits.

Interestingly, in Australia we also have a strong tendency to self-deprecating humour (or to use the scatological malapropism, self-defecating humour).

We tend to radically understate both our successes and the difficulties we face. Stoicism expressed through humour.

Of late, news reports of the floods in Queensland have been littered with puns about ‘‘keeping your head above water’’.

Some forms of humour have a rich and long history. The “two-act” form of vaudeville probably had its first outing in ancient Greece but was made famous by the likes of Burns and Allen, Abbott and Costello.

 Interestingly, there was a period in Australian political life, during the reign of John Howard, when two young guns of the Liberal Party played out the ‘‘Who’s on first’’ sketch as they jockeyed for the top position.

The media forms may have changed but even ancient Greeks would have recognised the comedy stylings of Hamish and Andy, or John Clarke and Bryan Dawe.

Thankfully, some forms have gone the way of the dodo. Remember when Hey Hey It’s Saturday revisited a blackface Michael Jackson parody?

 Times and tastes have moved on.

Comedy is a full body and soul contact sport. Comedians talk about ‘‘dying’’ on stage when it goes badly and ‘‘killing’’ when it goes well. 

That sketch was a group of dead men walking. Is that just political correctness? No.

That sketch was careless – it offended by accident and that’s offensive.

The next time you hear or see something seriously funny ask yourself – why is that funny?

Once you get past the ‘‘Oh, it just is’’ stage you’ll join the ranks of some really great thinkers.

Aristotle, Plato and Cicero all had a shot at it with mixed results.

This conference brings together a much more lively group to continue the work.

They come from psychology, linguistics, literary theory, sociology, philosophy, media and communication studies and other disciplines to share their perspectives on the seriously funny topic of humour.