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‘Why They Laugh At Us?’: the functions and ethics of humour in Singaporean theatrical depictions of stigmatised illness
  1. Sophia Hyder
  1. English, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
  1. Correspondence to Sophia Hyder; soph0018{at}


While humour in the context of illness might be perceived to be insensitive or inappropriate, it is used frequently in the medical setting and discussions of illness. This paper strives to answer why humour is used despite these feelings it might elicit, and attempts to outline conditions that inform the ethics of humour in an illness context.

This paper analyses two Singaporean theatrical depictions of chronic and stigmatised illnesses: Haresh Sharma’s Off Centre (1993), which is about schizophrenia and depression, and Paddy Chew’s monologue Completely With/Out Character (1999), on HIV and AIDS. In these plays, humour functions to: first, dispense information on stigmatised illnesses through mediation; second, implicate audiences in stigma-making through defamiliarisation; and third, to exert discursive control for feelings of empowerment. Furthermore, analysing these plays within their contexts demonstrate that humour is crucial for providing a more nuanced understanding of the stigmatised illness experience, since humour can illuminate culturally held notions of sickness and health.

While humour is necessary for patients who are routinely misunderstood and alienated, it must be used with discretion to prevent abuse. As this paper demonstrates, the ethics of humour is more nuanced than simply possessing certain identity markers that provide the illusion of exoneration or inclusion. It is also affected by multiple axes of privilege and discrimination. In my conclusion, I argue that the ethics of humour in the illness context is contingent on whether imbalanced power relations and systems of oppression were employed and/or reproduced under the guise of non-seriousness.

  • literature and medicine
  • narrative ethics
  • Mental health care
  • theatre

Data availability statement

Data sharing is not applicable as no data sets were generated and/or analysed for this study.

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Data availability statement

Data sharing is not applicable as no data sets were generated and/or analysed for this study.

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  • Contributors SH contributed to the conception or design of the work, the acquisition and analysis of data for the work, and the drafting and revision of the work.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient and public involvement Patients and/or the public were not involved in the design, or conduct, or reporting, or dissemination plans of this research.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.