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Cognitive Distortions and Hilarious Implementations of the Principles of Relevance Theory: The Case of Coach in Cheers (NBC, 1982-1985)

Abstract : Cognitive impairments in otherwise healthy individuals—such as sudden vision loss, comprehension difficulties, language impairment, attention or memory disorders, to name but a few—are cause for worry and medical scrutiny, since they are usually the sign of brain decline, or even dementia. “Coach”, Ernie Pantusso, one of the main characters of the first three seasons of the American sitcom Cheers, displays many cognitive misfires over the episodes. His cognitive abilities (whether perceptual or inferential) are repeatedly shown to be flawed—he is unable to understand non-literal utterances, has recurrent memory lapses (even concerning his own name), has a hard time analyzing his environment, etc. The canned laughter the spectators can hear after Coach’s cues suggest the cognitive impairments the character suffers from and the discursive consequences these impairments have on the situation and the dialogue, are nothing to worry about though. On the contrary, they prove to be one of the sitcom’s comic features. Even if Coach has difficulties processing his cognitive environment, his reactions to his surroundings overall turn out to be the direct result of Relevance Theory (as described by Sperber and Wilson, 1996, namely 185 and 205): this paper will argue that cognitive misfires do not lead, strictly speaking, to distortions of Relevance Theory. Coach’s case reveals that cognitively impaired (but otherwise rational) individuals are not exceptions to this principle and that their reactions are nothing but attempts to see relevance in the co-speaker’s utterances—although this often fails, due to their failure to maximize cognitive efficiency. Indeed, they assume the communicator is communicating rationally, that her utterances are relevant to the discussion and that the efforts required to process them are worth it. What this ultimately suggests, then, is that this type of communicative twists result as much from cognitively impaired individuals as from their co-speakers: while the former have a hard time processing their cognitive environment and derive wrong, or partially wrong, conclusions, the latter are unable to supply premises adapted to their hearers. So if there are distortions of Relevance Theory, they derive, therefore, from the speakers’ inability to make their assumptions manifest and relevant enough for this type of hearers—revealing how communication (just like comedy) is a two-place relation.
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Contributor : Virginie Iché <>
Submitted on : Friday, April 30, 2021 - 2:42:56 PM
Last modification on : Thursday, May 6, 2021 - 4:14:02 PM


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Virginie Iché. Cognitive Distortions and Hilarious Implementations of the Principles of Relevance Theory: The Case of Coach in Cheers (NBC, 1982-1985). Blandine Pennec, Nathalie Vincent-Arnaud. Distorsions cognitives : formes, récits, imaginaires (domaine anglophone), pp.71-86, 2021, 978-2-8107-0719-5. ⟨hal-03213598⟩



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