[This is a reprint of a paper that originally introduced] an edited volume on laughter and joking by way of exploring the relative marginalisation of humorous phenomena within the anthropological literature. In framing a new body of work in the area, rather than suggesting a collective thesis or unified theoretical approach to humorous phenomena, it argues for the necessity and value of detailed ethnographic descriptions of laughing and joking behaviours. In particular, it proposes that such ethnographically specific approaches provide important analytical perspectives on how people in post-colonial and increasingly global social fields manage enduring and emergent social inequalities. In conclusion, the paper suggests that while the capacity of anthropologists to write about joking will always be mitigated by the ‘you-had-to-be-there’ syndrome, it is this same contextual immediacy that defines the ethnographic endeavour and methodology. As such, laughter and humour represent not only important dimensions of social life to be better understood, but important perspectives on understandings we already take for granted.