Bill Crosby once said “Through humor, you can soften some of the worst blows that life delivers. And once you find laughter, whatever your situation might be, you can survive it.” Theorists and philosophers alike who have studied the ideas and writings of Sigmund Freud may be the first to say that Freud himself would agree with Bill Crosby in that humor can be used as a safety blanket, a mask, or even a band-aid to ease life’s biggest and smallest bruises. You, yourself, may agree as well. You laugh when you see pictures of your “awkward stage” in middle school, although, when you were thirteen your braces were no laughing matter. You fall in the middle of the cafeteria on the first day of school. What do you do? You laugh. You see, perhaps Freud was not as crazy as we think he was.
The Start of Freud’s Studies
Sigmund Freud was born on May 6, 1856 as Sigismund Schlomo Freud (and spent most of his life in Vienna with his two half brothers. After graduating at the top of his class, Freud studied to become a physician, which led him to become intrigued and compelled by emotional disorders. The spark of Freud’s interest in mental and emotional disorders came from a patient named Anna O. (pictured to the right) who suffered from an unexplainable cough, and loss of feeling in her limbs. Freud’s research led him to believe that Anna’s condition stemmed from a mental or emotional distress rather than any physical cause. Anna had spent most of her life providing care to her father and after his death began experiencing strange ailments such as becoming mute, hallucinating and dreaming up bizarre situations and fantasies. Through studying Anna, Freud began developing theories explaining a condition known as hysteria and the physical effects that result from it. Freud wrote a book titled Studies in Hysteria which was the first of many books filled with theory developed by Freud and his colleagues. Despite many doubters and skeptics, Freud continued his studies and is well known for his theory about the unconscious mind and the use of humor as an outlet for repressed emotions. Watch this video and picture biography of Freud to see the face of the man who not only took a step into your literature class, but also impacted medicine with a lasting reverberation.
A View into Freud’s Analysis of Humor
When Freud introduces us to the topic of humor and how jokes are related to unconscious mechanisms of the human mind, he makes a note of how little effort had been made up until that time to comprehensively study the idea of the joke and its broader implications for the human psyche. Even today, over a century later, the motives behind jokes, the role of the players involved, and the various types and meanings are by no means things that the average tellers and enjoyers of jokes take into account when taking part. This is mostly due to the fact that so much of the pleasure derived from telling or hearing a joke occurs in the unconscious, and understanding what processes make the joke humorous, is in no way necessary for the joke to be understood. To understand just why it is that jokes are humorous to us in the first place Freud analyzes in depth a few critical concepts. He analyzes many different forms and styles of jokes, distinguishes their meaning, and then looks into the roles people play in relation to their telling.
In his book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Freud spends a lot of time looking at specific examples of style.
Two clear examples of varying styles of joke structure include modification and word fusion. Each uses a different delivery method and in this case has different intentions behind them. The first example being that by Herr N., in which Freud writes about a man who became a minister of agriculture with no experience but having been a farmer and how he resigned to work the farm again: “Like, Cincinnatus, he has gone back to his place before the plow. The Roman, however who had also been called away to office from the plough, returned to his place behind the plow. What went before the plow, both then and today, was only- an ox.”(59). It is clear, once explained, that the style of the joke is simply the slight modification of meaning in the phrase by replacing behind with before. Since the joke’s author is building the farmer up by comparing him to a noble figure and at the same time referring to him as an ox comic effect results. This joke can be seen as hostile, as it is insulting, cynical in it’s regard for farmers, and finally skeptical, in that it builds him up and at the same time knocks him down. The fact that this joke takes on a comedic aspect through the combination of these different meanings means that it seeks to serve some purpose, making it a tendentious joke.
The other and opposite type of joke that Freud classifies is known as an innocent joke, an example being one that fuses words for comic effect, one in that is also easier to grasp subconsciously . He explains how drinking and holidays were commonly associated in the time and place this author had written: “In an anonymous short story Brill once found the Christmas season described as the alcoholidays – a similar fusing of alcohol with holidays.”(53). The style joke is simple and it requires no real thought as it simply is creating an imaginary word by fusing two that already exist. The meaning behind it is equally as simple, as it is not aimed at anyone, though it makes a general remark on the holiday season’s activities. This sort of joke is classified as innocent, as most of the humor comes from simply modified words which have little more effect then to sound peculiar or clever.
Freud writes on the implications of innocent and tendentious jokes: “The pleasurable effect of innocent jokes is as a rule a moderate one; a clear sense of satisfaction, a slight smile, is as a rule all it can achieve in its hearer. And it may be that a part even of this effect is to be attributed to the jokes intellectual content…A non-tendentious joke scarcely ever achieves the sudden burst of laughter which makes tendentious ones so irresistible. Since the technique of both can be the same a suspicion may be aroused in us that tendentious jokes, by virtue of their purpose, must have sources of pleasure at their disposal to which innocent jokes have no access.”(139-40)
Freud’s theories on humor have been widely accepted and largely unchallenged for years. One critic of Freud’s work is Joseph Newirth PhD, a professor at the Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis. In his paper “Jokes and their relation to the Unconscious: Humor as a Fundamental Emotional Experience,” Newirth argues that because Freud used a one-person conflict model to generate his theories he was unable to develop his theories completely. This would involve a two-person psychology perspective, which focuses on the “intersubjective views of mental processes” used by contemporary psychologists. “Freud’s difficulty understanding the intersubjective, affective, and symbolic aspect of jokes and humor reflects the limits imposed by his view of the mind as an energy discharge system…”says Newrith of the out of date way of thinking. His biggest problem with the work that Freud did was that Freud didn’t give enough attention to what was happening between the listener and the teller as a whole instead of two separate cases.
Examples of jokes based on Freud’s analysis:
Double entendre: a figure of speech that can be understood in two ways. ie, if I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?
Play on words: using words with more than one meaning: ie, little jimmy told his teacher he never saw a humming bird but he had watched a spelling bee.
Using words in a different order: ie, I swear to drunk I’m not god osifer.
Slight modification: ie, that’s what she said.
Hostile Jokes (beginning to 1:05)
Skeptical Jokes (between 1:54 and 3:23
Innocent Joke: Knock knock
Don’t get so excited, it’s just a joke.
Boeree, George C. "Sigmund Freud ." Personality Theories. 1997. 1 Oct. 2008.
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