Sigmund Freud and Comedy

Does this guy look hilarious, or what?

I’ve had a couple of dozen occasions to refer to Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) on this blog. This fairly flimsy, scattershot post is frankly just to have something to link to!

Freud’s core theories and practices seem to have fallen largely by the wayside in recent decades. He dominated 20th century culture; today his work seems more like a by-passed intellectual cul-de-sac, still of interest to historians, academics and intellectuals, but no longer a factor in how the masses see the world. He probably reached his apogee as a pop cultural touch-stone in the 1950s and ’60s, in the work of comical artists as diverse as Charles Schultz, Nichols and May, Jules Feiffer, Woody Allen, and Bob Newhart. Since the 1980s or so, pharmaceuticals have played a much larger role in treating anxiety and depression, and while talk therapy most certainly still exists, it’s no longer a given that it will be in the commonly accepted sense “Freudian”, other than in the sense that he was a founder of psychoanalysis. His hard and fast categories of Ego, Superego and Id, the Conscious and the Unconscious and so forth seem like quaint pseudoscience, though many of his theories do retain their logic as well as some practical application.

Perusing a list of his works, I am a little startled at the number of Freud’s books, articles, and case histories I have read or are otherwise familiar with. It’s largely because his works were so influential and have a lot of bearing on matters of criticism and culture. In addition to the stuff of his I read on my own, I was assigned a lot of his writing on sexuality in cinema studies classes at NYU. Discussions of things like spectatorship and gender relations are often driven by Freud’s pioneering writings. Some of his writing I was drawn to just out of morbid curiosity. His 1909 case history on the Rat Man became one of the inspirations for an opera I wrote the libretto for, for example.

The title for this post refers to Freud’s 1905 treatise, Jokes and Their Relationship to the Unconscious. One takeaway from this work I appreciate is that Freud ultimately derives his theory of laughter from Herbert Spencer, who believed that it was at bottom a nervous spasm, not unlike a sneeze or a shiver, and that it exists to relieve nervous tension. At the most primitive level, I do think this makes sense. I have often observed that this is something comedy and horror share as genres. The reaction to a scare or a shock in the cinema (or in an amusement park ride) is often the same as to a joke. I suppose it is a question of proportion: in humor you can scream with laughter; at horror, you scream and then laugh. Something like that. As is his Kantian wont as Freud develops his theory he gets carried away with the taxonomy of the thing…the Superego “permits” the Ego to make a joke about this or that, and the Id to enjoy it, and so forth. Like all products of the mind, jokes are subject to interpretation, and always revealing. He divided jokes into Tendentious (hostile, aggressive, provocative) and Non-Tendentious (“healthier”, coming from a place of balance). Basically…Voltaire and Lenny Bruce on one end…Shakespeare’s comedies and, I dunno, Shari Lewis on the other.

At any rate, many will resist any overanalyzing of the nature of comedy, but I find that in understanding this mysterious art form, Freud can be a useful tool. Useful tool — that was a Tendentious Joke, with a secondary layer of phallic transposition.