Humor according to Freud

I remember reading As You Like It by Shakespeare in school. It was a tedious play set in clumsy 16th century England briskly peppered with court jester’s vituperative wisecracks, Elizabethan foibles and melancholic musing of a noble vagabond. All strewn across an itching love story between the central characters. More than confusing, it was surprising that this was one of Shakespeare’s “humorous” plays. And I wondered what’s so funny about this play? What exactly is humor?

I came across some basic classifications of humor here. But oblivious to the cursory glance, humor has deeper meaning behind it. This is humor according to Freud:

Jokes have universality yet they are not universal. In every culture there is an element of humor, people enjoy laughter. Yet there is not one single thing that would make everyone laugh all across the

Awkward Humor

globe. Every culture has different impressions, meanings and understanding of humor.

Jokes are social but can become anti-social. Jokes are used for social bonding, to score points within groups but laughing at other do the exact opposite.

Jokes have three dimensions: aesthetics, moral, political.

Moral and political merge together to divide jokes into two categories;

1) Innocent jokes: which are just word play.Puns.

2)Tendentious jokes:which are a way of channelizing repressed desires, aggression, pent up feelings, frustration.

Jokes are a form of self deceit. When asked about why do you laugh at a joke, it’s cleverness is usually mentioned as the reason.We like to think of ourself, as morally and politically correct, such as the tendentious joke which violates the social norms but is still acceptable because it is ‘just a joke’. In this way, once when we appreciate it, we are no longer being politically correct as we would choose to and self deceit is the bed rock of all tendentious humor because in essence it is never really ‘just a joke.’

Jokes play an important part in maintaining or usurping social order. In humor it is very common to pick on elites of society, their idiosyncrasies and ironies. Humor is a tool to raise concerns against social superiors but the same humor is the tools for superiors to maintain status-quo. He points to the role of ridicule in maintaining order. The sociologist Erving Goffman asked why people follow the everyday, micro-codes of behavior. His answer was that they do so because of the fear of social embarrassment (Goffman,1967). However, he did not then ask why embarrassment might be feared. A simple answer would be that embarrassment is funny to others. If we break social codes, then we fear that others might laugh at our infringements, mocking our inappropriate behavior. Thus, fear of mockery may be the key means for maintaining social order. Humor, far from being principally rebellious, also fulfils a deeply conservative function.


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