The Private Joke behind Our Laughter

Humor is often produced in our psyche by the conflict between self-aggression and inner passivity.

Insight is a good thing, and insight into where our laughter comes from not only can spare us a lot of misery but is worth a laugh in itself. Still, as one witty writer said, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” Despite the risk, I’m putting humor and laughter on the dissecting table. I love humor as much as any cutup, and obviously I have no wish to fracture its funny-bone or to see it croak.

Humor, bless its existence, is often a byproduct of the clash in our psyche between inner aggression and inner passivity. The voice or “intelligence” of inner passivity (our unconscious ego) often produces humor for the purpose of deflecting and reducing to absurdity the harsh pronouncements and judgments of inner aggression (our inner critic or superego). The recent online “Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium” between TV personalities Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly serves to illustrate this point.

Stewart, the easy-going liberal humorist and host of “The Daily Show,” sees and relates to the world from the perspective of inner passivity. He generates much of his humor by cleverly mocking the pretentions and inconsistencies of the establishment and the Right Wing. O’Reilly, in contrast, is a gruff conservative commentator known for his denouncements of liberal positions. His persona, while capable of humor, is a caricature of our authoritarian inner critic. Each man represents an opposing side of the major clash in the human psyche between inner aggression and inner passivity. Stewart provided some evidence of this unconscious connection when he said, O’Reilly’s “like comfort food for me. I feel like I grew up around these guys. He’s my shepherd’s pie.” Since O’Reilly is the embodiment of Stewart’s inner critic, Stewart obviously feels right at home dueling with him.

The two men are friends, and it’s a tribute to them that they’ve connected with some measure of goodwill, despite coming from opposing positions in the psyche. Still, when watching their “rumble” we’re like children giggling at two quarrelling puppets when we don’t appreciate the “intelligence” (unconscious dynamics) pulling the strings behind the scene. Deeper awareness makes humor an even better medicine.

Humor comes in many guises, among them wit, irony, sarcasm, jocularity, buffoonery, and whimsy. Jocularity often holds people up to ridicule; someone is made the butt of a joke. Yet why should human foolishness or suffering be laughable at all? Instead of laughing, we could be callous, scornful, or compassionate, as indeed we often are. However, we very much desire the delightful pleasure of laughter, and we grasp for it when we can. Laughter comes easily as an intense momentary release of inner freedom, like the toot of a safety valve or the exalted cry of an escaping prisoner. We’re liberated momentarily from the considerable weight of inner reproach and disapproval that comes at us from our ubiquitous inner critic. When a joke identifies someone else as the fool or failure, he or she is offered up as a prisoner to our inner critic: “This person is obviously a better object of ridicule than me,” we unconsciously proclaim, “and much more deserving of disapproval.” In that moment, we’re experiencing sharp relief that someone other than ourselves has been “captured” by the inner critic.

TV comics Jay Leno and David Letterman nightly roast celebrities and politicians on their shows. Leno cracked me up a few years ago when he said, “Today, Mick Jagger is 65 years old—and it’s also the 30th anniversary of him looking like he’s 65.” The laughter is all sporting, good-natured fun; the iconic singer himself would probably chuckle. Still, technically, the joke is at his expense. For the joke to work, he’s sacrificed for our emotional relief. I laughed gleefully because I felt in that moment: “Imagine looking 65 when you’re only 35. I never looked that ridiculous.”

This reveals the degree to which, on an inner level, we live under the inner critic’s constant, hostile surveillance and oppression. Our inner critic is the giant of the psyche and the hidden master of our personality. It constantly holds us accountable and questions our actions and decisions. It’s important for us to know this. Otherwise, we function to a considerable extent in a state of inner passivity, unable to neutralize our inner critic and continuing to waste much mental and emotional energy doubting and defending ourselves against its relentless assault.

Like Leno and Stewart, people who become comedians have from an early age have made a fine art of deflecting inner attacks by directing them on to others or by reducing them to absurdity. While such people can confound the inner critic, as well as authority figures in society, the effect is temporary. Their unwitting use of political and sarcastic humor is not going to overthrow the tyranny of the inner critic, nor will it trouble the economic and political establishment. Their humor, when unconsciously employed, is simply too defensive. The court jester, a specialist at self-preservation and a dogged approval-seeker, is no threat to the king.

While some humorists present artificial victims to their inner critic, others present themselves as the victims. This is the Rodney Dangerfield self-derision persona, where a comedian makes himself an object of ridicule. Once again this humor gets laughs because people are happy to see someone other than themselves—it doesn’t matter who—dangling from the butt-end of life. This formula applies, too, to the “insult comedy” of Don Rickles and the “big oaf” persona of Jackie Gleason. Some humorists of the Rush Limbaugh School practice an especially vicious variety that’s fired off like cannonballs of cynicism, with hostile sarcasm for gunpowder. Their explosive cynicism draws in people who are eager to blame others for their own suffering. This “humor” registers high collateral damage because it serves not to placate inner aggression but to direct it unmercifully and unjustly toward others.

Humor as a form of defending ourselves from the inner critic is passive and unstable. It’s like playing chess against a supercomputer—one nervous twitch and you’re done. Some famous comedians have died young from drug abuse—notably, Lenny Bruce, John Belushi, and Chris Farley—because intense inner conflict undermined the power of self-regulation.

When we become stronger on an inner level, we don’t compulsively resort to humor as a way to maintain our inner equilibrium. Nor will we laugh at stupid jokes that present the folly or misfortune of others solely for our selfish glee. In inclusive laughter we express the spirit of joyfulness.

UPDATE 2/11/14 — Scientific American reports that British researchers gave 500 comedians a personality test that assesses traits associated with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. They found that the comics scored unusually high on a range of psychotic traits. This is evidence, in my view, that comedians have, on an inner level, a particularly harsh inner critic, and that they resort to absurdity and humor in their shaky, unstable attempt to deflect that inner aggression. The study appears in the British Journal of Psychiatry.