Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious

By Sigmund Freud

2. The Technique of Jokes

1. What is it that makes a comment (such as 'famillioniarely') into a joke? Freud proposes that there are two possible answers: (1) that the thought expressed in the sentence possesses in itself the character of being a joke (a conceptual joke) or (2) the joke is in the expression which the thought has been given in the sentence (a verbal joke).

Freud begins with the linguistic forms used to represent a thought, and which of these are consequently comical (i.e. verbal jokes). Freud describes the joke-technique in Heyman's example as (a) 'condensation accompanied by the formation of a substitute - which is a composite word'. Having identified the 'technique' though, Freud acknowledges that this does not explain any further in what way this gives a feeling of pleasure and makes us laugh, he delays treatment of that problem until later chapters.

Freud then identifies a similar joke-technique, namely, (b) 'condensation accompanied by slight modification'. Freud argued that the differences between these two techniques are not significant, and that we can describe the formation of a composite word as a modification of the basic word by the second element.

2. From these first techniques Freud proposes the importance of brevity in jokes. Freud found that the joke depends entirely on its verbal expression established from the process of condensation. So, Freud concluded that this process of condensation must be quite important and worth examining especially given its parallels with his ideas of the 'dream- work' and the role of condensation within it.

3. Freud now addresses the issue of whether condensation with substitute formation is essential and universal to every joke. He immediately cites an example - a sermon in Wallensteins Lager "... ... ... ... ... .Wallenstein,... ... ... ... allen ein Stein... ... ... ... ". There is no omission here, nor an abbreviation, so condensation with substitute formation is not universal in-joke production. This leads Freud to identify several examples with this same technique - in each of them a name is used twice, once as a whole and again divided up into its separate syllables, which, when they are thus separated give another sense

This technique - 'multiple use of the same material', can be sub-divided according to the re-use of the material:

(a) as a whole and in parts
(b) in a different order
(c) with slight modification
(d) of the same words full and empty.

Freud then looks at examples of multiple use which can be, again, described separately - those of 'double meaning' or 'play upon words' - which can be sub-divided further:

1. (a) Double meaning of a name and of a thing - e.g. "Discharge thyself of our company, Pistol!" (Shakespeare, Henry IV i)

(b) Double meaning arising from the literal and metaphorical meanings of a word - e.g. said to a dramatist (son of a doctor) "I'm not surprised that you've become a great writer. After all your father held a mirror up to his contemporaries" (the mirror being his stethoscope, and the mirror representing that used by Shakespeare in Hamlet III.ii).

(c) Double meaning proper or play upon words - e.g. "C'est le premier vol de l'aigle" Napoleon III - where 'vol' means both 'flight' and 'theft'.

(d) 'Double entendre' - e.g. "some people think that the husband has earned a lot and so has been able to lay by a bit [sich etwas zurückgelegt]; others again think that the wife has lain back a bit [sich etwas zurückgelegt] and so has been able to earn a lot."

(e) Double meaning with an allusion - where the two meanings are not equally obvious - e.g. "she could abschlagen nothing except her own water" ('abschlagen' translates as 'to refuse', or, vulgarly, 'to urinate').

2. Freud argues that it ought to be possible to bring all these techniques under one heading, since multiple use of the same material, is only a special case of condensation (a play on words being nothing other than a condensation without substitute-formation). Furthermore, he argues that all these techniques can be united by their tendencies for brevity / compression.

Freud also raises more questions at this point such as where this tendency for economy/brevity comes from, what it signifies and how pleasure arises from it. To answer these questions Freud necessitates that more examples must be analysed.

He then looks at conceptual jokes:

3. Freud identifies the huge group of jokes known as 'puns'. However the differences between these and 'plays upon words' are not enough to merit puns as anything more than a sub class of 'plays upon words' - as in them the accent generally falls on looking for the correspondence and similarities between the two words that make up the pun.

4. Freud cites the 'novel' joke-technique that lies in diverting the reply from the meaning of the reproach. For example, of two Jews: The first asks 'Have you taken a bath?' (emphasis on bath) and the second Jew replies 'What? Is there one missing?' - replying as though the question had been 'have you taken a bath?'

5. Freud looks at the joke-technique that lies in the presentation of something bewildering and nonsensical - for example Lichtenberg's joke "He wondered how it is that cats have two holes cut in their skin precisely at the place where their eyes are." So these jokes make use of stupidity for some purpose - of exactly what, Freud is uncertain.

6. Freud looks at the joke-technique of 'faulty reasoning'. For example - 'A gentleman enters a cake shop, orders a cake, but soon takes it back to the counter and asks for a glass of liqueur instead, which he drinks and starts to leave without paying. The shop owner detains him, the gentleman asks "What do you want?" - "You've not paid for the liqueur" the shop owner replies, "but I gave you the cake in exchange for it" - "You didn't pay for that either." - "But I hadn't eaten it."'!

7. Freud looks at the joke-technique of reminding us of what we already know "allusions" or 'Indirect representations' - e.g. Fischer "Human life falls into two halves. In the first half we wish the second one would come; and in the second we wish the first one were back." Whilst this is similar to 'multiple use of the same material' Freud isolates this group due to fact that they do not contain anything that hints at a double meaning. Furthermore, this type of joke sets up new unities, or relations and definitions of ideas - Freud terms this 'unification' - analogous to the condensation of words. However Freud also notes that in this group are 'comic' examples, but they are not necessarily 'jokes' (the problem of the relation between jokes and comic is looked at later - ch. VII).

8. Freud looks at another type of indirect representation in jokes - the replacement of an appropriate 'no' by a 'yes' - e.g. the Duke on a grey horse asks the dyer "Can you dye him blue?" "Yes, of course your highness," came the answer, "if he can stand boiling." 'Yes' and 'if' or 'but' become equivalent to the appropriate 'no'. This representation by opposites is very similar to the techniques of irony (which is, by definition representation by the opposite). So it still seems that technique alone is insufficient to characterize jokes.

9. Freud finds that 'indirect representation' jokes may also make use of the contrary - representation by something similar, and that these represent a particularly comprehensive group of conceptual jokes. This group is often described as alluding to other matters - connected through things such as resemblance in sound, structure etc. For example, Lichtenberg "New spas cure well" - which alludes to the well-known proverb "New brooms sweep clean". These jokes can also take the form of 'allusion with slight modification' (almost indistinguishable from 'condensation with substitution') and 'allusion in omission' - comparable to 'condensation without formation of a substitute'. Whilst in every allusion something is omitted in the train of though leading to the allusion - the differentiation depends upon whether the more obvious thing is the gap in the wording or the substitute that fills the gap. Allusions are probably the most common methods of joking, yet again, an allusion itself does not constitute a joke - but the criterion of jokes again is unresolved.

10. Freud cites a final type of 'indirect representation' used by jokes - the use of analogy. However Freud advocates caution in this group, since often, on closer examination, the joking can be seen, to arise, not from the analogy itself, but from a subsidiary characteristic. Another group of analogies, containing striking juxtapositions, or absurd combinations etc. are termed 'jokes' but again whether the analogy or a subsidiary characteristic is responsible for the joke is uncertain. e.g. Lichtenberg's analogy between reading and eating - "He thought very highly of learning at home, and was therefore entirely in favour of learned stall-feeding". But Freud concludes that despite these uncertain cases, some analogies can be jokes in their own right. However the decision whether something is a joke or not -i.e. what it is that makes it pleasurable or not - is harder to determine in this joke-technique than others.

In summary of his findings so far, Freud, accepts that it is possible that a/some techniques of jokes have escaped his attention, however he claims that he has identified the most common and important techniques. In terms of identifying the exact processes involved, he admits he has made no judgment, but claims to now have the necessary background information to show him the direction to take for further light on this topic. The far-reaching agreement between methods of the joke-work and those in dream- work, Freud claims, cannot be a matter of chance. He looks at this in more detail in chapter VI.