Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious

By Sigmund Freud

3. The Purposes of Jokes

1. Freud proposes that jokes are either innocent (or abstract as named by Vischer) (i.e. jokes which are a joke in themselves and serve no particular aim - not to be confused with jokes described as 'trivial' or 'lacking in substance'), or tendentious (i.e. the joke serves an aim, has a purpose).

Freud then incorporates this distinction into the one already made - namely that jokes can be classified as 'verbal' or 'conceptual' according to the material handled by their technique. Freud argues that these two forms of classification are completely independent - i.e. there is no tendency for 'verbal' jokes to be innocent, and 'conceptual' jokes to be tendentious, or vice versa.

On looking at either conceptual or verbal jokes, Freud proposes that we can differentiate between the actual substance of thought within the joke and the manner in which it is expressed. Freud argues that our enjoyment of the joke arises from a combined impression of its substance and of its effectiveness as a joke, and that we are often deceived by the one factor over the other.

2. Freud then looks at the purpose of jokes in terms of their use in throwing theoretical light on the nature of jokes - innocent jokes being more useful than tendentious ones and trivial jokes being more useful than profound - because innocent and trivial jokes avoid the problem of being confused and complicated by their purpose or sense.

Freud then describes the 'most innocent of jokes': "On being served a roulade as pudding at a dinner party, a guest asked, "Made in the house?" To which the host replied "Yes, indeed. A home-roulade." (as in 'home-rule'). The absence of a purpose or intellectual content in this joke implies that the pleasure it produces must derive from the technique.

Before progressing with this problem, Freud looks at the purposes of tendentious jokes, which set them aside from innocent ones. He concludes that there are two purposes that they may serve - in a hostile joke, serving the purpose of aggressiveness, satire or defence or in an obscene joke serving the purpose of exposure. Freud then embarks of a lengthy explanation of exactly how jokes serve these purposes.

Freud proposes that 'smut' is the main basis of obscene jokes. "Smut", defined as - 'the intentional bringing into prominence of sexual facts and relations made by speech", is motivated by a desire to see what is sexual, exposed. Generally, such tendentious jokes require three people - the maker of the joke, the object of the sexual aggressiveness, and a third in whom the jokes aim of producing pleasure is fulfilled. Furthermore, Freud notes that amongst the higher social classes, the formal conditions in which individuals live, demonstrate an important role for jokes - their content - e.g. smut - is only tolerated when it has the character of a joke. So, in summary, Freud re-iterates that in tendentious jokes much of the pleasure they produce is linked to their technique - but that we are not in a position to distinguish what part of the pleasure arises from their technique and what part from their purpose.

3. Freud then looks at jokes with a hostile purpose. In general, like obscene jokes, these will evade restrictions and open sources of pleasure that have become inaccessible - and additionally bribes the hearer into taking sides with the speaker, as they attack both superior and inferior fellows.

However the disguised aggressiveness may also be directed at institutions, dogmas of morality or religion - and other respected aspects of life that are therefore only accessible under the façade of a joke. These can be called cynical jokes, they disguise cynicisms. The favourability of such jokes can be seen to vary according to whom they are directed - the most favourable tending to be those of self-criticism, or directed to the subject's own nation etc.

4. To these classes of jokes (obscene, hostile, and cynical) Freud then adds a fourth, rarer class - namely skeptical jokes. Such jokes often use absurdity and representation by the opposite and they attack not a person or an institution, but the certainty of our knowledge itself, and our speculative possessions.

5. Freud concludes his look at the purpose of jokes, with the presentation of a still unresolved problem - namely that, given the pleasure provided from jokes depends on their technique and their purpose, how are such different sources of pleasure in a joke, brought together?