Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious

By Sigmund Freud

5. The Motives of Jokes - Jokes as a Social Process

Whilst the fundamental motive of jokes is obviously the aim of getting pleasure - the fact that people are not equally capable of making use of this aim and the techniques involved, implies that certain dispositions or psychical determinants must favour the joke-work producing 'witty' people.

Freud proposes that we must look at both the basis of the urge to communicate a joke and why it is that one does not laugh at a joke of one's own but why this laughter is manifest in the other person. Freud hypothesises that in laughter, the conditions are present under which a sum of psychical energy, thus far used for cathexis, is allowed free discharge (in the form of laughter) and since most laughter is an indication of pleasure, this can be linked to jokes. Freud then cites the conditions of laughter:

1) The first of these conditions lays down the necessary qualifications of the third person as the hearer of the joke. They must be in sufficient psychical accord with the first person so that they have the same internal inhibitions, which the joke work overcomes in the speaker - producing the joke effect.

2) The second condition for this free discharge (in the form of laughter) to be possible concerns the uncertainty of the effect of jokes when the thoughts expressed in the joke arouse powerful ideas in the hearer - agreement or contradiction of these thoughts will determine the response. Furthermore Freud identifies a series of techniques that detach the hearer's attention from the joking process, so that it can run 'automatically'.

These conditions are generally met by the following methods - keeping the joke short and keeping it easy to understand.

Thus it seems that the technique of jokes is in general determined by two sorts of processes - those that make the construction of the joke possible in the first person and those that are intended to guarantee the joke the greatest possible pleasurable effect in the third person. This third person, additionally serves several purposes - giving the speaker certainty that the joke- work has been successful, completing the speaker's pleasure by a reaction from the other person and in the case of jokes that one has not produced oneself - to make up for the loss of pleasure owing to the joke's lack of novelty.

In summary therefore, the psychical processes of jokes taking place between the two persons cannot be viewed as simplistically as producing pleasure purely through avoidance of psychical expenditure, but rather that the economies in psychical inhibitory expenditure brought about by a joke, remain a source of pleasure because they, unexpectedly save an accustomed expenditure. This localized economy in the speaker, then gives momentary pleasure, but it is the lasting relief, through free discharge, in the third person that gives the greater and longer lasting feeling of pleasure.