You Must Be Joking!


‘To those who feel life is a tragedy, to those who think, it is a comedy’
Horace Walpole (1717-1797)

It wasn’t good news. She put down the phone and knew she would have to break it to her husband.  A few hours later he returned home from work. ‘Hello’, he said, as she started to giggle. ‘What’s up?’, he continued with a blank stare, as her giggling broke into outward laughter, progressing swiftly to fully-fledged body-shaking hysteria.  ‘Your Nan’s dead’, she blurted out, as the tears rolled down her face.

It’s no doubt that her humour wasn’t intended to upset or offend, but it seeped out none-the-less.  As shocking as it might seem to others, this is in fact, a really good example of the psychological defence mechanism of reaction formation.  The mind is full of mechanisms of defence, all manifested by the ego, and reaction formation occurs when an unwanted or painful emotion or thought arising in conscious reality, is literally ‘masked’ by the unconscious defence that exhibits behaviour in the exact opposite.

Some people have an innate fear of clowns.  There is a very good reason for that as well.  As with other archaic archetypal structures buried in the invisible depths of the shadowy unconscious, there lives the Trickster Archetype.  The universal entity that does love to jest.  And we know how many a true word is hidden in that!  Having analysed the Trickster element, it appears that should it connect with a congruent mind, the outcome is hilarious humour.  However, should it connect with an incongruent mind, the outcome is a psychopathic, twisted enjoyment of torture.   A full-blown reaction formation of a mind that split, due to the excruciatingly painful psychological experience of loss of unconditional love in childhood.

Comedians, those who make their living by entertaining and making other people laugh, behind the scenes often suffer depression.  The universal law of equal and opposite does indeed exist in the individual mind as it does in the collective mind.  Sometimes that depression turns into an addiction, to avoid a reality or temper internal anxiety, and many people are surprised to learn that someone so vibrant on stage can be so down when not in the limelight.  Another example of when the brighter the light the darker the shadow.  One must always embrace the dichotomies within themselves to achieve internal congruence. Appreciating that the mental acrobats that require it, can be psychologically overwhelming.

Jokes And Their Relation To The Unconscious is a relatively undiscussed yet highly important book written by Freud in 1905, on the psychoanalysis of humour.  A medium akin to dream analysis, suggests Freud, to access the unconscious.   In writing on the ‘Function and Fortitude of Humour’ in (2003), for an academic thesis, it appeared to me that humour was a defence remarkably different from all other mind defences that initiated to keep unwanted unconscious anxiety out of conscious reality.   It was the only mechanism that did not, in truth, deny a reality.  It easily synthesised that reality to co-exist in subconscious compatibility, by utilising the most beautiful occupation of childhood, it played with it. 

Humour has many faces.  Perhaps the base bog-standard is as exactly described.   Sarcasm is a take on the earlier mentioned attempts to synthesise that perhaps hint at a tadge of bubbling irritation.  But when utilised in all its higher cortical functioning splendour, whereby one’s imagination is deliberately left to fill in the gap cleverly imparted by the comedian, humour imbues the intellect in almost silent recognition that we and the comedian are in that moment, as one. With a very respectful nod in the direction of the writers of Frasier, and enormous thanks for endless hours of enjoyment, it reminds me of something the late, great comedian Bob Monkhouse said as a naive adolescent, “I told them I wanted to be a comedian when I grew up and they laughed at me – well they’re not laughing now”.