By Elizabeth W. Davies
Question: Why are these stories so hilarious? What are your thoughts
about why writing about psychoanalysis — they’re profound in many ways
but they’re hilarious.
Answer: Resistance! No, I mean, for me, I think that it’s such a frightening process
when it’s working, and when you’re deeply engaged with it, and when the person that
you’re working with is gut-knowing and hypothesizing things about you that you don’t
really know about, that there’s an automatic defense mechanism and it expresses itself
for me, I just speak for myself, in a humorous sort of distancing thing that also makes
you superior in some elemental way to the analyst. … I think most of us, at least, well, I
won’t speak for anyone else, I don’t really think it was hilarious. I mean, I think it was
very serious. I think it was really good; I think it was really bad; and, it’s a very serious
matter. But there’s a kind of distancing about this subject. It’s so sensitive. …
Q: But you do think your book is hilarious, right?
A: I — that’s not for me to say. But if you insist.
(Daniel Menaker, at “Ink on Shrinks: Writers in on Therapy,” Stony Brook Manhattan Writers Speak series, Sept. 26, 2011, fielding questions from an attendee about
his 1998 novel The Treatment.)
From a psychological standpoint, humor involves at least three components: de- livery, context, and reception. Most humor, whether one-liners, slapstick, physi- cal comedy, irony, sight gags, puns, farce, satire, or sarcasm, for example, depends on the interaction of these three facets. Take knock-knock jokes of a small
child (“Knock, knock.” “Who’s there?” “Cows go.” “Cows go who?” “No, cows go
moo!”) or zingers directed at a profession (“What do you call three lawyers at the bottom of a river?” “A good start.”). The jester must recognize that some demographics
might find the material a hoot (kids or clients, respectively) while certain sectors
might deem it a dud (adults or attorneys).
Indeed, something considered funny often involves the transmitter’s attunement to
the audience, an act of empathy. In fact, imaginative identification with the other, or
as psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut defined it, vicarious introspection, typically forms the
essence of making people laugh. This article analyzes humor vis-à-vis the conjunction between the producer and the spectator; the focus encompasses not only Oscar
Wilde or Wendy Wasserstein but also theatergoers, not only Chris Rock or Sarah Sil-verman but also ticket-holders. Psychoanalysts, evolutionary psychologists, social psychologists, and health psychologists have explored why humor exists. By extension,
their explorations help to explain why some people like The Andy Griffith Show while
others prefer Monty Python’s Flying Circus or why fans of Ellen DeGeneres may steer
clear of Don Rickles or vice versa.
Functions of humor
Humor benefits humankind on a biological level. Health psychologists assert that
humor is literally life-preserving for the species or individual. Humor may produce
vital protection through a number of mechanisms, including enhancing the immune
functions, increasing the production of endorphins and, thus, pain tolerance, lowering blood pressure, and even through the cardiovascular exercise laughter provides.
So while Mel Brooks can’t take credit for saving humanity by directing, co-writing
and costarring in Blazing Saddles, film buffs of comedies like his might well outlive aficionados of tearjerkers. Also, the political writer Norman Cousins, a proponent of
holistic healing, contended in his 1979 book Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the
Patient that inducing laughter every evening by watching funny movies (and consuming vast quantities of vitamin C) helped cure him of ankylosing spondylitis, an inflammatory disease. Although scholarly studies about the relationship between laughter and the immune system, pain tolerance and the production of stress hormones
have been mixed regarding salutary gains, findings suggest that mirth may reduce
pain and increase connection with others. Such bonds themselves have life-preserving
effects, even if laughter or a good sense of humor may not extend the lifespan in
measurable ways, as Rod A. Martin details in a 2001 article in Psychological Bulletin.
Humor also mediates social relationships. In a way, Donald O’Connor’s character
makes this suggestion while goofing around in his big number, “Make ‘Em Laugh,”
in Singin’ in the Rain, the backstage movie musical comedy. He hams it up: “Now you
could study Shakespeare and be quite elite. / And you can charm the critics and have
nothin’ to eat. / Just slip on a banana peel. / The world’s at your feet.” More learnedly, evolutionary psychologists propose that humor is related to adaptive strategies
such as facilitating cooperation, increasing social cohesion, reinforcing status differences, establishing dominance, and releasing tension. For example, humor functions