Exhibiting a Funny Twist of Mind

Reviews the book 'More Oral Sadism and the Vegetarian Personality,' by Glenn C. Ellenbogen which is about humor in psychology.

By Peter Doskoch, published on March 1, 1998 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

At first glance it looks remarkably like an obscure academic journal,complete with impenetrable, jargony research reports, theoretical treatises of interest to six people on earth, even a relentlessly dull cover design. Then you look a little closer and notice something's terribly—and hysterically—wrong. There's the article proposing a new psychiatric diagnosis for office workers trapped in countless meetings: "productivity-deficit hypercommittee disorder." Or the piece entitled "A Twelve-Step Program for the Dead" (step one: "Remind yourself that death is simply nature's way of telling you to slow down"). Welcome to the Journal of Polymorphic Perversity, the world's leading (well, only) satirical psychology journal.

The JPP, which has been described as the "social scientist's answer to Mad magazine," is the brainchild of Glenn Ellenbogen, a Manhattan psychologist determined to inject a little humor into the often grim mental-health professions. Ellenbogen's satirical side bloomed shortly after he completed his doctoral dissertation (he already had two master's degrees and claims he got a Ph.D. so that he wouldn't have to put MAMA after his name). To blow off some post-thesis steam, Ellenbogen wrote two parodies that he published under the banner of the imaginary Journal of Polymorphic Perversity. When submissions started pouring in to the un-publication, says Ellenbogen, "I had no choice but to actually create it." The first issue appeared in 1984.

He now receives hundreds of funny (and not-so-funny) manuscripts each year. Fewer than one in thirty survives the final cut, making the JPP far more selective than the real journals it spoofs. Assisting in the selection process are eighteen reviewers, whose specialties range from psychoanalysis to neurology. At least three of them review each worthwhile submission, but humor depends so much on personal preferences, says Ellenbogen, "that I don't think we've ever had all three agree that a piece was funny," He settles for two out of three.

Often there's a serious point beneath the humor. A piece describing psychological evaluation of the dead stemmed from the author's observation that a leading intelligence test subtracts points for wrong answers but sometimes gives credit for non-responses. So a corpse that "took" the test could, in its unwavering silence, rate an IQ of 45, equivalent to "moderate mental retardation." Other parodies have proven downright prescient: one extolling a Psycho-therapists R Us therapy franchise appeared years before John Gray's real-life Mars-Venus Counseling Centers. But Ellenbogen's favorite creation is a Calvin Klein-like ad for a faux perfume called "Borderline." Madison Avenue pitch-perfect, it puts a positive spin on dating someone with borderline personality disorder: "Unpredictable... provocative...passionate" gushes the narrator about his girlfriend.

The American Psychoanalytic Association once refused Ellenbogen's request to display his wares at their annual meeting, claiming that humor was "inappropriate" to their mission. Ellenbogen sees that decision as symptomatic of the field's reluctance to laugh at itself, observing that psychology majors seem to become increasingly humorless as they progress towards their doctoral degrees. In fact, even those who write for the magazine occasionally worry about the effect JPP authorship could have on their reputations: "There are some enormously important people in the field who have written for us under pseudonyms," says Ellenbogen.

As for the magazine's appearance, he intentionally created "the most boring cover I could conceive of. My goal is for unsuspecting readers to look at it for the first time and go, `What the hell is this?"' Nonetheless, Ellenbogen regularly receives calls from magazine designers offering to give the publication an eye-catching makeover. "I always tell them, `I will hire you on the spot—if you can create a more boring cover."'

For more information on JPP, call (212) 689-5473, or visit their web site at: www.psychhumor.com.

P.D.

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