Jokes are a way to expunge thoughts and feelings left unsaid or unexpressed in ordinary or normal discourse and transactions, and historically gallows humor, toilet humor, and sexual humor have taken hold of comic patter. In "Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious," Freud wrote meaningfully of the importance of humor in diminishing stress as well as bringing into awareness those experiences otherwise submerged. Beneath the surface, outside of awareness, the themes that show up in jokes lead, he felt, to behaviors that are destructive and disruptive.

Nowadays, listening a lot to three comedy channels via Sirius, in my car, I have an opportunity to hear   stories told by popular and famous comedians. The narratives are chiefly about sex: lack of, excess of, discontent with, use of in dominating someone, and confusion about. Ironically, none of it sounds like much fun.

What's said isn't especially profane or shocking, but it all seems to be a distraction from the concerns that inspire the humor. While the comedians elicit huge laughs and delight, too, in the discomfort of the audience, there is a childish redundancy evident. The jokes are told by class clowns rather than class wits.

I'm not looking for clean humor, and I don't expect the jokes that fall flat to be the equal of Monty Python, Richard Pryor, a lot of Louis C.K. or Sarah Silverman or J.B. Smoove or Chris Rock, but I hope, which is why I listen in, to experience humor that makes me see things differently.

What's missing?

A lot can be said about the Presenting Complaint here. When a patient comes in with a story of events that upset him or her, we may think sensibly of what is unsaid. Not that the complaint is inaccurate, per se, but what else is bothering the patient? What might we hear once trust is established?

And then what it all boils down to simply enough are relationships. Relationships between the dead and the living, the past and the present and what's to follow, disappointments over love and family, and the day to day nonsense that gets in the way of feeling valued and being of value to others.

Those frustrations, so evident in the jokes of Richard Pryor, in which his personal marginalization, whether it is in bed or on the street as a black man, are missing largely from the humor heard onstage.

The comedian who can find humor in the pain of relationships, rather than chiefly in the sexuality that is often part of the failure to affilate with others, brings us closer to real laughter.  The shy pain of hearing jokes about sex in a public setting can be a wonderful step towards change, but even better is humor about the relationship in which the sex takes place.  That relationship can be onanistic or profligate, it doesn't matter, but when jokes bring real suffering into the open--and we're not talking here of erectile dysfunction--we remember them and consider changing.

About the Author

Scott Haas, Ph.D.

Scott Haas, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and food writer. He is the author of Back of the House.

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