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It's (Not) Just a Joke

Jokes are usually based on the truth.

Key points

  • Making a joke about a serious topic releases the tension and makes us feel more comfortable.
  • There is always a nugget of truth inside the joke.
  • In therapy, the tension is not meant to be cut but instead should be embraced.

In therapy sessions, the topics of conversation are often pretty serious. There is usually a significant amount of tension involved. A common instinct in many people when they feel tension is to undercut it with humor. Making a joke about a serious topic releases the tension and makes us feel more comfortable. Humor is also a way to say what you really feel without having to completely commit to it. Jokes are an important arrow in the conversational quiver for people who are passive-aggressive. They are a way to say how you feel without admitting how you feel. After all, it’s just a joke, right?

It’s never just a joke. OK fine, sometimes it is just a joke. But there is always a nugget of truth inside the joke. It’s like how we give dogs pills by putting them inside a scoop of peanut butter. The pills are the truth, and the peanut butter is the humor that makes it go down easier. Or unnoticed. For most of my life, I made a living making jokes. In a professional setting, writing comedy for film and television, my job was to understand the personalities of the characters in the shows I wrote for, the type of family life they experienced growing up that molded them into the people they have become, all the factors of their personality that would influence their point of view and how they would express it, and write jokes from that point of view. It is through a strong understanding of a character’s psychological makeup that the basis for their jokes is discovered. That’s what makes a great joke, in my opinion. It’s funny, but it also reflects a character’s personality and point of view. As viewers, this is how we appreciate a good joke. It’s the point of view motivating the character making the joke.

However, that’s the world according to television comedy, which, while approximating reality, is far different from it. Similar jokes made between romantic partners, parents, or co-workers in real life often do not land as well. These are the jokes that don’t have the luxury of a laugh track to soften the blow. Sometimes these jokes are ways for us to express emotions like anger, fear, jealousy, or shame, but in a safer way than talking about them openly. These are the jokes that are so clearly manifestations of the uncomfortable truth that we feel obligated to say, “It’s just a joke!”

A therapy session is a different ballgame, though. Here, we do not have to end on a laugh. The tension here is not to be cut; it is to be embraced. In my work as a comedy writer, the goal was to find humor in these tense moments. In my work as a therapist, the goal is to find the truth in these moments. The last thing I want to do when a client says something emotionally significant and wrought with deeper meaning is to undercut it with a joke. And when the client makes a joke revealing something emotionally significant with deeper meaning, I want to encourage them to feel that tension, not undercut it. In therapy, we want to avoid the distraction of humor and engage with the serious feelings. On the other hand, the client often does not want to engage with the serious feelings, and uses the distraction of humor to avoid them. When a client makes a joke about something, my instinct is to ask more questions about the topic being joked about. The joke is oftentimes a signpost directing us towards the issues that we have come to therapy to discuss.

Consider this next time you joke about something. The kind of joke that maybe your partner or parent or friend or child or co-worker reacts to with something less than a laugh. Perhaps the kind of reaction that motivates you to say, “It’s just a joke." Consider why you made the joke, and the feelings that were behind the making of the joke. Of course, jokes have their time and place. I don’t think we should all become humorless robots, taking everything literally and at face value. But let’s develop a new sense of awareness about the emotions behind the jokes we make. Jokes hide the truth, and through embracing the truth we achieve self-awareness, and through self-awareness, we can learn to live happier lives. That’s not to say I don’t like a good joke. Here’s a classic: How do you keep a client in suspense? I’ll tell you next session.

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