The Joke's on Who?

Some argue there is truth in every joke. Not necessarily.

Posted Feb 17, 2013

Many believe as the saying goes, “There is a grain of truth in every joke,” or “A joke is truth wrapped in a smile.” Sigmund Freud suggested that jokes were true, serving two purposes: aggression (such as sarcasm) or to expose unconscious desires (the sexual joke). But is there really truth in every joke? 

Freud certainly had a point; many jokes are hostile and may indicate the teller’s true feelings. This can be seen in ethnic, racial, or other prejudicial jokes. Sarcasm provides another example of jokes intimating a person’s true feelings. Sarcasm is laced with truth and indicates underlying anger or hostility that seeks release. Even self-deprecation done in a joking manner may indicate a poor self-image or an attempt at humbling an otherwise overconfident persona.

Freud’s other point suggests truth as well; many jokes are sexual in nature. As Freud believed there were two basic drives, life (sex) and death (aggression), it stands to reason he would see all jokes in this manner. It's certainly possible that making a sexual joke may indicate something about the person’s unconscious sexual desire. Many sexual jokes might be from people considered sexually fixated.

The sexual aspect is difficult to argue. This culture is sexually based. Sex is used to sell nearly everything, and there is a great deal of support that it is one of the human race’s more basic drives. Sexual jokes may be a part of that drive, or simply an outgrowth of our culture. Either way, there seems to be sufficient evidence that a sexual focus is embedded in our unconscious. As such, it contains at least a grain of truth.

That leads to the discussion of aggression. Many in the psychology field consider sarcasm to be hostile. It has been purported by many that sarcasm indicates a hostile attitude and, in many cases, underlying anger. Sarcasm is generally used to put another person down in some way, or at the very least pokes fun at them.

Sarcasm is, in all likelihood, the most popular form of humor today. There are far too numerous television programs to count that use sarcasm as a vehicle. A list of the most popular comedy television programs for 2012 indicates the popularity of sarcasm: Big Bang Theory, Modern Family, The Family Guy, Two and a Half Men, and The Simpsons all deploy sarcasm (and, in some cases, cartoon violence) to get laughs. In many cases, this humor comes from a character easily perceived as hostile or angry at the core. There is no doubt that some use sarcasm to mask their underlying anger.

Most people can identify someone who uses humor for confrontation on something disagreeable. If the individual is then challenged about his confrontation, he likely backs off and says he was just kidding. This is used to deflect responsibility back on the person who was the brunt of the joke, stating that he is just being sensitive. In this manner, those using sarcasm in a hostile way are able to express displeasure without taking responsibility for it.

Sometimes this passive-aggressive maneuver is successful in that the other takes the hint and changes his behavior. Other times, it is not successful in facilitating a change in behavior (as is likely desired), but still serves as a release. Another possible payoff for masking anger with sarcasm is that the person feels they aired their grievance, the other did not heed, and they have more to complain about. This is an unhealthy way of dealing with conflict, but has its payoffs and is used fairly frequently.

However, simply because one of the great minds of psychoanalysis and many who have followed indicate that something is so, does that make it true? In the above cases, it is clear that there is truth in humor. But because there are underlying motives, does that mean there is truth in all humor? It really comes down to how you define truth. If you have a thought, and it comes out in a joke, does that make it true? Or should thoughts be evaluated for truth?

In the course of a day, a person is said to average between 12,000 and 70,000 thoughts. That is a range. Even at the lower number, is it possible that all 12,000 thoughts are true? The definition of truth is what becomes the arguing point. If, because you thought it before you turned it into a joke, it is considered true or to be a reflection of a part of you, then yes, every joke has some truth. But if like me, you contend that thoughts are too disparate to discern the exact meaning, then there isn’t always truth in a joke. It was simply a thought stemming from any number of drives, ego states, or neuron firings, and therefore is only true upon its evaluation.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, rational emotive behavior therapy, and many other therapies consistently challenge people to evaluate and dispute their thoughts. The person is tasked to determine which thoughts resemble reality. Reframing the attempt to look at a situation from a different perspective is a mainstay of therapy. In these cases, the therapist is insinuating that the person’s thoughts may not be true, may be distorted, and may not accurately reflect reality. The thoughts might not be true. If the thoughts are not true, then there is no truth in the joke. Someone simply turned his irrational thought into a humorous anecdote.

Humor is an excellent part of life. Laughing leads to increased pleasure, more enjoyment, and feeling happier. At times, humor is certainly used to mask underlying “truths” of the individual. In other instances, it is simply an outrageous thought leading to humor. Often, it is simply a reflection of our human desire to connect and experience joy. You do not have to give credence to every thought you have. One would benefit from evaluating his or her thinking and determining personal truth. Hopefully, that truth leads to joy, for both you and others.

Copyright William Berry, 2013