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An Approach to Analyzing Jokes

Author(s): John Pfordresher

Source: The English Journal, Vol. 70, No. 6 (Oct., 1981), pp. 50-54
Published by: National Council of Teachers of English
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An Approach to
Analyzing Jokes

John Pfordresher

It always happens. The students and I have read one aspect of humor. Jokes lie at the base of most
something funny the night before, and as we get humor so I start with them.
together we begin talking about it, laughing, and The shift from laughter to analysis cannot be
retelling the best parts, then I pose a question avoided. What we need is an approach to regain
about the humor, and everything changes-the student attention. If that approach at first seems
atmosphere is dead, students' faces go flat, and open to dispute, all the better-argument over its
their eyes drift away. validity will make the class interested in what is
That is the problem. Its causes lie in the nature being said.
of humor itself-first, in the odd and complex The approach I use is based on the ideas
character of humor as a topic for discussion. Why in Sigmund Freud's book Jokes and Their Rela-
we laugh, why we give way to such convulsions, tion to the Unconscious,' a clear and precise
seems impossible to talk about. That one joke approach which can be applied by students to a
works and another doesn't seems illogical, the wide variety of texts and lead them to read texts
spontaneous consequence of chance. Looking into more closely and more thoughtfully. Norman N.
these matters makes us uneasy. Holland found Freud's book on laughter useful
There is a second, psychologically deeper for these same reasons, because, in his words, it
reason for people's reluctance to analyze the "was the only one that made any sense to me as a
humorous. Jokes which need explanation beforeliterary critic-that is, which led me back to that
they are understood aren't funny. We should close analysis of the text . . . the sine qua non of
get the joke spontaneously, without help, either literary understanding."
at once or after only a moment needed to see
it. To take the joke apart seems inherently The Theory
unpleasant. We use a cliche to justify this atti- Close analyses of texts-minute attention to
tude: "It's only a joke." Later, we will see whatdiction, image, and symbolic pattern--character-
this phrase conceals. izes Freud's work in the 1890s, but the texts he
The classroom problem is clear. The shift from was studying were dreams. He was, after all, a
joking to discussion is a shift from the passivephysician, not a literary critic. But Freud kept
and spontaneous to the active and analytical, from encountering odd similarities between dreams and
the simple to the complex. Having been happyjokes. When his friend and colleague Wilhelm
and relaxed, we naturally find it difficult and even Fleiss read the proofs for The Interpretation of
unpleasant to become sober and industrious. Dreams in 1899, he complained there were too
To teach humor in the classroom requires many jokes in the dreams Freud described. What
dealing with two of its features. First, the inherentboth Freud and Fleiss saw were unexpected struc-
complexity and oddity in humor needs simplifi-tural similarities between jokes and dreams. Freud
cation. One way is to narrow the topic, to look at found this similarity intriguing, and it led to his

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investigation of the odd, illogical experience of But we have not yet fully described the dramatic
joke-making. Far from being the result of rational context of the joke. Some jokes involve a third
procedures, jokes seemed to come from a region party, a person the joke is "on." To understand
of the unconscious mind similar to that which this final element in the dramatic context, we
was the source of dreams. "A joke," as Freud must consider another aspect of jokes.
wrote, "has quite outstandingly the characteristic Freud's book begins with jokes based on word-
of being a notion that has occurred to us 'invol-play: e.g., puns, limericks, jingles. He calls them
untarily.' ... We have an indefinable feeling ... "innocent" jokes and defines them as jokes that
and then all at once the joke is there" (p. 167). As cannot be translated into other words because the
a scientist Freud found the puzzles in both the root of their fun is in sporting with language:
form and genesis of jokes challenging. Against
Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!
the old cliche, "It's only a joke," he set the How I wonder what you're at!
fundamental premise of modern psychoanalytic Up above the world you fly,
investigation: "I doubt if we are in a position to Like a tea tray in the sky.
undertake anything without having an intention Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,
in view" (p. 95).
In his book on jokes, the result of this inves-
There are several kinds of fun here. We enjoy
tigation, Freud insists that his competence and hearing in our memory the trivial nursery rhyme
his primary interest are in psychology, notthis in parodies, we delight in the correct but silly
aesthetics or literary criticism. Jokes and theirrhymes, and we find amusement at the simile,
relationship to the unconscious mind are his inappropriate, but for the Mad Hatter, strangely
stated topics. Yet the relationship between joking
fitting. This wordplay has no meaning outside of
and comedy inevitably led him to write about artitself. We take pleasure in returning to the free-
as well as about human behavior. Later he
dom with language we enjoyed as children.
admitted, "My book on jokes gave the first Freud defines, as a second type, the joke that
examples of the application of psychoanalytic has meaning beyond mere wordplay-that has
thinking to aesthetic theme.'"9 what he calls a "tendency" so he calls them
In considering what Freud discovers, we must "tendency jokes."
begin with what one might call the dramatic
context of jokes. "A joke ..." Freud noted, "is ... said the Mock Turtle with a sigh. "I only took
the most social of all the mental functions that the regular course."
"What was that?" inquired Alice.
aim at a yield of pleasure" (p. 179). "Social," for "Reeling and Writhing, of course, to begin
the simple reason that "no one can be content with," the Mock Turtle replied; "and then the
with having made a joke for himself alone. An different branches of Arithmetic-Ambition, Distrac-
urge to tell the joke to someone is inextricably tion, Uglification, and Derision."
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland,
bound up with the joke-work ..." (p. 143). We Ch. IX
all know a joke requires two people, but Freud
wanted to know why. He concluded that the joke's This is my children's favorite joke in A lice. They
success depends upon the reaction of the listener, repeated it for weeks after I read it to them, and I
almost as if the person making the joke asks the am sure the reason they liked it so much was the
listener to decide whether the joke has succeeded, ingenuity of Carroll's puns. But a closer look at
"as though the self did not feel certain in its the puns shows there is more to the joke, since
judgment on the point" (p. 144). The listener's they suggest a child's unpleasant reactions to
passivity is an important element in this dramaticschool, a place in which external pressures seem
context; "a joke loses its effect of laughter . . . as to make us reel and writhe under uglification and
soon as [the listener] is required to make an derision. Here is a joke that does more than toy
expenditure of intellectual work in connection with words. It has a tendency, a purpose serving
with it. The allusions made in a joke must be to criticize those aspects of school children hate
obvious and the omissions easy to fill; an awak-most. The pun is still here, but it now has a new
ening of conscious intellectual interest usuallyfunction. As Freud puts it, "The originally non-
makes the effect of the joke impossible" (p. 150). tendentious joke, which began as play, is second-

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arily brought into relation with purposes from "It's only a joke," serves the ends of tendency
which nothing that takes form in the mind can joking. Since, as Freud puts it, logical "objec-
ultimately keep away" (p. 133). And "there are tions [to the attack in the joke] raised by criti-
only two purposes [a joke] may serve, and these cism . . . would put an end to the pleasure"
two can themselves be subsumed under a single (p. 130), listeners ignore inner questioning of the
heading. It is either a hostile joke (serving the joke and, through laughter, uncritically ally them-
purpose of aggressiveness, satire, or defence) or an selves with the joke-maker. This is a psychologic-
obscene joke (serving the purpose of exposure)" ally deeper reason why both the joker and listeners
(p. 97.)4 Freud comes to see the obscene joke as resist any efforts to analyze the joke. To do so
simply a form of the aggressive, so he concludes would reveal the concealed tendency. It would
that jokes with a tendency all serve a single negate not only the pleasure of the joke's wit but
purpose-they are all aggressive. also the pleasure of releasing aggressive tendencies
I suggest that to win back the lagging attention without fear of censure.
of a class we need an idea to challenge old
assumptions and even antagonize some students. From Theory to the Classroom
Freud's theory provides what we need. To apply this theory in the classroom we must
We can now deal with the situation in which first isolate a joke. Later, we can weave together
a joke is "on" someone. "Generally speaking," conclusions derived from the analysis of several
says Freud, "a tendentious joke calls for three jokes, but we must begin with one isolated unit.
people: in addition to the one who makes the Then, we need to pose two questions based on the
joke, there must be a second who is taken as the notion of dramatic context. First, who is the
object of the hostile or sexual aggressiveness, and speaker, the listener, and what is the object
a third in whom the joke's aim of producing involved? If there seems to be no object for
pleasure is fulfilled" (p. 100). The listener now aggressive or hostile tendencies, then we have a
takes on added significance. In innocent joking, non-tendentious joke and need go no further. But
the laughter merely proved the wordplay was if we can define all three, then we need to pose a
successful. But when we laugh at tendency jokes second question. What is the purpose of the
we implicitly join the joke-maker in laughing at speaker which the joke both hides and yet ful-
the object of the joke. Thus tendency joking fills-or, to put it another way, what is the joke's
becomes "a new technique of invective, which aggressive tendency?
aims at enlisting this third person against our I chose three examples from material frequently
enemy. By making our enemy small, inferior, used in high schools. Space prevents more illus-
despicable or comic, we achieve in a roundabout trations, but they are not hard to come by. I've
way the enjoyment of overcoming him-to which tried to show how the analysis works for each.
the third person, who has made no efforts, bears
witness by his laughter" (p. 103).
We know that some jokes get bigger laughs King: Where is Polonius?
Hamlet: In heaven, send thither to see: if your
than others. Freud seeks to explain why. "The
messenger find him not there, seek him i' th' other
pleasurable effect of innocent jokes," he argues,
place yourself. But if indeed you find him not within
"is as a rule a moderate one; a clear sense of this month, you shall nose him as you go up the
satisfaction, a slight smile, is as a rule all it can
stairs into the lobby.
achieve in its hearers." But "A non-tendentious
King: [To Attendants.] Go seek him there.
joke scarcely ever achieves the sudden burst of 'A will stay till you come.
Hamlet (IV,iii, 32-39)
laughter which makes tendentious ones so irre-
In the
sistible" (p. 96). The reason for the difference is theater, we see the dramatic context of the
that society's constraints force us to "renounce
joke in its fundamental form. Here the joke-maker
is But
the expression of hostility by deeds" (p. 103). Hamlet; the object of his aggressive jests the
tendentious jokes permit us to satisfy our aggres-
King, his uncle, foster-father, deadly enemy; the
sive instinct without running great risks. Where
listeners the attendants to the King. Hamlet has
we cannot snarl, we can joke. rashly put himself at the mercy of his enemy who
It is important to see that the disposition
can now imprison or kill him. From Hamlet's
to accept jokes without question, to insistperspective,
that his aggressive-tendency jokes are

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attacks on the King's real power through derision him understand-by one's tone of voice, by some
and seek to enlist through laughter the allegiance accompanying gesture, or (where writing is con-
of the attendants. cerned) by some small stylistic indications--that one
means the opposite of what one says ... [Irony]
In a given performance directors and players brings the person who uses it the advantage of
color the scene by deciding whether or not to enabling him readily to evade the difficulties of
permit the attendants to laugh at these jokes. If direct expression, for instance in invectives. (p. 174)
they laugh, they clearly shift their allegiance from
Irony is not simple joking, but their close kinship
Claudius to Hamlet, and tension increases since
the audience cannot be sure whether the atten-
permits a similar approach.
In the second paragraph of Slaughterhouse
dants will obey the King's command. If they
Five, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s narrator, preparing us
remain silent, Hamlet's jokes fail and his vulner-
for his later descriptions of the firestorm in
ability seems all the greater.
Dresden, writes:
The terse reply of the King illustrates the fact
that, constrained by circumstances, he endures I really did go back to Dresden. ... It looked a
Hamlet's aggressive joking. Here we see how lot like Dayton, Ohio, more open spaces than
effective the strategy of tendency wit can be. If Dayton has. There must be tons of human bone
meal in the ground.
Hamlet were to speak his mind in nonjoking
terms, the King would be free to react aggressively.
Irony grows out of the narrator's tone. The
But the joke permits Hamlet to utter his most
first part of each sentence makes the speaker
hostile thoughts.
sound boyish and naive, the gosh-gee-whiz kid
The form of the joke enables Hamlet to say
from Indiana Vonnegut likes to think back on
things he could otherwise not say. His first
and to pretend still lives inside himself. The
sentence is a joke version of "Go to hell,"second half of each sentence shows us, with
the joke's witty transposition of this crudity
innocent candor, what that wide-eyed kid saw,
permitting Hamlet to say it. The ensuing jokes
and the order of the three sentences is climactic.
about Polonius' corpse have a double implication.
The name Dresden alarms any reader familiar
First, by reducing the gravity of the old man's with World War II. The odd reference to "more
death to a jest, Hamlet implies that to a man
open spaces" further unnerves us-we know that
as tough and cruel as himself it means nothing.
though vague, the speaker is not alluding here to
Such grisly humor asserts that he is fearless
parks or urban renewal. This pattern culminates
of death itself. We know this is not the case,
in the reference to mass slaughter.
but such suggestions serve Hamlet's purpose
But Vonnegut doesn't use phrases like that.
at this moment and lead to a second implica-
The passage is humor rather than rant. To say
tion. If Hamlet can kill one old man and laugh
Dayton resembles Dresden is already funny since
about it, he can kill another. Claudius himself
the only similarity is, probably, the slight alliter-
is the object of the implicit threats.
ation of names. We may think the narrator a
There are good reasons for the audience not
guileless fool, and his references to "open spaces"
to side with Hamlet. Why should we sympathize
keeps us unsure. But in the final sentence we see
with Polonius' murderer? But the joke makes
he is complex. He knows about the firestorm. Yet
us forget objective morality. Our laughter allies his wit tries to transform its horror into some-
us with Hamlet, excusing his action and oppos- thing implausibly useful, victims' charred bodies
ing us to Claudius. Hamlet has mocked and
becoming a sort of fertilizer.
threatened his enemy without immediate risk How does our schema work here? We have
to himself, and he wins the sympathy of at least
already described the joke-maker-boyish but
the theater audience, all through aggressive-tend- honest, ironic but candid. He sees the truth of
ency joking.
Dresden and tries to make it conceivable through
Slaughterhouse Five witty transformations. The reader serves as auditor
to the jokes. But who is the object of the joke's
Freud describes irony as:
aggression? To my ear the passage has a strong,
Very close to joking ... among the sub-species
of the comic. Its essence lies in saying the oppo- hostile note to it despite the naive language. The
site of what one intends to convey to the other attack must be upon those who think Dresden is
person, but in sparing him contradiction by making just like Dayton, or, more exactly, those who have

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tried to make others believe it is. The narrator's concedes, they may as well go the rest of the way
return to Dresden was to verify his memories. and
Theliterally eat the children.
book is to be somehow a true and revealing As with Vonnegut, this grim joking unmasks
account of war crimes perpetrated there. Quite official deception and shows it for what it is. But
early, the narrator tells us that when he called thehere the mindless writer who guilelessly suggests
Air Force for details about the bombing raid he the plan also becomes an object of the joke's
was told that though more than twenty years hadaggression.
passed, "the information was top secret still."
Although here there is no simple dramatic It seems to me this approach can be used
context as there was in Hamlet, we still have the incidentally in discussing humor. Or it can serve
as the basis for a unit on humor in which a class
same, fundamental confrontation: the narrator
(joke-maker) attacks official power (the object) applies this approach to several texts. I don't
think Freud's name (a red herring for some
through tendency jokes, and if the reader responds
with a smile of agreement, then his aggressive people) need be mentioned nor extensive refer-
ences made to his theory. The teacher need only
strategy has succeeded. Had Vonnegut begun with
ask-who is making the joke, who is listening,
a direct denunciation of U.S. war crimes, he might
who or what is the object of the joke, and why?
have had few readers. Because his simple-seeming
narrator speaks ironically, we laugh and we listen.
attention to how the text supplies
ideas and answers will do the rest.
A Modest Proposal
In his pamphlet "A Modest Proposal for Prevent- Notes:

ing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from 1. First published in 1905 as Der Witz und seine
Being a Burden to their Parents or Country, and Beziehung zum Unbewussten. A.A. Brill, in the first
for Making Them Beneficial to the Public," English version (1916), translated "Witz" as "Wit." His
Jonathan Swift's ingenious social scientist sug- version is still available in the Basic Writings of
Sigmund Freud (New York: Modern Library, 1938).
gests selling Irish children as meat. Though The more recent translation by James Strachey in The
enthusiastic about his idea, this theorist does Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works
make a few concessions. of Sigmund Freud, vol. 8 (London: Hogarth Press,
1960) alters the reading of "Witz" to "Joke." This
I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and version is readily available as a Norton paperback.
therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they In my text I quote from and give page references to
have already devoured most of the parents, seem to the later, Strachey translation.
have the best title to the children.
2. Norman N. Holland, The Dynamics of Literary
This ironic joke is more complicated than Response (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968),
p. xii.
Vonnegut's since Swift's speaker is not aware he
is being funny. He is not joking at all. Here our 3. From Freud's "History of the Psycho-Analytic
Movement" (1914) quoted in Jack J. Spector, The
triangle consists of the joke-maker, Swift, manip-
Aesthetics of Freud. A Study in Psychoanalysis and Art
ulating the crazy enthusiasm of the theorist, the (New York: Praeger, 1973), p. 113.
listener, the reader, and object of the jokes, both
4. Obscene or, as Freud elsewhere terms them,
the landlords and the theorist.
"smutty" jokes are clearly not the usual subject for
The joking comes from puns. This food is classroom discussion, nor should they be. They are far
"dear," but the term has different meanings fortoo difficult to deal with in heterogeneous groups. I
include Freud's reference to them to make his argu-
the children's parents and the landlords who will
ment clear.
buy their flesh. The word "devoured" has both
metaphorical and literal meaning. Landlords have
metaphorically squeezed so much money out of
John Pfordresher teaches at
the Irish peasants it is as if they were already
eating them up. So, Swift's political scientistGeorgetown University.

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