It is often said that humour has an important function in society, that satire plays a significant role in politics, that humour helps in transmitting thoughts that in other ways would be difficult or impossible to say. That there is always an element of truth in a joke. Even that comedy plays a moral role in society …
Ken Dodd would say that jokes are simply about pleasure. But what was interesting to Freud was the idea that there is something in the structure of jokes that reflect the structure of language and the unconscious.
Duck goes into the chemist’s shop.
‘A tube of lipsol please.’
‘Certainly, that will be fifty pence.’
‘Put it on my bill, please.’ – (Les Dawson)
A semiotician would say that the pleasure comes from the play of signifiers themselves, the process by which they attach and become detached from the signified, that there is a pleasure we enjoy from language itself.
Displacement; replacing one meaning of a word with another meaning of the same word is one of the main functions of jokes, because words, according to psychoanalysis, are overdetermined, i.e. that one word can mean many different things, and both jokes and the unconscious allow signifiers to slide.
But there are also condensations of signifiers to form metaphors, and displacements and condensations of ideas such as habitat, economy, language, social etiquette all play a part in jokes, which reveal structures of language itself.
Jokes can also erupt from a repressed part of the unconscious and Freud devotes a sizeable section of his book ‘Jokes and their relation to the unconscious’ to smutty jokes and sexual innuendo to show how repression functions as a release within language, speech and the unconscious.
Jewish jokes also feature in Freud’s book and one that he and Lacan refer back to a number of times is this one:
A couple of men are talking to each other and one of them says “I am going to Cracow”. And the other replies – “Why are you telling me you are going to Cracow? You are telling me that to make me believe that you are going somewhere else”.
This joke plays on a certain structure of our speech, where we never directly send the message, but conceal it within a decoy. A bit like when someone says to you, I’m going to be completely honest with you … you can be sure that they will be concealing the main point!
“What the subject tells me is always fundamentally related to a possible feint, in which he sends me, and I receive, the message in an inverted form.” Lacan Seminar III