June 29, 2008

"'Sometimes funny has a sexual character.' Sometimes? Nearly always, according to Sigmund Freud."

"The whole point of humor, Freud thought, is to get around our inhibitions."

Jim Holt — author "Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes" — reacts to the story of Judge Alex Kozinski, his personal (but on-line) porn, and his wife's defense of it ("Alex is not into porn — he is into funny — and sometimes funny has a sexual character.")
The very ability to enjoy such humor means that you must be investing a good deal of energy in keeping your animal side in check. You are at least trying to be civilized. A dirty joke is an uprising against the bourgeois morality that enslaves most of us most of the time (and a good thing too). We can rejoice in its defeat only because that defeat is brief and inconsequential. In fact, our laughter itself brings the little uprising to an end. As most of us have discovered, laughter's a pretty strong anti-aphrodisiac.
Holt goes on to discuss sex humor in ancient Greece and Rome, the Renaissance, and Shakespeare. (For some reason, there are were no paragraph breaks in his longish column, so you'll have to overcome your resistance to reading a long block of text.)

He quotes George Orwell:
"The modern emphasis on what is called 'clean fun' is really the symptom of a general unwillingness to touch upon any serious or controversial subject."
So should we be suspicious of people who don't laugh at sexual humor?
There are two other classic theories of humor in competition with his. One of them is the "superiority theory," propounded in various forms by Plato, Thomas Hobbes and Henri Bergson, which says that laughter is a way of crowing victoriously over the humiliation of others. This theory works well at explaining the appeal of ethnic and racial jokes, of jokes about gays and drunkards and henpecked husbands and lawyers and women ("Why do women wear perfume and makeup?" goes a classic of this genre. "Because they're smelly and ugly.") The superiority theory sees mockery, hostility and aggression at the root of all humor. Morally speaking, it puts sexual humor in a pretty bad light, making it tantamount to verbal rape.
"Verbal rape" sounds bad, but don't forget that comedians love to say "I killed" when they made people laugh. So that would be verbal murder.

I think some mockery, hostility and (verbal) aggression is a good thing. And it's funny. The real question is who are your targets? In other words, what ideas are you expressing? You deserve to be judged for that, not the mocking aggression per se. Judged... and then, perhaps, let off the hook. Because you were joking.
The other time-honored view of humor has a rather sweeter flavor, and a more intellectual one. It is the "incongruity theory," versions of which were held by Blaise Pascal, Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer, which says that we laugh when the decorous suddenly dissolves into the absurd..... One of the images on the Kozinski website that the judge said he planned to delete -- it was "degrading," he said, "and just gross" -- was a depiction of women as cows. That's pure superiority theory, and as obscene as it is banal. But take this joke, reputedly a favorite of George H.W. Bush: "How do you titillate an ocelot? You oscillate its tits a lot." Ostensibly, it falls into the category of raunch, with its use of the not-ready-for-prime-time word for breasts and its winking allusion to bestiality. But it is essentially sheer nonsense, a sonic jeu d'esprit.
That reminds me, nobody supplied the comic answer to the George Carlin question I typed up for you last night (when I was watching hours of the HBO Carlin marathon). Carlin has a nice mix of wordplay and sex, and sometimes it's very funny just because the expected wordplay isn't there at all and it's just flatly sexual. But that the dissolution into the absurd that Blaise, Manny, and Artie were talking about, right?


rhhardin said...

William Kerrigan reviews the Random House Webster's College Dictionary

We are men and women. It almost always matters which we are. Men and women are aggressive. Their regard for each other is clouded by grudges, suspicions, fears, needs, desires, and narcississtic postures. There's no scrubbing them out. The best you can hope for is domestication, as in football, rock, humor, happy marriage, and a good prose style.

``The Neurotic's Dictionary'' _Raritan_ XI:3 Winter 1992 p.103

Richard Fagin said...

Sexual humor being equated with verbal rape started with the Meritor Savings Bank case. In the interest of making the workplace a less "hostile" environment, we've actually made it a prison. We seem to want laws like that because some people are just too boorish to know when to back off, and others are just too prissy to take a joke.

As the poor Pakistani computer programmer said in a sexual harassment indoctrination session, "Please just tell us what we're not supposed to do and we won't do it."

Meade said...

"As most of us have discovered, laughter's a pretty strong anti-aphrodisiac."

Most, perhaps, but certainly not everyone.

rhhardin said...

Nowadays rape isn't only verbal. It's showing up in gerunds and even some nouns.

Ann Althouse said...

Thanks, Meade. That was weird!

Anonymous said...

Thomas Hobbes said that surprise, superiority and cruelty form the basis of most humour. That doesn't make humor sound quite so benign and innocent, does it Pookie?

Meade said...

"Thanks, Meade. That was weird!"

My pleasure.

As weird for you as it was for me?

George M. Spencer said...

Ham. Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
[Lying down at OPHELIA’S feet.]
Oph. No, my lord.
Ham. I mean, my head upon your lap?
Oph. Ay, my lord.
Ham. Do you think I meant country matters?
Oph. I think nothing, my lord.
Ham. That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.
Oph. What is, my lord?
Ham. Nothing.
Oph. You are merry, my lord.

Hamlet, III, ii, 68-78

The books "Shakespeare's Bawdy" and "Naughty Shakespeare" are the places to go, if you want to interest a teenage son in the Bard.

Reading aloud the eye gouging scene in King Lear works, too.

Shakespeare had a very Buddhist approach—it's all for spiritual enlightenment.

halojones-fan said...

I snickered at the "titillate ocelot", but that's becuase I'm a sucker for a little alliteration; it didn't have anything to do with the sexual component.

I think it was Scott Adams who said that everything funny has Sex, Sadism, Non-Sequitor, or some combination of the three.

reader_iam said...

laughter's a pretty strong anti-aphrodisiac

It is?!? Since when?

Oh, well, out of step again: I'll add it to the list.

reader_iam said...

OK, I hate humor designed to lethally humiliate and belittle and banish; that's a turn-off and even a perversion, from my point of view, however "natural" it may be. (There's a lot of poison in nature, after all; doesn't make it "good." Nature's an amoral thing.)

Other than that, I think humor is one of the very best aphrodisiacs of all--sexually, mentally, intellectually, emotionally and more.

AlgonquinS said...

I'll bet plenty of men have let out a little bit of laughter when having sex with a woman in what's called the doggie position, said: "Oops, sorry."

Kirby Olson said...

STephen WRight's humor is remarkable in that it is almost purely incongruity, and has very little of the cruder elements of release of inhibition.

What happened to Stephen WRight?

There was a side to Carlin that had that sort of incongruity deal (based in getting stoned) but Wright had a much more interesting mind, and never stooped to the lower levels of humor.

I think Carlin will find that the seven words he wanted banned are used quite a lot in hell. The devil probably uses a lot of them in every sentence, like a New York street thug.

After a million years or so, they might get old even for him.

Ann Althouse said...

Wouldn't it be ironic if it turns out there is a hell, but the only people who go there are those who enjoyed thinking about other people going there?

reader_iam said...

Amen to that, Althouse!!!!!

Ann Althouse said...

I'm glad you liked it. I have another idea for the ironic afterlife: There is a God, but his true religion is atheism, because he didn't want to be believed in and didn't allow any evidence of existence to show.

Ann Althouse said...

I'm glad you liked it. I have another idea for the ironic afterlife: There is a God, but his true religion is atheism, because he didn't want to be believed in and didn't allow any evidence of existence to show.

George M. Spencer said...

There are more than 100 billion galaxies in the universe, and each of them contains between 10 million and one trillion stars.

George M. Spencer said...

Should I repeat that?

Ann Althouse said...

should say: any evidence of His existence to show.

Or do you think my omission of "His" is evidence of His existence. Maybe He made me do that.

Ann Althouse said...

And George, I don't see how greatly excessive numbers evince God. A million galaxies would have been enough. Why show off? You're God!

somefeller said...

Sometimes? Nearly always, according to Sigmund Freud. The whole point of humor, Freud thought, is to get around our inhibitions.

Just because Freud said something doesn't mean it's true. Actually, if Freud said something, you should start on the assumption that it isn't true, given that his theories of psychoanalysis haven't held up very well.

Freud did good work by opening up the discussion regarding psychology and sexuality, and "Civilization and its Discontents" is still very much worth reading, but a lot of his other ideas (the Oedipus Complex and the like) haven't stood up very well against what we've learned since his era about brain chemistry, human development, etc. He was a great myth-maker (and that isn't a pejorative, most great thinkers are great myth-makers in some way), but I don't think he's really the go-to guy anymore on issues of the psyche and how it really works. While no one has really solved that riddle, Freudianism isn't the place to look for solutions anymore.

rhhardin said...

Ham. Do you think I meant country matters?
Oph. I think nothing, my lord.

Robert Frost
One had to be versed in country things
Not to believe the phoebes wept.

reader_iam said...

OK, now, this is almost unbelievable, but so help me God, this is what happened:

My son and husband are out in Delaware--yep, it's that time of year again, but I'm not going until next month--and they just called. My son was particularly excited about their trip to Philly yesterday, and especially about their visit to the Rodin Museum:

"I got to see the Gates of Hell, Mom!" (Kids that age do love to emphasize words that in swear contexts they're not allowed to use yet, don't they?)

Anyway, being a smart ass who has zero compunction asking off-the-wall, inexplicable and even inpenetrable questions of my son just for the hell of it, I inquired:

"Were they ironic?"


"Of course not, Mom." (One of the deep, patient sighs he's taken to emitting recently.) "They're bro-o-o-nnnze."

Well, LMAO. (Still.)

Poor kid.

reader_iam said...

JUST happened, that is.

AlgonquinS said...

Well, it should be pretty obvious, God has a sense of humor. When God made man, he gave him a brain and a penis. The funny part is that he only gave man enough blood to let one of those things work, at one time.

Sock:/snark off)

Miss Prittsey Pritchard said...

Oh, I just love how readers read Professor Althouse’s measured analysis, and then methodically cherrypick her assertions to support their own arbitrary contentions.

Kirby Olson said...

In th emost recent issue of Discovery there is a piece by a scholar who argues that humor will outlast the human race. Worth reading.

Nice hit on the hell idea, Althouse.

Still, I think it would be fun if Carlin went to hell, and found that his 7 words were used too often for his taste, but now there was no escape, and no tiral court to have them banned again.

Ann Althouse said...

Carlin had a recorded routine about the 7 Dirty Words, which he did with no censorship. He wasn't obstructed by the govt in any way. A radio station played the recording over the airwaves in the middle of the day. That wasn't Carlin's doing. He never said they should be played on the radio. He observed that they can't be played on the radio.

blake said...

Humor is rejection.

It can take many shapes, but ultimately, when we laugh, we're rejecting something.

EnigmatiCore said...

"Wouldn't it be ironic if it turns out there is a hell, but the only people who go there are those who enjoyed thinking about other people going there?"

Like rain on your wedding day...

paul a'barge said...

Kozinsky had a picture of a young boy giving himself fellatio.

I don't care how sophisticated you want to be about this, but I don't want the guy within a country mile of the US Supreme Court.

reader_iam said...

Blake: Huh. That's intriguing.

I can see it in terms of some sorts of humor, but other types seem much more, if not entirely, about "welcoming" than "rejecting." I find your very different POV fascinating, probably at least in part because it's so opaque to me, so would care to go into it a little bit more?

reader_iam said...

Maybe I'm getting hung up on the word "rejection," or, to be more precise, on hanging the more negative facet of that word on your use, as opposed to the more neutral one. That does make a difference.

blake said...

Sorry, didn't mean to be cryptic.

We can start with the obvious, negative sort of "humor": When children single another child out to laugh at, they're rejecting him. We instinctively know that and that's the whole basis of the "at" and "with" consolation. (I'm actually not sure that this is humor, but I think it's related to the concept of laughter and rejection.)

Then we can move on to such riddles as:

Q: How can you tell an elephant's been in your refrigerator?
A: From the footprints in the butter.

Humor there comes from the rejection of the notion that, of all the ways you might be able to detect an elephant, sleuthing out butter cubes is at the top. We reject that notion.

Or non-joke jokes:

Q: Why do firemen wear red suspenders?
A: To keep their pants up.

Very meta. We laugh because there's nothing there to reject. It's a perfectly sensible answer to the question. In this case, we're rejecting the joke itself, or our expectation of something clever.

Times change of course. 1940 movie house audiences were in stitches when Bugs Bunny first said, "What's up, doc?"

They rejected the notion that a rabbit would react that way to a hunter.

Nowadays, the out-of-place reaction to danger by a woodland creature is so common as to be tired. We no longer laugh uproariously at wisecracking rodents.

OK, let's flip to some other kinds of comedy.

Charlie Chaplin, eating his shoe: Audiences doubtless related to the hunger, but they rejected the notion (as we do, though far less profoundly) of eating one's shoe as though it were a gourmet meal.

Buster Keaton, running The General. He's fleeing for his life in the steam train. His girl is throwing wood into the engine and as she picks up the wood, she evaluates it for suitableness, in one case throwing out a large piece because it has a small hole in it. We reject that rejection. Heh.

The Marx Brothers were steeped in odd behavior that was totally inappropriate for the situation, and surrounded by people whose reactions were impossibly indulgent.

A lot of modern comic writers, especially Woody Allen, give us neurotic characters. Always, of course, a little too neurotic. We reject their exaggerated responses, and at some level probably reject the idea that neuroses are just wacky fun.

How about puns? A pun--should it make us laugh or groan--is a rejection of the use of a word.

A lot of physical comedy is based on social propriety, which may be one of the reasons that physical comedy is much harder to do effectively these days. Pie in the face? Seltzer down your pants? Hell, it's a rare day one of my co-workers doesn't come in with pie on their face and seltzer down their pants.

In fact, life in general may be less humorous because it's not polite to reject people any more.

Not all laughter is humorous, of course. One can laugh out of joy or exhilaration. Or out of meanness.

Similarly, not all rejection is humorous.

I've often thought that black humor (like, Network) is relatively unpopular because it gives very faint signals that it is to be rejected. Black humor, ultimately, is a rejection of mortality, or at least the significance of mortality, as well as other Very Serious Things.

But again, times change. One of the great Richard Brooks' last movies was the muddled Wrong Is Right. I was sort of amused and sort of befuddled right up until some people started blowing themselves up--that was my cue that this was all meant as over-the-top satire. Audiences today might interpret that signal completely differently.

But I've rambled on enough for now. I hope that clarifies.

Unknown said...



former law student said...

Kozinsk[i] had a picture of a young [credit card holder] giving himself fellatio.

It's a joke. The punch line is "I'd never leave the house."

George M. Spencer said...

Hey, Professor--

Here's the "Answer"!!!....Over here.

reader_iam said...

I wanted to post this much, much earlier, but I wanted to verify something first.

Totally coincidentally, here's a post about jokes and humor that went up a couple-so hours earlier this evening, written by somebody I first met (and worked with) long ago and at whose place I blogged for a while, though not for ages, now, in blogterms.

Do read it, do. It fits rights in.

Funny things, serendipity and synchronicity.

reader_iam said...

Part of what makes humor fascinating is that it is as universal as breathing, yet so idiosyncratic that a joke has to be put together with the precision of a recipe to work.

somefeller said...

Kozinsky had a picture of a young boy giving himself fellatio. I don't care how sophisticated you want to be about this, but I don't want the guy within a country mile of the US Supreme Court.

Your problem, not mine, Paul. Alex Kozinski may be to the right of me on many judicial issues, but he is exactly the sort of serious thinker who should be on the Supreme Court. To claim otherwise is a display of vulgarity and a lack of knowledge about decent jurisprudence.

somefeller said...

Also, I'm pleasantly surprised to see that no one criticized my attack on Freudianism. I guess that museum piece is well buried, outside of the world of bad editorial writers.

blake said...


I disagree with you about what was Freud's most important contribution, but otherwise, yeah, he was a froot loop.

Steven said...

Of course Freud thought humor was about sex. Freud thought everything was about sex. Freud would say that technical documents describing the working of wireless protocol IEEE 802.11b are actually about sex.

boldface said...

I'm just so damned serious so I'll answer Ann's question.

A female peacock is a peahen.

Ann Althouse said...

That's not George Carlin's answer.

Anonymous said...

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