Jay Martin

More than twenty years after he published an entire book on wit, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious (1905), Sigmund Freud was still mulling over the mysterious nature of humorous activity. His earlier book had produced several new questions; these remained unsolved and unsettled in Freud’s mind, and in the midst of his August holiday of 1927, he took a little time off from work on his dark, skeptical book, The Future of an illusion (1927), and spent five days feverishly writing a short essay on "Humor," the faculty for which, he noted, "is a rare and precious gift" (Freud, vol. 21, 166).

He proceeded at once to his central question: "In what, then, does the humorous attitude consist, an attitude by means of which a person refuses to suffer, emphasizes the invincibility of his ego by the real world, victoriously maintains the pleasure principle—and all this, in contrast to other methods having the same purposes, without overstepping the bounds of mental health" (vol. 21, 163).

In his brief essay Freud makes four points concerning the functions of humor. These will help us, I think, to approach the issues raised by the essays in the present collection and to understand the assumptions behind them.

Considering humor according to its character, it is Freud says, "not resigned; it is rebellious" (l62). It insists not only upon gaining its own way, even against the greatest odds, but of also achieving pleasure in the midst of potential or actual gain.

Considering humor from the point of view of its intention, it is designed, Freud further proposes, as a weapon of defense: "a person adopts a humorous attitude toward himself in order to ward off possible suffering" (164).

The rebellious and defensive aspects of humor are certainly related. As Wylie Sypher puts it, humor may embrace "rebellion and defense, attack and escape" (Comedy, 1956, p. 242). About American humor Constance Rourke has maintained that it sometimes conservatively defends against change, sometimes engages in "warfare against the established heritage" (American Humor, pp. 231–233.)

Considering humor from the point of view of its audience, rather than that of the humorist, the audience certainly makes use of humor for its own rebellious or defensive needs; but for the audience, there is an added pleasure in the perception of mutuality, shared response. Freud writes:

"When, to take the crudest example, a criminal who was being led out to


the gallows on a Monday remarked, ‘Well, the week’s beginning nicely,’ he was producing the humor himself; the humorous process is completed in his own person and obviously affords him a certain sense of [rebellious and defensive] satisfaction. I, the non-participating listener, am affected as it were at long-range by this humorous production of the criminal; I feel, like him, perhaps, the yield of humorous pleasure." The listener, who is in no danger of hanging, shares the feeling of the criminal; and through his sharing comes the new pleasure of mutuality. Humor, George Meredith writes in his ode "To the Comic Spirit," creates "the sacred chain / Of man to man," "A cry that is the common voice; the note / Of fellowship upon a loftier plane," through which "we may come to know / The music of the meaning of Accord" (Poems, 1892, pp. 69, 86, 91). Meredith, like Freud, stresses the bonding or social pleasure derived from humor.

Finally, Freud suggests, humor involves a contribution of the superego. In the psyche, the superego represents the parental agency. In humor, according to Freud, the superego acts like a consoling parent to the threatened ego; it repudiates the reality of danger and produces the comforting illusion that the fearful ego is acting like a weak child, saying, in effect, "‘Look! here is the world, which seems so dangerous! It is nothing but a game for children—just worth making a jest about!’" (Freud, 166).

In his study, "Relieving Social Tensions: Radio Comedy and the Great Depression," Arthur F. Wertheim independently gives support to the third and fourth of Freud’s hypotheses. Among the achievements of radio humor, two prominent ones, he says, were "a sense of common participation extending the listener’s environment from self to society"; and intense "listener identification with the . . .character of the egoist"(501)—in Freud’s terms, the confident superegoist—central to any of the major radio dramas. During periods of economic—as in military or political—emergency, when a crisis is widely shared, humor will certainly counterbalance anxiety through the pleasure of shared capacities and common hopes. There is abundant evidence, too, to support Freud’s insight that in critical times humor allies with a benign parental superego to treat danger as if it were a childish fear. To take only one example, the humor that emerged during the administration of Franklin Roosevelt is often allied with both forms and content explicitly associated with childhood. How should a bewildered farmer grapple with the increasing interference of the government in his production? By couching his fears in terms of "Mother Goose":

Little Boy Blue, come blow your horn
There’s a government agent counting your corn.
(Evjen, p. 19)


How might an American feeling helpless conceive of his uneasy relation to the immense power of President Roosevelt? By taking an old pledge:

I pledge allegiance to the Democratic Party, and
to the Roosevelt Family for which it stands
(Hudson, p. 26)

How should the angry and befuddled citizen handle his resentment at the proliferation of welfare measures? Through a remembered poem:

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the land,
The ballots were ready, the polls fully manned.
From out of the package piled high to see,
Shone the bright smiling face of good saint F.D.
Each bulging package a dollar sign wore,
And down every chimney he poured them, galore.
(N.Y. Times, Dec. 9, 1934)

Or, how might a distressed American from a Bible-reading generation react? Through a favorite of Sunday School:

[Roosevelt] is my Shepherd; I am in want.
He maketh me to lie down on park benches; he leadeth me in the paths of destruction for His party’s sake.
(Martin, pp. 30-31)

The confusions, distresses, pains, poverty, mystery, and social changes of the Depression of the l930s—were, after all, no more real than nursery rhymes, sugar plum dreams, or Sunday School tales—so the superego whispered to the trembling ego.

The essays collected in this issue, all concerned with the functions of humor in times of economic crisis in America, give further confirmation to Freud’s approaches to the nature of humor.

In only one of the essays in the following pages is the defensive character of humor stressed; but this is so brilliantly exhibited in Lorne Fienberg’s "Laughter as a Strategy of Containment in Southwestern Humor," it requires no second demonstration. In relation to the Depression of 1836-37, Fienberg traces out in Southwestern humor "an elaborate strategy of containment, an opportunity to manipulate and control . . . through laughter . . . characters and forces which threatened the social order." The defensive aspect is demonstrated again and again in the pages of William T. Porter’s The Spirit of the Times.

Several essayists vividly depict the rebellious nature of humor, its capacity to attack, to demean, to destroy. The proclivity of humorous attack to exceed its bounds and to allow the attack to spread far beyond its original object is illustrated in John W. Baer’s fine essay about the case of H. L. Mencken who, in contrast to such professional economists


as Galbraith and Leacock, could not keep control over his humorous portrayal of economic crisis and allowed his rebellious anger to consume his wit. William L. Hedges, in his strikingly original approach to The Theory of the Leisure Class as economic humor, exhibits how Veblen’s critique of the leisured classes came to include himself and lead to self-castigation, exhibited even in the character of the style in his book. By contrast, that consummately rebellious humorist S. J. Perelman, as Steven H. Gale well shows in his treatment of Perelman’s play The Beauty Part, kept his rebellion and attack focused on those who perverted money; by the intensity of his control, Perelman gave his humor sharp focus.

Joanna E. Rapf’s essay on Hollywood films produced during the Depression is enormously helpful in illuminating how a whole society, along with individual talents, shifted interest from the farcical humor of rebellious attack to the humor of shared values, represented in the comedies of Frank Capra, Preston Sturges, and others. Her use of Shelley, Hazlitt and comic dramatic theory beautifully sets forth the inner workings of the relations between humor, social change, and shifts in aesthetic focus. What begins in rebellion, she shows, may enlarge into a recognition of the shared community of misery, consoled by the shared commonality of laughter.

The community of need during economic crisis, James DeMuth illustrates in his essay on Mr. Dooley and the Depression of 1893, can sustain a steady humorous response. "We respond," DeMuth writes, "to [Mr. Dooley’s] sympathy for his neighbors, we trust his understanding of how a community works, and we welcome his satiric portrayal of new-fangled ideas and [self-centered] self-important people." Faulkner, too, as Andrea Dimino exhibits in her complex and persuasive essay, relies upon the humor of shared values and local assumptions. In The Hamlet, as she makes clear, Faulkner deals humorously with two economic crises and the connections between them—the speculative panics between 1902 and 1908, and the Great Depression, which was already well begun in the South by 1926 when Faulkner started writing his novel.

Will Rogers, the subject of William R. Linneman’s essay, and the New Yorker, whose cartoons Eric Solomon anatomizes, are signal examples of the function of the superego in humor written during periods of crisis. Like a good parent, as Linneman convincingly portrays him, Rogers looked serenely and imperturbably upon the economic follies which he observed in the late twenties and the decade of the thirties. Linneman writes of Rogers: "The lightness and calmness of his comic touch suggested that the Depression did not worry him, it did not dry up his


humor"; economic disruption was, in short, a childish folly that in their basic soundness Americans would soon put aside. In quite a different way, Solomon proves in minute detail, the New Yorker kept to a position of superiority, undismayed by the vagaries of economic explosion, and clearly gave an underlying signal that the true adult sophisticate could acknowledge economic crisis and yet, at the same time, rise by intelligence, breeding, and taste above the panic that might attend daily threats of financial chaos.

All of the essays in this collection do, to be sure, have much more in them than the simple schemes that I have been deriving from Freud and applying to them. But to get the richness of the essays, the reader must go to them directly. Dale Salwak’s splendid checklist will also help the reader to probe further into the varieties of American humor during periods of economic crisis.

One element of humor present in all the subjects treated by the essays, yet (for obvious reasons) not at all commented on by Freud, is the particular Americanness of the humorous response to economic crisis. Economic crisis has been a constant feature of life in America from the time of the first settlements. Humor has also been present in American writing from its earliest times. Not surprisingly, the two have often fused.

One of the most perceptive comments on American humor is a passage in William Faulkner’s introduction to William Spratling’s Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles:

We have one precious universal trait, we Americans. That trait is our humor. What a pity it is that it is not prevalent in our art. That characteristic alone, being national and indigenous, could, by concentrating our emotional forces inward upon themselves, do for us what England’s insularity did for English art during the reign of Elizabeth. One trouble with us American artists is that we take ourselves and our art too seriously. And perhaps seeing ourselves in the eyes of our fellow artists, will enable those who have strayed to establish anew a sound contact with the fountainhead of our American life.

Perhaps Faulkner is right that Americans and American writers have too often taken themselves too seriously and have neglected the reserves of imagination in their "national and indigenous" capacity for humor. Still, this special issue of Studies in American Humor suggests, at certain times . . . in times of economic crisis, when rebellious aggression, defenses against anxiety, the shared comfort of a commonality of response, and a parental calmness concerning childish folly were needed . . . then American writers did concentrate their emotional


forces inwardly in humor. And perhaps these were the times when American writers and artists most touched and illumined the basic spirit and "fountainhead" of American life.



Evjen, Henry D. "The Republican Strategy in the Presidential Campaigns of 1936 and 1940". Ph.D. Dissertation, Cleveland: Western Reserve University, 1950.

Freud, Sigmund. "Humor" (1927). The Future of an Illusion, Civilization and Its Discontents. and Other Works, Standard Edition, Vol. 21. London: The Hogarth Press, 1961, pp. 159–66.

Hudson, John S. All But the People: Franklin D. Roosevelt and His Critics 1933–39. New York: Macmillan, 1969.

Martin, Franklin. Fun During Recession. South Orange, N.J.: The Author, 1938.

Meredith, George. "To the Comic Spirit," Poems. London: Macmillan, 1892, pp. 69–91.

Rourke, Constance. American Humor: A Study of the National Character. New York, 1931.

Sypher, Wylie. "The Meanings of Comedy," in Wylie Sypher, ed., Comedy. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1956.

Wertheim, Arthur Frank. "Revealing Social Tensions: Radio, Comedy and The Great Depression. Journal of Popular Culture, 10 (Winter 1976), 501–519.


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