• Maria R. de Almeida

Jokes and their relation to the Unconscious mind

Updated: Feb 5, 2021

This blog despite its title, is very serious. I am going to write about something that happens to all of us: our thinking is unconscious and all the effects that we notice in the conscience - from that thinking- are partial. These productions from our unconscious are the dreams, jokes, slips and symptoms.They are all demonstrations of our unconscious psychic processes. Freud is not that interested in the dreams nor the jokes, but in how does that psychic apparatus work. Apparatus in which all these symptoms, jokes… dreams are produced. Freud called them: formation of the unconscious. Jokes are one fo them. When Freud began to work the subject, he was surprised that very few authors had been interested in analysing and making scientific the study of a phenomena like the jokes: such a necessary phenomena in the every day life.

Jokes have a social role, when someting difficult to elaborate happens, a catastrophe, a shocking event ... we tend to create jokes to elaborate them. It also have a psychic role for each of us.

Freud decides: I am going to take care of the small, insignificant details, of whatever it is not apparently scientific, of things no one cares about because they think they are chaotic, like dreams for example. If it is true and dreams are so chaotic as they seem, why would we care about them? Because they can tell us a lot about our mental processes.

The Psychic apparatus is like the small camera where all these photos (the symptoms, the jokes, the dreams…), the formations of the unconscious are produced. Let's say Freud is interested in how that camera works. Why? because (among other things) if we know how something works, we can repare it in case there is an issue. This subject it is in fact very serious: it is going to tell us what is the role of the jokes and will explain how the psychic apparatus works through jokes.

Freud began analysing what a joke does by the German writer Henrich Heine. He has a character called Huias Hiasinde, who had a hilarious job (today it does not exist): pimples extractor and lottery agent. He was poor. He visits Rotschild, one if the richest families at the moment. He meets him, and after the meeting he says: “he has treated me very famillionarly“ . Maybe we dont find it funny now, but it is a joke: he has treated me as familiarly as a millionaire can treat someone who has less money than him. Freud began to think what is the technique used in the joke. What is this joke doing? It takes two words: familiarly and millionaire and merges them to have only one word. This mechanism of the psychic apparatus of putting together two different things and creating another one is called condensation. This mechanism explains that the manifest dream - what we tell to the psychoanalyst in our session - is so different from what we remember when we wake up. When we wake up, we have several images and when we begin to rapport that dream… is a lot longer than those few images. Why? Because the dream has been condensed . What appears in the conscience, what we remember when we wake up is what we called “manifest content”. And all the associations around that manifest content are the latent ideas behind the dreams. Freud goes even further. He found out that behind those ideas there is an unconscious wish which is the engine of the dream. However, that wish, has certain characteristics: it can not express it self because, at some point, it was repressed. Normally the wishes we repressed are: hostile wishes against loved ones or love wishes towards inconvenient people. We dont want to know anything about them. But because they have been repressed,they do not just stay there, the return of the repressed takes place 2. How does the repressed…. returns? Disguised to be able to travers the censorship. Otherwise, if the wish wasn’t disguised, we would anguished and wake up. In order to get the dream disgused, the dream-work operates. Freud explains this working in the Interpretation of the Dreams. This dream-work is in reality, the working of the psychic apparatus: we work in the same way to produce with that camera the photo of a dream, a symptom, a slip or a joke.

All these phenomena talk about us, about our unconscious wishes. When we began to analyse them in our psychoanalysis session, we realise those are the small every day things that happen to everybody. However, it is true that we have a tendency to repress it. The dream-work has several tools, mainly: condensation and displacement. Condensation is the capability to concentrate in something very small, a lot larger thing. In the jokes instead of condensation we call it “brevity”.

Every time we read some work from Freud, we realise, by the way he approach all subjects, he was an absolute scientist: first thing he does is to review everything that has been written about that subject, in each of his texts there is a copious intro of all the authors who have written about the subject. After that, he make his contribution, the novelty. One of the things which all the authors mention regarding the joke is their brevity. This brevity happens thanks to the mechanism of condensation. It is very interesting to realise how the mechanism of the dreams is exactly the same as the mechanism in the hysterical symptoms and in the jokes. Why is that? Because all of them are produced in the same “loom”, in the same psychic apparatus which has certain rules. Even when we think that the dream is something chaotic, "Oh look what a nonsense I dreamt…", it has its own logic, it has its sense … and it is not random. We could thought of the dream as something chaotic, as if it was a discharge, like if we ask someone who can’t play the piano to play it: He will pound the keys. Freud says: "no, it is not like that, there is a logic but this logic is different from the conscience". There is a method and a technique: condensation and displacement.

How would be the mechanism of condensation in the word “famillionarly”? How interesting… in the dreams it appears in the superimposed images: someone appears on the dream and we think: " Oh.. how interesting… it is my mum but hat smile is from my sister and the dress she is wearing is from my friend…". If we analyse them, we would realise that there are many mixed formations. Same happens with the joke. Freud showed the coincidences between the jokes, the symptoms… the dreams. There are a set of jokes by condensation. There are another set of jokes by displacement.

Freud analysed a famous joke that was later also studied by Lacan: H. Heine is with another poet in a meeting where there is (again) a millonaire 3 . Jokes are a way to elaborate jealousy: when we are jealous, we make a taunt and that is a way to elaborate the hostile feeling we have against wealthy people. The poet says to H. Heine: “ Look how they worship the golden calf” (Golden calf is a symbol of wealth but it is also a young veal). And H. Heine answers: “Well… it is no longer a calf is more a veal”. These jokes use the polysemy of the words 4. How? It moves us from the field of wealth ( golden calf as a symbol of wealth) to the field of cattle raising (which has nothing to do with the field of wealth). That is displacement. This is a displacement joke.

Freud worked a lot jokes about Jewish because he knew them well (he - his family, was Jewish). The following jokes are jokes that Jewish people make about themselves (the ones non - Jewish people do against Jewish are extremely cruel, about extermination). They laugh about their defects. There are a lot about matchmaking, for example.

Lets see one of them: A marriage broker meet the potential groom to convince him about the virtues of the bride and brings an assistant to support his statements (basically, he has to have nice words about the bride in front of the groom): The marriage broker says: “She has beautiful eyes (and the assistant echoes…: what eyes!); she has outstanding education (… excellent education!); However, I reckon she is a bit … charged back (… what do you mean “charged back”… she has an amazing hump!)”. Led by the exaggeration, the assistant does not realise that the last sentence contains a negative statement: the automatism of repetition, is an unconscious mechanism.

Another joke using polysemy: Two Jewish meet and one asks the other: "did you take a bath" and the other one answers: “ no, why? Are there any missing? “. He does not even think that “take” could also mean to “have a bath”, he thinks about stealing.

All these jokes are displacement jokes: the sense has completely changed: from having a bath to stealing. They take us to a completely different field of representations, that is how the jokes by displacement work. This is the joke’s technique: all that implies a saving of the psychic spending, gives us pleasure. According to Freud, sometimes this pleasure is set free in the form of laughter. Just the condensation work, which allows to express so many ideas with only one word, is enough to gives us pleasure. Remember the joke from H. Heine, he says: “ He treated me famillionarly”. With this sentence he managed to say: "He treated me as familiarly as a millionaire can treat me”. He condenses all that sentence in a word and such a saving gives us pleasure.

These tools, condensation and displacement are in fact, operations of the language. Lacan will insist of this but Freud had already set that out: Unconscious is structured as a language. The language builds us up. Signifiants build us up: it is not any sentence, it is a sentence loaded with our libido, our drive. Those sentences, build the idea we have about ourselves, about relationships, the world, love, hate… Condensation and displacement are operations of the language, metaphor and metonymy. Joke’s technique plays with the words, with the significants using those tools. It is funny because H. Heine (writer who wrote the character of Hias Hiasinde) had a rich cousin, very attractive. He asked for her hand to his uncle, and he laughed at his face and said… no (as he was poor). Authors who have studied Heine’s works believe that Hias Hiasinde was a representation of Heine. They even have the same initials H.H. The joke was like a small revenge: “yes, you treat me very familiarly but… as much as a millionaire can”.

Then Freud talks about how jokes give pleasure. Partly, is related to the technique used: if we say the whole sentence, it is not funny at all. If I undo the technique, there is no joke.

There are two tendencies in the joke:

  • Loving or sexual tendency - blue jokes- . According to Lacan when sex is introduced, comedy shows up. Blue jokes are the easiest ones, we all laugh about them, (unless we have big repression and take offence).

  • Hostile tendencies, that we elaborate thanks to the joke: instead of blowing someone with a fist, we make him a taunt.

There are there three forms of the comic: jokes, comedy and humour. Each of them with a different structure.

In the case of the joke, there has to be three people: the person who comes up with the funny idea; that funny idea has to be about someone (the person towards who we experience the hostile or sexual tendency) and a third one: someone to who I can tell the joke. Example: there was a guy who was sleeping with Claudia Schiffer but… in a deserted island so… he could not tell it to anyone. The guy goes to C. Schiffer and tells her: "look, I need to ask you for a wish". C. Schiffer says: "Ok.. what is it?", the guy answers: “ Could you please dress up as a man? And when she is dressed up as a man he tells her: “I am sleeping with C. Schiffer”.

This joke shows how the third person is necessary for the joke to have its effect. The one who listens, depending on if he laughs or not, validates that there is a joke. If he does not laugh, there is not a joke (at least not for that particular person). There are always three people in the triangle of the joke.

After having analysed the structure of the jokes, Freud studies the mechanism. If the joke elaborates sexual and hostile tendencies, the joke needs to have a technique: we want to say what we want to say but… without noticing. Remember that in dreams, the manifest dream, will never show the unconscious wish directly, we need the psychoanalytic interpretation to know the wish behind the dream. Exactly the same happens in jokes: they are disguised. Why? Because hostile tendencies have been repressed. Example: King having a walk among his subjects and all of a sudden among the public he spot someone who looks very similar to him. The king approaches the subject and asks him: “has your mother served in court? The subject very aggrieved (is he telling me that my father is not my father?) answers him: “no, highness but my father did”. Hostility is undercovered and at the same time, I say it and I dont say it. All these people who are telling jokes all the time about racism, sex… something in themselves, is identified with that.

All these phenomena (dreams, symptoms, slips…) talks about ourselves and our unconscious processes, even the joke even when it seems it has nothing to do with us. The hostile tendencies which have been repressed show them selves up in the joke, not only for the person who tells the joke but also for the one who listens (and have not even taken the effort to make the joke). The one who listens also has hostile tendencies, if he laughs with the joke, it means he identifies himself with those hostile tendencies. If the joke has nothing to do with him, he does not laugh, he doesn't identify himself with it.That is the way to verify that a repression has been lifted. However, that repression is lifted only in that instant, in the instant of the joke. After that, it closes again. Exactly the same happens with the sexual jokes: Example. I am in a meeting and there is someone that I like: I make jokes about him with someone else. Something repressed that I don t dare to say publicly, I say it through a joke. What is here the mechanism of pleasure? Pleasure in these jokes comes from the energy I save when the repression is lifted. Repression is a constant energy, it is not that once we repressed and that is it. No, we need to maintain there the energy constantly so that whatever is repressed does not comes up. Repression is a constant strength. When we stop exerting that strength, some amount of energy is freed. It can be set free in the shape of laughter.

Freud in “The poet and the fantasy” explains that what writers do in their stories is to turn something that could be even nasty into something beautiful thanks to the form, to their writing. That is what Freud called: “Premium of preliminary pleasure”: we enjoy the aesthetic pleasure. I enjoy how well-written it is but also the story. Shakespeare would be a good example: despite writing about incest, murder… we enjoy his reading. If a neurotic individual told us about filthy things he wants to do with his mum and dad, he would put us off.

Thanks to the technique, things that otherwise would repel us because we have repressed them, we accept them and we are able to read about them. Why? Because of the premium of preliminary pleasure I have explain before.

Jokes work in the same way: It dresses up whatever is unbearable for us, we cannot listen to it. Freud studies the comic and humour. Regarding the comic, he says that if jokes are a saving of repression, the comic is a saving of representation and humour is a saving of feeling. The three of them give pleasure because imply some saving.

Lets see now what does saving of a representation and saving of feeling means. Saving of a representation happens in the comic. For example, these TV programs in which people have stupid accidents and laugh, ridiculous. Or when we walk on the street ad someone falls down, we need to cover our mouth because we burst into laughter. Then we quickly ask if he is hurt. We are not being mean, we find it funny because of the comparation with normal moves. There is exaggeration in the comedy. This is exactly what clowns use to make people laugh: they do the same movement we all do but in a very exaggerated way, only that, makes us laugh. In a way is like being back to our childhood, it is the clumsiness of the child. When we are kids, we fall down all the time, it is clumsiness but also the lack of limits, we think we are immortal and we take risks. In comedy there is like a recovery of the childish incoordination.

What else gives pleasure? Playing with the words. Lets see some examples: When Napoleon III entered New Orleans Palace and he took all the fortune, people said: “ This is the first flight of the eagle” (In French “vol” means “flight” but also “stealing”).

Another example: a physician has four children and they asked him: “What do your sons do for a living?” (“heulen” and “heilen” in German means - only changing “u” by “i” - “to cure” and “to sing”). So he had two physicians and two singers. These games with the words, gives us pleasure, the childish pleasure of changing the words. They are apprehending the words and they say.: “the dog does… miau, miau!”they change the words pf context, this is exactly what the poet does: he combines any word with any word. When we are kids we dare to play with the language a lot more, when w become adults the censorship is very strong. The censorship is lift for example, when we drink alcohol with our friends, then we can laugh at ourselves easily.

Comedy, is very related to the image, for example when I fall down: it is always between two people: the one who falls down and the one who is looking.

Naivety of the children is also very comic. Adults find children very funny because we dont remember how it felt when we still didn’t have knowledge nor experience. Lets see an example. There is a funny play in which the children have written and produced themselves the play, they also play it. The play was about a marriage, who live in a hut. The husband left to make a fortune, as they were poor. He is away for seven years and when he came back, he tells his wife: “look what I have got - showing a bag with gold”. The wife answers: “I have also been busy!” She opens the door of the hut and shows him seven children”. (Children with their naivety dont know that to have children… there needs to be a man and a woman and… they need to do some thing to have kids!). The naivety of the children, playing their roles so serious… provoke the out loud laughter of the adults. And the poor children who didnt know anything are shocked. Sometimes sharing the naivety of the children is like going back to childhood.

The third type of the comic, is the humor: Accoroding to Freud it is the most elaborated. It is to laugh about ourselves, not everybody can do that. Some people cannot tolerate irony, those people suffer a lot. The mechanism of humour is a saving of feeling. It saves us a lot of negative nasty feelings like hate or jealousy. Freud gives two examples of humour:

A prisioner is senteced to death and when they come to take him to the gallows the prisoner says: “ Nice way to begin the week”. He jokes about that. We all know it does not matter how weeks begin as there will be no week for him. It was a way to face adversity he was feeling that morning on his way to the gallows. When they are going to hang him he says: “Could you please give me a scarf please? I dont want to get a cold”.

Humour allows to laugh at ourselves and at our feelings, sometimes so terrible as it is very painful to feel hate or jealousy, specially towards someone we love. That is one of the most unbearable things for the human being. Also when we feel guilty. According to Freud so many marital arguments saved by humour…

(Sense) of humour is key for mental health. This is visible along the psychoanalytical treatment: patients begin to build the possibility to joke instead of being dramatic: “ay… poor me…”. .

Freud key contribution (and novelty) to the history of science is the inclusion of the unconscious. Prior to the Interpretation of the Dreams, it seemed like everything happened in our conscience and we had total control of it. Freud explained that there are things which happen in ourselves without the conscience knowing about it until the product (of the unconscious) is already finished: “Ah! Here is the dream but… I didn’t notice how the dream was produced” - the conscience would say. Neither have I notice how this symptom was produced”. When there is someone (the psychoanalyst) capable of reading those structures: jokes, dreams, symptoms, slips… there is the possibility to transform the way we relate with those unconscious wishes, that we normally repress, do not tolerate, do not accepts… another way to relate to ourselves from which the conscience knows nothing about.

Freud is key to understand the XXI century along with K. Marx and other philosophers. According to a research from the American Psychiatry Association Freud is the most named author in Psychiatry and Psychology texts. Since printing was invented (1440) the Interpretaron of the Dreams has been the most reproduced work, after the Bible. (After all, it seems like we are a bit… religious).


  1. Symptoms, dreams, slips, failed acts and jokes are what Freud called: formations of the unconscious.

  2. The return of the repressed is the process whereby repressed elements, preserved in the unconscious, tend to reappear, in consciousness or in behavior, in the shape of secondary and more or less unrecognizable "derivatives of the unconscious."

  3. The figure of the millionaire appears a lot in jokes those days and it is not random: jokes are a civilised way to elaborate jealousy.

  4. A word can have several meanings depending the context where I use them.

  5. Otherwise the anguish would wake up us and… remember one of the roles of dreams was: the guardians of sleep and not its disturbers.

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