The Freud Museum

Events Archive

5 November 1994

Humour and Psychoanalysis

Conference Report

At the museum's autumn conference, held in the subterranean atmosphere of London's Comedy Store, over 300 people came to witness the head to head confrontation between humour and psychoanalysis. The result was a memorable day, in turns immensely thought-provoking and entertaining, which more than lived up to our high expectations.

But why 'Humour and Psychoanalysis'? Perhaps one of the most telling reasons was given by John Cleese, in conversation with the psychoanalyst Jennifer Johns. Humour and laughter "frees people up to have new thoughts" he said, and this possibility of seeing the world differently is surely fundamental to the process of psychoanalysis. John talked about the psychological underpinning of his own humour - about communications gone wrong and the repressed anger of his alter ego character, Basil Fawlty.

Jokes also condense a lot of contradictory information and thought into one package. They are language organized into an emotional form. A contemptuous eight year old patient cited by Valerie Sinason made a kind of vicious joke on her profession when he accused her of being a "PISS-CO-ANAL-CYST", or a "PSYCHO-THE-RAPIST". By seeing the humour and creativity in this word play, Valerie was able to make a connection with her patient which allowed him also to acknowledge his fear and suffering.

So humour often acknowledges something from the unconscious. It lets the truth slip out against all our efforts at 'keeping up appearances'. Christopher Bollas amply demonstrated this with examples from the repertoire of T. Danforth Quayle: "Republicans understand the importance of bondage between mother and child"; "This is not a man who is leaving with his head between his legs"; "We are not ready for any event which may or may not occur". In a remarkable coup de theatre, Bollas took the origins of humour back to the earliest (mis)communications between mother and baby; cracking up the child. The paper is now the title work of his book Cracking Up (Routledge, 1995).

In both Valerie and Christopher's papers, the question of authority and power was evident. Mother and child, analyst and patient. Arnold Brown, one of the original 'alternative comedians' of the late 1970s, openly acknowledged that his comedy was a kind of revenge. Being both Jewish and Scottish, he offered "two racial stereotypes for the price of one". He recounted how, having been told by his classmates that all Jews were wealthy, he "ran back home eagerly, to break the news to my parents .... We spent the weekend taking up the floorboards". Meanwhile, Jerry Palmer, professor of communications at London Guildhall University, looked at humour within the broader sweep of cultural history; the 'joking partners' of many non-literate societies, the carnivals of the middle ages, and the origins of Greek theatre in the cult of Dionysus were three illuminating examples.

Far from being an esoteric subject of dubious value, humour and comedy was seen to be of immense importance in the social world and a worthy subject of serious consideration. Whether we also succeeded in making inroads into the public misperception of Freud himself as a humourless and austere figure, only time will tell.

In 1995, the Freud Museum presented an event with a related topic. For more information about the conference "Adolescent Phantasies and the Horror Film Genre", please click here.

This website uses cookies to ensure we give you the best experience on our website. If you continue, we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies on this website. Find out more about our cookie policy.