The art of comedy achieves deep penetration in social consciousness (ALAIN DE BOTTON).

The art of comedy achieves deep penetration in social consciousness (ALAIN DE BOTTON).

In his The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious (1905), Freud wrote, ‘A joke will allow us to exploit something ridiculous in our enemy which we could not, on account of obstacles in the way, bring forward openly or consciously.’ Through jokes, Freud continued, critical messages ‘can gain a reception with the hearer which they would never have found in a non-joking form … [which is why] jokes are especially favoured in order to make criticism possible against persons in exalted positions’

That said, not every exalted person is ripe for comic treatment. We rarely laugh at a doctor performing an important surgical operation. Yet we may laugh at a doctor who, after an operation, returns home and intimidates his wife and daughters by talking to them in pompous medical jargon. We laugh at what is unwarranted and disproportionate. We laugh at kings whose self-image has outgrown their worth, whose goodness has not kept up with their power. We laugh at high-status individuals who have forgotten their humanity and are abusing their privileges. We laugh at, and through our laughter criticize, evidence of injustice and excess.

In the hands of the best comics, laughter hence acquires a moral purpose, jokes become attempts to cajole others into reforming their characters and habits. Jokes are a way of sketching a political ideal, of creating a more equitable and saner world. As Samuel Johnson saw it, satire is only another way, and a particularly effective one, of ‘censuring wickedness or folly’. In the words of John Dryden, ‘the true end of satire is the amendment of vices’.

History reveals no shortage of jokes attempting to amend the vices of highstatus groups, to shake the mighty from pretension or dishonesty.


In late eighteenth-century England it became fashionable for wealthy young women to wear colossal wigs. Cartoonists offended by the absurdity of the trend quickly produced drawings that amounted to a safe way of telling these women to come to their senses – a message that, as Freud recognized, would have been hard for a cartoonist to convey directly when the objects of his criticism owned large tracts of the realm.



Alain de Botton



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