=1>”We can now formulate how the tendentious joke functions: using the fore-pleasure of the pleasure afforded by the joke, it puts itself at the service of tendencies and intentions to produce new pleasure by lifting suppressions and repressions.”
— Sigmund Freud, The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious
“Until a celebrity experiences a tragedy, it doesn’t exist. That’s why AIDS didn’t exist until Rock Hudson got it. Before that, it was just a lot of fags collapsing from dance floor exhaustion.”
— Scott Thompson, “Celebrity”
Five years after his ground-breaking The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud published The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious; the latter serving as an expansion of the theories broached in the earlier work, applying them to the social function and technical mechanisms of the Joke. This may, at first glance, seem to be an arbitrary form of intellectual empire building, but upon further inspection the “Joke book” (as it is colloquially termed) was of vital importance to Freud’s overarching project of mapping the relationships between our unconscious minds and our overt behavior.
When Freud’s colleague and friend, Wilhelm Fleiss, objected that the dreams Freud employed as examples in the earlier book were simply too inventive and witty for sleeping people to have formulated, Freud insisted that such wit was the central attribute required by the unconscious. The unconscious must be imbued with wit in order to circumvent the ever-present censorship of consciousness. Essentially, Freud was asserting that humor forms an integral part of our mental landscape and our relationship to society and the world.
According to Freud, as humans became increasingly civilized, they denied themselves the immediate realization of several strongly felt desires most importantly, of course, sexual desire that were seen to be disruptive of social and rational order. These interdictions were internalized, giving rise to the censorship function of the conscious mind. We do not even allow ourselves to think certain things, so dangerous are these thoughts to the proper functioning of society; we absorb the threatened punishments necessary for social maintenance and become disciplined adults. However, these desires do not simply dissipate; they are far too vital to what constitutes being human. Rather they live on in the unconscious and, in their need for expression, they give rise to a whole series of phobias, social missteps, dreams, and humor. Jokes, like dreams, are designed to bypass the censorship to release the pent-up psychical energy enclosed in these unconscious desires.
Contrary to a widespread misconception, Freud did not dismiss the content of the joke in favor of its structure. He merely said that what makes it a joke is its structure. The structure of the joke is what Freud termed its “fore-pleasure” and it is by delighting in that “fore-pleasure” that the censorship is fooled into accepting the expression of interdicted desire. However, the joke is an excuse, or better yet a vehicle, for the expression of a pre-rational delight in play and the absurd, a socially proscribed hostility, or an attempt to “strip bare” an object of libidinous desire. Although it is antisocial in nature, the joke is essentially a subversive form of liberation.
If we share Freud’s liberationist stance on the power of humor, then no televised format of comedy is more pure and direct in its dissident hilarity than the sketch comedy series and no series is more effective than The Kids in the Hall. By its very nature, the sketch comedy series relies upon brevity. With most skits clocking in at less than three minutes in length, the goal of a sketch is to clearly and quickly establish characters and situations, and bring them immediately to a sort of comical crisis. This is the crux of Freud’s notion of the structure of the joke (its fore-pleasure); no matter what the underlying message, the joke must be brief, capturing our attention and suspending our rational judgment. The Kids excel at creating a world by means of the slightest of gestures, and then uproariously blowing that world to pieces; they are masters of fore-pleasure–a distinction that I am sure would appeal to the Buddy Cole character (performed with particular panache by Scott Thompson).
Indeed, on the rare occasions when they depart from concision, the humor falls flat. No matter how much I admire Buddy Cole, for instance, he cannot sustain my attention for an entire episode as he is called upon to do in the episode-long sketch, “Chalet 2000”. The premise is amusing: the Queen of England (also Thompson) rushes to Buddy to avoid the glaring scrutiny of the paparazzi, and begins a lurid affair with a beer-swilling, boy-sized, talking beaver (Bruce McCulloch). However, in an effort to expand the concept to fill an entire episode, the impact of the skit is diluted while jokes concerning the pronunciation of “privacy” and the goal of ice fishing sap it of all of the verve and energy one generally associates with Buddy.
Far more effective is the Thompson monologue, “Celebrity”, excerpted above. After mentioning that he has now attained a level of celebrity somewhere between Pauly Shore and the Maytag Repair Man, Thompson launches into the various responsibilities that come with increasing fame. Celebrities not only articulate the grief of the commoners, they bring it into being: “Before celebrities, people didn’t have terrible childhoods; they just grew up. Nobody made a big deal out of child abuse or incest. You had sex with your father; you moved on.” The monologue charts a precipitous course through self-deprecation, a lambasting of tell-all celebrities, and the folly of public figures who attempt to assuage the pain of normal people by claiming some kind of special connection through abuse and misfortune.
Ultimately, the monologue gives rise to the latent realization that celebrities do not simply bank on such stories in order to promote their own positions and fame, but that they simplify and package larger social problems, making them seem manageable for everyone by attempting to erase the radical differences between their level of affluence and ours. The monologue is a charming rear-guard action that, oddly enough, affirms more than it denounces (“I love my grotesque family too much to drag them through a public spotlight”), its covert approach making the denunciation all that more compelling.
The Kids are at their best when puncturing the conventional views many of us (necessarily?) employ in navigating our quotidian lives — our jobs, our marriages, our friendships. These sketches skewer our default answers, our lame excuses that have been repeated so many times so as to take on the appearance of truth. Here we learn that men believe that oral sex is “part of God’s plan”, that most of us do believe our jobs to be pointless and the boss to be an ass-freak (even if we don’t all perform anal probes for a living), and that the answering machine message (now, of course, voicemail) is one of the primary outlets for our creativity.
One of the funniest skits of the season concerns a man (Kevin McDonald) with a list of things to do for the day. The perseveration he exhibits in relation to this list is so all-consuming that he neglects to come to the aid of an old lady that he knocks down he simply cannot be detained in the pursuit of completion and when he finds that two items are in the wrong order, he adds another item to the list instructing himself to rectify that mistake. Arriving at the bank, he finds himself a hostage during a bungled bank robbery (in their commentary, the cast claims that this bit was a parody of Reservoir Dogs). The man refuses to allow his being taken hostage to interfere with his day; he simply adds it to the list and then cajoles the robbers into diverting from their course in order to check the items off of his list. The myopia of the everyday somehow supersedes the extravagances of contingency.
As always for the Kids (as for Freud), alienation and hostility serve as central topics. Dave Foley recites a letter he is writing to someone in the hospital; of course, he put the man in the hospital by closelining him when that man tried to pass by on a bicycle. “Perhaps I watched too much slapstick as a kid,” Foley muses, “and expected you to get up after being violently assaulted. Imagine my confusion when you did not. Although I was not so confused that I would actually stick around.” Bruce McCulloch discusses his relationship with his dog. He never got around to naming him in the three years they have cohabitated; Bruce merely calls him “small mammal with whom I share a lie.” One day their eyes finally meet and Bruce believes they have truly connected; this hope is punctured when the dog merely burps.
Again, the humor lies in the presentation; McCulloch ascends to the heights of melodramatic ecstasy only to have his emotional investment toppled by canine gastro-intestinal indelicacy. Less successful is McCulloch’s “People” series of three poems detailing the lives of three young people. He tries too hard with his cloying, poetic posturing, emphasizing his ironic inflections to underscore the sad humor of these characters. And like all bad poetry, each of these recitations ends with a modified version of its opening line. These vignettes tell too much; humor relies upon gaps.
The virtue of brevity in these skits is aided by the use of returning established characters such as the young Gavin (McCulloch), the boy who endlessly drones on about nothing in particular and seems to derive a great deal of satisfaction out of subjecting unwitting auditors to his endless soliloquies. When we see Gavin open the door to a couple of proselytizing Mormons, we don’t need any further set up; we know how this is going to go. The pleasure derives from watching it get there.
Mark McKinney reprises the role of the Chicken Lady for a sketch that finds her returning to her childhood home, becoming overcome by flashbacks of her childhood, and generally torturing the current occupants. Being driven away, she drives to the next farmhouse and decides that this is truly her birthplace. The fact that this piece is beautifully rendered only heightens the severity of the discomfort Chicken Lady creates. Gavin, Fiore (Thompson) and Bruno (Dave Foley), Buddy, even the Chicken Lady — they are not so much characters, as they are types. Paradoxically, it is that predictable one-dimensionality that makes them more believably real. There is no forced character development; people often simply are who they are while the situations continually change.
A perfect demonstration of the effectiveness of the fore-pleasure within comedy can be found in comparing the skit “Third Time Lucky” from the television show with the same skit performed live (included as an extra on this set). Whereas the live version excessively relies on expletives in order to convey the violence of the McCulloch character (who comes to a pizza shop to avenge an insult supposedly made to his pregnant common-law wife to be), the television version pares down the cursing so that the pizza boy’s whispered “Oh dear Lord” creates maximum effect — transmuting this seemingly minor detail into a truly funny moment. Also by replacing the comparatively imposing McKinney with the frail McDonald as the pizza boy heightens the impact of the boy’s unwitting moment of violence (he deflects McCulloch’s attack by merely lifting a pizza tray). The basic scenario is the same, but the elements of structure are so finely tuned in the television version that it feels like an entirely different skit.
One of the problems with Freud’s “joke book” is that much of the material he analyses simply is not that funny. Jokes do not always translate well and many do not resist the ravages of time. More importantly, many simply were not very well crafted. Freud often had to work rather hard to find jokes worthy of his rigorous analyses. It is rather too bad that he did not have the Kids in the Hall at his disposal.