Sigmund Freud lived and worked in the Austrian capital, Vienna until the Nazi Anschluss of 1938 placed him and his family in great peril. Freud was allowed to leave Austria with his family through the intercession of his patients Princess Marie Bonaparte and William Bullitt, and diplomatic pressure by the United States. One condition imposed by the Germans for his safe conduit was that Freud state that he had been treated with due respect. In response, Freud is reported to have declared, ‘‘I can heartily recommend the Gestapo to anyone.”
Freud viewed humor as an outlet for discharging psychic energy and reducing the emotional impact of negative events. He regarded humor as one of the most adaptive defense mechanisms.
The essence of humor is that one spares oneself the affects to which the situation would naturally give rise and overrides with a jest the possibility of such an emotional display. Freud, S. (1916)
In his groundbreaking study of humor, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Freud hypothesized that jokes and dreams serve to satisfy our unconscious desires. Jokes provide their unique pleasure by allowing a temporary release of inhibitions and permitting the safe expression of sexual, aggressive, playful, or cynical instincts that would otherwise remain hidden and inexpressible. Laughter is the release of defensive tension that has been aroused by the circumstances that precede it. Tension can be elicited by behaviors, feelings or thoughts associated with anger and sexuality—in situations where their expression would be inappropriate. When ego defenses that inhibit their expression become unnecessary, as when the joke’s punch line is revealed, the energy that would be normally suppressed can be released in laughter.
There are two ways in which the process at work in humor may take place. Either one person may himself adopt a humorous attitude, while a second person acts as spectator, and derives enjoyment from the attitude of the first; or there may be two people concerned, one of whom does not himself take any active share in producing the humorous effect, but is regarded by the other in a humorous light. To take a very crude example: when the criminal who is being led to the gallows on a Monday observes, ‘Well, this is a good beginning to the week’, he himself is creating the humor; the process works itself out in relation to himself and evidently it affords him a certain satisfaction. Freud, S. (1928)
Freud also wrote “Humor” (1928), a brief paper in which humor is distinguished from wit and comicality, whereby humor represents an internalized form of forgiveness that changes one’s perspective and provides some relief from emotions associated with disappointments and failures. Likewise, humor permits the reinterpretation of failures as being of lesser importance or seriousness than initially believed, thereby transforming such failures, said Freud, into “mere child’s play.”