Chapter V. Uses of Humor and Speech Acts

The power of reason is perhaps the greatest power we can have-except for humor power.

Is beauty power really the most important one?

A. Introduction

The significance of humor is derived from the uses of humor. The more we know about the possible uses of humor, the more we can do with it. "Use" refers to both actual usage or the doing of humor, as well as the purposes of humor. The section on the analysis of humor dealt with actual usages. This section deals with the uses or practical applications to which humor may be put.

There are reasons and purposes one has in telling a joke. One may wish to be sociable, seem clever, make a critical point, enjoy the pleasant feelings humor provides, express something one could not otherwise express. In understanding humor it is necessary to know what actual assessments of the humor are made by those involved. We can then find out what the humor does. There are two levels of humor here. One is the level of the joke itself as told in the situation and to certain people with their individual beliefs and values. The second level involves what the joke teller is trying to do in telling the joke. We must know what kind of language-game is involved here.

The humorist may be: doing an exercise of creating humor; expressing a frustration; criticizing; relaxing; trying to become intimate, etc. We ask here the following questions about humor: Why did the person tell the joke?; What was the humorist trying to do in telling it?; What does the joke really say or express?; Does the joke show the teller's or listener's misconceptions or ignorance about something, a personality defect, frustration, prejudice, etc.?; What are the assessments of those who listen to the joke? What do their reactions and choices of types of humor tell about them?

The more understanding and the wider the range we have of humor, the more conscious we are of it, the better and more deliberately we will be able to use it for our purposes. Hopefully, these will be humanistic purposes. If so, our own humor will tend in such direction. By "humanistic" is meant: to cope better, solve problems, gain insight, enhance therapy, be holistically aesthetic, etc.

Koller (1988:18) has given the following uses of humor:

accept our mistakes

attack existing standards and values

avoid conflict

balance power

defense against attack

demonstrate familiarity


expression of hostility

get attention

keep the conversation going

move deep emotions

power tool of critical thinking

provoking thought

reduce anxieties

reduce hostility

reinforce or undermine stereotypes

relief from stress and strain

replace anger

secure group membership


show one's abilities

social bonding

social control

social correctness

sooth people


symbolize close ties

therapy or catharsis

turn negative emotions to positive ones.

uphold honesty over shame

B. Speech Acts as Use

E. Shirley (1975:114) argues that it is impossible to develop a satisfactory theory of meaning in terms of speech acts. We do not have space here to enter into this ongoing controversy. Searle (1969) states that to speak is to perform speech acts such as making statements, giving commands, asking questions, etc. These may be related to what Wittgenstein referred to as a "language-game." The speech act for Searle (1969, 1983) is supposedly what we intend. The sentence, rather than mere words, says things. We do things with the words. Searle (1969:37) himself creates humor by deviations: "Hooks made of steel hold fish, hooks made of butter do not." The mention of these theories is to show that there are various aspects of language which relate to use. John Dewey, in his instrumentalism, long ago regarded language as use, as a tool with which to accomplish certain tasks. The recent speech act theory is an extension, but it is unfortunately not useful due to its use of obscure, abstract terms.

Searle's theory is merely based on the work of John Austin whose language was also quite obscure and unnecessarily technical. Austin spoke of "verdictives, exercitives, commissives, behabitives," etc. Also, Searle (1969:15) uses the mystical dodge of "intuition" as an explanation: "This method places a heavy reliance on the intuitions." It is important, however, as these theorists do, to call attention to the context, purpose, and use to which language is put. Austin (1961) wrote that the truth of a statement depends on what act one is performing in what circumstance. In a critique of the speech act theory of Austin it was pointed out that "acts" and "intention" are too mentalistic. (Shibles 1973a) Searle also is a mentalist holding that beliefs and desires are mental states, and he speaks of the "intentionality of the mind." (1983:vii)

A way to clarify the almost mythical and mentalistic status of "speech act" is to consider it from the perspective given earlier in our discussion of language and emotion. That is, a speech act is self-talk and language-use, and there is a linguistic primacy of language. An ordinary language clarification of "speech act" language itself is needed which is more in line with Wittgenstein's (1968) original writing. The "intention" supposedly involved in speech acts may be analyzed in terms of self-talk.

C. Use of Humor as a Method of Inquiry: Rational Humor

Humor may serve as a method of critical, scientific, or philosophical inquiry. We showed earlier how humor may give us knowledge and insight. The notion of "mind" was explicated by means of humor (See also the discussion under "insight humor.") One value of humor is to call attention to ambiguities, faulty thinking, hypocrisy, blatant vice, etc.

Most types of humor, such as the following, are based on or provide insight: insight humor, satire, allegory, connotation, context deviation, contradiction, deviation from the familiar, expanded metaphor, free association, unexpected honesty, exposing hypocrisy, informal logical fallacies, juxtaposition, irony, taking literally, metaphor, misclassification, paradox, personification, reduce to absurdity, reversal, simile, substitution, value, and deviation. Many of these are techniques of gaining insight. By creating a model or metaphor, a hypothesis is created. By reducing an argument to absurdity, an argument is refuted. By juxtaposing, switching contexts and substituting one concept for another, new perspectives are disclosed. By juxtaposition of unlike things and provocative humor we are jolted out of narrow ways of thinking. Humor as a type of metaphor can do much that metaphor can do in constructing models and giving new perspectives. Humor and metaphor both explore the limits of language and so the limits of our reasoning. One could say that the limits of our humor are the limits of our understanding. Humor allows us to avoid taking our views too literally so as not to become captivated by them. It allows us to better describe phenomena by means of metaphor and analogy. It exposes falsity, contradictions, inconsistencies, hypocrisy, nonsense, illogic, defense mechanisms. It questions beliefs, values and prejudices. Humor has a critical function of questioning society, institutions, language, meanings, concepts, and even our own personality, actions and beliefs.

It is not surprising that humor is the philosopher's tool. By creating humor we create a world. It is a new emotional creation yielding a critique of reality as well as a new reality itself.

D. Use of Humor to Avoid Frustration

Humor may be used to express frustration, hostility, fears, or be used to react instead of acting intelligently. It may be used as a defense mechanism. Also, dysfunctional people may not be aware of how humorous they appear when they rationalize, overcompensate, etc.

The phrase "express frustration" is purposely chosen to avoid "release" of frustration. "Release" is misleading because it suggests that emotions are things, fluids, or mystical energy dammed up within us. Emotions are not released. Rather, the assessment part of our emotion is "expressed." We use humor to communicate. We use it to say something.

In a sense, dysfunctional humor is not humor at all. If one assesses-feels inferior or weak, that person may enjoy laughing at others so as to feel superior and strong. (See superiority theory of humor in the chapter on theories of humor. It seems unacceptable as a theory.) Of course, this is a strange kind of reasoning. If we are confident in ourselves, we do not need to prove it or show it off. Picking on smaller people will not show us that we are strong. It is not kind, understanding, or intelligent to laugh at anyone. It is cruel to laugh at a cripple or anyone else.

The dysfunctional people may use humor to insult or ridicule. But ridicule, or "laughing at," is not properly a type of humor. It involves not "That is a mistake and is O.K.," but rather "That is a mistake and is bad," plus the further assessment, "And I enjoy the fact that you are suffering." It is a type of practical joke involving the enjoyment of another's pain or discomfort. The enjoyment is due to one's own frustration and that person seems to feel better when others experience similar kinds of frustration. It may also be a type of revenge. Ridicule has a complex logic, but it may be thought of as dysfunctional behavior, not as humor. The laughter which accompanies ridicule is fiendish and hostile, not warm and pleasant. If the ridicule is pretended ridicule it may then become humor. In that case, however, it is no longer ridicule as such and no longer dysfunctional.

Several types of humor which may be especially based on hostility are as follows: (They may be malicious and based on frustrations, or they may be harmless.) mimicry; taboo humor, or "sick, or black humor"; humor which deviates from social values; other forms of deviation humor; humor which may easily be tactless, such as blatant honesty, blatant vice, value-laden terms (or obscenity humor) name-calling, blatant lie, obnoxious irony, and false blame; practical joke which involves laughing at someone's misfortune; self-deprecation, expressing a dislike of oneself; put-down humor; laughing at the ignorance of others; humor which tends to make one feel superior; outrageous humor as an act of defiance or revolt against rules or society; the conceit or farfetched humor; humor which expresses frustrations regarding death, ugliness, prejudices, etc.; the forms of defense mechanism humor.

Taboo humor, or value deviation humor involves the apparent contradiction of saying the unacceptable, or expressing a dislike in an acceptable way. We laugh at what we disapprove of because it is put in a humorous or approved-of way. We say something good about what is bad. Thus, humor might allow one to say the unacceptable things one would like to say. It's like saying them without saying them. Dysfunctional people may show too clearly their negative emotion, thereby causing the humor to become anger, a direct expression of hostility. Humor, however, cannot be taken as hostile and still be humorous.

E. Use of Humor as Escape or Avoidance

Humor lets us escape into a world of contradiction and paradox, an impractical, purposeless world, a world where all the rules are broken, a world where what appears true is false, and what appears false is true, where good is bad, and bad is good. There is sense in nonsense, and nonsense in sense. It is an accepted, happy world which we may escape into. We leave behind hardship, and an often too cruel reality. We escape from serious or fearful rationality to new and pleasurable sorts of rationality. We create a world of humor.

In an oppressive or uninformed political system, in a concentration camp, at the gallows, in prison, in war, in the face of death, among the average person who has 75% negative emotion, in hopeless situations, humor can give hope. It turns the nonaccepting, serious fears into an acceptance of or aesthetic insight into the inevitable. It allows us to experience the aesthetic pleasure of an absurd situation. Humor allows us to survive when all else fails. Anti-Reich and anti-Stalin humor was a criminal offense punishable by life of 10 years of prison labor, etc. People used humor anyway, but whispered it. (Flüsterwitze) Weiss Ferdl, a Munich comedian joked that prison camps are highly guarded, but just a word or two (i.e. of humor) and I can be in there. Concentration camp humor was a necessary weapon of resistance and survival. To give up humor was regarded as defeat. Even the oppressed children played such games as "Gas Chamber" and "Gestapo Agent." (Lipman 1991:13)

Humor is also used to allow us to escape from a difficult situation. This is not humor of the dysfunctional, but is the use of humor to elude. Learning about the various types of humor and mastering the ability to create them can save one's life. Suppose a woman with a loaded gun points it at you saying, "I am going to kill you." Suppose also that you have a loaded gun pointed at her. Would you shoot in self-defense? Nearly every group of people I asked said, "Yes." But then note: This is a showdown situation. If you shoot her, she shoots you and both die.

To shoot is not here an act of self-defense. Of course, we know, shoot so that your bullet enters her gun barrel, or better yet, after she shoots, shoot so that your bullet hits her's in mid-air. This creates "impossibility humor." What, then, can be done to escape from the situation? One answer may be to try to communicate and use humor. We can point out to the opponent, if time permits, that it would be suicidal for her to shoot because it is a showdown situation. Time may permit because if she really wanted to shoot you she would have done so with a telescopic rifle from across the street. But suppose she doesn't accept or understand that. In a situation which seems absolutely hopeless and where we think that we must shoot in self-defense, we find that we nevertheless have additional secret weapons, additional possibilities of escaping from the situation without anyone being harmed. The situation seems hopeless. Then, it is time for a more powerful weapon: humor. We may, in this situation, attempt to put the person in a less serious, less hostile mood, by saying the following: "But we have hardly met." "How about you and I going to dinner and talking this over?" "Ohhhh," (as you faint. Would someone usually shoot a fainted person?) You turn your gun to your own head and say, "No, wait. Let me do it." "But I haven't finished my homework yet." "What will happen to all of the thousands I have in the bank?" "That ought to teach me a lesson." Just what is said will depend on the knowledge of the situation and people involved. But it is possible, especially when all else fails, to use humor to escape from seemingly hopeless situations.

Humor can be used as a way of revolting, or as an act of rebellion. It is a way renouncing allegiance or subjugation. We may revolt against oppressive parents, society, values, prohibitions, church, rules, faulty theories, friends, etc. Humor expresses revolt in forms which are partly socially unacceptable and partly socially acceptable. It uses such types as value deviation, deviation from the traditional, deviation from rules, deviation from the usual, behavioral deviation, exaggeration, pretense, false reason, irony, satire, black humor, ridicule, outrageous humor, mimicry, exposing of hypocrisy, blatant lie, practical joke and blatant vice. An adolescent especially may have desires to escape from parents' and teachers' restrictions. With value deviation humor we escape from the norms of society. With humor we are able to acceptably say unacceptable things.

Humor may used as a distractive tool to avoid the issue at hand. It may be used to bring one out of depressions, a bad mood, a tense or embarrassing situation. It may be used to lessen the severity of blame, e.g. "I would have fed the cat, but it said it wasn't hungry"; "If you work, you make mistakes."

"Euphemism" is substitution of an agreeable word for a word we wish to avoid uttering, e.g. "borrowed" for "stole." On the negative side, it yields hypocrisy humor, and escape humor. We say "went away" instead of "died." Gulf war "success" instead of "slaughter" or "blood bath."

F. Humor Used to Bring About Change

Humor is a type of persuasion. It persuades because humor requires acceptance. What is joked about can be regarded more acceptably. A Volkswagen auto was advertised roughly in this way: "It goes forward. It goes backwards. It turns corners." This is "obvious humor," but it has a point as well. It says that the auto is simple, efficient, practical, economical, without unnecessary and impractical aspects. It does not have an air-conditioned glove compartment. Advertising uses humor to persuade.

Humor is used for the same purpose in speeches. A good metaphor or insight joke can put together a complex argument in a simple way. A defendant, after discussing for an hour how the plaintiff kept demanding more than he could pay, wrapped it up with, "She first milked the cow and now she's after the blood." The immorality of hunting may be rendered in terms of rhyme poetry humor: "thrill of the kill." "Hunters view animals as moving targets." "Rabbits have white tails to make them easier to shoot."

Another way of persuading is to seek approval. In order to gain approval of others and make friends, humor is a central tool. It establishes intimacy as well, and is a type of love. A lively, humorous person is attractive. Humor is a gift. We often do not want to "waste" humor on people we do not like, or perhaps whom we are afraid we might like if we joke with them.

Use humor not war. Suppose that in place of dropping bombs on the "enemy," we decided to use humor as an alternative solution. Could we not in most all cases be more effective in obtaining our objectives if we, instead of dropping bombs, dropped toys, or vegetables, or the message: "There are no just war arguments"? One card might read, "We decided not to use bombs. I hope this will do." Another might read, "War is just too much work," "How do you think we can end the war? Please reply." Would not it be better to explore all of the options and actions possible as the "just war" rules require, including humor, before dropping bombs? Certainly, it may be more effective than devastating results achieved by warfare. There were over a million people killed mainly by Americans in the recent, now deemed unnecessary, Gulf War. (McMahan & McKim 1993:501-541)

Certainly humor is essential when heads of state get together. The humor can carry an argument as well as put each diplomat at ease and promote acceptance. Diplomats should be masters of humor. There are good reasons to support the view that a central criterion for an executive, employee, spouse, nurse, soldier, etc., should be the possession of a developed ability to appreciate and use humor. For one reason, to be good at humor requires a knowledge of emotion without which no executive can be an enlightened manager. It does make sense to say, "We could not hire that person for the executive position-no sense of humor." A school teacher or university professor would function better, teach, and motivate students better with a proficiency in creating and using humor. Certainly a professor or teacher with no knowledge of theories of emotion can claim to be a good or enlightened professor or teacher. Given a person with all other desirable qualities, if one has no humor we may prefer not to marry such a person. Humor also has a central place in creating interesting texts.

Humor and satire have been used to attempt to change society and its institutions. By laughing-at others and ridicule (though not properly types of humor), members of a community are kept in conformity. No one wants to be ridiculed or laughed at and it is an abusive weapon. There should be rational communication and understanding instead of ridicule. Ridicule is nevertheless used alike by judges, university administrators, professors, doctors, students, etc. Satire and loaded humor have the use of criticizing faults. It is often used when there seems to be no direct or other way to communicate such criticism. In this capacity, it serves as an invaluable tool. Kind, loaded humor can be the most pleasant or sugarcoated way of offering constructive criticism. Satire and loaded humor are also types of persuasion.

In summary, some of the main uses of humor to bring about change are:

as a criterion of selecting a person for a job, choosing a spouse, etc.

as a way of humanistically managing personnel and people

for social cohesion in society

to aid in solving political differences

to bring about our desires and goals

to cope with difficult or hopeless situations such as war, death, etc.

to cope with oppression.

to create friendship and intimacy

to criticize institutions and bring about social change

to enhance motivation toward accomplishing tasks in any area

to enrich marriage

to help avoid, end, or prevent war

to help make business run smoother, and work more enjoyable

to motivate one to enjoy life and overcome negative moods such as depression

to motivate students

to persuade

to persuade in advertising

to present an argument effectively

Courses in humor should be a part of nearly every curriculum in liberal arts as well as in nursing, business (advertising, marketing, etc.), medicine, education, vocational training, counseling and other areas. One of the major uses of humor is as therapy. This is dealt with next.

G. Humor AS Therapy: Therapeutic Humor and Philosophical Practice

One extremely potent, yet apparently little recognized tool in psychotherapy is humor.

(Harry Olson in Strean 1994:195)

A sense of humor signifies emotional maturity. (Grotjahn 1957:81)

Those who laugh, last. (cf. L. Rosten 1994:271)

The following is a discussion of what I will call Humor Therapy. It involves being humorous to be more rational, and being crazy to be more sane.

1. Therapeutic Metaphor. The therapeutic use of humor is sometimes called gelatotherapy. Humor was seen to be bound up with metaphor. Following is a brief account of "therapeutic metaphor," as it relates to emotion. Metaphor may be used to avoid the literal, escape from narrow or oppressive categories, avoid taboo or unacceptable language, provide release (assessment catharsis), and give indirect ways of saying things. Euphemism is a type of metaphor. By means of metaphor one is able to distance oneself from an object, person, or situation. Language, especially metaphor, is found to play a significant role in the treatment of the so-called "emotionally disturbed" patient. Schizophrenics often display actions marked by linguistic and behavioral abnormality. They appear to take language literally, and that literal statement largely constitutes their emotion. Dr. W. Muncie (1937, MB:200) reported, "One patient wanted to be an airplane pilot in order to get the proper perspective on the world." Richard Johnson (1964 in MB:149) reported that a patient may think a revolving door is a grinding mouth, and thus refuse to go through it. Such patients also use metaphors when literal language is more appropriate. One reason we say patients are emotionally disturbed is because they speak a "word salad," that is, disconnected and highly metaphorical language. This fact has offered the psychiatrist a clue to classifying and treating such patients. David Pavy (1968 in MB:219) wrote, "Deviant verbal behavior is one of the principle diagnostic indices of the syndrome of schizophrenia."

Metaphor, then, may partly constitute emotion. It is one clue to what is meant by emotion and emotional disturbance. Caruth and Ekstein (1966 in MB:70) have expressed the view that metaphor may be used to establish communication with the schizophrenic patient, because it has the emotive distance needed. Metaphor does not reveal one's true assessments and feelings directly, because it is multimeaning and allows for greatly diverse interpretations. Thus the patient can use it as an escape or release from holding a too emotionally disturbing literal view of reality. The escape or release is the experience of using the metaphor. The model here is not one of a dam of energy of emotion and some of it steaming out. Metaphor is a use of language different than that of literal language, and emotion is to a large extent a use of metaphor. Metaphor does not just render or allow emotion in us to be expressed. The experience of the metaphor is the emotion. The two are one. Each rhetorical device is like an emotion and each emotion is like a rhetorical device. This is an attempt to formulate and elaborate on the Collingwood-Croce (1938; 1917) thesis that emotion is expression, that it is the same experience. We do not know what is behind what scenes here, what inner scenes; we let the metaphor stand out and be in the spotlight.

We watch it perform its magic. We may thus, in philosophical practice, examine patients' metaphors, and use metaphors to communicate with patients in an attempt to reestablish their emotional "balance." There is poetry therapy, and poetry is largely metaphor. Jack Leedy's book (1969) is entitled, Poetry Therapy: The Use of Poetry in the Treatment of Emotional Disorders. The model "emotional balance" may mislead here. It means "linguistic balance." The escape metaphor may be thought of in terms of Freud's defense mechanisms, e.g. "condensation." A "condensation" is at times regarded as two situations combined concisely into one on the basis of emotive likeness. This is also sometimes the very definition of a metaphor. It is a combining of two things or terms on the basis of subjective or "felt" similarity. Metaphor can provide the moving emotive experience itself. We often speak of the "tension" between the two terms of a metaphor. "Tension" is emotion. The metaphor renders emotion. Poetry is said to "move" (e + motion) the reader.

The gloss for "cognitive capacity," and "efforts to find oneself," is mainly the ability to clarify one's language to oneself, of which emotion is largely constituted. It is to clarify such expressions as, "I'll show you yet," "You can't do that to me," "What would they think of me?" and "What is it all about?" Therapy and philosophical practice also involves showing one that what one takes literally is really only metaphorical. William Godwin (1946) pointed out that positive emotions such as cheerfulness aid body health, and negative emotions such as melancholy destroy the body. Thus, clear thinking which informs the emotions helps prolong life. Burbridge (1978) sees humor as a tool to: open up patient to new assessments and feelings; open the patient to new choices and changes; allow one's defenses to be bypassed; disarm patient resistance, etc. (cf. Schimel 1978) Humor may serve as a therapeutic tool in the following ways: allow us to communicate with a person where other methods fail; draw the patient out of a depressed state; help patients to not take themselves so seriously; help the patient to experience pleasure and so a will to live, or to encourage when all one otherwise experiences is frustration; allow patients to communicate by humor when they will not use direct methods; as play therapy; to persuade or constructively alter patients' behavior by means of loaded, or insight humor, or satire; to help make life meaningful to the patient; to help the patient use humor to cope with problems and enhance enjoyment (Courses and instruction in humor would be beneficial in homes for the aged, hospitals, etc.); to create an aesthetic life; to help us learn to accept what cannot be changed; to learn how to make and keep friends, and enjoy interacting with them; to divert patients from problems; to allow nurses to adjust to and help patients; to cheer up the patient; to avoid boredom; humor reveals things about the patient's thinking and personality we may not otherwise know; humor reveals the various types of defense mechanisms (e.g. repression, wish fulfillment, etc.), and fallacies in reasoning.

2. Paradoxical Intention

This is called Logotherapy by Viktor Frankl (see bibl.). It involves doing the very thing one fears to do. (1969:102) If one is afraid to be in public, it is advised to attend a football game or take up acting. By not providing counterpressure the defenses are disarmed. One prescribes the symptom. It has been likened to Judo whereby one accepts the attackers thrust and instead of opposing it, amplifies it to disarm the attacker. (Seltzer 1986) He speaks of "outcrazying the patient." (Seltzer 1986:18) One need no longer defend ones phobia. (Frankl 1969:103, 105) Anticipatory anxiety as a self -defeating prophesy is thereby undermined. It may also involve exaggeration of the undesired trait. Lamb (1980), a logotherapist, defines paradoxical intention as the exaggeration of symptoms to the point of absurdity to induce laughter over their absurdity. If one is compulsive about washing one's hands one is asked to wash them even more often, so that hopefully the patient will see the absurdity of the burdensomeness of the task. The depressive may be told to set aside a certain time of day to be depressed. (Weeks & L'Abate 1982:148) The use of metaphor in therapy is combined with paradoxical intention by Lusterman (1994:170) who defines "metaphorical intention" as the use of case examples or parables which are humorous. Barker's (1985) entire article is on the use of metaphor in psychotherapy. Metaphor is used as the basis of humor therapy.

Dereflection involves promoting inhibiting what we do not want to inhibit. Paradoxical intention exposes self-contradiction. It is significant to note that humor is central to this technique: "Paradoxical intention should always be formulated in as humorous a manner as possible." (1969:108, cf. 1978:121, 1957:126-127) The detachment afforded also allows the distance needed to have control over one's situation and oneself. (1966, 17, 1969:108) It becomes a choice one can make. Another aspect of this is that one is thereby encouraged to laugh at oneself. (1969:109) Just to be told to do what one does not want to do can creates humorous attitude in the patient.

Frankl's logotherapy becomes a philosophy of life. One original paradigm for his work is that when faced with seemingly unbearable circumstances, such as he experienced in a concentration camp, can be overcome by the use of humor. Humor provides the acceptance needed after one has exhausted all other possibilities for hope. It also allows us to transcend the situation and give us a feeling of humanity and dignity. When faced with the worst we reframe our values and life to find what is genuinely important. For Frankl this is love. (1959:36) We remove not just the symptoms involved in a dysfunction, but change our world attitude and ourselves as well. For this reason, logotherapy is existential therapy. Humor allows us to transcend ourselves to a higher more humanistic self. We thereby find meaning for existence. (1978:122)

Paradoxical intention may be used with other therapies. (Haig 1988:145-155) Cognitive Therapy (Beck 1981) uses it, for example, to counteract depression, Natural High Therapy (O'Connell 1981) uses it to develop the paradoxes of life, Reality Therapy (Glasser and Zunin) and Stress Management (Olson & Roberts) approaches use such techniques, Family Therapy purposely gets the family members to act in paradoxical and atypical ways. Systems Theory involves interactional reframing and even encouraging family dysfunctions, e.g. giving them the task to be more overprotective. (Seltzer 1986:ch. 3) The advice may be given not to change their dysfunctional behavior. The "confusion technique" is to regard every thing the family says as a problem and even overload with new ones until the family eventually revolts because there are just too many problems and nothing to focus on. They then are forced to decide for themselves which is the real problem. Humor is used in Group Therapy, for example, to enhance group cohesion, promote expression, reframing, intimacy, and insight. (Haig 1983:158) The paradoxical intention of the Gestalt approach is to become what you are. (Weeks & L'Abate 1982) Paradox or double-bind may be stressed in some approaches and give such patient instructions as: "Feel free to feel secure to the extent that you are free to experience your insecurity." Communication Therapy use a confusion technique of humor: declare hopelessness, put in double bind, give paradoxical instructions, inhibit change, predicting a relapse, do the perverse, introduce a bigger unreality, purposely induce craziness and chaos. (Seltzer 1986:20) There is a sense in which an irrational humor method is used to deal with the irrational.

The Gestalt view of the use of paradox follows (cf. F. Perls; Seltzer 1986:72-83):

Before change can occur one must first get in touch with the present and be oneself, see the polarizations within oneself, and creatively balance oneself between the poles. We need to integrate the fragments of ourselves on the basis of the Gestaltist's perceptual, figure-ground, metaphor. We must first thereby be our complete self. Fear, for example, is recreated, imagined and immersed in. it is relived and then deconditioned. It may be suggested that humor be used to explore oneself by the examination of one's humor, the use of contradiction humor, self-deprecation humor, insight humor, etc. Humor also allows one to act naturally, creatively and spontaneously. Because humor requires acceptance the stress is on accepting self-integration rather than on less acceptable radical change. Like Gestalt therapy humor therapy involves experiencing, rather than just intellectually talking about what is wrong. Paradox is used to frustrate the client into taking the responsibility for integrating the self. The way out of a fixed mental trap is to paradoxically get more in it and purposely give up our self-domineering control. Where direct methods do not work, we may by indirection find direction out, as Shakespeare once noted. As with humor therapy, the initial paradox and confusion is turned into acceptable integration and resolution. The cure for negative emotion is to reintegrate it as positive emotion, as humor, for example.

Albert Ellis and other Rational-Emotive therapists (RET) use humor to shock, dispute irrational ideas, intervene, challenge and exaggerate wrongs. Fay (1978) develops a form of Rational-Emotive therapy stressing the use of humor. "In therapy sessions I...introduce humor at every opportunity." (62) Faulty and metaphysical questions are reduced to absurdity. To "I do not know who I am," one replies by writing the client's name on a piece of paper. The therapist may ask, "How many problems do you have, three, five, ten...? or " Do you have any non-serious problems?" To "I do not have an identity?" the reply may be, "Do you mean like a marker plate on your car?" or "Is that worse than losing your wallet?" or "Have you lost it?" Again the technique of paradoxical intention also called "negative practice") is used as indicated by the book title, Making Things Better by Making Them Worse. This is like the principle of immunization. "Implosion" involves bringing up horrific images of the very thing one is afraid of. Dr. Carl Whitaker used "Psychotherapy of the Absurd" whereby, for example, a kafkaesque mock trial is held for someone who feels guilty.

Therapist: "Your problem is that you are just not bad enough."

3. Provocative Therapy

The following is an account of Provocative Therapy. (cf. Höfner & Schachtner 1995) It can be a part of philosophical practice as well. Therapy must be active rather than passive, a mere parrot-like repetition of what a patient says. Therapy influences, and cannot not influence. To think one can be neutral is a fantasy (24). Therefore, the Provocative Therapy style is to actively influence the patient. This is done by means of the method of humorous provocations or challenges (Herausforderung) (27) Humor and contradiction are used to provoke one against one's own self-defeating behavior (27).

Thus, humor is used as a distinct therapeutic method. There is a logic to humor. Humor is an intellectual attitude [(Humor ist eine Geisteshaltung (52)]. The humor used by provocative humor therapy may be greatly expanded and clarified by means of becoming familiar with the types and analysis of humor in this Humor Reference Guide.

Farrelly & Brandsma (1974) developed the method called "Provocative Therapy." They had considered calling it Humor Therapy but rejected the idea. (31) As was stated at the beginning of this section, I have accepted the title "Humor Therapy" as a distinct method of doing therapy. Provocative Therapy has some similarities with Logotherapy, Rational-Emotive Therapy and Rogers' Client-Centered Therapy. In regard to humor it involves the use of humor in to provoke the client into certain kinds of behaviors. The client is presented with a challenge which forces him/her take the responsibility to change. (37) Its goals for the client are: affirmation of self worth and reassessing irrational ideas about oneself, realistic assertivenes, adaptive response, risk taking in personal relationships (e.g. "I want you."), and perspectival thinking. Humor provides the possibility for distancing, breaking old and set patterns of thinking, the juxtaposition of the real/unreal and metaphor/fantasy, questioning relationships, undermining the overserious, creation of play and its perspectives, non-rational and behavioral communication, and persuasion. There can be contradictory messages given, listing of disastrous outcomes, exaggeration, mimicry, irony, etc. (For humor is used to exaggerate maladaptive behavior and ones worst fears about oneself.) "If urged provocatively (humorously...) by the therapist to continue his self-defeating, deviant behaviors, the client will tend to engage in self- and other-enhancing behaviors." (52) Clients are encouraged to give the worst kinds of thinking of which they are capable. Thus provocative shares some of the techniques of paradoxical intention. The therapist uses humor and clowning (56), obvious lying, denial, rationalization, fabrication, zany thinking, siding with and encouraging the client's worst side (often so much so that it is reduced to absurdity), encouraging symptoms, expanding the doom and gloom of the client, metaphorically speaking "go for the jugular." (57)

But the therapist uses humor throughout only with positive regard for the client and also stresses the positive successes of the client. The therapist must be always basically kind, warm and caring. In fact, the spontaneity, honesty and natural response of the therapist is always indicated throughout whatever technique is used.

THERAPIST: Let me share your fantasies.

Provocative therapy involves many of the reasons and techniques mentioned below.

For an additional account of Provocative Therapy see Reversal Humor.

4. Reasons for Using Humor in Therapy

First some reasons for care in using humor and to establish the appropriate environment for the use of humor are. Some oppose the use of humor in therapy. Most all therapists hold that it is unscientific, and think the therapist should be serious. (cf. account of seriousness below also) Kubie (1995) thinks it is usually not appropriate, Parry (in Strean 1994:132) thinks that jokes are never appropriate in therapy. I. Paul (1978 in Haig 1988:125) agrees.

the perception that the therapist is not serious.

one's problems seem not to be taken seriously

it masks hostility

there may bitter banter in disguise of humor

different people will react differently to different types of humor

humor may just cover one's embarrassment

the humor may be inappropriate to the degree of suffering experienced

should not be used to hide denial, for seduction, to support one's egotism, to express the therapist's hostility, to abuse. (Haig 1988:174)

In the following analysis we must keep in mind that ridicule, aggression, mockery, being sardonic and sarcastic are negative evaluations and so not to be regarded as humor. The following reasons may be given for using humor in therapy. Humor:

absurdity exposed. Humor shows the absurd behavior of oneself and the absurd and contradictory aspects of life. (cf. black humor under section on value deviation humor)


adaptive mechanism

authenticity of therapist. Therapists should show themselves as full human, positive beings who enjoy life, rather than serving as a model of an unemotional, overserious, non-person. [Der Therapeut sagt, was er/sie denkt, und zeigt seine Gefühle. (Höfner & Schachtner 1995:40)] The therapist should act spontaneously in accord with what he or she thinks and feels (36).

authoritarian methods which tend to indoctrinate or intimidate are undermined.

burn-out prevention. Helps the therapist [or philosophical practitioner] prevent burn-out. With humor one's work is made more enjoyable.

captivation by a model or metaphor and literalism is challenged. Problems are often due to being captivated by one negative and narrow way of looking at things, taking things literally, thereby resulting in dysfunctional behavior. (Höfner & Schachtner 1995:55) It allows us to see, for example, the absurdity of blind, dogmatic, or unchallenged religious belief (54). Problems are multidimensional. There is no absolutely right way to solve complex problems. (Höfner & Schachtner 1995:59) The humor technique is in this sense said to be anarchistic (138). Haig (1988:173) wrote that humor can be used to overcome one's dogmatic beliefs.

captivation by the past is avoided. Anti-past determinism or excessive concentration on the past. Therapy rests not on past dreams and childhood or parental relationships, but on future challenges. (Höfner & Schachtner 1995:35) We cannot change the past. Our thinking does begin in childhood, but we need not therefore wallow in it, devote ourselves to looking for or imagining past harms, or think that they must determine our lives forever. With this backward sort of thinking we can come to the view that even breathing is infantile (47).

closeness of therapist and patient enhanced.

communication enhanced. Enhances and lightens conversation. The notion that people truly communicate or understand one another is a pipe dream. To use reversal humor we could even suggest that we never do or do so only quite imperfectly. In discussions the words are often hollow. A selfish person can hardly understand except from his or her own perspective. We put up defense mechanisms against communication. The words of others can only be understood in these terms. There is no true communication with the inculturated, religious or dogmatic person. In short, there are many language games we play in everyday discourse, many uses of language. People often automatically take the reverse position of whatever is said (Widerspruchs-Mechanismus (Höfner & Schachtner 1995:113), say things out of politeness though they do not believe it, see everything as negative, or constantly take the victim role as the antipatriarchal Women's Studies feminists have done. We hear only what we already know or only what we want to hear. In one case, a mother fainted from exhaustion due to strenuous work and family quarrels, but even at this crucial time the daughter could only speak of and concern herself with the bikini she wished to buy. In such cases there is no genuine communication. The Provocative Humor Therapy approach opens up the possibility for an additional sort of genuine communication. It promotes free association and unexpected ideas (unerwartete Behauptungen 101) toward the goal of problem-solving and reframing of one's thinking (105). It is often spontaneous so that neither speaker knows what will be said next (108). Purposive stupefaction (Verblüffung 111) is part of the process. Salameh (in Haig 1983:127) regards humor as a core technique of an effective therapist.

confidence. Promotes a sense of confidence.

coping. The psychologists, Devorkin & Efran (1967), found that humor significantly reduces reported feelings of anger and anxiety. J. Adams (1976:36) states, "Humor is an essential ingredient of healthy conceptualization." Dr. David Reuben states, "Humor is the most effective known antidote for anxiety and guilt." We know what mechanisms are involved here. Humor allows us to accept what is, what can not be changed, and to accept ourselves. It allows us to express ourselves.

Humor is an important tool in the area of nursing, medicine, and emergency work. Of special interest is the expansion of the recent literature on the use of humor as a distinct technique to utilize in nursing, and medicine, as well as therapy. Humor is employed to ameliorate physical pain, e.g. in dental work. Buxman & LeMoine (1994) discuss the importance of the use of humor in medicine. "Humor is a healthy therapeutic tool we must recognize, cultivate and use." (16) Basically it is used for: stress reduction, intimacy, conflict reduction, ease shock of bad news, coping, self-disclosure, allows us to say the unsayable, is a technique to use when all else fails, promotes reframing, gives us hope [Gilda Radner said, "I have a theory that cancer cells hate humor."), puts us in control of the situation, reduces boredom, has a ripple effect on morale ("What are you doing?" "Following a laugh around the hospital."), gives a positive association to the hospital instead of just negative associations of negative emotions and death, allows us to face a difficult situation without paralysis, neutralizes horror, gives self-encouragement, helps cope with rapid changes, provides job satisfaction, is a self-care strategy, helps with unpleasant jobs, decreases perceived intimidation, increases attention, stimulates creative and divergent thinking. It should only be used positively and that it may be misused should not detract from its beneficial use. Similarly, that medicine can be misused should not distract from its health giving effect. Buxman sees humor as a form of nursing. (208)

Recent literature in the area of social work has also appeared. Guttmann (1996) shows in detail the ways in which Frankl's logotherapy is like social work. Siporin (1984) wrote, "Humor helps us express affection, defiance, or hostility in nonaggressive ways. It deflates, unmasks, and frees us from unreal, pretentious and imprisoning beliefs or perceptions. It relieves anxiety, embarrassment, tension, and conflict, and also protects and helps us recover from pain, disaster or despair. Humorous expressions are ways to relax and fantasize; to entertain and be entertained; to be playful, regressive, and creative; to appreciate incongruity, absurdity, and paradox; and to bear with and reconcile ourselves to the contradictions and polarities of the good and bad. They illuminate, teach, confront, and socialize; they help us make insightful connections and learn new ideas and meanings in emotionally significant ways." (460) Van Wormer & Boes (1997) wrote of use and importance of humor in the emergency room and in therapeutic social work. They believe that gallows or dark humor also has place especially in intolerable crisis situations. (cf. Robinson 1991, du Pré 1998)

critical tool. Humor [like philosophical practice] questions every absolute truth. (Höfner & Schachtner 1995:149) (cf. satire and insight humor)

diagnostic tool. "When our patients enter therapy, their lack of humor or the humor they express can indicate their disturbance." (Farrelly & Brandsma 1974:100) Now we return full circle. We use humor not only as a therapeutic tool but to diagnose with it as well. T. Reich likened the analyst listening to a patient to a person listening to a joke. (in Haig 1983:128) What underlies dysfunctional humor is frustration, escape, and inability to communicate. What underlies rational humor is providing new ways to understand and communicate in order to serve therapy and solve practical, philosophic, scientific, and social problems. Rational humor also allows us to create positive adjustive and aesthetic emotions. Because assessments which go into humane humor are positive, it allows for richer humor, and more positive emotion. There is less negative or neurotic assessment to block the emotion. Each patient can be analyzed for the type of humor used and responded to. By means of this we can tell a great deal and in a subtle way. Haig (1988:169-173) believes that humor is a sign of therapeutic progress. But we may also suggest ways in which they may create humor and make it better and more adjustive. Humor is also used as a sign of therapeutic progress. Depressives may well, in general, be over-serious, incapable of enjoyment, and have little humor. Neurotiker verstehen keinen Spaß. Dr. Alois Lehnert [Neurotics do not understand fun.] Schizophrenics others described in the DSM manual of mental disorders may experience humor in unusual ways. Each disorder may be examined for the way in which humor is created and experienced. One needs to know whether or not to use any or a certain kind of humor for a particular person. It should be used carefully especially for a tough case and traumatized person. Humor technique may especially be used when all other techniques fail. (Bader 1993) There may be laughter which is excessive, forced, or convulsive. Such laughter does not constitute humor. There is also laughter caused by palsies, various syndromes such as Alzheimer's disease. Humor used as a defense mechanism may be adaptive or escapist or dysfunctional (delusional protection, etc). Autistic disorders may involve unprovoked giggling. There are socially aberrant smiles.

disrupt fixed habits

distance oneself from a painful event.

distancing to enhance aesthetic appreciation

distancing to lessen negative emotion. Humor allows us to distance ourselves, to stand back more safely from our captivating dysfunctional views.


enjoyment. José Ferrer stated, "Laughter shows that we are more important than our problems."


fear management

free association encouraged


goal evaluation. It allows us to form new more functional goals. Humor itself serves as an enjoyable activity and goal.

hope enhancer. Optimism and hope is thereby encouraged (Lefcourt 2001)

humor instruction. One can learn humor as one can learn typing. Unfortunately it is not taught in the schools, but rather suppressed. (Höfner & Schachtner 1995:55) The humor of any client can be improved by the therapist. In philosophical counseling, one may go to the practitioner just for the purpose of improving one's humor. There is also nonhumanistic or harmful humor which may need therapeutic correction by a philosophical practitioner. We do not usually think to improve or change our humor even though it is offensive or neurotic. Possibly no one goes to a philosophical practitioner to have one's humor corrected or improved. This is a mistake, because humor is one of the most significant aspects of life and our relationship with other people. It is a form of "mental hygiene" in preventing depression, needless worry, hatred, and frustration. Humor therapy in philosophical practice is an attempt not just to use humor to resolve emotional problems, but an attempt to eliminate dysfunctional humor and to make humor more rational and adjustive.

insight offered obtainable in no other way.

intervention tool for difficult situations and where other methods fail.

models itself. It is contagious and establishes a positive atmosphere.

negative emotions turned to positive ones. Humor helps eliminate and prevent negative emotions. It is important to educate ourselves in humor because it does not tolerate anger, hopelessness, and helplessness. (Höfner & Schachtner 1995:56) Smiles confuse frowns. Without humor we feel every bump in the road.

physical health. Cousins (1989:125, 220) argued that humor is physically healthful for us and even aids the immune system.

reframes one's dysfunctional behavior. (cf. Lefcourt 2001:121, and most provocative therapists and in paradoxical intention)

relativizes and compares one's problem with others , putting it in proper perspective. (Höfner & Schachtner 1995:28)

relaxes and calms the patient

releases or helps one express emotions (Haig 1988:169-173)

resistances lessened

safety. Provides a safe, accepting environment.

self-responsibility encouraged. Patients must eventually take responsibility for their future behavior. Humor lets the patient not be dependent on the therapist, because the therapist by the use of humor always puts things into question for the patient to evaluate, rather than imposing fixed authoritative models to follow. (Höfner & Schachtner 1995:51)

self-victimization undermined. In therapy, one often sees oneself as a victim, plays a victim role and has a victim mentality. (Opfermentalität, Opferrolle (Höfner & Schachtner 1995:43, 44) It is stated that whoever defines oneself onesidedly as a victim, opens themselves up for future disaster. (Gerade wer sich einseitig als Opfer definiert, stellt aktiv die Weichen für weitere Desaster.) (See feminist humor section regarding victimization.) If the conditions cannot be changed one may try to change one's attitude and humor is a way of doing that.

seriousness counteraction. Therapists have falsely thought that they must be dead-serious and they even measured success as getting the client to cry, scream, release anger, or produce similar negative emotions. They often think that humor is pathological. The contrary is the case. Seriousness is part of the problem and is a mismanagement of therapy. (Höfner & Schachtner 1995:48-49)


stress is reduced (cf. Lefcourt 2001)

trust provided mutually

value reversal. Gives the impression that things can't be too bad.

5. Additional Related Humor Techniques:

Patient to put captions under cartoons.

Recommend humorous rituals.

We may tell humorous stories with metaphorical meanings. (Gordon, Therapeutic Metaphors 1978:17. This is also a standard philosophical counseling method)

Evaluate our belief models to make sense of our experience (called "transderivational search by Gordon(1978)

Play a clown or fool.

Humorous Imagery Situation Technique Combines imagery technique with the use of humor. The feared situation is confronted with images instead of verbally and with humor. (cf. cartoons and perceptual humor) (Prerost in Strean 1994:142)

Humordrama. The heavy use of use of humor with psychodrama and role playing to develop optimism. (O'Connell in Corsini 1981:554-568)

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People show their characters in nothing more clearly than in what they think laughable. (Goethe)

A sense of humor is among the most coveted traits in a perspective mate. (du Pré 1998:25)


Humor tells a great amount about one's personality. In psychology, humor tests are used as tests for personality. (e.g. Cattell & Tollefson 1963/6) There are many reasons why people may favor telling or responding to one type of humor over another. They may wish to express their own frustrations, their points of view, or dysfunctions. They may merely have been exposed to certain types of humor more than other types. Often the more we know about something, the more closely we observe it, the more we are interested in it. After analyzing humor, one may favor types one did not favor before the analysis. Any attempt to determine personality based on preferences for humor would also have to include one's assessments about that kind of humor and why one favors it. We must know the intentions. They may laugh at a taboo joke as harmless fun or as a release of great frustration. A detailed examination of each type of humor, and each specific joke, is required in giving an analysis of personality characteristics. Of special interest is to see if one is consistent in one's humor (and humanity). The German word, gleichfreundlich, refers to being unwaveringly friendly. We need to also examine which kinds of humor one uses with which people. Some types of humor show personality traits more clearly than do others. Defense mechanisms show personality dysfunction. Deviation humor, escape humor, free association, and metaphor humor may show desire to escape from one's situation. Taboo humor and ridicule, mimicking, practical joke, value deviation and blatant vice may but need not show hostility.

Personality traits are shown through the context of humor. Frustration may be shown by jokes about mothers in law, the boss, teacher, sex, alcohol, one's spouse. Children often find humor in taboo bathroom topics, breaking rules, censored information. One's views often show through one's sense of humor and reveal how one thinks and feels. One may attempt to determine the kind of humor one uses by the following list:

For example,one person may be characterized as using the following amounts and types of humor:



Above bars represent the following types of humor.


Black Humor

Blatant Vice






Logical Fallacy






TYPE OF HUMOR (partial list)


anti-humor humor

black humor

blatant vice



context deviation

defeated expectation





expand metaphor

false blame

false reason

free association









literal metaphor

logical fallacy








practical joke



reduce to absurd













value deviation

wish fulfillment

other (specify)

Ah, you lion, you!





I think we create ourselves

as characters

and then live the characters

we create.

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