The Deeper Meaning of a Joke

or Why Laughter is Therapeutic

It’s been said that when truth comes down from the mountain and enters the marketplace, it often wears a mask. Some say that it’s out of modesty, but it’s really to protect people from its delusion-destroying power. After all, no one can gaze directly at the truth and survive.

The truth often wears the antic mask of a clown, trickster, or joke-telling comedian. It’s an ingenious disguise, for few suspect that even the silliest of jokes can plumb the depths of human existence and offer precious gems of insight.

When we laugh, it’s because we intuit such profundities, but cannot consciously articulate what we are perceiving. It’s just as well, for if we really saw to the depths of the cosmic belly laugh, such powerful insights would cause us to plotz. Actually, we sometimes do explode from laughter, but we invariably manage to reconstitute ourselves, like a science fiction super-villain whose pieces strangely reunite, after he has been blown to smithereens.

The joke that follows is a case in point of wisdom arising, like a divine afflatus, from the deepest bowels of human existence. So as not to have this preface become too “long winded,” we shall proceed directly to the joke:

The Dr. Epstein Joke
Dr. Epstein was a renowned physician who earned his undergraduate, graduate, and medical degrees in his home town and then left for Manhattan, where he quickly rose to the top of his field.

 Soon he was invited to deliver a significant paper, at a conference, coincidentally held in his home town. He walked on stage and placed his papers on the lectern, but they slid off onto the floor. As he bent over to retrieve them, at precisely the wrong instant, he inadvertently farted.

The microphone amplified his mistake resoundingly through the room and reverberated it down the hall! He was quite embarrassed but somehow regained his composure just enough to deliver his paper. He ignored the resounding applause and raced out the stage door, never to be seen in his home town again.

Decades later, when his elderly mother was ill, he returned to visit her. He reserved a hotel room under the name of Levy and arrived under cover of darkness.

 The desk clerk asked him, “Is this your first visit to our city, Mr. Levy?”

 Dr. Epstein replied, “Well, young man, no, it isn’t. I grew up here and 
received my education here, but then I moved away.”

 Why haven’t you visited?” asked the desk clerk.

 Actually, I did visit once, many years ago, but an embarrassing thing 
happened and since then I’ve been too ashamed to return.”

The clerk consoled him. “Sir, while I don’t have your life experience, one thing I have learned is that often what seems embarrassing to me isn’t even remembered by others. I bet that’s true of your incident too.”

 Dr. Epstein replied, ” I doubt that’s the case with my incident.”

“Was it a long time ago?”

“Yes, son, many years.”

The clerk asked, “Was it before or after the Epstein Fart?”

(A friend of mine e-mailed me the joke. I’d like to attribute it to somebody, but cannot determine the identity of its author. That is usually the case with jokes.)

Life’s Incongruities
What can we make of the Dr. Epstein’s fart? It’s been observed that humor derives from the perception of incongruity. For example, comedy teams often have motley pairs of clowns, such as Laurel and Hardy, Lucy and Desi, Felix and Oscar (the Odd Couple), and the cast of Seinfeld. We intuit, from such incongruous couplings, that any attempt to bring the world together into a harmonious unity is utterly hopeless. Rather than leading to despair, the perception of such hopelessness comes as a great relief.

Comic incongruity takes many other forms. For example, Henny Youngman said “I miss my wives cooking… as frequently as possible.” That line is funny because Youngman has shifted from feeling of tender affection to the often dyspeptic realities of marriage. The two sides of marriage create an incongruous picture. Another example is a short essay, by Woody Allen, called “If the Impressionists Had Been Dentists.” The image of the painters Van Gogh and Gauguin drilling teeth is quite incongruous. The perception that life contains elements, as disparate as impressionists and dentists, foils our efforts to bring the world together into any sort of intelligible unity. When we realize this, we let go and laugh. In any case, there is not a single joke or comic situation that is not founded on an incongruity.

Anatomy of a Joke
The Dr. Epstein joke points to a fundamental incongruity lying at the core of the human condition. On the one hand, we are beings who can reason, create great works of literature, art, music and philosophy. We are capable of selfless acts of heroism and can dedicate our lives to serving a high ideal. We are capable of communing with the divine, of ascending to great spiritual heights.

But, on the other hand, we are fleshly beings. We eat, sleep and defecate. Furthermore, even the best of us has his faults and foibles. One of the profoundest sources of our limits is in the area of knowledge. Even the most intelligent people are involved, as we all are, in that game of blind-man’s bluff we call life. Indeed, our finitude manifests itself in 1001 ways, not least of which is our mortality. If all that wasn’t sufficient to instill in us a modicum of humility, the Dr. Epstein joke reminds us that we might — at the most inauspicious moment — break wind. As Blaise Pascal felicitously stated it:

“What a chimera man really is! What an extraordinary monster, what a chaos, what a contradictory thing, what a marvelous oddity! Judge of all things. Helpless earth-worm; protector of truth, cesspool of ignorance and error: glory and scum of the universe. Who will untangle this knot?”
(Pensees. (1999). New York: Oxford University Press.)

The unfortunate Dr. Epstein embodies this incongruity. We learn from the joke that he is not just any physician, he is a renowned physician. In that sense, he is a person of importance, one whom people respect and admire. No doubt, he has valiantly devoted his life to fighting disease and coming to the aid of the infirm. Ah, but to the mind of the comedian, that is only half the picture. Something essential has been left out. Our gaze must descend to this renowned individual’s feet of clay. Dr. Epstein might have slipped on a banana peel, got a pie in the face or suffered some other indignity, as is the custom in comedy. Instead, it was an accidental fart that reminds us of the other dimension of his being.

Whether we realize it or not, in laughing at Dr. Epstein, we are really laughing at ourselves. The joke resonates with an essential truth: each of us is, like Dr. Epstein, an incongruous being. For to be human is to be incongruous. We are neither god nor animal, but an mélange of both! That is, as Pascal pointed out, the odd thing about us.

Suffering from inner-conflict, we spend our days seeking to reconcile disparate interests. For example, secular ambitions and spiritual longings might be competing for our attention. Or we struggle to reconcile our desire for security with our lust for adventure. We might feel lonely and seek the company of other people, but also seek to free of them. We seek balances of all sorts, but such balances are fragile, for they are founded upon irresolvable contradictions.

The moment that proceeds laughter is when we perceive the hopelessness of resolving the many incongruities that constitute our life. Rather than despairing, we feel liberated, for there is a great relief in realizing that a puzzle cannot be solved and thus abandoning a futile effort.

The Fruits of Youthful Dreams
The Dr. Epstein joke reveals yet another incongruity. Kierkegaard, writing ironically about how adulthood realizes the dreams of youth, pointed out that in Jonathan Swift’ youth he idealistically dreamed of building an asylum to care for the insane. He got to have it built. But, going mad himself, Swift became an inhabitant of that very asylum. The Epstein joke reveals another dark irony involving aspirations. We can imagine Dr. Epstein as a young man, setting off for college, hoping that one day he would become his hometown’s favorite son. Instead, he has become eternally memorialized, not for his medical achievements, but for his fart.

Dr. Epstein’s unhappy fate symbolizes the contradiction at the heart of all human striving: we wish to gain the world’s acclaim, but, as the poem by John Burns states, “the best laid plans, of mice and men, often go astray.” The joke also suggests that the world is inhabited by idiots, indifferent to true achievement. Indeed, the world is resentful of excellence and seeks to embarrass anyone accomplishing anything of merit. Dr. Epstein’s fate expresses the galling incongruity here between youthful dreams and adult realities.

We laugh because we, too, wish to become a success and are anxious about whether or not our efforts will bear fruit. Worldly success is predicated, though, on the opinions of other people. Alas, their opinions are often foolish and always fickle. We laugh at the hapless Dr. Epstein for we intuit the ultimate hollowness of fame. We are really laughing at ourselves, in that regard. At such moments of lucidity, we are liberated from the tiring effort to have people think well of us.

Why, then, Do We Laugh?
The despairing existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre, said that to be a human being is to be involved with a futile project. We are, after all, finite beings longing to be infinite, mortal being longing to be gods. Contradictions of this sort are not resolvable. It would seem, then, that we are doomed to a life of frustrated aspirations and misery. It all seems rather tragic. How is it, then, that we able to laugh our plight?

The moment that proceeds laughter is a moment of clarity. We realize that what we are fundamentally attempting to do in life is contradictory and, therefore, impossible to achieve. When we perceive that impossibility — and we attain the necessary emotional distance, that is a sine qua non for the emergence of laughter — rather than despairing, we are suddenly released from our incessant efforts to “get it together,” to make our life work. It is for this reason that the German philosopher of laugher, Helmuth Plessner, said that the formula for comedy should be “Situation hopeless, but not serious.” The moment of release from the exhausting effort to get it together expresses itself as laughter.

A Farewell to Seriousness
It’s often been said that laughter is healing. But is it really? After all, consider the phrases that are used to describe the effects of getting the joke. We say that a person exploded with laughter, or split his sides, or we say to the comedian “stop, you’re killing me!” All this sounds rather destructive.

But laughter is healing not in the restorative sense, but in the transformative sense. The insight that precipitates the joke explodes our efforts at synthesizing the disparate elements of our life. Thus, instead of getting it together, we become released from the exhausting demand to get it together. I.E., we become released from the oppressive burden of life’s seriousness. In that sense, laugher is an intimation of mystical release.

And so, in conclusion, Viva Dr. Epstein! May all who hear the sound of his divine afflatus attain joyous enlightenment!