Freud loves One-Liners (Harriet Pollard)


Upon reading Freud’s chapter The Technique of Jokes [1] I was reminded of a particular style of comedy. I found that many of the example jokes he provided, with their focus on wordplay and double meaning, could be considered one-liners. The clip I have chosen is from a stand-up routine by the comedian Stewart Francis, who specialises in this style of joke telling.

In the text, one of the first ideas Freud examines is a statement by theorists Heymans and Lipps, who propose that the humour in a joke comes from “bewilderment and illumination”[2]. I would argue that one-liners, and Francis’ style of one-liners in particular, rely on this technique for their comic effect. The first half of each of his jokes is the “bewilderment” – the opening statement is unpredictable, often nonsensical, and the audience can only anticipate the twist. The second half provides the “illumination,” when he reveals the wordplay or double meaning, and the nonsense of the initial statement is justified. Freud provides his own take on this. He says, “the technique of nonsensical jokes consists in presenting something that is stupid and nonsensical, the sense of which lies in the revelation and demonstration of something else that is stupid and nonsensical”[3]. Francis’ jokes illustrate this concept perfectly.

Whereas a lot of modern standup is done in the style of humorous anecdotes or relatable observations, Francis’ stories are clearly fictional – a vehicle for a particular joke. However, this does not detract from the humour. Just as Freud discusses, it is not simply the content of the statements that is funny, as the humour comes from the form and the careful verbal construction of the joke. I would argue there is a sense of satisfaction that comes from hearing a well-crafted piece of wordplay that only adds to the overall enjoyment of the joke.


[1] Sigmund Freud, “The Technique of Jokes”, from Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (London: Vintage/Hogarth, 2001).

[2] Ibid. p. 7.

[3] Ibid. p. 41.

One comment

  1. Great break down of Francis’ jokes into Freud’s analysis of “bewilderment” and “illumination”. I think part of the reason that Freud often refers to one-liners is because they are easily identified as a joke. The “bewilderment” of the set up to the satisfying punch line of the “illumination’. Francis’ jokes highlight the verbal power of one-liners.

Leave a Reply