Joke Form and Social Structure in Screwball

Mary Douglas identifies the formula of the joke, which has a heavy influence from Freud’s definition, as reliant on two elements: the act of control and the controlled. The juxtaposition of these two elements is what allows for the “attack on control” to upset the balance of power between the elements and for the controlled to be victorious effectively freeing us from form. (Douglas, 95) Equally something that is innately with out control acting in a controlled manner is found funny. This is the root of screwball comedy and how it works as comedy, it follows the pattern of a joke. On both a macro and micro scale.

Screwball’s macro joke is that of a dominant female lead who puts the male lead’s masculinity in question. In Bringing up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938, USA) even Cary Grant’s star image, a leading man of Hollywood, to a nerdy scientist is an intentional contrast with his star image that is innately comical. Hence screwball is a form of comedy that engages the social structure, which according to Douglas calls for an explicitly delivered joke that allows added enjoyment from the “congruence of the joke structure with the social structure.” (Douglas, 96)

In the final scene, which is linked below, David saves Susan from falling down with the dinosaur skeleton. This action is a transfer of the formal patterns, effectively reinstating the balance of the social structure. While the audience has enjoyed the freedom of their unconsciousness, made possibly by the joke, yet order must be reinstated. Bringing up Baby is then concluded with David’s acceptance of Susan’s chaotic and nonsensical nature. Their entire relationship is mimetic of the joke form, Susan represents the controlled and David represents the act of control. The comedy of screwball is its use of the joke form as a reversal of social structure.


Mary Douglas, “Jokes,” Implicit Meanings (New York: Routledge, 1975), 90-114.


  1. I really enjoyed how you identified the macro and micro levels of joke domination as seen in Screwball comedy. I thought the initial breakdown of the juxtaposition of how we receive a joke was well thought out, and then seamlessly shown in the example you chose of “Bringing Up Baby.” I thought perhaps you could add a little more scene description with the example, but overall an incredibly informative and fresh analysis of this topic.

  2. Your analysis of how screwball comedy interacts with social structure is complex and well explained. I agree with your discussion on gender roles in ‘Bringing Up Baby’. I liked your concluding statement. Screwball as a reversal of social structure shows that comedy is, at least in part, an “attack on control” as Douglas says.

Leave a Reply