Freud was treading carefully to distinguish between jokes and their relation to the unconscious from the phenomena of laughter[1]. He described the latter, following his reading of Dugat, Spencer, and Lipps as variants of libidinal discharge and in some cases release from constraint (Bain). There is also the view of laughter as a form of relaxation or reduction of tension, which Dugat described as détente. As we can see each definition points, in one way or another, to the pleasure principle as a tendency that marks the most intimate juncture between the body and language.

For Lacan laughter was not a straight-forward matter either[2]. In his return to Freud, he started with a distinction between wit and the dimension of the comic on the one hand, and the phenomena of jouissance linked to laughter as an outburst and discharge. Lacan gave us a list of modalities of laughter without attempting to form a theory of it. Laughter can be a response to laughing and therefore a form of communication: I laugh to you and you laugh back just as in love that is always requited. There is a laughter in response to which one must not, dares not laugh, a laughter that spreads silence. There is a laughter of children who call for attention. And there is a laughter that responds to a sudden loss, to a bereavement. For Lacan laughter responds both to a sudden deficit as well as to the libido’s excess, to a minus and to a plus, whereby on each occasion our body is moved beyond the image but not without a relation to it.

In this sense, Lacan connects laughter to the mask watched by children, especially attending a circus, in a very precise way. But he also takes a jab at Bergson who says all there is to be said about laughter except for one thing, that it touches on the imitative doubling or a mask which belong to the imaginary register. What provokes laughter in children is the moment when the mask is removed. What stops them to laugh is when underneath the mask appears another mask. To put it differently, nothing terrifies us more than when the mask cannot be removed. It is the dimension that dominates the film Joker. The master of horror, King, knows well that clown is the scariest of beings which we discover in nightmares at the heart of analytic experience. Just as well Rilke knew that angel is a beauty that veils the horror of being.

Arthur Fleck is no ordinary clown. He earns money by painting his face, wearing funny clothes and trying to make people laugh. He is not successful at that and soon becomes jobless. He shows the feature of terrifying ambiguity of the clown: the absolute identity between the mask and the face underneath it. The mask does not separate him from the face but constantly reminds us they are one and the same. How are we to read his own laughter if not as a mask that cannot be removed and testifies to the real body of a man who cannot stop laughing? Let’s propose a hypothesis that to laugh and not to laugh at anything in particular bears insignia of interpretation. Taken to its radical end from the Lacanian perspective, laughter is a corporeal event. It’s a unary outburst or “collapse of tension”, to use Lacan’s expression, that emerges in the iterative way at the moment when some disturbance or other at the level of the fundamental junction of the body and language, ergo, of lalangue, resonates. The laughter not only resonates, it also interprets. And since it interprets it calls for interpretation, which evokes a familiar logic of Miller’s text.

When at his favourite comedy show Arthur Fleck bursts out with laughter, he is caught out by the host who asks him what makes him laugh. He stands up, flounders a bit, and confesses to being a good son who looks after his ailing mother well. His laughter brings on silence and in effect earns him an invitation to the next show. As it happens Fleck accepts it and asks the host, played by De Niro, who we remember as King of Comedy, and who does make the audience laugh by cracking jokes, if he could call him Joker. Why not? It’s a name, a stage name among performers. It will give Fleck his moment of escabeau, of elevation and of a future to look forward to in the world made of real identifications like the one with the comedian host. This imitative investment echoes for us Aimeé whose case Lacan studied in his thesis to show how a murderous act can be entangled with identifications with public, artistic figures of fame and glamour she mingled with. For Fleck, it’s Joker’s first moment of triumph, his moment of escabeau. Only when comfortably seated in front of the audience, he feels at ease to confess about the murders he recently committed. “And do you find it funny?” When asked to share a joke, Joker pulls out a notebook containing a collection of jokes jotted down during his visits to comedy stand-up gigs. He does not tell jokes but reads them, which has to be recognised as a link to the letter and to the dimension of writing.

When Charlie Chaplin makes us laugh, tripping, slipping, falling, it is because we find in those acts the faulty version of ourselves and of our body that through deflation of the image bobs about in the unexpected and unpredicted way. The slapstick would reflect well the discourse of the politicians today, although it’s not certain it would be as funny as Chaplin in Modern Times. Lacan places the funny acts at the level of the imaginary because it is the image that lands flat on the banana skin even if it can be painful. The real does not stop us laugh because it does not stop being written. Is this the case with Joker whose outbursts of laughter are not at all funny? In fact, it is perhaps the only film about laughter that is not funny.

In Joker then the unconscious laughs not according to the vicissitudes of the signifier but as an outburst, a series of corporeal pulsations that follow the pleasure principle. These unary spasms bypass, if I can put it this way, the signifying circuit where comedy is king. That’s why laughter, the phenomena of laughter as expressive of corporeal agitation, belongs to the real unconscious. But this does not prevent the explosion of laughter, whether loud or whispered, from having an effect of interpretation because the social reactions testify to the fundamental ambiguity at the level of outside sense and make people question Joker’s laughter: “What’s so funny?” The supposition of laughter as being a response to something, some das Ding, funny being said, gives interpretation psychoanalytic value. The connection belongs, as Freud reiterates in his book on jokes, initially to the unconscious Jacques-Alain Miller called transferential. Does the analyst’s smile give rise to the supposition of knowing the answer to the analysand’s misery and to what in the latter’s existence is in the end laughable? At least this was the experience of Alejandro Reinoso who testified to having felt disturbed by the analyst’s “senseless smile” as he found nothing funny “in the jouissance that afflicted” him. This lasted until the moment when his articulations made him burst out with laughter that made his body vibrate[3].

Such a supposition, such a subject supposed to laugh, keeps the subject asleep in his speech and only serves to occlude the corporeal event of the body as vibrating. Joker gives us legion clues that the unconscious we are dealing with here is, to follow Miller’s reading of Lacan latest teaching, the real one. Joker’s laughter is a testimony to the bare body, followed by the camera’s gaze at its contorted, twisted, tangled dimension that already testifies to the trauma of abuse and torment that is attributed to his mother. What Lacan will subsequently draw our attention to in Seminar V, I referred to earlier, is that laughter captures the anguished horror of a prospective victim who laughs when subjected to a threat beyond the expected. Lacan speaks at that moment of despair[4]. But in his later teaching the despair will be revealed as a perplexity of the speaking body, a body event that iterates the traumatic mark. We are no longer in the register of the “constraints of the image” that allow for the image to “wander off on its own” that makes the comic. We are in the dimension of the body that wanders off by way of pulsation of jouissance that has no relation with the Other.

Laughter has been used as an interpretation and it’s surprising how seldom we mention it as an unconscious formation. The analyst, the one who lets himself be duped by the real unconscious, lets interpretation take place in this way. The laughter, in its most Fleckesque, ambiguous dimension, brought to the zenith in the film by a dark, eerie, atonal, meandering music, says nothing. Its function is to cut, to make the senseless resonate, to leave room for a void as it itself is a void. In this way laughter and its variants belong to the asemantic interpretation. It supports ambiguity in a different way than equivocation that shifts and displaces meaning. Is Joker’s laughter the ultimate, and most economical, form of irony? Or is it above all a form of cynicism that Freud likened to jokes about the other sex and marriage, because they reveal a form of surrender and resignation at the ubiquity of jouissance that lies at the heart of the cynic? For Joker this ubiquity takes on a form of ubiquity of laughter that his psychiatrist called a “medical condition”. It is his printed “pass” that he shows around, excusing himself from annoying those who refuse to interpret. We could say that the mask that masks nothing, that cannot be removed and placed outside the body, is Fleck’s sinthome. It allows him to carry around his book of jokes to engage in acts of vociferated reading in accordance with the logic of signifiantisation of the letter, from the letter to the signifier. In the end the name Joker is on every rebel’s lips and brings him to life as their leader.

We are witnessing a truly Lacanian moment of the corporeal event that gives rise to interpretation. There is plenty of room for laughter in the Lacanian clinic, for a “senseless smile”, a grin, a chuckle, a giggle. It’s a matter of execution although its most extreme example, it must be said, of the limitless laughter belongs to the domain of the cinema. There is jouissance in speech that resonates as a jouissance of laughter, disconnected, solitary, indivisible and unshareable. If the rim of the hole in the body – the hole without which there is no laughter and no speech – comes to be animated by the primary process of which the pleasure principle is the propeller and the carrier, the One is enmeshed to the letter in lalangue. In the end of analysis there no symbolic solution to the trickling and to the wandering of writing of jouissance which respectively define two moments in Lacan’s teaching, that of the symptom and that of the sinthome. Either way, it does not cease to drip, to flow, to erode and to inscribe, which is a direction analysis takes, and which at some point interferes as that which does not cease to laugh. In the end, let’s say that the laughing unconscious is a modality, a détente of the real unconscious that does not make sense, does not take us in the direction of truth. Its tone touches on the traumatic mark that makes the corporeal event vibrate which remains without ties to the Other. I can think of this disconnection as a failed conversation the masochist and the sadist once had: “Hurt me, said the masochist. No, replied the sadist”.


[1] S. Freud, Jokes and their relation to the unconscious, SE Vol 5, trans. J. Strachey, pp 147-149.

[2] J. Lacan, Formations of the unconscious, Seminar V, Ed. J.-A. Miller, trans. R. Grigg, Polity, 2017, p. 117.

[3] A. Reinoso, A poetic awakening to laughter, trans. C. Vingoli, in

[4] J. Lacan, ibid., p. 119.