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Sympathetic Pain

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Sympathetic Pain Humor


Sympathetic Pain Humor: Humor which laughs with someone who has been discomfited, inconvenienced, embarrassed, or pained through no fault of that person. We laugh with the “victim” because we have been in similar situations or can imagine such.  We “know how you feel!”

Sympathetic Pain humor is inclusive. Some jokes, for example, Gotchas, exact a sort of poetic justice on the victim who in over-confidence did something stupid. Such humor  creates a distance between us and  the “butt” and allows us to assume a bit of superiority. But Sympathetic Pain humor extends a mercy of inclusiveness:  we are all in this life together.  We’ve all had something like that happen to us. We’ve all felt kicked around by life for no fault of ours.

Empirical studies show that Sympathetic Pain is particularly popular with older folks--folks who are forever losing their car keys, forgetting where they parked the car, or having difficulty getting up out of the sofa, especially if the laughers, or as Freud called them the “authenticating audience,” are also seniors. Laughter creates a bond of inclusiveness ("Preliminary Nursing Home Humor Preferences").

Sympathetic Pain humor became especially relevant among many generations during the early weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown. Don and Aileen Nilsen, co-founders of the International Society for Humor Studies, provided a great deal of sympathetic pain lockdown relief with these jokes:

Half of us are going to come out of this quarantine as amazing cooks. The other half will come out with a drinking problem.

I need to practice social-distancing from the refrigerator.

Still haven't decided where to go for Easter --The Living Room or The Bedroom.

PSA: every few days try your jeans on just to make sure they fit. Pajamas will have you believe all is well in the kingdom.

Homeschooling is going well. 2 students suspended for fighting and 1 teacher fired for drinking on the job.

This morning I saw a neighbor talking to her cat. It was obvious she thought her cat understood her. I came into my house, told my dog..... we laughed a lot.

So, after this quarantine.....will the producers of My 600 Pound Life just find me or do I find them?

I'm so excited --- it's time to take out the garbage. What should I wear?

Most of these jokes have something else working in them—Word Play or Incongruity or a little bit of lunacy.  But they all have a sympathetic pain undercurrent. They all say, “That’s OK, I know exactly how you feel!”

Sympathetic pain humor is also common among work groups.  The secretaries who put up signs saying, “You want it WHEN?” are inviting sympathetic laughter among themselves and from others, if they will.

While humor and comedy theory often short shrift Sympathetic Pain--Freud had no place for it, nor did literary critic George Meredith--Sympathetic Pain humor is very common in modern American film comedy. Steve Martin is a master of Sympathetic Pain humor (see "Father of the Bride: A Long Line of Over-reactors"). My Big Fat Greek Wedding swells with Sympathetic humor ("My Big Fat Greek Wedding:  We're All Fruit"). Even The Blues Brothers invokes a growing sympathetic pain response ("The Blues Brothers: On a Mission from God").

But we also find Sympathetic Pain humor at least as far back as in Shakespeare.  We have to laugh with all the characters in Comedy of Errors (save perhaps Dr. Pinch) who are constantly running (in the case of the Dromios—literally the “race-tracks”) into inexplicable trouble. ("Comedy of Errors:  Comedy or Farce?") And for all the barbs slung between Beatrice and Benedict, our humor reactions are rarely in glee over a well-placed verbal dart and much more in sympathy with two people who are deeply attracted to each other yet addicted to contention  ("Much Ado About Nothing:  Sombre Comedy.")


See Also:  Word Play          Incongruity       Gotcha