Only a Joke Can Save Us presents an innovative and comprehensive theory of comedy. Using a wealth of examples from high and popular culture and with careful attention to the treatment of humor in philosophy, Todd McGowan locates the universal source of comedy in the interplay of the opposing concepts lack and excess.
After reviewing the treatment of comedy in the work of philosophers as varied as Aristotle, G. W. F. Hegel, Sigmund Freud, Henri Bergson, and Alenka Zupancic, McGowan, working in a psychoanalytic framework, demonstrates that comedy results from the deployment of lack and excess, whether in contrast, juxtaposition, or interplay.
Illustrating the power and flexibility of this framework with analyses of films ranging from Buster Keaton and Marx Brothers classics to Dr. Strangelove and Groundhog Day, McGowan shows how humor can reveal gaps in being and gaps in social order. Scholarly yet lively and readable, Only a Joke Can Save Us is a groundbreaking examination of the enigmatic yet endlessly fascinating experience of humor and comedy.
Introduction: The Similar and the Dissimilar 1
1. Lack and Excess 28
2. Theory and Opposition 78
3. Tragedy and Pathos 106
4. Philosophy and the Finite 139
5. Signification and Desire 179
6. Distance and Proximity 206
7. Outside and Inside 233
8. Politics and Comedy 263
Conclusion: Speculation and Levity 292
"Only a Joke Can Save Us offers a master class in psychoanalysis masquerading as a master class in comedy. McGowan’s theory yields powerful, persuasive, original insights into examples as varied as classic cinema, Jewish jokes, Kierkegaard, and Shakespeare. This master class will be thoroughly enjoyed by philosophers, cultural critics, affect theorists, and psychoanalytic thinkers alike." —Anna Kornbluh, author of Realizing Capital: Financial and Psychic Economies in Victorian Realist Form
"Comedy is a complicated subject and, to McGowan's credit, this book is relatively short on jargon and rich in instructive examples, which makes it refreshingly accessible for those not deeply versed in the works of Freud or Lacan... the book makes an interesting contribution to the discussion, one that is certainly worthwhile for a first foray into Continental-style, theoretical work on comedy. Recommended." —CHOICE