Josh Lieb On Comedy

Question: Are people fundamentally funny?

Josh Lieb: You know religiously I wanna believe people are fundamentally good. Yeah I think people . . . (a) I think people are fundamentally good; and (b) I think people are fundamentally humorous. And . . . and people fundamentally want to laugh. And you know if someone is not laughing, that’s the exception. That’s perversion, because I think you can’t be turned from someone who likes to laugh to someone who doesn’t; but I think it’s almost impossible to go the other way. I don’t think . . . No one’s ever met a humorless person who became a funny one.

Question: Can humor be learned?

Josh Lieb: No. It . . . it . . . You can learn the forms or whatever, and maybe you could even learn the form so well that you can fool most people. But you wouldn’t be able to fool the genuinely funny people.

Question: Can women be funny?

Josh Lieb: Of course.

Question: Why do people value humor?

Josh Lieb: Boredom, you know? And I think also just the . . . There’s such intense psychic pain just being alive, and all this stuff going on around you and on top of you. And it’s suffocating. You know humor is a release. It is joyful, you know? It’s like sex, but you can have it more often. It’s . . . Yeah, it’s like cheap sex. It’s like . . . You can do it all the time.

Question: Why do people value humor?

Josh Lieb: Boredom, you know? And I think also just the . . . There’s such intense psychic pain just being alive, and all this stuff going on around you and on top of you. And it’s suffocating. You know humor is a release. It is joyful, you know? It’s like sex, but you can have it more often. It’s . . . Yeah, it’s like cheap sex. It’s like . . . You can do it all the time

Question: Is there a connection between humor and religion?

Josh Lieb: You know I don’t know. It’s sort of cliché to have a funny rabbi. You know every rabbi thinks he’s pretty hilarious, or at least they do nowadays. In the . . . in the . . . in the old days, I think they . . . they thought they . . . they were pretty serious. You know I don’t know. I could wax philosophical and say, “Well there is, you know . . . comedy and religion are about some sort of aspiration or something higher,” or you know, “to elevate us. And when we laugh,” you know, “our souls become bigger.” But I don’t think so. I think . . . I think rabbis are smart people, and I think smart people tend to be funny. So maybe that’s the connection. By the way I should have been drinking coffee. But I don’t . . . If there’s any connection whatsoever . . . You know I think there must be some connection between religion and comedy because while . . . because the people I know in comedy are either pretty religious or– and that’s the minority – or they’re . . . they swing the other way completely and are rabidly atheistic. So maybe there’s some emotional switch that gets clicked on either way.

Question: How has comedy changed in the last two decades?

Josh Lieb: That’s a good question. Comedy is a lot more self-aware. I mean _________ audience is a lot more self-aware. You know when I . . . You’re not just making jokes necessarily anymore. You’re making jokes on jokes. And your jokes have reference to other jokes. And it might have been in the old days, only other people in the comedy business would know these things; but now everyone’s . . . We’ve got such a vast cultural backlog on DVD and everything that everyone knows every Monty Python sketch. And everyone knows this and that; that we’re all kind of . . . we and the audience are making references to . . .. . . and winking at them from things that are 40 years old. And that’s it. And comedy probably hasn’t changed as much as we think it has either. I mean that’s . . . that . . . that . . . I can say, “Okay, we all have that reference point,” but it’s probably in a small way not that big a deal. And . . . and . . .That’s a good question, because I would say we still laugh at slapstick, but we don’t as much. It would be very hard for, you know . . . to get away with something that’s like as primitive as like an early ‘60s, Jerry Lewis movie right now. You just . . . You know even the kids aren’t laughing at that anymore. I mean you got Mr. Bean. And that’s nice, and that’s nice slapstick; but it sometimes seems more sophisticated. But that . . . that . . . that might just be because of more of modern style. If you lived in a village and you didn’t have TV, and a clown came through you thought that was the funniest damn thing you’d ever seen in your life. You know if he fell on his butt? Amazing. If you got, you know, eight hours of TV everyday and you could see amazing . . .you know you could see Marcel Marceau, and you could see Lenny Bruce, and you could see whatever whatever. The exposure makes you more of a critic, you know? If you’ve only eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwiches all your life, you think those are pretty great. But you know once you’ve tasted caviar, forget about peanut butter.

Question: Where is comedy headed?

Josh Lieb: I don’t know. There’s a . . . There’s an awful lot of it being produced. I think what we’re doing now, you know, is an area where we’re going to see a lot of comedy produced just in smaller . . . just with the Internet, sort of the powers given to people just to produce things. I mean we’re going to see things on YouTube. You know we’re going to see people have a funny idea and shoot it on their TV camera and get it out there that afternoon. But people are always also gonna wanna see bigger, you know, more expensive things. And they’re always gonna wanna see sitcoms, I think; or big, funny movies. You wanna see something nice, you know. It’s like okay, YouTube. That was a funny video that guy made, but I . . . I want a . . . I want a compelling story, too. You know people like stories. We’ve always liked stories. So I . . . I . . . I don’t . . . I don’t think comedy is gonna change. Okay here. I don’t think the foreign comedy __________ is gonna be all that different in the future. Now you know I . . . I don’t know which way the world is gonna go; but if the world gets darker, then the comedy will probably become more darker or become more violent. We might be seeing some of that now.

Question: Whose work are you watching most closely?

Josh Lieb: You know I don’t . . . I tend not to watch any comedy. Otherwise it would be my whole life. And also you know, it’s so critical . . . It’s impossible just to watch anything and enjoy it, you know. So I . . . I tend to keep away from it as much as possible.

Question: How is technology changing comedy?

Josh Lieb: I think it’s changing it for . . . It’s changing it. There’s really no telling. Yeah it’s better. It’s . . . It’s . . . It’s nice to be able to have a DVD of funny stuff. And you know it’s nice to be able to go on YouTube and watch these funny guys. But you know I saw these funny guys doing a David Blaine impression the other day. That was funny. You know I got to watch that and now I don’t have to see it anymore. But it’s . . . it’s . . . it’s out there. That R. Kelly trapped in the closet. Like that’s all great stuff, and it’s there. And so that’s all for the good. As a, you know . . . This isn’t strictly about computers, but you know as a . . . as a visual agent, you know, written comedy is being non-existent. You know there’s . . . there’s a couple of pages in the front of the New Yorker and that’s really it. So that’s kinda sad. But you know there’s plenty to read if you want to.

Question: Is ethnic humor ever out of bounds?

Josh Lieb: I can certainly make fun of my people, and others can too. I mean it . . . it’s . . . I feel like I’m . . . not I’m, but I think as a Jew it’s sort of a specific case, because there are a lot of Jewish writers. And we tend to go to the Jew well a lot in comedy. And to be honest it’s really easy, and I don’t love that. And to be honest it’s really easy, and I don’t love that. I think it’s a little too easy. You know ethnically, I think I find a lot of comedy writers are Jewish and a lot are Irish. I’m not sure why those two streams sort of came together, but you know it’s a . . . we tend to get along, so it’s nice. Can . . . I think some Jewish jokes are very funny, and I think others are, you know, are just . . .are just as . . . just saying the word “Jew” and expecting a laugh. You know and . . . and that’s easy. As far as other ethnicities go, I don’t feel like anything should be out of bounds, you know? I just . . . You know I’m stridently, you know, First Amendment . . . certainly Second Amendment, too. But I like all those amendments, you know? And then again . . . But that said, if you say something offensive, you you know, you can expect to get your ass kicked. You should have the right to say it, though.

Question: Do you self-censor?

Josh Lieb: I think everyone self-sensors. I mean you think awful things. I’m sure you’re thinking awful things right now; but you know we all think terrible, terrible, terrible things. So sometimes the terrible things I think of are jokes. And so I don’t always say those out loud. I’m actually . . . I probably self-sensor a lot less than a lot of people. And I’ve certainly said some terrible things which I regret, but that’s okay.

Question: Has it become easier to self-censor with time?

Josh Lieb: I . . . You know I can’t say I think about . . . You know I would ask you . . . Or I’d ask anyone is it easier for them to self-sensor? Sometimes . . . You know do you walk around saying, “I’m censoring myself right now?” No. But you aren’t telling to every beautiful woman how much you’d like to have sex with her, or every attractive man the same thing if you find both of them equally attractive, you know? You know has it become easier to self . . . I don’t know. I guess when you’re a kid, yeah, you say anything you want. I’m an adult. Now I don’t. I . . . I . . . I would say it’s not any different for a comedy writer or a writer in general than it is for anyone else. I . . . I think we are afforded more freedom. I think I don’t . . . I think writers and comedians don’t have to sensor as much, I think. You know we’re . . . we’re given that latitude. We don’t always use it that well, but we have it.


Recorded On: 9/04/07





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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.


Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

  • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
  • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.