Why Did the Therapist Cross the Road?


I laugh with people I like; I like people I laugh with (Farrelly, 1974). Could it be that simple? I know that one of my "gut" indicators that therapy has indeed begun — whether during an initial meeting or in the second year — is humor. The client and I find a way to acknowledge that while life is indeed "nasty, brutish, and short" it is also funny: twinkle-in-the-eye funny, sly-grin funny, laugh-till-we-cry funny.

Working in an agency, I prided myself on running uproarious groups. Years later I realized I had used laughter to address a meta-issue (Wattlawick, et. aI., 1974). This was a Lutheran agency and its earnest clientele had gotten as far as hard work and serious thought could take them. Leavening was needed, a reframing that included absurdity, paradox, amusement. Having a therapist who thought she and they were funny helped.

Silly, funny, amusing, witty, comical, all happen in context, all occur in relation-to. The hardest I ever laughed on a Friday afternoon was when one black man called another "niggardly" and then both heard the play on words and each did a take. Change either participant and something is lost; remove the listeners who liked the men, knew about playing the dozens, and appreciated well-executed takes and something is lost. Humor occurs between people, in a given setting. As we laugh, we feel our connectedness.

I want the connections between myself and my clients to include silence, compassion, anger, uncertainty, all that we evoke in one another. Not excluding laughter, and not limited to laughter. Any rote response, whether humorous or serious, underestimates the variety life requires.

We laugh most easily at the stranger whose complexities we don't know — he's only foolish, she's merely funny — and at the friend whose vulnerabilities we know and have agreed to "humor." We disregard the stranger's sensibilities, we protect the friend's. Clients fall into a special category. A wise therapist neither disregards nor protects her/his client's vulnerabilities. Rather, the client and therapist engage in a sorting process: This is habit, this is defensiveness, this is an archaic response, this seems to be you — the face under the masks. Humor, at its most precise, shears away the nonessential without cutting the self.

Fortunately, the rules for humorous exchange include checking, "Was that too close?" and "Are you with me so far?" John arrived at the therapy group perturbed, wanting us all to brainstorm ways he could extricate his grown-up son from suicidal depression. Caring statements that our concern was with him and what he was feeling, got nowhere. He'd feel later, after he'd figured out what to do. Finally, I stretched out, imaginary toothpick between my teeth, and drawled, "I jist do custom work." "Does that mean," he raged, "you're not going to help me?" "Nope," I responded lazily, sidestepping his urgency, "It means I only work on what I work on...."

We continued; a few minutes later I checked (in my so-called normal voice), "How are we doing?" "Pretty good," he told me straightforwardly. "I almost walked out a while ago but now I figure I'll stay." Then back to the battle.

I think my nonexistent toothpick and my fraudulent drawl allowed us to come through that confrontation. They gave a patina of humor to what he might otherwise have experienced as a raw power struggle. My playful hayseed persona acceeded to his demand for involvement while my therapist self refused to sacrifice his therapy to the family crisis.

Our usefulness as therapists lies in the range between what is expected and what is intolerable. Too safe and there's no reason to move; too risky and there's no support for movement.

Erv Polster walking that line: There's the session he began by asking a conventional lady, "Did you bring your teeth?" There's the man whose boring story Erv interrupted by asking, "Did you ever fuck an animal?" The man hadn't, but he sure got livelier. There's the woman who'd worked out what to say well in advance whom he taunted with, "What's on your alleged mind?" Erv won't not be considered. He is there and you have to speak taking him into account. He uses humor to demand contact.

I used to listen to Erv with my mouth hanging open, "You can't say that!" sounding over and over in my head. He can and does. Erv trusts the client's ability to support him/herself; he trusts himself to calibrate when to provoke, when to support. And he trusts that messes can be recovered from.

I sneak up on the interventions he leads with. An irrevent observation occurs to me, I slow it (and wish to slow it, until I know both the client's resources and his/her sense of humor) with my "You can't say that" recitation. I turn my internal process into a theater piece, talking to myself out loud:

"You can't say that." "Why not?" "What would people think?" "I don't know. What do they think now, with me talking to an imaginary person?" "Well you'd better not say it." "C'mon, she's known me for a long time (gesturing toward the client). She'll hear me out even if I sound crazy at first."

My theater piece serves three purposes:

1) It prepares the client for my coming remark;

2) it establishes me as someone I can laugh at, thus contexting my poking fun at another;

3) it challenges my sense of propriety, acknowledging I have one, while questioning its dominion. (Once I'm talking to myself, what's lost if I do one more peculiar thing?)

Propriety is an issue for clients too, and humor can bring it to the forefront. I once co-led therapy groups with a witty man who'd play by setting me up to deflate him. Realizing he'd been unclear, for example, he'd turn to me and ask eagerly, "Did that make sense?" "Alas, no," I'd respond, or "Huh?" or just look blank. We'd grin at each other and he'd rephrase what he'd said. The Southern Belles in the group watched very closely: Did a woman have the option not to flatter a man? Could she enjoy criticizing him? Could he enjoy it? Our behavior — a fortuitous match between how he liked to be teased and how I liked to tease him — provided the contrast needed for those women to examine their sexist assumptions.

Often people labeled "humorless" are people who've been humiliated so badly they avoid taking any risks at all. Humor challenges balance — the idea turned on its head, the sideways remark, the somersaulting response — and they're afraid of losing their footing.

With such clients, I start by using myself as the one whose behavior can be joked about. I'll make a grandiose-sounding statement and add to it, "She said." I'll misplace an idea and pantomime rummaging through space to find it. Once clients discover that their laughter is friendly, they have a basis for believing mine is, too.

It was hard for Diane to come see me: She shouldn't need anything from anyone. Any warmth she felt towards me was reason to back off. We moved slowly by some reckonings; for her it felt impetuous. She'd say good-bye with a wave and a cheery, "Don't do anything I wouldn't do." For months, I'd respond with a wave back. Then I added a smiling shake of my head. When she asked, I told her I wouldn't want to limit myself to not doing anything she wouldn't do. She chortled delightedly.

She experienced me joking with her, not laughing at her — the reward for months of cautious work. She began to joke about herself: with tears in her eyes she'd announce she was the one who never cried. I'd say "uh-huh" and pass the Kleenex. Humor became a way we could talk about intimate issues in a casual-seeming, and therefore allowable, way.

I take seriously the desirability of an active sense of humor. Years ago a poverty worker explained to me her teasing remarks during home visits. ''The ability to laugh is the first thing that goes," she said, reviewing years of her own life, "and you need it to survive."

Humor increases resilience. That resilience is physical as well as psychological: the out-breath of laughter allows for a fuller in-breath (From, 1980). Breathing fully, we're more likely to try uncharacteristic responses and discover new ways to support ourselves.


Farrelly, F., & Brandsma, J. Provocative therapy'. Cupertino, California:
Meta Publications, Inc., 1974.

Watzlawick, P., Weakland. J•• & Fisch, R . .Change. New York: Norton. 1974.

From, I. Training workshop in gestalt psychotherapy. Portland, Oregon, 1980.