A difficult diagnosis: Humor—how we laugh at doctors
St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada
|“Clown Car.” Photo by Oliver Gouldthorpe on Flickr. CC BY-NC 2.0.|
“To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain and play with it,”1 silent film star Charlie Chaplin wrote in his autobiography. Chaplin’s words do not exactly connect the funny bone to the humerus, and the anatomy of comedy has never been easy to chart, especially when it comes to the role doctors play in what makes us laugh.
Doctor jokes are complicated phenomena that demand a complicated analysis of exactly what is behind the punch line. We can all easily name the spirit behind jokes about professionals such as lawyers, engineers, teachers, and nurses. Doctor jokes play on a unique mix of joke models that tie into Chaplin’s quote at its essence. When we laugh at doctors we are playing with our pain, our vulnerability, and our fear.
This feature sets doctor jokes apart from the other profession-based jokes we are familiar with.
Lawyer jokes are all bound together by our shared hostility toward members of the bar. As a society, we would like to see lawyers on the endangered species list, but without the protective laws against hunting them. Consider this well-know example as proof: What do you call 20,000 lawyers at the bottom of the sea? A good start.
We never feel hostility toward engineers, on the other hand. While we all suspect society may not really need lawyers once you strip away their vocabulary, we know we need engineers to keep the water flowing and the lights turned on. Engineers deal with the largely-hidden systems most of us cannot comprehend. Jokes about engineers use this value to categorize engineers as separate from the rest of us. Their higher logic is seen to pollute their life logic in a way that makes normal communication impossible. Arguing with an engineer is like trying to teach a pig to sing, goes one standard engineer joke. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.
One system we do not need an engineer to understand is education. We have all been to school, we all understand what it is to be a student, and we think we understand what it is to be a teacher. Jokes about teachers are, at their heart, also jokes about being a student. The two are in constant battle to subvert and reassert the system, with the winner of the battle for most-clever changing from joke to joke.
“You can’t sleep in class,” the teacher tells her pupil. “I could if you spoke a little more quietly,” the student replies for the win. The victory is short-lived. “I don’t think I deserved a zero on the test,” the student says. “I know,” his teacher replies, “but it’s the lowest mark I could give you.”
Like teacher-student jokes, jokes about nurses are, at their heart, about the nurse-patient relationship. However, unlike teacher-student jokes, there is no back and forth about who is the most-clever in the exchange. The nurse always has the upper hand. Here is a typical specimen of the nurse-patient joke dynamic: Why did the nurse always use a rectal thermometer? In nursing school she was taught to always approach from her patient’s best side.
Each model of the profession-based jokes is unique, but easy to identify. There is the open hostility of lawyer jokes, the cultural/communicative distance of engineering jokes, the ultimately egalitarian repartee of teacher-student jokes, and the put downs inherent in nurse-patient jokes that elevates the nurse. None of these models apply to doctor jokes. Yet at the same time, all of them do.
We can easily match the hostility of lawyer jokes with the spirit in the jokes nurses tell about doctors. How do you save a doctor from drowning? Easy, you take your foot off his head.
The nurse-doctor humor triangle is not the only one at work in our culture. In other configurations, doctors are elevated. Doctors feature in some lawyer jokes that make it clear that the legal profession remains at the top of the hostility scale. Observe how the following joke promotes the intelligence of doctors in the same way nurse-patient jokes always elevate the nurse. A lawyer was cross-examining a doctor on the stand about whether or not he had checked the vital signs of the deceased before signing the death certificate. The doctor replied that he had not checked the vital signs. “Then,” the lawyer stated, “we can only conclude that when you signed the death certificate, you had not made proper investigations to make sure the patient was dead.” The doctor replied, “Well, the patient’s brain was in a jar on my desk but for all I know he could be out practicing law.”
In the jokes children tell about doctors, we also see the distancing in communications and high logic versus life logic that we see in engineering jokes. The Doctor, Doctor jokes children tell are symptomatic of this attitude. “Doctor, Doctor my son has swallowed my pen, what should I do?” goes one example. “Use a pencil till I get there,” is the reply.
At the same time, there is widespread acknowledgement that being a doctor is just a job and there is an egalitarian streak in doctor jokes just as there are in teacher-student jokes. Remember the one about the male gynecologist who goes home to his wife on Valentines Day where the dining table is set with roses and candles and he thinks, “if I have to see one more….”
There is another layer of complexity apart from the multiple models we see in other profession-based jokes that sets the doctor joke apart. Fear, vulnerability, and pain are never far from the laughs a good doctor joke inspires.
We fear that our doctors may not be as smart as the framed certificates hanging on the office wall may suggest. “You seem to be in excellent health,” the doctor tells her patient. “Your pulse is as regular as clockwork.” “That’s because you’ve got your hand on my watch,” the patient replies.
The American comedian George Carlin was tapping into this fear when he asked, “Isn’t it a bit unnerving that doctors call what they do ‘practice’?” Later in the same routine, Carlin solidified the fear of doctors when he said, “Somewhere in the world is the world’s worst doctor. And what’s truly terrifying is that someone has an appointment with him tomorrow morning.”
The patient, reading the doctor’s degrees on the wall, has no idea if the physician is reliable. Unfortunately, the patient can no more rely on his or her own body to cooperate with the diagnosis or treatment. These spiritual vulnerabilities are also the stuff of doctor jokes.
To illustrate this point, we’ve all heard the one about the senior citizen who went to get his test results back from the doctor:
“I’m sorry to tell you this but you have cancer,” the doctor told her patient.
“Yes, but that’s not all…you also have Alzheimer’s disease,” the doctor said, shaking her head sadly.
“Yes,” the doctor responded.
“Oh well, at least I don’t have cancer,” the patient said.
The same vulnerabilities are at play when the patient is wise and intelligent in the face of diagnosis, as this piece from comedienne Gilda Radner’s autobiography It’s Always Something2 shows:
Doctors are whippersnappers in ironed white coats
Who spy up your rectums and look down your throats
And press you and poke you with sterilized tools
And stab at solutions that pacify fools.
I used to revere them and do what they said
Till I learned what they learned on was already dead.
The rhyme is a logical vein to travel from the vulnerability expressed in doctor jokes along to the discussion of the pain they address. Most writers would consider it unpardonable to joke about the corpses physicians learn their trade alongside. Radner was exempt from this restriction as she wrote while living with her terminal cancer diagnosis. She was playing with her pain to truly laugh. Well, the rest of us could joke about cadavers too, but it would be in very bad taste.
Our doctor jokes about pain cover the entire spectrum of life from birth to expiration as the following example encapsulates best:
A couple went to the hospital to have their baby delivered. The OB told them she had invented a new machine that would transfer a portion of the mother’s labor pain to the father.
The couple was willing to try the pain transference machine out. The doctor set the pain transfer to 10% and explained that even 10% was probably more pain than the father had ever experienced before. As the labor progressed, the husband felt fine and asked the doctor to go ahead and increase the pain transfer load. The doctor then adjusted the machine to 20% and the husband still felt fine.
The doctor checked the husband’s blood pressure and was amazed at how well he was doing. They decided to up the pain transfer to 50%. The husband continued to feel fine. Since the pain transfer was obviously helping out the delivering mother, her husband encouraged the doctor to transfer all the pain to him. The wife delivered a healthy baby while experiencing almost no pain herself. She and her husband were ecstatic.
When they got home, they found the postman dead on their porch.
Doctor jokes about pain elicit no sympathy. They are completely accepting of the truth of illness and end-of-life issues in the most honest form possible.
These added dimensions of fear, vulnerability and pain add an additional layer of meaning to doctor jokes that are already more complex than other profession-based jokes. In this way, doctor jokes are an accurate depiction of society’s relationship with doctors and their role in our lives and deaths. This is a respectful sophistication that is unique to doctor jokes among all profession-based jokes. Ultimately, it proves that while patients do hate doctors, they still hate lawyers more.
- Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography, Penguin Classics, April 24, 2003.
- Gilda Radner, It’s Always Something, HarperCollins Publishers, July 1, 2000.
, BA, MFA, TESL, is a Canadian writer who recently returned to her homeland after living abroad for many years. She is the author of the short story collection Love from Planet Wine Cooler, but her work ranges from creative nonfiction to technology journalism and from chick lit to experimental fiction. She holds a BA from the University of Toronto and an MFA from the University of British Columbia and a certificate in Teaching English as a Second Language. Links to recently published pieces can be found at katebaggott.com.
Highlighted in Frontispiece Fall 2014 – Volume 6, Issue 4
Fall 2014 | Sections | Literary Essays