Penis Jokes and Hollywood Comedy (Quote of the Day)

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Penis jokes have been laced throughout virtually every type of film in the last decade or two. [...] Psychoanalysis stresses the significance of the penis, the sight or it, and the concomitant concept of the female “lack.” In Sigmund Freud’s terms, “Little girls. . .notice the penis of a brother or playmate, strikingly visible and of large proportions, at once recognize it as the superior counterpart of their own small and inconspicuous organ.” Such an account of sexual difference can only be called dramatic, and where we have drama, we all know, comedy cannot be far away — if only because one sources of comedy is the failure of drama. [...]

Freud’s assumptions and language both clearly establish the basis for such comedy with his emphasis on visibility and size. The two, of course, are connected; if one is going to stress the visible, then the larger something is the more visible it is — especially if one presumes the spectacle is strikingly visible. If we believe that the sight of the penis is the basis for the ultimate psychoanalytic drama, it is no wonder that we are anxious about the collapse of this dramatic spectacle, something that emerges in the “peniscope” cartoon. [...] These jokes reveal a paradoxical nervousness. On the one hand, the penis should not be shown and seen. On the other hand, if it is, it had better be a “strikingly visible” drama. What better way to put down a man [like the one in the cartoon or a streaker, for instance] who breaks the taboo and threatens the awe and mystique surrounding the organ than to joke about his inadequacy.

Ironically, then, the awe we attribute to the striking visibility of the penis is best served by keeping it covered up — that is, invisible. The relationship of hard-core pornography to Hollywood cinema perfectly illustrates this. Hard-core porno is the one place in our culture where the penis is always on display, and the conventions of the genre work to guarantee the supposed drama of the event. Actors are chosen because they are well endowed, they are usually shown erect, and close-ups emphasize the thrusting of the penis or the feat of women who, performing oral sex, can take the huge organ into their mouths. Small, unerect penises are seldom shown. [...]

In Hollywood the situation is reversed. The penis is almost always covered up, but, as I have indicated, there is endless fascination in talking about it: now you see it; now you hear about it. Not surprisingly, jokes and comedy emerge within the sphere of what we hear rather than what we see. [...] If hard-core porno tries desperately to assert the visual drama, Hollywood jokes incessantly about its failure. Between the two, the mystique is left intact.

Peter Lehman, “Penis-Size Jokes and Their
Relation to Hollywood’s Unconscious
” (1991).