‘There Was No Laughter’: On Bassem Youssef’s “Can’t Laughter”


Slavoj Zizek once emphasized, as one of his key examples of ‘interpassivity,’ the phenomenon of ‘canned laughter.’ Basically, what is the function of ‘canned laughter?’ It permits one to ‘laugh […] through another’ (Zizek, 2003). At the height of television during the 1990s sitcoms deployed ‘laugh tracks’ which provided audiences with a sort of receptacle for offloading their satisfaction. The television, as a make-shift or substitute ‘Other,’ provided relief from the unbearable satisfaction of physically laughing on one’s own. The subject’s satisfactions were thereby displaced — extended in space-time — onto this auxiliary organ that we call the television. In a word, then, ‘canned laughter’ was a symptom.

Yet, we should go much further than Slavoj Zizek (and his colleague Robert Pfaller, 2017) by asking the following: which side of the symptom is being theorized in the theory of interpassivity? The Other, in this theory, remains integral for the conceptualization of ‘canned laughter,’ since the Other operates as a sort of waste-basket for one’s own unbearable excesses. A variation of the ‘laughing symptom’ can nonetheless be discovered today, in the period when, as Ben Burgis once put it, we are intent on “canceling comedians while the world burns.” This most recent socio-political moment involves a much more troubling rejection of the very foundation upon which any theory of interpassivity might be supposed: today ‘canned laughter’ has been replaced by what I call ‘Can’t Laughter’: we are not permitted to laugh since this inevitably implies the violence of complicity with the Other.

‘Can’t Laughter’ signals disinsertion from the field of the Other and from any concept of ‘world.’ So, yes, even in the period of ‘Can’t Laughter,’ we are still laughing, and yes, the laughter has returned to our bodies. Yet, we laugh all alone, in our group, isolated, together; as the world burns. We should therefore look to that other side of the symptom: from the symptom as substitute satisfaction toward the symptom as substitute satisfaction (e.g., the stubborn insistence on satisfaction without relinquishment). Several years ago, while attending some Bougie academic conference in California, a professor walked into an elevator and remarked to all of us who were standing there: “I feel as though I’ve been in and out of this elevator all day.” Another scholar, from our group, quickly responded back (with a self-satisfied smile): “Yes, but, as Heraclitus put it, ‘you never enter the same elevator twice!’” Suddenly, all of the scholars in the elevator erupted into an embarrassing chorus of contrived laughter.

I looked to the corner of the elevator and noticed a worker in uniform who was not ‘in’ on the joke, awkwardly staring at her shoes. It was clear to her, just as much as to myself: we were rejects of this humor. The joke simply wasn’t funny. Why, then, was there such an effort to pretend otherwise? Although there was certainly a share of laughter, it did not function to bring into relief some repressive barrier to satisfaction. Rather, the satisfaction was permitted, amongst the ‘in group,’ but only on the condition that everybody pretend in advance that they already understood. Therefore, the joke functioned in the service of a segregative group effect. Its message was: ‘we are already supposed to know about Heraclitus and his philosophy, and our satisfaction is to recognize that we already know this.’ You are already supposed to know, which means that the Other is not supposed to know. So much of ‘politics’ in the West today relies upon this field of presupposition: you are supposed to know even before you are capable of knowing.

Take another example. Alenka Zupancic once philosophized about a key scene in Ernst Lubitsch’s classic film Ninotchka (1939). A man entered a cafe with his date and requested ‘coffee without cream’ but then was offered, in its place, ‘coffee without milk.’ “Sir,” replied the water, “I’m sorry but we only have milk … may I please bring you coffee without milk instead?” At this point, all of the men in the cafe erupted in laughter. A crucial point: the woman, who was sitting with the man, stubbornly refused to laugh. For her, clearly, the joke simply wasn’t funny. So, why presuppose that there is truth in the joke for all, which means: ‘it is always the case that what is not included constitutes precisely the identity of what is included.’ Slavoj Zizek said: “it’s not the same, coffee without cream or coffee without milk because what you don’t get is also a part of the identity of what you do get.” Today, in an time of non-perplexity, would it really be so striking for somebody to point out that ‘cream’ and ‘milk’ are derivatives of the same underlying ingredient? It’s both milk – so, ‘without cream’ or ‘without milk?’ In either case, you’re not having milk.

This is why we must be prepared to constantly question Lacanian and Zizekian aphorisms such as ‘constitutive negativity,’ ‘interpassivity,’ and ‘constitutive lack.’ They are often presented as a logic that is for all, and so discount those for whom the world is burning. Alenka Zupancic has referred to this, in her own way, as ‘the difference that makes a difference’: “this negativity or difference […] is inscribed into [all] positive entities.” An alternative to the classic Ninotchka scene is already playing out in progressive Los Angeles neighborhoods: friends told me that you can now visit popular “breastmilk cafes” to order various treats such as ice-cream, coffee, and milk chocolate. In this case, what you order is not a difference that makes a difference, that is, a product whose identity is secured by what is not included in it. Rather, you are offered products precisely because of what must be included: breastmilk. If you enter a breastmilk cafe and order ‘coffee without milk’ you will be considered insensitive and quickly (perhaps with much ridicule) kicked out of the shop.

So, there has been a shift: it is not the time of ‘world,’ of the Lacanian ‘subject supposed to know’ whereby you imagine that your professor or psychoanalyst knows a thing or two that you do not. It is a time of presupposition, of certainty. It is the one of the group that knows, all alone, against any Other. The major function of laughter today is not therefore to permit access to repressed satisfaction (nor is it to relinquish overbearing satisfactions). There is today an independent and undivided energy exerted against the Other as such, and the strategy is to ensure that repression never has to happen. This is the real violence of the joke: the joke is not funny today because it implies an a priori relinquishment of satisfaction, or, in other words, castration. There’s nothing funny about castration … until it happens. Therefore, it is not, as Slavoj Zizek often repeats, that ‘prohibition of enjoyment transforms into enjoyment of prohibition itself,’ but rather that enjoyment can subsist in this space without prohibition, as a push against the establishment of any mechanism or prohibition.

I have now learned that this mode of humor can nonetheless be deployed as a ‘push’ against the segregation and insularity from which it has been established, on its own terms. For example, consider Bassem Youssef’s ‘dark’ satirical comedy, which occurs against the backdrop of the most horrific trauma: occupation and war. On a recent episode of “Piers Morgan Uncensored,” the following shocking exchange happened:

Bassem Youssef: “My wife’s family, they live in Gaza. She has cousins and uncles there. And their house also was bombed. We haven’t been able to communicate with them for the last three days, communication was lost. […] We are used to them being bombed and then moving from one place to another. You know, these Palestinians, they are very dramatic: ‘oh, Israel is killing us.’ But they never die. They always come back. They are very difficult to kill. I know because I’m married to one. I tried, many times, but I couldn’t kill her.”

Piers Morgan: “I mean, there’s a dark humor there, and I understand … why because …”

Bassem Youssef: “No, it’s not dark humor. I really, I tried to get to her every time but she uses our kids as human shields. I can never take her out.”

Piers Morgan: “Again, I understand the humor, … but to be serious … Bassem … about … this…”

Bassem Youssef: “Okay, I will be serious. I think that Ben Shapiro is one of the smartest people who ever walked this earth. I follow him and I believe everything he says.”

Jacques-Alain Miller once claimed that sarcastic humor tells us that the social bond — the entire field of the Other — is a “swindle.” What Bassem Youssef shows us is that one can nonetheless ‘push’ against the segregative group effect via sarcastic jokes. Put simply, Youssef brought Piers Morgan to the point of a stutter, a stumble, thereby shattering the pretence of Anglophone conservatives who like to remind Leftists that ‘comedians can no longer step onto University campuses’: it is the conservatives, themselves, who do not know how to laugh. Indeed, when Bassem deployed his dark humor, nobody was laughing … except for him, all alone. What Morgan struggled to accept: Youssef’s laughter was justified.

Youssef’s sarcastic humor, deployed in defense of the Palestinians, shows us that he is the true proponent of humor and social cohesion. He is the true face of a movement that would finally rid itself of segregation, insularity, and war. He was, in that moment, not without an Other.


Bassem Youssef and Piers Morgan. (2023) “Israel-Hamas War,” Piers Morgan Uncensored. As Retrieved on 11/20/2023 from <https://youtu.be/4idQbwsvtUo?si=IkxwstHiFxqG4DvA>

Ben Burgis. (2021) Canceling Comedians While the World Burns: A Critique of the Contemporary Left. Zer0 Books.

Robert Pfaller. (2017) Interpassivity: The Aesthetics of Delegated Enjoyment. Edinburgh University Press.

Slavoj Zizek. (2003) “Will You Laugh for Me, Please?” In These Times. As Retrieved on 11/20/2023 from <https://inthesetimes.com/article/will-you-laugh-for-me-please>