Jokes are not always deployed in the service of racism and empire, nor do they offer false assurances to the downtrodden. If they are egalitarian, that is because they serve to remind us that we are all suckers, we are all duped, we are all screwed. This is really just another variation on Kant’s idea that jokes give us the experience of a sudden transformation into nothing. There is no greater transformation than death, after all, and jokes, as reminders of our mortality, may be seen as so many little philosophical deaths. And death, in turn, is the greatest joke of all: the final transformation of a strained expectation into nothing. It is, then, precisely by virtue of its anticipation of death that humor offers a unique escape route from the grim deterministic order of the world. When the Stoic philosopher Seneca says, “Do you ask what path leads to liberty? I answer: Any vein in your body,” his exhortation to suicide is both a dark wisecrack and a profound reminder of the inherent relationship between freedom and mortality.

Justin E. H. Smith, “The Joke”