This play most closely illustrates the idea that comedy is pain plus irony. While the theories for today from Freud and Descartes speak of comedy as relief, even as a release of nervous energy, the relief humor offers in “Polk County” seems more profound and more necessary than any kind of lighthearted mirth. The characters spend the play teasing each other and cheerfully talking about how mean they are. Their banter, like the songs they play, provides them with entertainment to help distract them from their hard work and impoverished, violent surroundings. To this end, humor is more than amusement, it is a catharsis that gives them a brief escape from their environment.
Hurston symbolizes this in the character of High John De Conquer. Lonnie is very in touch with this figure, and during his most trying moment in the play, when he fears Big Sweet is going to be forced from town, he hears High John’s drums giving him strength. High John is a figure of mirth, but also of endurance; it is laughter, music, and general lightheartedness that gives relief from pain and the strength to go on. Although the humor may seem shallow, it offers deep comfort and allows the town’s inhabitants to cope with difficult circumstances. Even when the characters joke about dark topics like fights and killing, thus acknowledging the harsh parts of their lives, they charge the acts with levity through their ironic comments and focus on absurdities, like when Box Car jokes that it is impressive for dead Three-Card Charlie to have apparently sent mail from Hell. In fact, it may be said that perhaps the formula at play in the humor here is not pain plus irony, but pain plus irony plus optimism. Life may be hard, but fun can be had too if no one takes themselves, or their lives, too seriously; the only tension in the play comes from humorless people like the Quarters Boss, or people who misuse humor, like Dicey, who employs it as a venomous weapon rather than as the shield it is meant to be.