Coping with Comedy: The Relationship Between Humor and Sadness

Robin Williams performing at the 2008 USO World Gala. Photo: Chad J. McNeeley, U.S. Navy

According to the old adage, “Laughter is the best medicine” — and who would disagree? Nothing lightens our moods and lifts our spirits better than a good belly laugh. From simple horseplay among friends to the witticisms of the most talented stand-up comedians, making each other laugh is a universal human activity — helping people from every culture on earth cope with the difficulties of life. Several scientific studies have confirmed that comedy is indeed good medicine, effectively reducing the stress response, bolstering the immune system, and relieving chronic pain.

Why, then, are the lives of comedians so often marked by tragedy and sadness? One might think that these folks would be the healthiest people in the world, able to laugh off all the hardships of living. But instead, the comedy world is full of people battling demons, and often losing. When news broke in August 2014 that Robin Williams had killed himself at age 63, the nearly universal response was shock. “How could such a funny man, someone who had given so many happy memories to so many, have done this to himself?” we collectively asked. In the weeks that followed, a tragic story of a man haunted by a combination of depression, alcoholism, and dementia was added to Williams’ legacy of brilliant comedy.

Robin Williams was not alone in his struggles, either. Comedians Freddie Prinze, Ray Combs, Richard Jeni, and Charles Rocket all committed suicide, too. And beyond these sad endings, numerous comedians, including Ellen DeGeneres, Sarah Silverman, Richard Pryor, and Woody Allen, have spoken (or joked) about the depression and lack of self-worth that has haunted them in the past or present. For those struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, it can be a way of dulling the pain that they feel.

One of the earliest psychological studies of comedians, completed in 1975 by Samuel Janus of New York Medical College, surveyed 55 full-time, successful comedians (defined as those making a six-figure salary or more). Janus found that 80 percent of the comedians had sought psychotherapy at some point in their lives. Interestingly, he commented in his article, “They repeatedly expressed the fear that if they were successful in analysis, to the point where their suffering was greatly relieved, they would then cease to be funny.” There was not only an observable correlation between mental distress and comedy, but the comedians themselves saw this distress as integral to their abilities.

When you look at what makes us laugh, this connection between humor and psychological pain makes some sense. Humor can vary drastically by culture, and psychologists and philosophers have been debating for decades about what makes one joke shine while another flops. One thing is clear, though laughter is connected to our sense (and fear) of humiliation. In its most juvenile forms schoolyard teasing or slapstick pratfalls, for example — it is very obviously that; we are giggling watching while someone else is made the fool. Cartoons in the style of Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera function similarly: they are funny because we see Wile E. Coyote, Elmer Fudd, and Tom Cat fail miserably to capture their prey over and over and over again. In real life, these predators are on the top of the food chain, but in these cartoons they are laid low … and that’s just funny to watch.

More sophisticated comedy has this same element, even if it may not be as obvious. In romantic comedies, for example, the protagonist is continually frustrated in his or her efforts to succeed with the desired romantic partner. When the connection finally happens, the story is over. Likewise, in typical family-focused sitcoms, we often see parents, often single parents as on “One Day at a Time,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” and “Full House,” bumbling through the process of raising cheeky, precocious children. In classic shows that focus on married couples, traditional roles are often turned upside down for humorous effect. For example, in “I Love Lucy,” the female protagonist Lucy repeatedly goes against the wishes of head-of-the-household Ricky — trying to start a showbiz career, buying expensive new furniture, getting a candy factory job — only to find embarrassment that sends her back to her “proper” role of a housewife. In all these cases, frustration is the key comedic element.

In stand-up comedy, the same is true even if no one is acting out the roles; the humiliation here is primarily delivered through words. One of the most common types of jokes in this genre involves self-depreciation, as when Kevin Hart references his own diminutive stature, or Phyllis Diller calls herself ugly. Other stand-up jokes skewer powerful figures, such as those in the endless stream of Donald Trump jokes, or they challenge social assumptions, conventions, and hierarchies, as in the humor of George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, and Dick Gregory. Psychologists refer to this as “benign violations of social norms.”

Comedians may be good at what they do because they themselves are especially well tuned in to feelings of humiliation. Psychological studies have found that comedians tend to be highly introverted, which might seem surprising since they make their living standing in front of audiences and acting silly for a living. Psychologists have observed, though, that comedic ability is often developed as a coping mechanism in adolescence. These children are highly shy and sensitive to humiliation, and they deal with the threat of social embarrassment through clownish extroversion. Comedians are also very likely to have come from difficult socio-economic backgrounds or to have experienced traumatic childhoods, so they know the pain of being a low-ranking social outcast. Consciously or unconsciously, they decide for themselves, “To avoid being laughed at, I’ll make a fool of myself and purposely make people laugh.” Thusly, they take control of the situation, and the class clown is born.

These same youngsters also tend to experience depression and feelings of social isolation; a study of depressed teens conducted in 1998 and published in the Journal of Adolescent Research observed a definite connection between comedic ability and depression. Furthermore, comedians have IQs much higher than average — between 110 and 160, as compared to the average 100 — which has also been associated with depressive tendencies. Psychologists theorize that this is true because very intelligent people are simply more aware and therefore more sensitive to the vicissitudes of life. And, of course, they have greater capacity to make a witty remark in response.

In an interview for Time magazine, comedian Jim Norton remarked in response to Robin Williams’ death, “The funniest people I know seem to be the ones surrounded by darkness. And that’s probably why they’re the funniest. The deeper the pit, the more humor you need to dig yourself out of it.” Comedy, whether we are viewers or the makers of it, is a kind of self-medicating, a way of seeing the light at the end of dark tunnels. More and more psychologists have acknowledged its usefulness for both diagnosis and treatment when used deliberately in clinical settings. Books like Elcha Shain Buckman’s “The Handbook of Humor: Clinical Applications in Psychotherapy” and Herbert Strean’s “The Use of Humor in Psychotherapy” are now classic educational texts.

The problem for comedians (and others) appears to be that, ultimately, jokes alone cannot eliminate the monsters that can plague our inner lives; some turn to drugs and others to suicide. Laughter may be the best medicine, but it isn’t a perfect medicine. Writing over a century ago in a 1907 edition of the still-flourishing The American Journal of Psychology, L.W. Kline expressed the purpose of comedy in these words: “No stimulus, perhaps, more mercifully and effectually breaks the surface tension of the consciousness, thereby conditioning it for a new forward movement, than humor.” In the end, comedy can’t get rid of all the sadness we humans hold inside, but at least it can lighten the load for a little while, so we can keep on moving forward.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2018 issue of Brain World Magazine.

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