Everyone likes a good comic. Comedy, done well, adds much needed soul to life-exposing and magnifying the absurdities of life, reducing stress, defusing social tensions, and generally increasing the quality of life. Of course, comedy, done poorly, is about as awkward as watching George W. Bush tap dance while waiting to endorse John McCain (Time magazines #1 most awkward moment of 2008).
But behind every punch line is a real live human sweating profusely to get a laugh. What are these people like? How did the comic become this way, constantly pushing the limit to get a reaction from others? What motivates the comic? How do comics perceive themselves? Let's start at the beginning.
Samuel Janus and his colleagues studied the intelligence, educational level, family background, and personality of 69 comedians, all of whom were said to be famous and successful. Data were collected using a variety of methods: clinical interviews, accounts of early memories, dreams, handwriting analyses, projective tests, and the Weschsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS).
Janus concluded that comedians tended to be superior in intelligence, but also felt misunderstood, angry, anxious, suspicious, depressed, and concerned with approval. Their early lives were frequently characterized by suffering, isolation, and feelings of deprivation; in many cases, the comedians learned to use humor as a defense against anxiety, converting their feelings of suppressed rage from physical to verbal aggression. However, many comedians were also shy, sensitive, and empathic individuals whose comedic success was apparently due partly to an ability to accurately perceive the fears and needs of their audiences.
Seymour and Rhoda Fisher conducted a better-controlled study of professional humor producers, and summarized their results in a delightful book called Pretend the World is Funny and Forever: A Psychological Analysis of Comedians, Clowns, and Actors. They assessed the personality, motivations, and childhood recollections of 43 professional comedians (including 15 circus clowns) and scoured published biographical and autobiographical accounts of 40 comedians and clowns, from Woody Allen and Jackie Gleason to Jerry Lewis and Beatrice Lillie (once dubbed the "Funniest Women in the World"). They also administered the Rorschach inkblot test and the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) to identify themes and preoccupations in the thoughts of the comedians. As a control, they included a sample of 41 professional actors.
Fisher and Fisher found that professional comedians did not differ from actors in depression or overall psychological health, but did uncover several differences between the groups. The majority of the comics came from lower socioeconomic strata. Quite early, they displayed talent for being funny, often acting as the "class clown" in school. Many in the sample entered comedy professionally through their interest in music. Compared to the actors, the professional comedians had to take on considerably more responsibility at an early age. They were also more likely than the actors to describe the father in highly positive terms, and were more inclined to refer to the mother as a disciplinarian, an aggressive critic, non-nurturing, and non-maternal. This finding was also discovered in a sample of amateur humor producers: the more college students considered themselves to be comics the more they saw their mother as controlling and the father as softer in their childrearing practices.
Along similar lines, Steven Prasinos and Bennett Tittler investigated 88 adolescent Boy Scouts and found that the funnier Boy Scouts (assessed through peer nomination) tended to be more distanced from their families, reported less cohesion in their families than what was reported by their peers, and reported greater family conflict. The authors interpret these findings as suggesting that humor represents an attempt to relate from a distance. They also raise the interesting possibility that this distancing is precisely what enables these individuals to be funny, since it allows for a fresh perspective.
The Fishers present another intriguing explanation for the link between early life experiences and the development of the comic. They draw on Alfred Heilbrum's work who found a tendency for individuals who are raised by controlling, non-nurturing mothers to develop schizophrenia. Heilbrun found two types of men (there really needs to be more research on female comics!) who are raised by a non-nurturing mother. The "closed style" type was characterized by defenses such as isolation from social interactions and depression, while the "open style" type was characterized as extroverted and alert to ways of winning social approval-"broad scanners" of the environment, always looking for cues of what people expect of them.
The Fishers related this open style personality to the comics in their sample and argued that the comic's style of relating to people may partly mirror their early adventures with their mother. Their idea is that he or she becomes an expert in "reading" his or her mother, and then later learns how to "scan the world in a very sensitive way, looking for contradictions to decode and reconcile, hunting out cues as to how to win approval and support" (p. 207).
What motivates the comic? In their study, the Fishers noticed that professional comics displayed significantly more themes of contrasts and opposites. The Fishers hypothesized that the comedian learns, through early life experiences, that life is absurd. They then spend their lives telling jokes to help them understand the absurdity of their own position. They note that much of humor involves spotting and giving meaning to ambiguities, and that comedians are obsessed with instability. They hypothesized that this focus on inconstancy may represent an effort at mastery, and that the comedian seeks to adapt to a threat that was of painful intensity in their early childhood.
The researchers also noted that the professional comic frequently seemed to put up a screen by retreating behind a barrage of jokes, as suggested in interviews and inkblot responses, where the professional comics conjured up images about concealment. Compared to actors, they were more likely to refer to people wearing masks, creatures hiding, and objects that can't be distinguished properly because they are obscured by darkness.
Fisher and Fisher also found that the majority of professional comedians in their sample had imagery of smallness. The comics tended to have lower self-esteems and to say bad things about themselves. They argue that the comedian's focus on his or her smallness may be a result of the reduced significance he or she felt as a child and that much comic behavior is aimed at reducing the discrepancy of smallness between themselves and others. "There is no question but that size strategies pervade the comic's codes and metaphors...He is forever reducing or magnifying. He never reports things in their immediate proportions" (p. 216). They also note that the low self-esteem and feeling of smallness existent among the professional comics may actually set the comic on a unique path. "We would emphasize...the possibility that in some paradoxical way these negative self-feelings provide a durable base for shaping one's identity and going off on an independent trajectory" (p. 200).
How does the comic view himself or herself? The Fishers found that they viewed themselves as healers. Many of the professional comedians expressed a dedication to being altruistic. The comic sees his or her central duty as that of making people feel that events are funny. At the same time, the professional comics also viewed humor as a technique for controlling and dominating the audience. Indeed, Fisher and Fisher were impressed at how this view of the comic as a fool-priest is consistent with scholarly reviews of the history of the clown, the court jester, and the fool. They also noted how the contemporary comic serves a similar function as the court jester in earlier times. On the one hand, the comic presents himself or herself as the silly fellow that jokes, amuses and entertains. On the other hand, the comic initiates opposing currents, uncovering truths that many people usually try to banish from awareness.
This research suggests that humor in professional comedians serves as a defense or coping mechanisms in dealing with his or her early family experiences, and the burden of having to take care of oneself. This may motivate the comic to make people laugh in order to gain their acceptance, as well as drive the comic to reveal the absurdity of life to make sense of their own lives. As Mark Runco has noted, writing is often a form of problem-solving; many writers are motivated to write to solve problems in their lives. Comedy writers may use comedy in their writing to help them understand themselves and the world, and to do so in a fashion that controls the reader's emotions. Enough analysis. Whatever the reason for comics, thank goodness for them.
Note. Some of the above was excerpted from The Tears of a Clown: Understanding Comedy Writers, co-authored with Aaron Kozbelt. For references and more, download:
Kaufman, S.B., & Kozbelt, A. (in press). The Tears of a Clown: Understanding Comedy Writers. To appear in S.B. Kaufman & J.C. Kaufman (Eds.), The Psychology of Creative Writing. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. [pdf]
Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D. is a cognitive psychologist at NYU interested in intelligence and creativity development. He is the author of forthcoming Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined.