Humor Sapiens

The laughing ape and other insights into the nature of funny.

How Comedians are like Mountain Climbers

The unique personalities of stand-up comedians

My previous post detailed the everyday life of stand-up comedians. This was a general introduction to the life of comedians, something that most people are not aware of. I think it’s important to understand their daily and weekly routines to get a sense of what’s so unique about their profession and the challenges they face. On this and subsequent posts I would like to share some of the interesting findings from my own study of comedians. This will include some distinctive features of comedians that sometimes seem counterintuitive to what most people think. Each post will focus on one or two features, starting with personality. I welcome any comments from the reader, but would especially like to hear from comedians and others affiliated with the comedy industry, who can tell me if their own experiences match my findings. As any scientific study, I should caution that the findings are tentative, and there is much more to explore about the life of comedians. This is why comedians’ experiences are important and can shed more light on the topic.

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Let me start by describing my study in general and who was included in it. My study was conducted at the Laffs Comedy Club in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with the help of the manager and comedian, Russ Rivas. Shortly after I finished my study the club was unfortunately closed (and no, I had nothing to do with that). I went to the club every week, for approximately half a year, and recruited the ever changing comedians to my study (the tough life of a researcher in academia). In all, 31 agreed to participate in my study (28 men and 3 women). I met with them during the day and made them fill out all sorts of questionnaires and also asked them many questions. All comedians were professional, meaning they got paid for their act, but their level of experience varied. I also recruited nine amateur comedians, who performed in open mic nights (where anyone can go on stage for five minutes), 10 humor writers who do not do stand-up and 400 college students as comparison groups.

The personality of comedians has rarely been studied scientifically, and little is known about it. The perception among many is that because comedians tend to be flamboyant on stage, they must have extraverted personalities. Is this really true? I went to check it out. I gave comedians a very well known and standardized personality test, called the Big Five. As the name indicates, the questionnaire measures five common personality traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Here is what I found.

First, as one may expect, comedians were more open to experiences than the average population. Stand-up comedy requires a fresh and innovative look at things around us and staying in tune with popular culture events that interest their audience, and hence they must be open to experiences to remain relevant. This is consistent with previous studies that showed that other creative groups, such as poets and writers, and performers like actors, tend to be high on the openness scale as well. Comedy writers scored significantly higher than comedians on openness, suggesting that openness is most crucial for writing. Writers and poets devote most of their time to writing, while for comedians, writing is an essential part of their job but not the only thing they do. They have to divide their time between writing, practicing and performing, or in other words, they need to be a bit more realistic.

Second, comedians, like other creative people, were also low on conscientiousness. People high on conscientiousness tend to be more responsible, organized, dependable and self-disciplined. On the other hand, low conscientiousness is associated with more spontaneous behaviors. Previous studies that looked at the relationship between conscientiousness and sense of humor found that people who were low on conscientiousness tended to have negative styles of humor. These humor styles involve using humor to disparage others and creating and enjoying hostile and aggressive forms of humor, including at the expense of the presenter in the form of self-deprecating humor. Comedians’ performances are often perceived as vulgar and crude, especially in comedy clubs, where there are no restrictions on the language they can use. Comedians also frequently use aggressive humor that is directed either toward the audience or themselves. Although conscientiousness is required for success in stand-up comedy—one must show up on time, book travel arrangements effectively, pursue publicity opportunities, etc.—it may be more important to balance this with the impulsive disinhibition necessary to think of weird new ideas that are funny, and to violate social norms in saying certain things in public.

Now, let’s move on to extraversion. Perhaps the most surprising finding in my study was that comedians were more introverted than other people. We might expect comedians’ pursuit of fame and attention to place them high on extraversion. Actors, for example, tend to be extraverted. This result may suggest that comedians do not seek fame the same way as actors. The public perceives comedians as ostentatious and flashy. Their persona on stage is often mistakenly seen as interchangeable with their real personality, and the jokes they tell about their lives are considered by many to have a grain of truth in them. However, the results of this study suggest that the opposite is true. Perhaps comedians use their performance to disguise who they are in their daily life. Comedians may portray someone they want to be, or perhaps their act is a way to defy the constraints imposed on their everyday events and interactions with others. The apparent contradiction between their true personality and on stage persona that they choose to present really fascinates me. When I talked with comedians about it, most of them didn’t seem to be surprised at all, which validated my study. I am wondering if this tension between what they are in real life and what they are on stage explains why comedians choose this profession. Maybe comedians want to be someone or something different, and comedy is their way to express it. I sure want to study more of this aspect of their lives.

Comedians were also found to be slightly low on agreeableness, especially compared to writers. High agreeableness is associated with other groups, such as actors and politicians, and may relate to their desire to be loved by their respective crowds. We might expect the interaction between comedians and their audience would cause them to be sensitive to their reaction, in an attempt to make them laugh, the ultimate sign of the crowd’s love. However, just like with the case of their extraverted personality on stage, this expectation does not represent their real tendency to be less cooperative and more suspicious in real life. Most of a comedian’s work is writing and practicing their performance before they go on stage. This kind of work is highly individual and secretive, and comedians can be suspicious that others may steal their material. Stand-up comedy is a very competitive business and often involves diminishing the work of other comedians, which can explain why they are low on agreeableness. More generally, high-agreeableness people tend to be conformist, placid, kind-hearted—not good at derogation, mockery, or telling brutal but funny truths. Great comedy requires a nasty streak that pushes people out of their comfort zone.

There were no differences among the groups on neuroticism. Creative people like poets and writers are usually high on this dimension of personality, but they do not have to perform their creation on stage. Comedians, on the other hand, may need to have strong emotional stability (the opposite of neuroticism) in order to control their on-stage performance, just like people who engage in extreme sports, such as alpinists and mountaineers, have to control their anxiety. These myriad and contradictory parts of their work may result in average neuroticism for comedians. This moderate level of neuroticism places them on a similar level to actors.

The results of this study demonstrate the uniqueness of standup comedians in comparison to other vocational groups. As both creators and performers, they share some characteristics with other creators and performers, but are also distinct from each one of them. For example, comedians, unlike writers, know they are going to perform on stage, while writers usually do not perform their artistic creation. Comedians can also almost immediately see the results of their writing effort and adjust it appropriately. Writers’ work is much less flexible than that of the comedians, whose stand-up comedy performance could change on a daily basis due to their interactions with the audience. Actors and other performing artists can adjust their act to some degree, but they do not have the flexibility to change their act as much as comedians can. Comedians’ performances differ from those of other performers in the sense that the interaction with the crowd is the key to their success in every show. Not only do they get instant feedback from the audience, but they also can refine and modify their act, and this modification is crucial for their on stage survival.

One last thing: My study did not find any differences in personality between amateur comedians and professional comedians, or between professional comedians in different stages of their career. This may suggest that comedians can be seen on one continuum. Amateur comedians could become professionals in the future, and regardless if they will be successful comedians in the future, the same personality traits that drive professional comedians also drive amateurs.

In the next post I will discuss the health of comedians (you can find it here).

Gil Greengross, Ph.D., is a psychologist and anthropologist at the University of Mexico.

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