Humor Sapiens

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

Comedians’ Smarts, Humor, and Creativity

How intelligent are stand-up comedians?

In my previous posts, I have discussed the unique characteristics and experiences of comedians. In this post, I would like to discuss two traits that are somewhat related to each other: intelligence and sense of humor. One might wonder, why should I write about comedians’ humor; after all, it is clear they are funny. But as you will see, there is much more to it. Let’s start with intelligence, though.

Comedians have the opportunity to demonstrate different kinds of intelligence that are relevant to their lives and performances, for example, emotional and social intelligence. These are the kinds of smarts that give you the advantage when interacting with other people. Both of these intelligences are crucial to comedians’ success on and off stage. Off stage, comedians need to deal with bookers, club managers, and fellow comedians all the time. If a comedian does not know how to behave well, clubs will not invite him or her to perform. In order to succeed in comedy, you need to have the maturity and courtesy to engage with strangers, show up on time, and so on. There are a few comedians that lack the emotional and social intelligence needed in the business of comedy, and quite frankly, act like jerks at times. No club managers would like to hire them.

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On stage, comedians need to know how to respond to the audience. The ability to fine tune an act and tailor it to a specific audience is largely related to emotional intelligence. Comedians need to be sensitive to how their act is perceived, and this sensitivity is essential to their success.

Of course, being generally intelligent could take a comedian a long way. I have studied this kind of intelligence with stand-up comedians. Let me share with you some of the findings. 

The most widely used measure of intelligence is the Wechsler test, known as an IQ test. This test is comprised of 10 different subsets that together give a measure of general intelligence. (It contains verbal, reasoning, perceptual and memory tests to name a few. You can read more about it here). This test takes hours to complete and is the most common assessment of intelligence. It gives a numeric score where an average intelligence measures at 100 exactly. Mental retardation scores are 70 and below, and if you score above 130, you are in the top 2% of the population and can join Mensa.

Samuel Janus conducted two studies almost 40 years ago that measured the intelligence of nationally famous comedians who had worked as full time comedians for at least 5 years. The first study, which included a sample of 55 male comedians, found they had well above average IQs, ranging from 115 to 160, with an average of 138. In a subsequent study with 14 female comedians, IQ scores were also high, ranging from 112 to 144, with an average of 126.

I do not possess the expertise to administer a full IQ test, so instead, I used one subset of the test. It’s a 46-item vocabulary test that requires the respondent to choose a word with the nearest meaning to the word given. This test is known to correlate well with overall intelligence. Comedians significantly outperformed students on this task, giving indirect evidence to their superior intelligence.

In addition to testing their intelligence, I also gave them a humor production test. I used the famous cartoon caption task that The New Yorker publishes every week. In essence, comedians (and students) were given three cartoons without captions and were instructed to write as many funny captions as they could think of, for all cartoons, in 10 minutes. Independent judges that did not know the identity of the subjects rated all cartoons on a scale from 1-7. This is a good measure of spontaneous humor that is used as a method that separates individuals with a creative sense of humor from others. The results showed that, as expected, comedians produced funnier captions than the students and also generated higher numbers of captions.

It might not be surprising that comedians were considered funnier and have better verbal skills, since their job is to be funny using verbal humor, but it is important to remember that their performances on stage require different humor qualities than the caption creation task. Creating humor that is performed in front of an audience requires a large investment in time and includes endless practice and tuning in to the audiences’ reactions. It is not necessarily the same skill as producing humor in response to an ambiguous stimulus, though both tasks probably share the same talent to some extent. The ability to be funny can manifest itself in different ways, even if comedians are not particularly familiar with this type of humor creation task. Also, I found a strong positive correlation between intelligence and humor production ability. The smarter a comedian is, the better he or she are in producing high quality humor.

Next, I wanted to assess other dimensions of humor among comedians. Recently, Rod Martin developed a new self-report questionnaire to measure both positive and negative uses of humor. The questionnaire measures two positive uses of humor in everyday life (affiliative and self-enhancing) and two negative uses (aggressive and self-defeating). Affiliative humor promotes social bonds and puts others at ease through telling jokes, saying funny things, and not taking oneself too seriously. Self-enhancing humor is the ability to see the funny side of life even in adverse and stressful times, and to use humor as a coping mechanism. Aggressive humor aims to tease and ridicule others through putdowns, mockery, and ridicule, typically to enhance one’s social status at the expense of the victimized individual (as in other-deprecating humor) or group (as in sexist or racist humor). Self-defeating humor amuses others at one’s own expense through making oneself the “butt” of jokes and laughing with others after being disparaged, although it can also be valued as self-deprecating humor. Professional stand-up comedians use a mix of humor styles, both positive and negative. Many use aggressive humor on stage, including sexual and ethnic humor, which is often popular with audiences, even if it does not reflect comedians’ personal views or private humor use. As I mentioned in my previous post, comedians’ personalities off stage could be markedly different than on. Comedians tend to display an extraverted personality on stage, but are quite introverted in real life. This discrepancy suggests that their everyday styles of humor might be different not only compared to other people, but also compared to their on-stage persona.

What I found was quite interesting. Comedians scored higher than students on each of the four dimensions of humor. But the overall pattern of use across humor styles was similar for comedians and students, with affiliative humor the most often used, followed by self-enhancing humor, aggressive humor, and self-defeating humor.

One interesting difference between the professional comedians and students is that all four of the humor styles tended to be correlated with various Big Five personality traits among students, whereas only affiliative humor was significantly correlated with any of the Big Five traits for comedians. This finding suggests that, for students, their everyday styles of humor reflect their personality traits more clearly. For example, high levels of conscientiousness in students are revealed by lower use of aggressive and self-defeating humor. In contrast, comedians’ Big Five personality traits seem less manifest in their everyday humor styles, apart from affiliative humor. This suggests that, because of their constant immersion in many types of humor, the everyday humor styles of comedians may become less closely tied to their personality traits. For example, their tendency to use an aggressive style of humor is less clearly a reflection of low agreeableness or low conscientiousness than it would be in the general population.

Affiliative humor plays an important role in comedians’ social lives and is crucial to their professional success. Comedians’ affiliative humor is the only style with strong correlations with their Big Five personality traits, including openness, extraversion, and agreeableness. Openness to experience and agreeableness probably promote comedians to engage with other people in social situations, and the resulting pleasant atmosphere could help facilitate humor.

It is not surprising that professional stand-up comedians scored higher than college students on each of the humor scales. Comedians surround themselves with humor and devote their careers to observing, analyzing, creating, practicing, and performing humor. They think about new material every day, write jokes for their act, perform on stage with clear feedback from audiences, and watch other comedians, with whom they discuss their work.

What might be surprising are comedians’ relatively low scores on the negative humor styles (aggressive and self-defeating) compared to the two positive styles. This is a striking difference from their on-stage use of humor, which is often hostile and aggressive, making fun of the audience, telling sexist and racist jokes, and using foul language. This discrepancy in humor styles epitomizes the difference between comedians’ apparent on-stage personas (aggressive, extraverted) and their private personas (generally nice, and surprisingly introverted, compared to both comedy writers and college students). On the other hand, comedians’ scores on negative humor styles were substantially higher than those of college students.

I also wanted to see if humor styles can predict comedians’ success. I used a proximate measure success by asking comedians what was the number of weeks they performed in the previous year (more weeks = more successful). I found that success was predicted positively by affiliative humor and negatively by self-defeating humor, meaning that higher scores on affiliative humor and lower scores on self-defeating humor predict their on-stage success.

The ability to laugh with other people, share humorous stories, and put others at ease by using humor is no doubt an important role of a successful comedian, and hence explains why affiliative humor was a significant predictor of their on-stage success. Comedians must be sensitive to audience reaction and tune their act accordingly. Even if they use aggressive humor in their performance, they still have to take into account what a specific audience finds funny. Those who are high on affiliative humor may have an advantage since they can bring their own social experience to the stage. Comedians who score low on this scale may be more likely to “lose” the audience, and not know how to adjust their act properly. Comedy club patrons may prefer booking comedians who are friendly and confident as measured by affiliative humor style.

By contrast, the use of self-defeating humor in everyday life negatively predicted comedians’ professional success. Clearly, self-defeating humor is a negative humor style that could have a harmful effect on an individual’s well-being. Self-defeating humor is usually regarded as a destructive humor style, a style that individuals use to make fun of themselves and let others make jokes at their expense. Of all humor styles, this is the type that is used least often by comedians and others. Comedians who score high on self-defeating humor are perceived to be weaker, having a lower status, less dominant, and even more pathetic, and hence less funny. It is also possible that self-defeating humor impairs relationships with club managers, agents, and other comedians, and thereby reduces comedy club bookings in a business that relies heavily on good social skills. Previous research has consistently shown that self-defeating humor is associated with low self-esteem, lack of self-confidence, anxiety, and depression. Consequently, comedians who often use self-defeating remarks might be viewed as insecure, low status, and destined for failure. My previous research showed that low-status individuals who use self-deprecating humor are perceived as less attractive by people of the opposite sex, and this effect might apply to professional relationships as well. Comedians also need to be savvy to succeed in the comedy business, both on and off stage. As mentioned above, comedians appear to have higher than average intelligence and intelligent comedians scored lower in self-defeating humor in this study. This implies that smarter comedians know when self-deprecating humor shades over into self-defeating humor.

Overall, the results of this study suggest that professional stand-up comedians are a distinct vocational group: they score higher on all humor styles, on humor ability, and on verbal intelligence than college students, but they also show different patterns of correlations between Big Five personality traits and humor styles, and a discrepancy between on-stage persona and private personality. Comedians’ professional success depends not just on their short-term spontaneous humor production ability, but also on their long-term skill, dedication, and ambition in crafting and refining an effective act that can be modulated for different audiences in different cities with different tastes, traits, backgrounds, and levels of inebriation. It also depends upon their fluent, strategic use of affiliative humor and self-deprecating humor when interacting with club managers, booking agents, and other comedians.

My next and last post will discuss the question of gender and comedy (you can read it here).

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

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