Personality: Funny in the Head

What makes a comedian tick?

By Matthew Hutson, published on July 1, 2009 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

When Jim Gaffigan hears about fellow comedians getting married, his first reaction is, "'We're comedians. We're from another planet. You're mating with one of these humans?' As an occupation, comedy is very unconventional"—and draws unconventional people. So what's inside their alien DNA?

Stand-ups are often painted as both extroverted and neurotic. They complain to strangers for a living, after all. But new research analyzing 31 stand-ups reveals some surprises. First, they're more introverted than the average "human." "I suspect that comedians use comedy as a vehicle to enhance their status, maybe because they were less desired before they became comedians," says Gil Greengross, who co-authored the study with Geoffrey Miller, both of the University of New Mexico. And away from the mic, the job requires independent writing and travel, as well as career self-management.

Despite a few noteworthy worriers like Richard Lewis, comics aren't any more neurotic than other people. But they are more disagreeable. "We're observers," comedian Michael Showalter says. "A by-product is being judgmental."

Comedians are more open to experience, too—they're imaginative and curious. No surprise there. Gaffigan notes that observational comics like him try to look at mundane topics like bagging groceries from new perspectives.

Ten humor writers also participated. They didn't differ markedly from noncomedians, except that they were slightly more agreeable and much more open to experience—even more open than stand-ups. Why? Well, stand-ups, unlike writers (or actors), both create and perform material. ("We look at singer-songwriters as kindred spirits," Gaffigan says.) Writers can be more experimental. "Not everyone has to buy their books," Greengross says, "but in stand-up, people have to laugh or you're in trouble."