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Why Do Comedians Become Comedians?

Is there a connection between a comedian's childhood and career choice?

Key points

  • A study reveals that there is no support for the claim that comedians are more likely to have overprotective or neglectful parents.
  • The main difference between pro comedians and ordinary college students, according to one study, is that comedians were funnier as teens.
  • The motivation to be a comedian and actual humor ability are shaped in response to peers, not parents.

There is a widely held belief that professional comedians and clowns are sad or depressed. Opinions vary on the reasons for this alleged glumness but many think that its roots have to do with an unhappy childhood or troubled relationships with parents. According to this view, comedians’ performances on stage serve as a coping mechanism, enabling them to escape from their daily troubles.

Early studies of comedians' motivations

Early research showed that comedians are likely to come from a low socioeconomic stratum with approximately 80-85% of comedians coming from low socioeconomic homes. The harsh conditions at home may explain why comedians went on to pursue their careers. One of the commentators on my previous post explains why this might happen. Basically, because the competition is so hard, and the chances of succeeding in this business are very low, high-status individuals are better off looking for other jobs that are more likely to yield a good career, while low-status individuals have nothing to lose and hence can gamble on a career in comedy.

One study that have been conducted 30 years ago found that compared to a control group of professional actors and other entertainers, comedians were more preoccupied with themes of good and evil in their responses to interviews and projective tests.

The authors of the study attributed this finding to the fact that the parents of future comedians placed much responsibility on their shoulders early in childhood, requiring them to take on an adult role at an early age. They had to take care not only of themselves, but also of their siblings, and many of them worked as teens to support their parents. These untimely demands and heavy expectations put pressure on the comedians while growing up and drove them to seek approval, hence trying to be as “good” as their parents wanted them to be.

Falling short of parents’ expectations produced different responses from their parents. Fathers usually were disappointed that the comedians did not reach their high expectations; thus the comedians felt they were “bad” from their fathers’ perspective. Many of the comedians’ mothers expected them to fail, just waiting for this to happen. One of the main reasons why these comedians pursued a comic career was to prove that they are not bad and are doing “good.”

Compared to the actors, comedians typically described their fathers in much more positive terms, such as “good,” “nice,” and “respected.” On the other hand, they describe their mothers as being rule enforcers, disciplinarians, punishers, and aggressive critics. Many comedians acknowledged that they were spanked, hit, and punished when they violated their mothers’ rules.

In contrast, another study found that male comedians overwhelmingly reported being closer to their mothers, indicating that mothers played a more active role in their lives than did their fathers. Mothers were seen as more accepting figures than fathers, spending more time with them, encouraging them to pursue a comic career, and better understanding their need to become a comedian. Fathers were often absent during their childhood, or generally uninterested in their careers and even discouraged them from pursuing comedy. Fathers also failed in many cases to support their families, forcing the mothers to go to work. The fathers were also resentful of the close bond between the mothers and the aspiring comedians.

But wait: A subsequent study with female comedians found an opposite trend. Female comedians felt closer to their fathers, and several of them reported being raised without a mother, who died at an early age. Fathers were role models for the comediennes, and they grew up admiring them. Similar to the male comedians, fathers were generally described as poor providers, and the comediennes felt they needed to support and encourage them. Their mothers were described as unsuccessful, struggling, and unhappy, and most of them lived the traditional role of a housewife. Relationships with their siblings were good, overall, and interestingly, 55% of comediennes were the youngest child in the family.

These early studies found that comedians reported having good relationships with peers and siblings, though they often felt misunderstood, picked on, and disparaged. Comedians’ childhood experiences were marked by isolation, suffering, and deprivation feelings. In this view, being funny serves as a defense mechanism against panic and anxiety. Only when on stage could comedians enjoy a short period of relief from their fears. The conclusion of some researchers is that comedians are sad, depressed, suspicious, and angry.

All these experiences with their parents suggest that comedians become what they are in an effort to seek control, get approval from friends and family, and prove that they are good and worthy. Comedians’ performance on stage, in this view, comes as a defense or compensation mechanism for their melancholy lives, whereby they attempt to channel feelings of anger and anxiety into their comedy act and seek the love of the audiences. Using humor as a coping mechanism is not unique to professional comedians; humor has long been viewed as a healthy defense mechanism or coping strategy for adults as well as children.

But previous studies were largely based on projective tests and took a psychoanalytical approach that is now dated. Moreover, the comedy scene has changed dramatically since the time of these studies, and comedians today may be quite different from the ones studied in the past. Today there are many more professional comedians and aspiring comics, and many more comedy clubs that host several performances each week. Thus, a career in comedy may be less unusual and peripheral than it once was.

Assessing comedians' motivations today

To better understand what is going on, I used more modern tools to assess comedians’ relationships with their parents. Specifically, I wanted to try to answer two questions:

  1. Do professional comedians have unique relationships with parents compared to others?
  2. What were their experiences in school and the nature of the relationships they had with peers?

The results could shed light on what factors influence the pursuit of comedy as a career choice.

I gave them two questionnaires. One is called Parental Bonding Instrument (PBI) and measures parental styles as perceived by the participant in retrospect. Twelve items measure the parent’s “care” (e.g. “Was affectionate to me”), and 13 measure “overprotection” (e.g. “Tried to control everything I did”). The comedians completed one such questionnaire about their fathers and one about their mothers. The second measure I used was their relationship with peers. Comedians had to answer questions about friends in school, and about how much they used or engaged in humor-related activities back then.

Here are the main findings:

Overall, there were no differences in the way comedians describe how their parents treated them, compared to the students’ sample. This means that there is no support for the claim that parents were overprotecting comedians or didn’t give them enough care.

Major differences emerged in respect to the way comedians report having used humor with their peers during adolescence. Comedians scored significantly higher on each of the questions that pertain to humor activities with peers. Comedians reported making fun of themselves more than the students, were more likely to be the class clown, to be the butt of jokes, and to make fun of other people, compared to students. Comedians did rate themselves as popular as other students, and also reported having similar number of friends as students during the school years.

The results suggest that the interactions of comedians-to-be with people within the same age group are important to their development as comedians. This is consistent with the fact that humor is a social phenomenon. There is abundant evidence showing that people engage in humor and laugh more frequently when they are with other people than alone, and that humor plays an important role in peer bonding and attracting mates. Making fun of others and being the class clown allow individuals to connect with others. Granted, not all class clowns become professional comedians, but those who do might observe how others enjoy their humor, and decide to advance their skills toward the pursuit of a comic career. Comedians’ use of different types of humor growing up might have built their confidence, provided important experiences and contributed to the development of their personality.

Consistent with previous studies, I found that being the class clown was related to being popular in general, and was also associated with having more friends from both sexes. These relationships are stronger for comedians than for students, suggesting that comedians might use humor as a tool for social approval.

So the results give no support to the common view that comedians had especially difficult relationships with their parents (as indexed by the care and over-protectiveness scales of the PBI) or their adolescent peers. The main difference between professional comedians and ordinary college students is that the comedians recalled being funnier during adolescence. Humor is a social activity, and as such, we expect that the motivation to be a comedian and actual humor ability are shaped in response to peers, not parents.

In the next post, I will discuss the intelligence and humor styles of comedians (you can read it here).

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