Mean vs. Kind Humor

Louis C. K., the Dobie Gillis show, and borderline personality

Posted Sep 08, 2015

Max Schulman was a heckuva sweet humorist. He wrote novels and plays. He created the lovable character of Dobie Gillis. On national television from 1959-1963, Dobie struggled valiantly and harmlessly in pursuit of wealth and pretty girls, and he did so alongside his work-averse and girl-shy friend, the beatnik Maynard G. Krebs. Schulman’s was the first television series to star teenagers. It was hopelessly giggly and life-affirming.

CBS publicity photo.
Source: CBS publicity photo.

And why was Center City, Dobie’s mythical hometown, portrayed as such a safe harbor for growing up? Why was the laughter aroused by “The Many Lives of Dobie Gillis” unfailingly friendly?

''All around me was poverty and sordidness,'' the New York Times’ 1988 obituary of Schulman quoted him as having said. “But I refused to see it that way. By turning it into jokes, I made it bearable…. Life was bitter and I was not.''

There is no hint in the Times’ obituary for Schulman of a traumatic past. So it may be that, while he knew life was bitter for others, it hadn’t been tough enough in a first-hand way to sour him. I’d argue that, by giving us Dobie Gillis, Schulman might have enhanced television viewers’ self-esteem. Seeing their own miserable foibles in those of sweet Dobie may have helped everyday people feel embraceable.

Are “affiliative” and “self-enhancing” forms of humor like Schulman’s inherently healthier than “aggressive” and “self-defeating” forms like, say, Louis C.K.’s? There are no longitudinal studies showing that one form of humor produces mental health or distress. But a multinational team reporting in Personality and Individual Differences has shown that aggressive and self-defeating humor are more prevalent in people with strong indicators of borderline personality, a psychiatric disorder characterized by poor self-control, self harm, volatile relationships, manipulative behavior, and angry outbursts. The National Institutes of Mental Health says borderline personality disorder affects about 1.6% of the general adult population in America. While some studies have shown a small genetic component to BPD, another body of research has tied BPD to profound childhood neglect and to long-term psychological or sexual abuse in childhood.

Shining a light on borderline personality, the team of researchers administered the BPD-related portion of the decades-old, tried-and-true Personality Assessment Inventory to 574 pairs of non-psychiatric, same-sex, adult twins in Australia. But they also administered a Humor Styles Questionnaire developed in 2003 at the University of Western Ontario. By and large, people who scored high on measures of borderline personality had relatively nasty senses of humor. They insulted their friends. They insulted themselves. They were no Max Schulmans.

There were a few nuances in the data that the researchers flagged as surprising. Most significantly to my eye was that, as a group, people scoring high on measures of borderline personality also scored high on measures of both self-enhancing humor and self-defeating humor. The researchers speculated that, as a function of poor self-control, people with borderline personality may go overboard in their comic descriptions of themselves, making themselves as laughable as they are funny. And that seems a reasonable interpretation. But I think this finding also raises the question of whether people with borderline personality disorder are more self-reflective in general than others. If, indeed, many come from childhoods steeped in abuse or neglect, does knowing first-hand how cruel life can be keep even their "funny eyes" on survival—and on how they’re doing?  

"If I had no sense of humor," Mahatma Ghandi wrote in 1928 after 35 years of closely witnessing British brutality to Indian peoples, "I would long ago have committed suicide." Ah, yes. But Ghandi was known for his self-control in pursuit of nonviolence. My guess is that he would score impressively low on indicators of borderline personality. So if this recent study holds water, I also suspect that, whenever he was funny, his remarks were far more Dobie G. than Louis C. K

For more information: Julie Aitken Schermer, Rod A. Martin, Nicholas G. Martin, Michael T. Lynskey, Timothy J. Trull, and Philip A. Vernon, Humor styles and borderline personalityPersonality and Individual Differences

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Coffey website
Source: Coffey website

By day Rebecca Coffey is a science journalist, contributing to Scientific AmericanDiscover, and Vermont Public Radio, and other radio and newspaper outlets. But by night Rebecca is a novelist and humorist.

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