4 Shocking Psychological Dark Sides of Being Funny

#2. Humor Is a Power Play

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Did you hear the one about the blonde who was so dumb that she was illiterate and unable to provide for herself? Wait, I got that joke wrong. Did you hear the one about the blonde who was so dumb that she was Polish? Whoops, wrong again. Did you hear the one about the blonde who was so dumb that the light bulb screwed her? Nailed it!

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As someone who loves laziness, I'm a sucker for an easy joke format. The one that keeps popping up in Twitter feeds now plays on pickup lines: "Damn, girl, are you a _____ because ____." I love the format because you can tell a lot about the comedian by the way they make their joke. Here's one from @TinyNietzsche that makes fun of the person on the other end:


And here's one from @SortaBad that flips the joke so that he's making fun of himself:


Both tweets tell us something about comedy -- every joke is like a power play. You're either using humor to assert yourself over others or you're giving others permission to laugh at you. But just so we're clear, making yourself the object of the joke is just as powerful and authoritative of a move as making fun of others. If I'm telling a blonde joke or using the old Polish joke format to disparage an entire ethnic group, that's overt, like walking around naked or having breasts.

If I'm setting myself up as the object of ridicule, that's more subversive, because several layers of manipulation have to happen for the joke to work. First I have to know how smart you are and trust that we're speaking the same language. Then I've got to play on how smart you think you are. Act too dumb and your audience will think you're pandering, pathetic, or, worst, actually stupid. Do it right and your audience not only laughs, but feels better about themselves somehow. Self-deprecating humor is magic, like farting in a room with two people and making the other person think they did it.

#1. Clowns Have Always Been Dark

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At this point the "clowns are scary" cliche is so old that the coolest kids dropped it six months ago. Ask hipsters what their favorite band is and they'll answer "Funny Clowns Who Are Funny, No Really" (out of Portland). Then they'll show you their latest Bozo collectibles while silently daring you to admit that you never really liked clowns. He knows you don't like clowns. That's why my imaginary hipster collects them, duh.

Nick Dolding/Stone/Getty Images
"I can't even tell what I unironically like anymore."

The thing is, no one who grew up in a post-It, post-John Wayne Gacy world ever saw clowns as anything other than horrifying. Even kids who grew up with Ronald McDonald as their primary clown figure don't like them. One study found that sick kids in hospitals don't even like pictures of clowns in their rooms, probably because they subconsciously know that the very facsimile of garish faces disrupts their healing process. The human immune system was never meant to share space with painted monsters.

Here's the question you might be asking yourself at this point: Knowing the knee-jerk contempt the Western world now has for clowns, why do they even exist? The answer is that clowns as we know them now are pretty modern, and that they're SUPPOSED to scare us. While fools and jesters and funny people have existed since forever, one comedian came up with the idea of painting his face white and wearing silly clothes, and the idea just stuck. His name was Joseph Grimaldi, and you can thank him for your nightmares. Before Grimaldi, clowns looked like this:

John Rich

After Grimaldi, clowns looked like this:

George Cruishank
If you look closely, you can see the difference.

One guy, one single freaking guy, said, "You know what this act needs? A shit-ton of makeup and overgrown baby clothes!" Before London pantomime Grimaldi slathered his face in white greasepaint, comedic performers wore a little rouge on their cheeks, like other actors. White-facing hit a sweet spot with London audiences, and Grimaldi became a bona fide celebrity. He was also an alcoholic who once made a suicide pact with his wife and had a son (also a clown) who drank himself to death.

Let's put it this way: Grimaldi debuts his white-faced character in 1802. Among the thousands of audience members who saw his act was Charles Dickens, who later ghost edited Grimaldi's memoirs and used his son as the model for the alcoholic character in The Pickwick Papers, which was published in 1836. Within 40 years of that book, the darkness of clowns was so sealed in the public consciousness that the world embraced Pagliacci, an opera that is literally about a clown who murders his wife. If you're keeping track, there was never a moment in this timeline when clowns were strictly for laughs -- in the public's mind, the association between clowns and discomfort was immediate. If you didn't know any better, you'd almost think modern generations claiming that clowns are scary is like modern generations calling the sky blue.

With that in mind, enjoy my favorite version of Lorde's "Royals."

For more jokes and zero clowns from Kristi, follow her on Twitter.

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