4 Shocking Psychological Dark Sides of Being Funny


Every article about comedy should start with a joke. Here's mine:

Knock knock.

Who's there?

Me, Kristi Harrison.

What do you want?

The UPS guy accidentally delivered your package to my house and I brought it over.

Thanks, can you leave it on the porch?

Get it? Maybe I should let you in on the punchline. One, I'm homeless, and UPS doesn't deliver to the ditch where I lay my head at night. Two, there's a severed hand in the box. Tragedy + straight up lies + dismemberment = comedy, just like Patton Oswalt promised.

Amputations aside, from the moment we laugh at our own farts until the day we die (hopefully not from a horrifying fart disease), finding humor is what keeps most of us sane along the way. That's why it's easy to assume that comedy is a one-way street filled with joy and hilariously tiny clown cars. It's not. Comedy, like the Force, the moon, and what we now know about Michael Jackson, has a light and a dark side. And sometimes it feels like the dark side is winning.

Comedians Are Sadder Than Everyone Else

4 Shocking Psychological Dark Sides of Being Funny
Tommaso Altamura/iStock/Getty Images

Get a bunch of professional comedians in a room and you're probably going to be looking at a sad sack of potatoes. Or worse, a bunch of psychos. A study from the British Journal of Psychology found that comedians are more likely than others to admit to being easily distracted, antisocial, and compulsive and have less interest in connecting with other humans. Most of us would look at those qualities and say, "Sooo, comedians are kind of introverted?" Psychologists look at them and say, "CRAZY!" Probably because psychologists are still mad about flunking out of comedy school. Not good, either way.

4 Shocking Psychological Dark Sides of Being Funny
Holloway/Stone/Getty Images

"They said my jokes needed a quick PUNch up. So I PUNched/KILLED them."

Antisocial traits aside, think of the comedians who have struggled with drugs, alcohol, and depression. There's not enough space in this article to name them all, so let's restrict our list to the Jerrys for quick examples: Lewis, Seinfeld, and Jerry of "Tom and Jerry." Slapstick comedian/perpetual goofball Jerry Lewis wrestled with depression so hard that he claimed he would have committed suicide if not for hearing the laughter of his children running down the hall while he held the gun in his mouth. Jerry Seinfeld flippantly said a version of the same thing in a New York Times interview a few years ago. And as we've covered before, Jerry the Mouse straight up entered a suicide pact with his frenemy Tom.

4 Shocking Psychological Dark Sides of Being Funny
Turner Entertainment

The writers thought suicide by mutual vivisection would be too harsh.

I know what you're thinking: It makes sense for comedians who are famous for their observational humor to be extra vulnerable to depression. These people can't turn off the compulsion to keep digging at the world until they hit a truth, and comedy is how they spin that truth into something they can live with. That's why Chris Rock once called comedy "the blues for people who can't sing." Which kind of explains a lot, John Belushi-wise.

4 Shocking Psychological Dark Sides of Being Funny
Universal Studios

As if we needed a reason for The Blues Brothers to make sense.

Speaking of John Belushi, it's not just witty standups questioning the trivialities of everyday life who are prone to mental illness. Physical comedians like Charlie Chaplin, Jim Carrey, and needless to say John Belushi all struggled with their brain demons. There's actually something even more depressing about the guys whipping their bodies around to make you laugh. If comedians were protesters, the slapstickiest ones would be that Buddhist monk who set himself on fire to get attention for his cause. This is the part where I remind you to keep Richard Pryor jokes to yourself.

This is all terrible information for professional comedians, but what about everyday schmucks who just happen to be funny? Bad news, funny guy. You might be in trouble, too. A 70-plus-year longitudinal study of gifted children found that the kids who were described as funny by their parents, friends, and teachers were more likely to die earlier than their boring, unfunny peers. In other words, if life has dealt you a sharp tongue and quick brain rather than looks or money or an ass that won't quit even when the sun goes down, too bad, sucker. You're still going to die first. Enjoy being the jam in a coffin sandwich, jokers!

There is an upside to this equation, and I'm taking it to heart. You should, too.

Being Funny Isn't as Useful as Being the One Who Laughs

4 Shocking Psychological Dark Sides of Being Funny
John Howard/Digital Vision/Getty Images

The same people who conducted that 70-year study above also came to an interesting conclusion about the kids who were described as funny. Getting that kind of attention when you're a child requires a certain personality, specifically a loud, outgoing, look-at-me kind of personality, one that might grow up to be more risk-averse and eight-bally. Think back on the class clown of your group growing up. Was he or she really funny, or just loud?

4 Shocking Psychological Dark Sides of Being Funny
Pamela Mullins/Pam3la Art & Photography/Moment/Getty Images

Looks like we've got ourselves a future Sam Kinison here!

It's probably not fair to make life expectancy predictions based on how many people laughed at your classroom armpit farts. (Besides, some of us never figured out how to make armpit farts, so I can't imagine a more terrible measure of humor.) Here's the good news: Once you grow up, there's more to having a sense of humor than being the funny one on stage. Appreciating humor in others and in life itself is physically good for you, according to science. One study followed the medical records of 50,000 Norwegians for seven years. After ruling out placing banana peels on the floor and recording what developed, researchers assessed the subjects' sense of humor with three quick questions. (No, I don't know the questions, but I'm calling B.S. if one of them wasn't about a chicken crossing a road.)

4 Shocking Psychological Dark Sides of Being Funny
damircudic/Vetta/Getty Images

Answer: What's a chicken?

Everyone in the study was categorized into two groups by their sense of humor -- not "You're hilarious, you're in this group," but "You get it, you're in this group." In other words, subjects were grouped by their appreciation of humor, not how funny they were. Here's the crazy part: Over the course of the study, the mortality rate was 20 percent higher for the people who couldn't or wouldn't get the jokes on the quiz. Does that mean some Norwegian scientists straight up murdered people who didn't laugh at their jokes? Probably not. The people with a less-developed sense of humor were probably less equipped to deal with the stresses of everyday life. But for real, we'll never know. They might have been murdered.

A totally different study of patients suffering from end stage renal failure found even higher numbers: Those with a good sense of humor were 31 percent more likely to survive the two years of the study. We're talking endgame psychology here -- these people are getting poisoned to death by their own bodies. And for some of them, the difference between living and dying came down to how hard they could laugh at life. As someone who has specifically asked to have my persistent, shrill, horrifying cackle of a laugh edited out of Cracked podcasts, this is great news, because being on the laughing end of comedy is not only easier but healthier in the long run.

4 Shocking Psychological Dark Sides of Being Funny

Humor Is a Power Play

4 Shocking Psychological Dark Sides of Being Funny
Image Source/Image Source/Getty Images

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:

Friedrice Nietzsche Follow @Tinynietzsche Damn girl are you 1984 because orwell whatever Reply 13 Retweet * Favorite More BETWEETE EADBITEE 75 130 33

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

Brian Essbe Follow SortaBad Damn girl are you a keg because I'll pretend like I know how to tap that when my boys are around Reply 2 Retweet Favorite

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.

Clowns Have Always Been Dark

4 Shocking Psychological Dark Sides of Being Funny
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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.

4 Shocking Psychological Dark Sides of Being Funny
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:

4 Shocking Psychological Dark Sides of Being Funny
John Rich

After Grimaldi, clowns looked like this:

4 Shocking Psychological Dark Sides of Being Funny
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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