Two Sides of the Mask: Comedy Born of Tragedy
There are two sides to comedy that exists in what can be referred to simply as a “light” and “dark” side. The light side, full of fun, cute ideas and jokes can be easy to grasp and perhaps master for the common person, but the dark side poses a different challenge. The dark side is dangerous territory, and needs a keen eye to pick and choose what terrible and potentially uncomfortable topics and circumstances can be deemed funny. There is a delicate balance between these two sides that only masters can manipulate to produce hilarious content without being so safe that it’s boring and so edgy that it is nearly unwatchable.
Luckily for comedians today, there is a study known as the Benign Violation Theory of Humor developed by Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren that delves into discovering where this line where tragedy become comedy is drawn. As stated by McGraw & Warren (2010), benign violations in comedy are anything from bizarre and unusual social acts, to physical deformity, to physical threats, so there is a wide range of potential topics to address. These acts are considered funny because they are outside status quo, and anything outside of one’s perception of how the world should be is funny, so long as the threatening situation is benign. McGraw & Warren further comment on the correlation between distance and comedy. In their studies, they found that a small mishap, like a stubbed toe, is only funny when in close proximity as opposed to years in the past, while a serious tragedy is not funny when in close proximity, but as time goes on, it is able to be joked about, and can even be an emotional release for most, including the comedians themselves. In most cases, the greater the distance, the funnier something can be.
Humor helps individuals with anxiety, grief, depression, and even physical pain. In this context, comedians have a duty to their audiences, wether the audience is aware of it or not, to provide an outlet or a release from tragedies large and small. Comedians even have a large part in subconsciously helping themselves, as comedy is a very common form of self-help, and is frequently used as a defense or coping mechanism. Especially for comedians with mental illness, their acts can be therapeutic in a way as they have the power and skill to bring devastating topic to light, wether it be about substance, physical, or emotional abuse, depression, or anxiety and spin them in a way that provides catharsis, helping people let go and laugh at an otherwise miserable situation.
The disorders associated with comedians such as depression, anxiety, and psychosis can be the key to why they are able to help others. Some of the greatest therapy in the world is said to be making others happy, and that’s exactly what comedians do best. As mentioned previously, tragic and bleak situations are flipped and observed in a way to make them funny. These tragedies help in several ways. Mental illness is commonly caused by a rough childhood or other physiological factors or traumatic event. In turn, comedians tested higher than the average person for psychotic traits, and many researchers speculate that these traits are quintessential to create interesting material that is new and thought provoking, as these traits help comedians view the world in a different, more creative way. Due to the roots and having experienced it first hand, many comedic routines focus on a rather depressing instance in the performer’s life to be made funny, which not only provides release for the audience, but for the performer him or herself, making the situation in question a little less sad. As stated by McGraw & Warren (2010): “Laughter and amusement signal to the world that a violation is indeed okay.” It’s a comforting notion in a way, that comedians need comedy as much, if not more, than the we do.
(New Source) Mcgraw, A. P., C. Warren, L. E. Williams, and B. Leonard. “Too Close for Comfort, or Too Far to Care? Finding Humor in Distant Tragedies and Close Mishaps.” Psychological Science (2012): 1215-223. Web. 3 Nov. 2015.
(New Source) Mcgraw, A. P., and C. Warren. “Benign Violations: Making Immoral Behavior Funny.” Psychological Science (2010): 1141-149. Web. 3 Nov. 2015.
Khazan, Olga. “The Dark Psychology of Being a Good Comedian.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 27 Feb. 2014. Web. 3 Nov. 2015.