Coping Through Comedy
Childhood is emotionally scarring for everyone, to some degree. For every few that make it out alive and unscathed, there are more who suffered some trauma, wether it be neglect or abuse, creating a mound of insecurities to sort through as they aged. A need for validation and acceptance is born, leading many to act out and perform outrageous acts to be noticed and cared about. Those who manage to channel that energy into constructive activity as they reached adulthood have the potential to be successful, and one such category of people are comedians. Comedians, those who bring light to a dreary day but exploiting their own personal problems have a gift that is hard to replicate. This is because their talent for wit, satire, and observational comedy comes from a biological root, as the best comedians seem to suffer from various mental illnesses rooted in their insecurities. Mental illnesses are most commonly caused by a rough childhood or a traumatic event, as many may experience. Comedians are special, however, because they specifically tested higher than the average person for psychotic traits, which researchers speculate quintessential to create interesting material that is new and thought provoking, as these traits help comedians view the world in a more creative and intriguing way.
Although most, if not all comedians tested for high levels of these traits, that is almost where the similarities end, from a biological standpoint. Not every comedian is plagued by mental illness, but those that are potentially share the same disorder. While one would assume this would lead to similar thought patterns and ideas, in observing several comedian’s routines, we see that is not true. Cognitive functions vary for person to person, and past experiences will always influence how a person perceives and reacts to stimulus. As every person is unique in the world, the same rules apply to everyone’s work. No two people will produce the exact same work in any field, and the same is true for comedians. Coming from different backgrounds, each performer will create individual routines and bits based of of what they themselves have experienced and what is relevant to them. While one jokes about divorce and depression in one breath, another will take jabs at themselves for never getting a date in the first place due to social anxiety. Even performers who share the same struggles and situations have that creative worldview at their advantage and will never comment on a topic the exact same way, creating a plethora of interesting and hilarious choices and viewpoints.
In the wide spectrum of comedy, it’s difficult to determine where the line is draw between funny and not. There is a delicate balance that is difficult to maintain, as the extremes are either the routine is so safe it’s terribly boring, or so offensive and personal it is unwatchable. This fine line is tackled by Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren, who decided to delve into the world of comedy to explain why we find personal struggle of those we don’t know funny. They call their findings the “Benign Violation Theory of Comedy.” As stated in their research, “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,” meaning there is an endless pool of potential material (McGraw & Warren, 2010). These acts are considered funny because they are outside the audience’s perception of how the world should be, threatening their paradigm. The comedy comes in when the offending circumstances, or violation, is made out to be harmless, or benign. The correlation in why we find struggle funny is boiled down to two variables: distance and severity. 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. Talking about stubbing a toe two years ago is boring, safe comedy while joking about a terrorist attack barely weeks after is insensitive, unbearable, and unwatchable comedy. There needs to be a balance between the two extremes to create a great routine.
While it can’t help a performer find this balance, Benign Violation Theory has helped researchers understand how comedy helps with stress, anxiety, and depression. When the threat of a potentially offensive or dangerous violation is diffused, it becomes benign which, in turn, gives an audience the opportunity to release their stress through laughter, guilt-free. A comedian owes a paying audience a good show, so it is common to see intimate struggle come up in a routine, because that is what the performer would know best. The violation here, in general terms, is that a private life becomes public. While these topics are traditionally taboo and not meant for crowds of hundreds or thousands, audiences are given the chance to release themselves from their own troubles. By the Benign Violation Theory, the private stories violation is made benign because comedians have to power and skill to bring devastating topic to light, wether it be about failed relationships, social anxieties, familial issues, illegal drugs, depression, or anxiety, and spin them in a way that provides catharsis, helping people let go and laugh at an otherwise miserable situation. The stress relief works both ways, for when the performer expresses their thoughts, opinions, and troubles to an audience, he or she is able to better cope with the issue, making it a little less sad.
Comedy is a tough business to get by in, and has driven many to the absolute edge, resulting in self-harm and even suicide. Mental illnesses can be enough to break down the strongest of people, and those who are willing to bear all, even use their issues to their own advantage, are a sight to behold. Comedians have a hard enough job, getting in front of hundreds or thousands of people and helping them forget their troubles. These talented performers are laughing along with us (not at us) and use their own routines and fans to potentially help themselves. It takes a trained, skilled eye to manipulate that fine line between safe and offensive comedy, and those that succeed do the world and themselves a great good, and reminds everyone that while some circumstances may seem like the end of the world, there is always a way back. As stated by McGraw & Warren (2010), “Laughter and amusement signal to the world that a violation is indeed okay.” We all need our daily laugh to keep us moving on in hopes of a better, brighter tomorrow.
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.
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.
(New Source) Snow, Shane. “A Quest to Understand What Makes Things Funny.” The New Yorker. Condé Nast, 1 Apr. 2014. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.