According to a tale in the Talmud, the prophet Elijah said that there will be reward in the next world for those who bring laughter to others in this one. Although comedians typically garner less prestige than other artists, they are no less creatively endowed and no less essential to society. In fact, comedians may play a far greater role in the psychological health of a society than previously realized. Experts at restructuring and reframing negative and tragic circumstances into humorous ones, comedians often accomplish on stage what therapists hope to accomplish in their offices. Those who seek an effective means of coping with and overcoming everything from minor life stressors to major tragedies would benefit from learning the way of the comedian.
As you read this, they are traveling across the country, sleeping in old cars or dingy motel rooms, driving from town-to-town, enduring lonely and uncomfortable nights away from home, arguing with difficult club owners, and boldly getting up on stages in front of drunk strangers who hurl everything from epithets to glassware at them. Why do they do this? To provide us with relief from our miseries; to lighten our loads; to share with us the joys and benefits of laughter. That is part of their motivation, but there is more.
Blessed with high intelligence and sensitivity, but often cursed with unpleasant or tragic circumstances, examples of famous comedians who have overcome traumatic childhoods or suffered through severe adversity abound. Both of Carol Burnett’s parents were alcoholics and she grew up on welfare with her grandmother. Describing the first time she heard the audience laugh while she was performing, she wrote:
What was it exactly? A glow? A light? I was a helium balloon, floating above the stage. I was the audience, and the audience was me. I was happy. Happy. Bliss. I knew then that for the rest of my life, I would keep sticking out my chin to see if I could ever feel that good again.
Richard Pryor grew up in an Illinois brothel where his mother worked as a prostitute and his father as a pimp. Among many other horrors, he was raped by a teenaged neighbor when he was six and molested by a Catholic priest during catechism. After being expelled from school at 14, he became a janitor at a strip club and later worked as a shoe-shine, a meat packer, a truck driver and a pool hall attendant.
Humorist Art Buchwald’s mother was committed to a mental institution when he was an infant and he was raised in seven different foster homes. Art expressed an awareness of the defensive value of humor when he said, “When you make the bullies laugh, they don’t beat you up.”
Comedic actor Russell Brand was raised by a single mother following his parents’ divorce when he was a child. He was molested by a tutor when he was seven, was bulimic when he was 14 and left home and began taking drugs at 16.
Stephen Colbert lost his father, Dr. James Colbert, and two brothers when he was 10-years-old in the September 11, 1974 crash of Eastern Airlines Flight 212 near Charlotte, North Carolina. Following the loss, Colbert says he became withdrawn and more involved in fantasy role-playing games: “I was motivated to play Dungeons and Dragons. I mean, highly, highly motivated to play it.”
In the biography I’m Chevy Chase and You’re Not, by Rena Fruchter, comedian Chevy Chase detailed an abusive childhood in which he “lived in fear all the time.” He recalled awakening in the middle of the night to someone slapping him repeatedly across the face for no discernable reason, and being locked in the bedroom closet for hours at a time as a form of punishment. “I was fraught with fear and low self-esteem,” Chevy said.
Joan Rivers has admitted that she grew up a loner and that her unhappy childhood contributed to her success as a comedian. She said, "There wasn't one good comedian I've known who was ever in the 'in' group at school. That's why we look at things so differently.”
Bill Cosby grew up in a housing project with an alcoholic father who was both abusive and neglectful. He, like many others who share his career choice, used comedy to create an alternative, happier world than the one in which he was living. Mr. Cosby said: “You can turn painful situations around through laughter. If you can find humor in anything, you can survive it.”
To fully understand how comedians relieve their own pain when they bring laughter and joy to others one simply needs to learn about what neuroscientists call “mirror neurons.” We all like to think we have free will to act as we wish, but other people’s actions have a significant influence on our thoughts and behaviors. Studies involving macaque monkeys led researchers to the discovery that just watching another person move will cause activity in the regions of your brain that would be activated if you were the one moving. This activation was found in neurons in the prefrontal cortex that were activated when a monkey watched another monkey reach for and break a nut. Researchers referred to these neurons as “mirror” neurons for their seemingly reflective qualities. If you watch a runner jogging down a street, the same area of your motor cortex that would become active if you were the one running will activate. If you observe that runner tripping over a curb and falling forward, your heart rate will increase and your own arm muscles will unconsciously flex as though you are the one trying to recover from the fall. In this way, the runner has affected you and altered certain aspects of your brain functioning.
The physical separation between people is bridged by a perceptual “oneness” created by mirror neurons. Comedians who induce laughter in an audience create a kind of positive feedback loop that transfers the pleasurable aspects of laughter back to them via the invisible bridge created by mirror neurons. Using the example of the runner tripping on the curb, imagine that you could control his body using just your mental will such that he was immediately up on his toes and running effortlessly again instead of in the process of crashing down to the sidewalk. If you intensely visualize actually getting the runner back up and on track, you will notice a physical jolt or lift within yourself. Those are your mirror neurons at work and that is a micro-example of what comedians experience when they draw laughs onstage.
The comedian’s sensitivity to their own pain makes them especially sensitive to the pain of others; and the relief of that pain in others helps to relieve their own pain. In this way, bringing their audience joy literally brings them joy. However, the relief of pain and the amplification of joy are not the only purposes or ends of comedians. Their craft also fits well into Matthew Arnold’s definition of art as a discipline offering criticism of life. Comedians induce us to critically examine injustices, hypocrisies and all that is pompous, overrated and morally questionable. While much of society spends its time laughing at the oddities of outsiders and those who are “different,” comedians, as outsiders themselves, frequently direct their humor at the insiders: often those who have abused or been corrupted by their power. Comedians, therefore, also serve a somewhat noble role in society by drawing the public’s attention to those who have become arrogant or hypocritical, and discouraging us from engaging in behaviors that contribute to making one the butt of jokes. The Anthony Weiner scandal and resulting whirlwind of wiener jokes is one example that comes to mind. John Dryden expressed this concept when he said: “The true end of satire is the amendment of vices.”
As the most prolific creators and sources of humor, comedians are not afraid to talk about the fears and concerns that most of us try hard to conceal or deny. By not only bringing them into the open but also laughing at and minimizing them, the comedian puts himself and his audience in control and the concealed fears dissipate in the shared light of day. Eighteenth-century German scientist and satirist Georg C. Lichtenberg said: “The more you know humor, the more you become demanding in fineness.” Those who induce us to laugh contribute to the development of our better selves, and we should not underestimate their influence or importance.
We have all heard of the “Way of the Warrior” and the “Way of the Buddha,” and we live the “Way of the Professional,” the “Way of the Academic,” the “Way of the Spouse,” the “Way of the Parent,” etc. But for those looking for a more uplifting path to a happier, healthier life, the “Way of the Comedian” could be the way to go.
Nichole Force is a doctoral student in Psychology and a member of Mensa, the high-IQ society. She has a Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology from Loyola Marymount University and believes laughter is the best medicine. Nichole studied improvisational comedy at the world famous Groundlings Theatre in Los Angeles, sketch comedy at the ACME Comedy Theatre in Hollywood, and is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. She is the author of Humor’s Hidden Power: Weapon, Shield and Psychological Salve