Stand-up Psychology: What Makes Comics Funny

In Sigmund Freud’s 1905 book titled The Joke and Its Relation To The Unconscious, there is a quote, “…jokes have not received nearly as much philosophical consideration as they deserve in view of the part they play in our mental life.”

It’s been over a century and still the quote proves valid as day by day I see the joy that comedy brings to the masses, while the recipients take either no or few conscious notices to just how important the mental relief comedy actually is to both performer and audience.

For those who spend their lives making people laugh, the art of humor is not just a show or a whim. It is a talent, a gift – a rare one at that. It can also be a deeply healing experience for comic and audience alike.

The path for a stand-up is not like that of a lawyer, doctor or investment banker. In fact, there isn’t a suitable comparison. It takes a person with an immense amount of wherewithal [and guts] to strive to be one, someone who realizes in full that comedy is a lifelong pursuit in which there are no guarantees.

Most comedians begin their career with a feeling we can all relate with: the fascination of a dream. Many of us have felt the passion of doing something with our lives, yet as we grow older, the pressures of society, of our parents expectations or our day jobs, get in the way of that once-upon-a-time desire to try something off the beaten path. But those who choose stand-up comedy make a far different choice than most.

Becoming a stand-up comic is a lifestyle decision, one that weeds out those who refuse to stare years of “failure” in the face.

As comedian/podcaster Marc Maron [WTF with Marc Maron] plainly put it, “Honestly, in the first year or so – unless you’re a wizard – you’re going to get the shit kicked out of you. But it’s a drive to say I think I’ve figured something out here. The way I thought about something connected with people.”

To be able to perform stand-up comedy and pound the pavement until finding an ultimately self-comforting base is truly an astonishing feat.  Years of open mics, emceeing, enduring heckles, side conversations and low payments take a toll on the emotional state of stand-up comedians.

Still, knowing all this, these intelligently brave – some of the most intelligent I’ve met – souls still go through with the career. It’s that mystifying drive to be on that stage. They want it. Some even go so far as to say it’s a calling and that they have to do it. “What else would I do?” they ask.

Some have a desire to be famous. Some yearn to be a teacher to the crowd, to connect, to heal. There are those who feel they possess a power to notice little idiosyncrasies in our culture, things ‘normal’ people tend to let slip by the wayside. They feel they have ideas of which are distinct, and by propagating onstage they might be able to let others – we, the people; we, the audience – also see how sensationally fucked-up a society we communally are.

But more often, like some many other things in our lives, the desire to perform comedy spawns from unresolved childhood and adolescent conflicts or unmet needs. The lessons and knowledge gleaned while at the age of children and young adults are deeply left upon their impressionable heads.

Maron remembers his childhood. “I was always cracking jokes and trying to be friends with people, but I felt innately uncomfortable underneath all that…. [M]y parents were very self-involved. My father was very erratic. There was no discipline in the house. There was no emotional attention, I thought. They were driven by a certain amount of worry. They were incapable and are still incapable of really being parents…. I was left to my own devices to function.

“I’ve grown to believe that a lot of the early comedy I did that antagonizes and defies the audience to like me was some sort of extension of what I went through with my parents. It was a journey of self-ownership. All I wanted to do, ever, was to have a point of view, a philosophy about life, and an outlet to have it.”

Many comedians seem to have been shy adolescents, yet as adults they drift toward the spotlight as a way to challenge the pain. Still socially awkward, they become god-like on the stage, masters of the universe.

I spoke with comedian/podcaster Jimmy Pardo [CONAN; host of the award-winning podcast Never Not Funny] who said, “It’s a weird thing, stand-up. I think it’s all about it being on our terms. If I show up at a party with real people, I’m a mess. I don’t know how to talk to anyone or hold a conversation. Everyone thinks I’m an aloof asshole, probably. But when I’m onstage, I can talk to strangers no problem. It’s an odd thing…. I spent years wanting attention and wanting acknowledgement and not wanting to be the short guy and not to just be in the background. I think every comic has that insecurity…. Stand-up lets me do that. It got me on stage. We [comedians] were the outsiders, the outcasts. I used comedy to not get beat up and not be picked on. I’d outsmart people by using words. I think insecurity certainly plays into it a great deal.”

Some comedians are primarily driven by the desire to be seen and heard which stems from the oppressive atmosphere of their childhood and adolescence or the lack of attention received. They seek to express their thoughts freely or grab that attention from anyone willing to accept them.

“In retrospect, I think really what it was about was actually for me to have a voice,” explains Marc Maron, “to have the audience, and to have my own space to speak my mind any fucking way I wanted.

“There’s something about stand-up. It’s all you. I needed stand-up as a way to get a handle on things. I tried to get a point of view on this overwhelming world.”

Once comics step onto the stage, they find themselves becoming the person they’ve always wanted to be – the fearless self, the popular kid with friends, the sibling who their parents paid the most attention to. The experience of performing comedy proves as palliative as therapy.

“I went through a phase where I was very angry onstage, but I think that was part of the process,” explains Pardo. “Not only the process of being a better comic, but also being a better person. Getting that anger out onstage, I was sort of like, You will all pay for me not making the basketball team. Pay no attention to the fact that I’m five feet tall. But you’re all going to pay for the fact that I didn’t make it. It was something I had to work through, and by doing that I found who I am today.”

“If I have a bad day,” says Myq Kaplan [CONAN; Last Comic Standing], “I can go [onstage] and not even talk about the bad day, but performing does, I think, release endorphins. It gets adrenaline going. I feel better after performing.” The euphoric nature that stand-up comedy offers seems to fit well into nearly every comic’s mind. “[Stand-up] was a way to be healed,” says Pardo. “Stand-up lets you be who you really are. When I’m on that stage for one hour, there’s not another worry in the world. It’s all about the show. You don’t think about anything else.” Maron puts it simply as, “You feel less alone.”

When it comes to how a comic makes us laugh, the specific material they choose grows out of the same hidden desire to resolve childhood and adolescent conflicts that first led them to perform.

“There are themes that I’ve talked about my entire career. It’s an evolving conversation as I get older and experience more,” says Maron. When self-deprecation is the focus of a comic’s performance, it’s often an attempt at healing self-worth. The comic releases unto the world what they think is wrong with them – a kind of preemptive defense. If it is out in the open, what is there to laugh at? With self-deprecating humor, the stand-up comedian keeps total control of the room and, ideally, how they are laughed at.

“For me,” says Kaplan, “it’s not about what I think is wrong with me. It’s about the perception that people might have of me, of what I look like, what I seem like, how I talk, the things that I say about myself. If I’m laughing at me, and you’re laughing at me, then you’re laughing with me by definition.”

And laugh we do because these themes strike a universal chord. We identify with the pain, confusion, or anger underneath the humor, entering into moments of self-consciousness in which our truest vulnerabilities and secrets have been put into words and exposed.

“Laughter can come from the truth or the opposite of truth.”  says Kaplan. When a comic delivers a line onstage that we can either understand because we also feel it or because we “don’t feel it and are too afraid to identify with the emotion,” according to David Heti, something inside of us clicks unconsciously and we laugh.

Personally, comedy came into my life through my mother. A career as a nurse meant working late nights, which got her back home around 11:20 PM, just in time to turn on the Late Show with David Letterman. Because of her, of Dave and even Paul Schaffer, I was introduced to this world that left me in utter awe. Dave’s mannerisms, reactions and gravitas in the realm of comedy was something I, even at that age, found unbelievably intriguing. I still do to this day. The question of who was on Saturday Night Live was one thrown around every week; certainly not the case in every household. Strange, I remember thinking. These poor people.

My obsession with comedy stayed with me throughout college, only enhancing when I found myself being a script intern at Late Night with Conan O’Brien during my senior year. For six months, I was immersed in the world I loved. It was non-stop stand-up, improv and sketch. It was comedy.

I learned through that experience that the man or woman who doesn’t shy away from the spotlight, the one who stands confidently and independently onstage, incessantly spouting thought after thought without the knowledge – and sometimes without the care – of what an audience’s reaction will be is a far braver soul than I. Watching stand-up gives me a vision of me that I know is real in my head, but one that I cannot seem to enact in my everyday life. Comedians may be far less “fucked-up” than any of us because with enormous courage and creativity, they address the issues that concern them.

Through their art, comedians have found an interesting way to go about the process of becoming whole, and at the same time, generously give the audience an insightful, entertaining evening and well-needed relief from their troubles.

Comedy is one of life’s great paradoxes. What makes a joke good is that it instantly takes us into the deepest reaches of our psyche and at the same moment, it allows us to lose our minds.


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3 Comments on Stand-up Psychology: What Makes Comics Funny

  1. Thats what I’ve been tryin to say! Amazing read your brilliant. Thanks for connecting, nice to know that I’am not digging alone down here, its cold up on the surface. You’ve inspired and enlightened bringing me closer to my goals and dreams, thanks!

  2. Great article. I’m a comedian and it feels good to have someone accurately appreciate the craft. And it is strange how we, as a society, still do not respect the profession and its role as much as we should.

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