Dating back to the icon of Pagliacci, the crying clown, humans have had an unwavering interest in the duality of comedy and tragedy. While it may seem counterintuitive, many professional funnymen walk a tough line between jokes and seriousness. Time and time again, the most critically acclaimed punch lines have a sizeable amount of truth behind them.
The initial wave of popular comedic routines relied heavily on joke telling structure more than any other aspect. Classic knock-knock jokes and pun-filled riddles played around with language rather than human experience. Even on ancient vaudeville stages and beyond, physical slapstick comedy mustered great amounts of laughter to last for decades. It was only until stand-up performances became more conversational that small, genuine glimpses began to reveal why the people on stage were so charismatic to audiences.
Since then, jokes have transformed into confessions of neuroticism and individualistic observations of societal flaws. Although crafting an internally personal routine sounds like an isolating decision that would inherently weaken the success of a show, successful personalities from George Carlin to Louis C.K. have proven that people resonate with the truth. While presented in an individualistic manner, these innate feelings are in most cases universal, bonding groups together with relative laughter.
Through this successful practice, comics bare their souls on stage. In addition to eliciting a wholehearted response from crowds, this type of honest self-expression comes with some reciprocal effects. Many comedians have stated that performing on stage is similar to therapy for them. By expressing one’s personal stories through a microphone, many comedians are brought face to face with their own demons, whether it is their struggle with a dysfunctional relationship, a growing substance addiction or a mental condition that brings about similar distress. However, this alternative therapy has had mixed results. While legendary entertainers like Richard Pryor had successfully weathered through self-defining, yet emotionally turbulent acts, numerous others have succumbed to a variety of personal plagues.
One common and truthful expression displayed by comics is a heightened sense of neuroticism. The personality trait of neuroticism refers to a tendency to react to threats, frustration or loss with negative emotions. Individuals who have this trait lie on a wide spectrum, ranging from insignificant to excessive anxiety-related symptoms when confronted with minor challenges. There is a growing pool of data that supports neuroticism as a psychological trait that is heavily tied to mental health, having shown significant correlation with different mental and physical disorders and a strong comorbidity among them (Lahey, 2009). In fact, a particular study detailed that 20 to 45 percent of those identified with neuroticism showed coexisting signs of depression and anxiety disorders and 19 to 88 percent showed coexisting symptoms of alcohol and drug dependence (Khan et al., 2005). Due to these accumulative complications, those with these associated conditions seek out a higher degree of mental and general health services in order to treat each set of problems.
Unfortunately, this research is relatively new and undeveloped. On the other hand, neuroticism has been utilized as an underlying sense of strength for most performers for decades. Anxiousness and stress derived from even the most mildly inconvenient situations is a powerful fuel for comedic interpretation. Many of those in the comedy business firmly believe that natural, anxiety-driven content is the bread and butter for a comedian. As the evidence for each side continues to build, experts question of validity of whether using an individual’s neurotic and anxious condition is a harmful weapon or a useful tool.
For some, ironing out internal anxiety is much more than a tool, but a life-changing lease on life. Comedian Marc Maron conducts in-depth interviews in his podcast “WTF”, where he explicitly details his daily problems with others, his own life and all the unfounded anxiety in between to a dedicated following of fans. Successfully 15 years sober, the stand-up veteran expresses himself unconditionally twice a week for his digital audio broadcast, and has often cited it as a transformative phenomenon that turned him away from the brink of suicide.
Along with Maron, new generations are also benefiting from comedic outlets in more directly therapeutic ways. Under the guidance of Amy Alpine, Ph.D., a community of at-risk teenage boys is employing the art of comedy in their journey through adolescence. The practicing psychotherapist advocates that performing one’s daily struggles with his or her environment can alleviate anxiety and depression by shifting the individual’s perspective of the world. She has seen teens tackle problems like gang violence and racial prejudice on her stage and watched them effectively find a light in the darkness. Although the pathways that underlie anxiety and negative emotional responses are hard to change, the rewarding chemicals that result from making an audience laugh can reinforce the behavior of being funny rather than combative.
It may be this chemical reinforcement that drives comedians to continue a self-healing act of jokes and quips. If anything can be taken away from this, it is that although performing comedy is an unofficial form of therapy, it can still proactively change a person’s behavior in the same way conventional therapy intends to do. Better yet, it can be the first step in one’s confrontation with his or her true problems, hopefully leading to further and more professional treatment of some kind.
If you or a loved one experiences extreme levels of anxiety and lacks productive outlets, please contact the Anxiety Treatment Centers of California for more information on different treatment options. For additional resources, contact us online or call our 24/7 helpline at 855-972-9459.