Crying Clowns: Comedy’s Relationship with Mental Health

Not every funny person is crying tears of laughter.

The sad clown is one of the most well-known paintings out there. It stands alongside dogs playing poker as one of the finest American artworks ever created. Whether you agree with that statement or not is down to personal preference but there is something about the image of a sad clown that has endured in pop culture for decades. The juxtaposition of a clown, the mascot of laughter and fun; to be sad and crying is something that a lot of people find fascinating. Unfortunately, what a lot of people don’t seem to realize is that the sad clown is far more common than they think. It’s a paradox. The ones who spend their days making people laugh and bring happiness are often the ones who go home and feel sadness. The saddest thing about it is the fact that many of the ones who laughed at the jokes will never know anything is wrong. Many professional comedians struggle or have struggled with mental health issues in their lives.

A 2014 study showed that comedians are more likely to have traits linked to psychotic disorders. A different study, also from 2014 found that comedians make more negative remarks about themselves than other types of performers. 1 While it’s harder to track people who aren’t well-known, it’s safe to say that many non-professional funny people also suffer from these issues. The question is why. What is it about mental illness that causes people to be funny? Does one cause the other, do they come as a package or is it just a coincidence?

The honest answer is that there isn’t one. It could be any one of those answers. There’s scientific data to back up all of them. The other truth is that it doesn’t matter. What matters is the fact that comedy and mental health are very much intertwined. When someone is funny, whether it be on TV, or just someone you know, it’s important to understand that their laughing exterior may just be masking an inner pain.

The Best Medicine

Robin Williams in Patch Adams.

It is important to note that not every funny person struggles with mental health issues and likewise not everyone who struggles turns to comedy. However, there is enough of a correlation that studies have been done on comedians for decades. To understand what drives someone with depression, anxiety, or any other mental health issue, towards humor, one must understand the old saying that laughter is the best medicine. It turns out that Patch Adams was on to something because that isn’t just an expression. Laughter really does have positive effects on your brain. Laughing releases endorphins in the brain. Endorphins interact with opioid receptors in the brain and cause you to feel good. 2 Opioid drugs like heroin interact with these receptors in much the same way. As far as your brain is concerned, laughing is like taking heroin, without all the bad stuff that comes with heroin.

If laughing makes you feel good then making people laugh provides a greater sense of euphoria. It feels good to make others feel good, it’s a natural human response and so to someone who never feels good about themselves, providing laughter gives them a sense of gratification. On a simpler level, laughter is contagious. When your brain detects laughter, it preps you to join in. 3 That shared feeling connects people and brings them all to the same level. When professional comedians say that they were shy kids or didn’t have many friends, it makes perfect sense that they would gravitate towards humor. It gives them an easier time to do something that they might not be comfortable with. Socializing.

Ryan Reynolds.

Ryan Reynolds said in an interview with The New York Times that to cope with his anxiety, he does interviews as his comedic superhero character Deadpool. 4 While that’s just one example, it’s a great condensation of the reason why so many chose comedy to help them cope. To a comedic person with mental health issues, they feel they aren’t good enough, but the funny character inside of them is.

“I figure if you’re going to jump off a cliff, you might as well fly.”

Ryan Reynolds

Tragedy + Time

There’s another old saying in comedy that says comedy equals tragedy plus time. This statement holds some weight whether or not a person is funny or suffers from any mental health problems. Humans frequently use humor as a coping mechanism when they find themselves in times of tragedy. 5 It goes back to the endorphins. In times of distress, we want to feel better. That’s why it’s easy to look back at something bad that happened to you in the past and find the humor in it and laugh. It makes you feel better. That’s also why a lot of people with depression become comics. They work to find humor in every situation because they’re never happy with where they are. Humor helps them to process what they feel is wrong in life.

Stephen Colbert.

This is where the other end of comedy’s relationship with mental health comes in. Many people chose a life of humor not because they struggle with mental health but to help someone else who does. It’s perhaps the most natural response when someone you know is sad, to try to make them laugh to cheer them up. That’s one of the wonderful things about comedy, it isn’t just a tool to help oneself, it can be used to help others. Stephen Colbert got into comedy for this very reason. At the age of ten, he lost his father and two of his brothers in a plane crash. In a 2015 interview with Howard Stern, Stephen revealed that he turned to humor not to help himself cope, but to help his mother. Whenever he saw that she was depressed, he did what he could to cheer her up and to him that was to make her laugh. Seeing how laughter helped his mother, it was only a matter of time before he decided to spread that same joy to others. When you spend so much time using comedy to help someone it’s only natural to want to continue down that path.

I can talk to all of you, but I can’t talk to any of you

Jerry Seinfeld

The want or need to make others laugh is admirable because it is their way to spread joy to others. Joy that they may not have. Why though, would someone with depression and/or anxiety want to partake in what is by all accounts a very stressful job? Why would someone who finds it hard to socialize be okay with performing to an audience for a living?

In a 1975 study for the American Journal of Psychoanalysis that was conducted on fifty-five comedians, Samuel Janus came to the conclusion that humor gives comedians a sense of control in situations in which they would feel powerless without it. 6 That’s why a shy, introverted person with anxiety can go on stage and perform for strangers but still be uncomfortable at a party full of people they know. On a stage they are in control and their jokes are their way of expressing what troubles them. Even outside of performing, comedy is often used by people as a way of diffusing situations they feel tense or uncomfortable in. An audience laughing at their jokes gives them a sense of personal gratification.

“When you are always wrong, you seek an audience to disprove that theory.”

Richard Lewis

No Pressure

Chris Farley.

There’s a pressure to being known as a funny person that many don’t realize. When people know you as funny, that creates a certain expectation in them. The expectation to always be funny can make it seem like no one cares about the real you. Many comedians feel pressured to not disappoint their fans and so they’re always in performance mode. The thought that a fan walks away from a meeting without laughing is unacceptable to a lot of comics. For many of them though, their comedy is just one side of them and the thought that people only care about you for your jokes can cause feelings of depression and low self-esteem. Whether or not they are using comedy as a coping mechanism or they’re just funny and want to share that with the world, nobody wants to be funny all the time. These are real people with a wide range of emotional states. The thought of disappointing someone who expects them to be funny often leads comedians to never leave their house without their proverbial mask on and the real them is always left at home. This inability to be your true self whenever you want can be devastating to one’s mental health.

Chris Farley believed that even those closed to him only cared about him to laugh. It’s believed that was the cause of the drug addiction that led to his death. It’s a sad thought to think that bringing laughter in the world could lead to such a tragic outcome but for many comedians, the want and need to please people becomes too much.

A Psychiatrist Walks into a Comedy Club

Patton Oswalt performing a stand up special 1 year after his wife’s death.

Once again, it’s important to remember that not every funny person struggles with their mental health and vice versa. However, there’s a reason that the Laugh Factory, a famous comedy club in Hollywood, has an in-house therapist. A lot of people who struggle with their mental health turn to comedy to help them. At the same time, the pressure of making everyone laugh all the time can take its toll on someone.

There is a reason that not every comedian was their class clown in school or isn’t telling jokes everywhere they go, because the stage is the space where they’re in control. Jokes are their defense mechanism for when they feel vulnerable or powerless or when someone they care about feels the same way. Some people are funny all the time and are perfectly fine with it, while others use their humor as a healing tool. Regardless of why or how someone makes others laugh, there is always more to them than the jokes they provide. Comedy and tragedy have had a very close relationship throughout history and the difference between the two is a good punchline.

Works Cited

  1. Miles, Tim. “No Greater Foe? Rethinking Emotion and Humour, with Particular Attention to the Relationship between Audience Members and Stand-up Comedians.” Comedy Studies5, no. 1 (2014): 12-19. doi:10.1080/2040610x.2014.905093.
  2. Yim, Jongeun. “Therapeutic Benefits of Laughter in Mental Health: A Theoretical Review.” The Tohoku Journal of Experimental Medicine239, no. 3 (2016): 243-49. doi:10.1620/tjem.239.243.
  3. Staff, Science X. “Study Shows out Laughter Is Contagious.” December 13, 2006. Accessed June 05, 2019.
  4. Buckley, Cara. “This Story Has Already Stressed Ryan Reynolds Out.” The New York Times, May 2, 2018.
  5. Jaffe, Eric. “Awfully Funny.” Association for Psychological Science. Accessed June 05, 2019.
  6. Janus, Samuel S. “The Great Comedians: Personality and Other Factors.” The American Journal of Psychoanalysis35, no. 2 (1975): 169-74. doi:10.1007/bf01358189

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Writer, Filmmaker, Gamer, Silly Person. Winner of various fictitious awards. Fluent in English and Pop Culture References. Occasional podcast guest host.
Edited by Andi, Kaya, Misagh.

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  1. Amyus

    That was a fascinating article and a damned good read. As someone who lives with depression (I refuse to say that I ‘suffer’ from it – such a mindset only empowers the depression), I am all too familiar with using comedy to hide the black dog from view. I hope your article will help others who sometimes feel that the grass will never be greener on the other side. I’m going to bookmark this article and send a link to various friends. Thank you.

  2. Denning

    Very well said/written.

  3. Avril Montalvo

    Thank you for this article, very relevant in my current journey. I have just started stand-up comedy. It can be a maddening process, fretting about precise wording, inflection, tone, poise, movement, facial expression.

    Then of course I get nervous just before the gig and then end up saying it in a completely different way to the one I’d practiced a hundred times.

    But there is a high to any laughter you get, and the adrenalin after – it’s amazing.

    You have to have a certain degree of eccentricity to get up in the first place and then there’s no doubt that the madness of it could add to that.

    • I can’t tell a joke to save my life… but love laughing, if you are enjoying it does it matter that maybe you also a little mad (hahaha) you not really hurting anyone…

  4. Pratchett on clowns:

    They are tragic,’ said Vetinari, ‘and we laugh at their tragedy as we laugh at our own. The painted grin leers out at us from the darkness, mocking our insane belief in order, logic, status, the reality of reality. The mask knows that we are born on the banana skin that leads only to the open manhole cover of doom, and all we can hope for are the cheers of the crowd.

    • Hammond

      … Or they’re mass-murdering aliens from another dimension who live in drains.

      If I had that lifestyle, I’d be sad and tragic too …

  5. A week after the death of Robin Williams, my girlfriend’s best friend took her own life in a copycat scenario. She was the most fun, loving, caring and enjoyable character to be around but only very few close to her knew of the struggles she was going through for over a year. My girlfriend and I have to now answer to alot of people as to what has happened which is incredibly hard for us. Friends she has known for years had no idea of her struggles and are seriously confused.

    The way I see it is this:

    When we pull or strain a muscle in our leg or other part of the body, we rest it. We take time out. We stop doing strenuous things and let it heal. Unlike the brain, also a muscle. We tell our friends to keep going… keep working hard, keep straining your mind, keep working it until the damage has been done. This is what happens with people that suffer from depression. The people around them encourage them to continue and work it far more than they should. Robin William’s job did just this. We told him to keep performing, keep making us laugh, keep smiling… you’re a funny man and you will soon laugh again… only for it to be too late.

    What we need is to allow people to be more open about their difficulties. In any normal job, you would be allowed time off for sickness and illness but then again, would you for depression? If you can move your fingers and legs, you can work the market for the fat cats.

    We need to rethink how we allow people with depression to approach those around them and also to rethink how we approach them too.

    • This is a good point, well-made. We even have phrases for it- I use the keep on keepin’ on one myself a fair bit- I suppose sometimes there seems no alternative? But I agree that there ought to be and the pressure valve in peoples’ brains/minds need to be adjusted at various times in their lives.

    • Milburn

      Excellent points. I am genuinely sorry for your, and your girlfriend’s, loss.

  6. I am amazed at how long it took for everyone to cop that Robin Williams was a very troubled man. In most of his performances his pain and dysfunction and extreme emotional neediness were only all too apparent.

    His performance in Good Morning Vietnam is unwatchable – you are watching a man desperately trying to cope with appalling levels of pain, panic and hysteria. The link between comics and depression? A lot of comedy is based around anger and hostility. Not surprisingly a lot of comics are quite angry and hostile people – even if that anger and hostility is often masked.

    And there is a definite link between anger and depression. But, whatever about all that, there is a very definite link between working in the arts and emotional dysfunctionality.

    Look at the huge levels of emotional immaturity, emotional illiteracy, alcoholism, drug-taking, suicide, and other forms of dysfunctional behaviour as evident within the artistic community. Williams, Hancock, Joplin, Winehouse, Cobain etc. etc. etc.

    I have met a fair few working artists, in various media, and a lot of them are very very damaged indeed. Working in the arts is dangerous. Though whether this is cause or correlation I am not so sure.

    But there is a definite connection here.

    • I’ve met a lot of damaged people who aren’t in the entertainment industry. Bog standard run of the mill office workers.

      The link between comedy/performance and mental illness is an attractive idea as it suits the narrative we would like to impose. I’d be willing to believe, but have no evidence, in a weak link in that people with mental illness will develop coping strategies. The disjointed working day of the entertainment industry and it’s perceived acceptance out of character behaviour allows space. But that presumes the person with mental health issues wants to be a performer in the first place. Others perform in their daily life. All of life is a stage and as such mental health is something that can impact any of us. The sooner we accept that and junk the depressive clown trope the better society will be able to handle, support and deal with everyone with mental health issues.

      • Drayton

        Can we please stop using terms such as ‘damaged’ to describe people who may suffer from mental illness? It sounds all sorts of terrible and a lot of people are emotionally healthy and loving despite it. I would not call my mum who has bi-polar ‘damaged’.

    • A good point about Good Morning Vietnam. I watched it for the first time in years when the TV station in NZ, like stations the world over, did the age-old shameless last-minute reschedule after a celebrity death.

      I did notice melancholy, manic and an undercurrent of existence angst in the performance. But how much of that was me projecting after the fact.

      And your point about anger is misplaced in relation to Williams. Listen to his interviews and the people around him and he was a rarely UN-angry comedian and, by most accounts, someone who rarely got angry in life.

      • Alternatively, it could just be that he was portraying a radio broadcaster working in the middle of one of the most horrific conflicts of the last century.

    • The most convincing explanation I’ve heard is that in the artistic industries (ugh) there is a greater tolerance of eccentric,dysfunctional or outlier behaviours.Not everywhere obviously, and this is a very broad brush stroke. Call it the Diva effect or whatever, but the backers, be they patrons,publishers,producers etc seem to give great latitude so long as at the end of the day the artist delivers their 90 minutes on stage or whatever. They’re not arsed about the other 22.5 hours of that person’s day.

      Most other industries don’t have such peak and off times, but require greater consistency day in day out, hour by hour. So it’s actually about the working environment and culture.

  7. This is an awesome piece you have here. I think that so much of the time we see only one side of someone and it’s easy to forget that we are multidimensional creatures.
    For anyone reading this you should watch “Come inside my mind” it’s a documentary on Robin Williams and his life. A lot of the content explains that he could only feel joy by making other people happy and was always chasing that high. I think so many of us have this in many different ways in our lives whether struggling with a serious mental illness or not.
    The photograph of the sad clown is important in our culture because it comments on the unseen nature of human beings — don’t read a book by its cover!

  8. Very interesting article. To add to it, I’ve often wondered if there is some psychological basis that underpins both comedy and mental health problems. People who make people laugh for a living are often very intelligent and creative, for example, but that intelligence and creativity might make them more attuned to the world’s problems and, thus, more likely to become depressed.

  9. Maybe it can be said that through great suffering great humour can be nurtured?

    Human suffering definitely does put a different slant on ones view of the world: enabling people to see all manner of things from a different angle: & there’s no better way to break the monotony of ones own suffering by occasionally putting a humorous spin on things.

  10. Great read, but I feel people love to mythologise public figures and romanticising mental illness is and will likely always be recurrent.

  11. I’m a huge standup comedy fan, and I can’t really think of any that fit the sad clown profile. I also think it’s a myth that comedians have low self esteem and that drives them to make jokes about themselves. Even the most viciously self deprecating like Jim Norton probably have a very good self image. Humour is a healthy way of dealing with almost anything in life.

    Real low self esteem and depression is when you can’t even face the thought of how worthless you are. I doubt there are many comedians who are successful battling those demons.

    As for what led Robin Williams to do it, who can really know. I don’t like to speculate on why people kill themselves, personally. If I were to kill myself right now (I won’t), I doubt anyone would accurately guess my recent troubling thoughts and I just assume that’s the same for people who go through with it.

    • Neither are quite stand ups but both John Cleese and Stephen Fry are/started out as comedians and are also sufferers. Not a large enough sample to form any kind of argument, but those were two name that sprung to mind.

  12. There seems to be a plethora of ‘comedians’ today who are just not funny in any way, shape or form. Perhaps that is why they have a problem! They are worried because they cannot live up to their chosen job.

    • I think they just try to hard at being funny, and fail. It’s a form of acting, whereas back in the day I think the guys who made you laugh could have done it on a one to one as well as a small group and a huge stage, it’s as though they stumbled into it years back. It appears to be full of careerists chasing graham norton type earnings nowadays.

  13. The pathological aspect of being a comedian is the desire to make a roomful of strangers laugh at/with you, rather than just the ability to make people laugh. I’ve known many naturally funny people who would die rather than do an open-mike night. Funny isn’t the mad part…

  14. My great-grandfather was a very famous clown back in the 50’s and 60’s. He died when I was seven but I still remember him laughing quite a lot – because he had no teeth and wouldn’t wear dentures!

  15. Bridgette

    The late Robin Williams is the best example I can think of here. A truly decent and generous human being.

  16. Comedians are sad because they have insight into the human condition and use it to show us how ridiculous life is and how we may as well laught at it and live with it.

    Clowns, on the other hand, are not that sad and not funny. They are superficial, they make silly jokes, they tell fibs: check out Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees Mogg, Christopher Grayling, Andrea Leadsom, Ian Duncan Smith, John Redwood and 62 other passengers on the ship of fools. Nothing funny there, none of them sad, all just angry and rather dim.

  17. Joseph Cernik
    Joseph Cernik

    A good article with interesting insights. I think when I see a comedian next time, probably doing stand-up comedy, I might think about this article.

  18. Good article, i think suggesting that a particular category of people are susceptible to mental illness e.g. comedians can be a way of attempting to contain it, and keep it at a distance – “my withdrawn mother or teenage son can’t be mentally ill, that’s the kind of thing only those very artistic people get.”

    • Warfield

      Then there’s the “you’re depressed: you must be very artistic/gifted” approach. Yes, I am depressed, no I’m not gifted in any way. But then, even if I were, I wouldn’t be able to see it because the depression goes together with low self esteem.

      • Latosha

        Nobody thinks the depressed are more artistic. However it has been proven many times over that creative people often produce their best work in their darkest times.

  19. Oma Yoo

    This is a very thoughtful and level headed article.

  20. It’s a myth that all comedians are sad (along with the more pernicious “all lawyers are rich” lie that justifies massive cuts to access to justice-but I digress). Having trod the boards myself some 400 times over the years I know well that a significant proportion of comedians do indeed suffer from depression (and they make no secret of it on social media ), but a greater number have a normal range of responses to life`s challenges.

    It should be borne in mind that “stand-up” itself has a relatively short and recent history as a “personal exposure” event and that this style naturally draws on autobiographical episodes of angst and emotional instability as a source of humour. That whole “wasn`t my childhood/father/mother/school etc. good/bad/funny/evil ” style of humour is actually not one I am attracted to (I prefer straightforward post-modernist joke-telling/surreal silliness) but the “self-revelatory” seems to entertain and possibly reassure younger audiences.

  21. Comedians are not clowns – clowns are not comedians.

    Comedians are word-based, tell jokes.

    Clowns are more slapstick orientated. Words are not their main vehicle to create laughs.

  22. Brilliant piece!

  23. The romantic idea of the tortured genius is much to appealing for the public at large.

    And we rather believe a romatic lie than a sad truth.

  24. Excellent article. This article inspired me to write my version of this topic. I have long felt the need for addressing this certain paradox. There is an old Indian film I used to watch with my dad called mera naam joker (my name is the joker. The film’s protagonist, Raju, always treads the line of making everyone happy and being happy himself. Failing to find love yet constantly not giving up. There is a scene whence his mother dies during one of his performances at a circus but he is not allowed to stop. Thus we see a perplexed Raju crying yet still being able to make the audience laugh.

  25. Such a great read! As someone living with anxiety, this article was something I could definitely resonate with. I think a lot of people with mental illnesses don’t even realise they’re harnessing comedy as a coping mechanism.

  26. My personal interpretation of this article is that we as individuals are not always willing to express our emotions to those unknown. Vulnerability can be scary and as such we wear a mask to disguise our true self and feelings. Barriers are created by our fear of concerns we can’t always express.

  27. It is a reasonable guess as to what is going on in a comedians’ mind. Ultimately we will never know.

  28. Agripina

    Sadly for comedians, jokes wear thin very quickly, so training is rather pointless and job security is minimal: “You’re as good as your last gig”. I don’t know what the rate of depression is for comedians, but can imagine that it is higher than average.

  29. Willa Do

    I was under the impression that one has a qualitative predisposition towards mental illness. Some people are so predisposed that however fine and sunny their lives are, they’ll develop mental illness. Others have hardly any predisposition and can go through the most traumatic experience imaginable and come out unscathed. Most people, however, are somewhere in the middle of the scale where a traumatic event of a certain magnitude (variable between individuals) will trigger mental illness. I think this study is suggesting that funny people often have slightly higher predisposition to mental illness than the rest of the population.

  30. My grandfather was a comedian who played all over Britain in working mens clubs and seaside theatres. The applause and appreciation of an audience is a bit like a drug in some respects and I know being away from stage for more than a few days can be a real downer.

    • Kandace

      Was he cheerful at home, I wonder? We hear of the famous cases of comedians like Frankie Howerd and Tony Hancock and Kenneth William being lugubrious.

  31. What a wow what a wonderful read! If you want to be happy, spread love and compassion. If you want others to be happy, spread love and compassion as His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said. How best to do if not through laughter? It’s rewarding making people feel good and joyful. It makes us all feel included when we’re able to relate to common struggles and mishaps of life. Knowing that we’re all humans and there’s much to laugh about gives a sense of community.

  32. shakeit

    Here we are talking about successful people, and a subset of those comedians. The ones that have made it and are famous. There is a certain drive in the people that are at the top of their game, whether on stage, or a CEO of a company – I think the link, perhaps badly articulated some times is that the high-state of a bipolar personality fuels that success. It creates the engergy and the drive. The ‘tears of a clown’ thing is a tired old cliche now, but the link cant be overlooked.

    • Pearlene

      I would say that “drive towards the top” you speak about is the result of high inner tensions in the psyche. The more conflict you go through, the more your brain has to work acoomodate that conflict, and develops certain strategies to do that.

      These strategies and neural pathways are also helpful when it comes to achieving excellence in any field, not only comedy.

      Unless, of course, it becomes too much conflict. Then you snap.

  33. Cassidy

    I can think of a few brilliant comedians where a ‘manic (as in up or down)’ personality seems to shine through.

    I assume this is often what gives them the energy to perform so intensively.

  34. The average comedian is no sadder than the average person, but given their profession/clown costume people see any sadness at all as sufficiently ironic as to merit comment.

  35. I can relate this to my personal life, what i feel is each and every single person is clown today., everyone is busy in pretending that life is beautiful even tho they are suffering from plenty of problems mentally and socially.

  36. i think comedians can be just as sad or happy as everyone else. the difference here is that comedians who are depressed have found an escape from their world of sadness.

  37. GREAT article. A better conclusion would be – Why are sad people comedians?

  38. A very insightful connection!

  39. Great article with good examples to support your analysis. This reminds me of Hebert M. Lefcourt’s work, Humor – The Psychology of Living Buoyantly (2001), where he spoke about humor as a coping mechanism and cited the case of Richard Pryor and his rough upbringing.

  40. Very insightful article! I think sometimes as “fans” we forget that famous people such as comedians are human too and have a wide range of emotions. Comedians in film are always expected to be funny and sometimes face criticism when they accept a role in a more “serious” film…

  41. This is fascinating.

    As a mental health services user, I’ve found that many people with mental health problems and conditions tend to poke fun at their own ‘craziness’ as both a coping mechanism and a way of bonding with other people with MH difficulties.

    So many of us seemed to share this ‘gallows humour’ about times and circumstances that were sometimes sheer hell to live through.

    As a child, I took Queen’s ‘I’m Going Slightly Mad’ song and video at face value and found it hilarious. Later, I read that Freddie Mercury wrote it because his illness is known to cause insanity. While I continue to appreciate the intentional humour of this work, I’m simultaneously struck by the tragedy behind the witty and quirky lyrics and comical video.

    When you think about it, the human capacity for ambivalence and feeling apparently contradictory emotions at the same time is pretty weird and wonderful!

  42. Another stereotypical role that is perceived in society, and linked to the role of the clown, is that of the ‘funny friend’. This person is known to keep things light and humorous when situations become difficult. However, the effects mentally and emotionally on this person is interesting to consider. The motivation behind humour could be that of many: acceptance, coping mechanism, insecurity, etc. There have been studies to show that individuals that are insecure with their own personalities perform during uncomfortable social situations in fear of not being accepted as themselves. Making people laugh creates a pseudo-acceptance, as people rarely turn away someone who is an asset like that to have around. Whether or not the individual’s true personality is humorous or not, the individual will continue this façade as it is seen as normal to put on a ‘face’ when among other people. What has not been studied is the effects on the individual’s personality or emotional/mental stability when the reality of the situation dawns on the person. As the 90s sitcom, Friends, put it, “I would hate to be there when the laughing stops.”

  43. I definitely believe that there is a correlation between comedy and mental health. This is something I have witnessed in people around me as well as in media and society as a whole. Although I do believe that comedy can be used as a tool by people who are struggling to help themselves feel better, I think it is important to recognize the other facet connected to this theme which is when media/people try to make light out of their struggles. Depending on how you approach this, it could be appropriate, but many times I see people, especially in the media, movies, influencers, etc. using real mental health issues that people are dealing with, when they often do not have a full understanding of these issues themselves, in order to gain attention/followers by being “relatable.” To me, it is really disgusting to capitalize off of mental health issues, especially when this is being done by people who do not deal with these issues themselves.

  44. Emily Deibler

    Well done. Humor can be a good way to deflect tension. I know I’ve often used it in public speaking, and it helps with anxiety.

  45. It is a beautiful article! Personally, I have noticed that I tend to become more humorous in my conversations when I am going through a rough time. And infant, I project my feelings of pain through self deprecating humour. I noticed that trait of me just recently. I think I am going to be more careful with people around me and try to understand if they are doing ok.

  46. It is a beautiful article! Personally, I have noticed that I tend to become more humorous in my conversations when I am going through a rough time. I noticed that trait of me just recently. I think I am going to be more careful with people around me and try to understand if they are doing ok.

  47. Such an interesting piece! Allowed myself to think deeply about issues that I would not usually have.

  48. Red Skelton brought the sad clown to life on his show. At the end of every show, he always said something to the effect of that everyone has a purpose for being here and if he made you laugh then he has fulfilled his. I had often wondered, if he was really that sad clown inside.

  49. Stand up comedy is one of my top live performance modes out there. It is such a vulnerable mode of communication that I could never get myself to do. Having seen a fair share of live stand up, I always think self deprication is a cheap way to accumulate laughter in a room. When done gratuitously and un-tastefully, the second hand embarrassment drowns my attention. But as this article acknowledges, it is just a mode of self expression these people use as an outlet for their inner turmoil. Maybe not everyone, but it is a way for those struggling to have a way out of their own head, a place they can be themselves while making other people feel good through laughter.

  50. birdienumnum17

    This is a wonderful article! Yes, it is really important to note that it is impossible to be funny and joyful all the time, that is why though the “sad clown” is a paradox, it is very common like you noted. Love that you included some psychology in it.

  51. “The ones who spend their days making people laugh and bring happiness are often the ones who go home and feel sadness.”
    I couldn’t help but think of Robin Williams the moment I read this line. He was one of the funniest people in the show business, without a doubt: hilarious, energetic and magnetic in every way. His death almost six years ago, particularly the way he died, is something that has really saddened and also intrigued me for quite a while now. I remember being shaken to the core when I first heard about it. I’m sure he was the last person everybody was expecting to take such an extreme step. His struggle with bipolar disorder makes the story even sadder: I wonder how many of his clever, at times self-deprecating jibes that made people roar with laughter were actually a cry for help. I think this is what happens with most comedians: the audience laughs at every good “self-deprecating” joke that maybe wasn’t meant to be self-deprecating, marvelling at how the person doesn’t take himself/herself seriously. Nobody can really look beyond the jokes to see red and do something to help. I think it all results from the myth that if you’re laughing, you’re not sad- wonder how many comedians have been putting up a front.

    I remember having watched a documentary about the life and times of Williams on YouTube a long time ago in which a professional therapist had said how some comedians turn to comedy as a distraction, as a way of “taking a break” from their lives and how flawed an idea it was because in her words, “Stand-up comedy is therapeutic, not therapy”. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

    As far as comedy and actual film/TV is concerned, I have just started watching a show called “You’re the worst”. I have only seen a couple of episodes, but I think it’s a masterclass in balancing humor and the sensitive issue of clinical depression. It’s realistic, funny and really entertaining. We really need more shows like this one.

  52. First, I have always enjoyed comedy and I have always enjoyed laughing. And then I began to write about comedy- to make myself laugh and sometimes I wrote stuff that I did not even realize was funny until I re-read it years later. I have written about the use of humor in psychotherapy ( with Theresa Wadsworth) and have found that there are quite a number of different types of humor- fun, mirth, frivolity, sarcasm ( some see it as humor, some do not ) self- deprecating humor ( does not harm other people) and of course stand up comedy which you can appreciate while sitting down- humor intended. Humor is one of those topics that the more you study it- the more nebulous it becomes and then it seeps thru your fingers. On occasion someone will write about it or research it- but then someone else comes along to change the genre.

  53. Very funny people probably have a high EQ +IQ? … The more you know the more you feel, and sometimes that is quite a burden.

  54. Very well said and very well written. We need to learn as a society that people are often times more than what they let on and we need to start taking mental health more seriously.

  55. A tragicomic read.

  56. As I read more and more on such a topic as this I’m further realizing that I am a part of the sad clown paradox. I am an artist who draws crying clowns, but the more interesting part for me is two years ago I started painting them out of the blue, not even imagining drawing a clown. (I’ve never been nor was interested in being an artist before), I just started scribbling and surprised myself. The lifetime trauma I’ve endured and ending with the worst narcissistic human I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy (which is the same person btw) has led me to paint crying clowns. I am a sad clown. I spend my life making others happy and making jokes, that’s me, who I am if anyone cared to know me. I don’t have an art business, it’s all new to me. I’m still in shock I guess, but I do create content promote self love and mental health awareness. I post a lot of funny stuff too. I do it for reasons of being an example of someone that’s been through the worst and pulling out of it strong, facing this mental illness (PTSD, Anxiety, Panic attacks) head on. It happens every single day. I have to work extra hard now, but it’s ok, it’s keeping my brain busy with good things so I’m good with that. I love the stories of the comedians, I highly identify with them. (For context, I was suicidal when I was a little girl, it lasted for years) So yeah, depression was a major factor back then too. I overcame it, healed old wounds while the perpetrator was always there to make sure they were never healed. Story of my life. Literally:)

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