Sad clown paradox

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Robin Williams, American actor and Comedian who was suffering from severe depression prior to his death.[1]

Sad clown paradox is the contradictory association between comedy and mental disorders such as depression and anxiety.[2][3] These comedic performers are characterised by feelings of deprivation and isolation in their early lives, where comedy evolves as a release for tension, removing feelings of suppressed physical rage through a verbal outlet.[4]

A series of psychological experiments first published in 1981 by Fisher indicated certain behavioural traits exclusive to comedians, not matched in regular actors.[5] Later work conducted by Kaufman and Kozbelt re-interpreted these results drawing the understanding that whilst comedy serves as a coping mechanism to hide trauma it may also motivate a comedian to use humour as a way of forming relations and gaining acceptance.[6]

Humour has been shown to develop from a young age, fostered by parental behaviour.[7] A parents immature nature can lead to additional responsibilities forced onto children which can evoke issues of self-worth and a need for acceptance.[8] The constant search for approval may cause mental health issues such as anxiety or depression and when untreated can lead to suicide in extreme situations.[9] Laughter can evolve as a medium for self-preservation, detaching the individual from any adversity faced allowing for perceived control over uncomfortable situations.[10]

Sad clown paradox is characterised by a cyclothymic temperament, which encourages the creation of light-hearted humour in a professional setting, despite inner turmoil.[11] The use of humour as a form of self-medication provides short periods of satisfaction, repeatedly needing to deal with inner turmoil.[12] There is an ever present anxiety amongst comedians that their popularity may disappear tomorrow and hence are driven to exhaustion in their work.[12]

Influences[edit]

School Experiences[edit]

Comedic performers frequently show humorous tendencies early in life, often identified as the 'class clown' throughout school.[13] Comics recalled mocking the strict nature of school, taking great pleasure in the laughter from their peers.[5] Tommy Smothers commented that during his schooling experiences;"I got a big kick out of them laughing, but I didn’t know what it was that made them laugh, but I knew I could make people laugh."[14] Johnny Carson also emphasised the role of school in a comedian’s life stating that:[14]

I think, by the fact that you find you can get laughs when you are in school-and this is where most of the guys start, when they are growing up in the neighbourhood-they're jerking around, doing silly things, interrupting the class. It's an attention-getting thing, and that, in effect, is saying, 'Hey, look at me, folks, I'm getting your acceptance.'

Despite comedians often being of high intelligence, the school environment was detested and frequently avoided.[2] Comics explained that their teachers lacked understanding and acceptance, identifying their mannerisms as a form of personal exclusion.[2] Woody Allen commented that school "was boring, frightening. The whole thing was ugly. I never had the answers. I never did the homework."[14] Even though a school’s orientation to order and discipline conflicts with the nature of a comic, it can serve as an initial arena for an individual to realise their ability to produce laughter.[15] This discovery creates mixed feelings as frequently the laughter can be directed at themselves with undertones of ridicule or mockery.[16] Regardless of the unpleasantness involved comic's are attracted to the ability of 'making' someone laugh and the power it holds.[5]

The talent for creating humour directs the individual towards a career in the entertainment industry. It was found that comedians did not directly enter the industry as a comic, rather a large proportion began through some form of musical performance.[17] Fisher believed this trend among comedians to have a musical background was derived from their pursuit to create a more cheerful, welcoming world for the audience.[17]

Family Relations[edit]

Early experiences with caregivers can shape personal behaviour and feelings of self-worth.

Relationships formed with family members is key in adolescent development, particularly for future satisfaction with life.[18] Studies have shown that comedic performers tend to be raised in distant, somewhat disjointed family settings, characterised by family animosity.[7] Prasinos and Tittler interpreted that this 'family distance' caused individuals to identify as victims of neglect and hence associate as an alienated group.[19] Sad clown paradox can evolve from these incohesive environments from a young age, where a child desires social contact, using humour to obtain intimacy and somewhat relate from a distance.[20] Norman Lear commented on his painful childhood due to the constant conflict from his parents stating that; "the only defence against that was to laugh at it, find out what was funny in it."[21]

A study conducted by Fisher found humour-orientated individuals to identify their mothers as demanding, unsympathetic and distant. They were seen to avoid the nurturant role, commonly falling on the father to fulfil this role for the family.[22] An inkblot test for parents of comedians, revealed their tendency to identify a child-like view of the world, describing protocols with juvenile imagery.[22] Fisher concluded that these views were linked with a parents reluctance towards responsibilities, associated with a general tone that "happiness prevails.”[23] Parents of comics were found to avoid solemn ideas, identifying negative images in Rorschach tests then denying negative elements, such as:"this is a wolf. I thought it was ferocious. But I heard that it is not."[24] This childlike view of the world and rejection of family obligations can cause comedians to embody a greater sense of responsibility and a feeling of obligation to protect others, a compensation of their parents’ unconscious rejection of adult responsibilities.[24] This burden of responsibilities has been shown to evoke issues regarding self-worth that foster the development of the sad clown paradox.[8]

It has also been concluded that humour may serve as an attempt to relate to people from a distance, evoked by a childhood desire for social contact.[7] Typically humour is described as an emotional and cognitive state and its absence has been found to cause depression and anxiety.[25]

Comedians have been found to identify the importance of a caregiver and are worried of not being a good enough parent.[26] A study conducted by Janus revealed that the sampled comedic performers were more prone to wanting larger families.[26] This was associated with a comics need to provide and form connections that can be fulfilled by the family setting.

Social Context[edit]

The early lives of comedians are characterised by suffering, isolation and feelings of deprivation, where humour is used as an outlet or defence against experienced anxiety.[12] German philosopher Nietzsche once described it as; "man alone suffers so excruciatingly in the world that he was compelled to invent laughter."[27] The inability to exhibit direct aggression results in expression through the socially acceptable manner of humour.[28] Humour provides the ability to assert control and invincibility in a situation, revealed by Bill Cosby that you can survive anything if you can find humour in it.[10]

An example is the British comedian Spike Milligan who suffered from a long cycle of manic-depressive states that were onset by severe mental breakdowns.[29] Milligan was capable of creating light-hearted humour and outrageous ideas, despite his manic state. Finding laughter served as motivation to remedy a depressed mental state and effectively function as self-medication.[11] This process has been described as a safeguard against the formation of hopelessness and subsequent depression.[30] Additionally, affiliative and self-enhancing humour can be used to predict symptoms of depression, with higher levels shown to correlate with lower levels of depression.[31]

Recounts from psychiatric treatments revealed some patients to be overwhelmed by negative aspects of their life. However, when these issues were confronted the psychiatrist was met with laughter, followed by the patient dismissing the severity of the issue.[28] The laughter can hide feelings of frustration, disappointment, grief, remorse or even joy in an effort to defend against adversity and allow for self preservation.[32]

Scientific Studies[edit]

Rorschach Test[edit]

The use of inkblot imaging reveals certain characteristics and worries of comedic performers that are not matched in regular actors.[33] Fisher identified four key trends that were common for comedians' Rorschach Tests;

  • The identification of 'not-bad' imagery. This involves a traditional, negative idea that has been misunderstood and is a victim to preconceived views. Responses were similar to:[34]

- Faces. Evil looking .... Mean mouth. Masculine .... The evil is not very evil. A put-on.

- Ugliest tree I've ever seen. Terrible .... Could be a happy tree .... Wants to be seen. Yelling 'I am beautiful.'

- Big footed giant. ... Head of a baboon. Love-able. Friendly. Love-able type giant.

- Cookie monster .... He's in the show. He's really ugly but he moves cute.

- Two devils. Funny devils. Not to be taken seriously. Grim demeanour. Silly.

- Pig-like .... Ugly but yet somewhat endearing.

  • Comedian's association with ideas of purity vs evil leads to identification of things bearing moral importance. Fisher concluded this significance was due to comedians need to mock societal standards and hence blur the line between good and bad.[35]
  • Importance of scale. Describing objects with reference to their magnitude. This disparity in size serves as a reliable source of humour.[36] Charlie Chaplin utilised an iconic costume of; large baggy pants, a small bowler hat, enormous shoes and his small moustache. Comedic duo's such as Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy played off their height and weight differences for comedic effect.
  • Importance of up versus down, with more concern placed on who or what is down. The use of up-down imagery was frequently implemented by Buster Keaton where his characters were seen falling from great heights or hanging from balconies. A recurring message of failure was linked to the looming threat of falling, negated by a last minute escape and triumph.[37]

Fisher suggested that these traits are directly linked to the comics perception of self, believing a need to convince others of their value.[38] Comedians were commonly shown to not hold themselves in high regard, providing more self-depreciating remarks than regular actors in a controlled context.[39] These feelings of unworthiness are defended against in the comics mind by their role in society of helping people and providing laughter. This intent to help people is only momentarily satisfied by audience recognition and approval.[40]This is contrasted against regular actors who were seen to find validation in identifying with figures and concepts larger than themselves.[39]

Aptitude/Personality Tests[edit]

A study conducted by Janus found comedians worked to exhaustion to ensure they remained relevant and funny. He found that from his sample of comedic performers, eighty percent have been involved in psychotherapy and feared its effect on their ability for humour.[41] Comedians were shown to be critical towards the motives of others and feared the longevity of their popularity as celebrities.[41] Most participants from Janus’ study revealed an inescapable sense of depression which they faced alongside their work.[12] The manner in which comedy momentarily alleviates their depression and anxiety allows them to function. However, comedians function for short periods of time, constantly requiring admiration and acknowledgement for their work.[12]

Comedians have also been shown to display high levels of psychotic personality traits, scoring high in introvertive anhedonia and impulsive non-conformity.[11] The instability between depressive traits and more extroverted, manic states is traditionally described as cyclothymic temperament.[11] British comedian Stephen Fry confessed to the common mental state he experiences when performing; "there are times when I'm doing QI and I'm going 'ha ha, yeah, yeah', and inside I'm going 'I want to fucking die. I... want... to... fucking... die.'"[42] Fry's comments indicate the idea of manic defence, where opposite emotions are used to distract and cope with uncomfortable feelings.[43]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ CNN, Alan Duke. "Robin Williams dead; family, friends and fans are 'totally devastated'". CNN. Retrieved 2019-04-10.
  2. ^ a b c Janus, Samuel S. (1975). "The great comedians: Personality and other factors". The American Journal of Psychoanalysis. 35 (2): 169–174. doi:10.1007/bf01358189. ISSN 0002-9548. PMID 1190350.
  3. ^ Janus, Samuel S.; Bess, Barbara E.; Janus, Beth R. (1978). "The great comediennes: Personality and other factors". The American Journal of Psychoanalysis. 38 (4): 367–372. doi:10.1007/bf01253595. ISSN 0002-9548. PMID 736178.
  4. ^ Kaufman, Scott Barry; Kozbelt, Aaron (2009), "The Tears of a Clown: Understanding Comedy Writers", The Psychology of Creative Writing, Cambridge University Press, p. 94, doi:10.1017/cbo9780511627101.007, ISBN 9780511627101
  5. ^ a b c Fisher, Seymour (1981). Pretend the World Is Funny and Forever : a Psychological Analysis of Comedians, Clowns, and Actors. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc. ISBN 9781317770053. OCLC 868490423.
  6. ^ Kaufman & Kozbelt 2009, p. 20.
  7. ^ a b c Prasinos, Steven; Tittler, Bennett I. (1981). "The family relationships of humor-oriented adolescents1". Journal of Personality. 49 (3): 295–304. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.1981.tb00938.x. ISSN 0022-3506.
  8. ^ a b Fisher, Rhoda L. (1980). Schlemiel children. PT Partners L.P. OCLC 926645893.
  9. ^ Creed, Michael; Whitley, Rob (2016-09-06). "Assessing Fidelity to Suicide Reporting Guidelines in Canadian News Media: The Death of Robin Williams". The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. 62 (5): 313–317. doi:10.1177/0706743715621255. ISSN 0706-7437. PMC 5459225. PMID 27600531.
  10. ^ a b Martin, Rod A.; Puhlik-Doris, Patricia; Larsen, Gwen; Gray, Jeanette; Weir, Kelly (2003). "Individual differences in uses of humor and their relation to psychological well-being: Development of the Humor Styles Questionnaire". Journal of Research in Personality. 37 (1): 48–75. doi:10.1016/s0092-6566(02)00534-2. ISSN 0092-6566.
  11. ^ a b c d Ando, Victoria; Claridge, Gordon; Clark, Ken (2018-05-15), "Psychotic traits in comedians", Psychopathology and Personality Dimensions, Routledge, pp. 205–213, doi:10.4324/9781315268217-16, ISBN 9781315268217
  12. ^ a b c d e Janus 1975, p. 174.
  13. ^ Fisher 1981, p. 2.
  14. ^ a b c Fisher 1981, p. 3.
  15. ^ Fisher 1981, p. 4.
  16. ^ Fisher 1981, p. 5.
  17. ^ a b Fisher 1981, p. 198.
  18. ^ Leung, Jin -Pang; Leung, Kwok (1992). "Life satisfaction, self-concept, and relationship with parents in adolescence". Journal of Youth and Adolescence. 21 (6): 653–665. doi:10.1007/bf01538737. ISSN 0047-2891. PMID 24264168.
  19. ^ Prasinos & Tittler 1981, p. 302.
  20. ^ Prasinos & Tittler 1981, p. 303.
  21. ^ Chapman, Antony J., editor. Foot, Hugh C., editor. (2017-07-05). Humor and laughter : theory, research, and applications. pp. 245–258. ISBN 9781351514217. OCLC 994145305.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  22. ^ a b Fisher 1981, p. 67.
  23. ^ Fisher 1981, p. 67-68.
  24. ^ a b Fisher 1981, p. 68.
  25. ^ Angell, Jimmye Dell (1971). The effects of social success and social failure on the humor production of wits. University of Nevada. OCLC 3276478.
  26. ^ a b Janus 1975, p. 171.
  27. ^ Keith-Spiegel, Patricia (1972), "Early Conceptions of Humor: Varieties and Issues", The Psychology of Humor, Elsevier, pp. 3–39, doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-288950-9.50007-9, ISBN 9780122889509
  28. ^ a b Brody, Morris (1950). "The Meaning of Laughter". The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 19(2) (2 ed.). 19 (2): 192–201. doi:10.1080/21674086.1950.11925797.
  29. ^ Spike Milligan and Anthony Clare, Depression and How to Survive It, first edition, 1994.
  30. ^ Hugelshofer, Daniela S.; Kwon, Paul; Reff, Robert C.; Olson, Megan L. (2006). "Humour's role in the relation between attributional style and dysphoria". European Journal of Personality. 20 (4): 325–336. doi:10.1002/per.586. ISSN 0890-2070.
  31. ^ Hugelshofer et al. 2006, p. 335.
  32. ^ Brody 1950, p. 201.
  33. ^ Fisher 1981, p. 20.
  34. ^ Fisher 1981, p. 42.
  35. ^ Fisher 1981, p. 216.
  36. ^ Fisher 1981, p. 90.
  37. ^ Fisher 1981, p. 108.
  38. ^ Fisher 1981, p. 41-42.
  39. ^ a b Fisher 1981, p. 168.
  40. ^ Fisher 1981, p. 199.
  41. ^ a b Janus 1975, p. 172.
  42. ^ Sherwin, Adam (6 June 2013). "'The victim of my own moods': Stephen Fry reveals suicide attempt in 2012, adding TV producer saved his life". Independent. Retrieved 25 May 2019.
  43. ^ Klein, Melanie (1940). "Mourning and its relation to manic-depressive states". International Journal of Psycho-Analysis. 21: 125–153.

Sources[edit]

  • Ando, Victoria; Claridge, Gordon; Clark, Ken (2018-05-15), "Psychotic traits in comedians", Psychopathology and Personality Dimensions, Routledge, pp. 205–213, doi:10.4324/9781315268217-16, ISBN 9781315268217
  • Angell, Jimmye Dell (1971), The effects of social success and social failure on the humor production of wits, University of Nevada, OCLC 3276478
  • Brody, Morris (1950), "The Meaning of Laughter", The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 19(2) (2 ed.), 19 (2): 192–201, doi:10.1080/21674086.1950.11925797
  • Chapman, Antony J., editor. Foot, Hugh C., editor. (2017-07-05). Humor and laughter : theory, research, and applications. pp. 245–258. ISBN 9781351514217. OCLC 994145305.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  • Creed, Michael; Whitley, Rob (2016-09-06), "Assessing Fidelity to Suicide Reporting Guidelines in Canadian News Media: The Death of Robin Williams", The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 62 (5): 313–317, doi:10.1177/0706743715621255, ISSN 0706-7437, PMC 5459225, PMID 27600531
  • Fisher, Rhoda L. (1980), Schlemiel children., PT Partners L.P, OCLC 926645893
  • Fisher, Seymour (1981), Pretend the World Is Funny and Forever : a Psychological Analysis of Comedians, Clowns, and Actors., Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., p. 2, ISBN 9781317770053, OCLC 868490423
  • Hugelshofer, Daniela S.; Kwon, Paul; Reff, Robert C.; Olson, Megan L. (2006). "Humour's role in the relation between attributional style and dysphoria". European Journal of Personality. 20 (4): 325–336. doi:10.1002/per.586. ISSN 0890-2070.
  • Janus, Samuel S. (1975), "The great comedians: Personality and other factors", The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 35 (2): 169–174, doi:10.1007/bf01358189, ISSN 0002-9548, PMID 1190350
  • Janus, Samuel S.; Bess, Barbara E.; Janus, Beth R. (1978), "The great comediennes: Personality and other factors", The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 38 (4): 367–372, doi:10.1007/bf01253595, ISSN 0002-9548, PMID 736178
  • Kaufman, Scott Barry; Kozbelt, Aaron (2009), "The Tears of a Clown: Understanding Comedy Writers", The Psychology of Creative Writing, Cambridge University Press, p. 94, doi:10.1017/cbo9780511627101.007, ISBN 9780511627101
  • Keith-Spiegel, Patricia (1972), "Early Conceptions of Humor: Varieties and Issues", The Psychology of Humor, Elsevier, pp. 3–39, doi:10.1016/b978-0-12-288950-9.50007-9, ISBN 9780122889509
  • Leung, Jin -Pang; Leung, Kwok (1992), "Life satisfaction, self-concept, and relationship with parents in adolescence", Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 21 (6): 653–665, doi:10.1007/bf01538737, ISSN 0047-2891, PMID 24264168
  • Martin, Rod A.; Puhlik-Doris, Patricia; Larsen, Gwen; Gray, Jeanette; Weir, Kelly (2003), "Individual differences in uses of humor and their relation to psychological well-being: Development of the Humor Styles Questionnaire", Journal of Research in Personality, 37 (1): 48–75, doi:10.1016/s0092-6566(02)00534-2, ISSN 0092-6566
  • Prasinos, Steven; Tittler, Bennett I. (1981), "The family relationships of humor-oriented adolescents1", Journal of Personality, 49 (3): 295–304, doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.1981.tb00938.x, ISSN 0022-3506

External links[edit]