“Heard a joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he's depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, "Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up." Man bursts into tears. Says, "But doctor...I am Pagliacci.”
I'm sure by now you've heard about Robin Williams. It's sad and awful. And this is both completely about him and not about him at all. It's about why comedians do comedy.
A lot of people don't get comedy. Which makes me sad, but that's a topic for another time. A lot of people don't get how somebody who seems so happy and fun could not be so happy and fun. They think something is wrong when that person stops being happy and fun. They reason that when a comic turns the act "off" something must be wrong. In reality, that is when the person is probably most comfortable with you. A lot of comics use comedy as a shield. It's how they cope with the world. When they aren't doing their act around you it means they really like you.
Comics do comedy because it is the only way they can cope. Some have addictions, some have phobias, some were/are the weird kid, some didn't/don't fit in. There's something behind the comedy. Or more aptly, it is where the comedy comes from. Think about it, most of the funny people you know probably don't reveal much about themselves (unless it is part of his or her act, which is usually about the only place comics feel comfortable revealing their true selves...because that's where the comedy is coming from).
For me, comedy is my way of communicating with people. I'm the introvert of the year, thirty four years running (voting is still out for year thirty-five but I'm pretty confident I can wrap it up at the next few social functions I attend). I cannot fathom how people speak to one another, how they navigate social situations, how they essentially interact with each other. How do they know what to say? What to reveal? How much to reveal? What to ask? What not to ask? Why do they enjoy talking to other people so much when it fills me with Grand Canyons of anxiety...I mean, isn't hell just a never ending dinner party with people I don't know? How do you talk to new people? How do you know what time to show up for things? How do you know whether to wave, shake hands, or hug?
You know how I cope with this introvert anxiety? I make jokes about it. Most comics make jokes about the parts of themselves that they can't effectively deal with, be it weight, race, anxiety, abuse, addiction, etc...and then George Lopez and Jay Leno steal those jokes because they are afraid to expose their own material to the world. Being "on" and joking about these fears is easier than actually dealing with them...actually it's how we deal with them. Comics joke about our deepest fears and anxieties because that's how we cope. It is the truth and honesty of these revelations that makes them funny. Robin Williams joked about addiction and it was funny because it was his truth. Woody Allen makes movie after movie about death because he's terrified of dying. It's funny because it is his truth. I joke about being socially awkward and uncomfortable in basically every situation because that is my truth. You know and I know that I'm socially awkward - maybe I can make you like me by making you laugh about it. I make jokes about my son's autism because it scares me to death. It is how I cope with the world.
The parts of us that have caused us worry and anxiety are the parts of us that we are most afraid of. These are the parts of us that cause others to mock us, dislike us, or generally ignore us. So of course we turn to comedy. Why? Because comedy allows us to receive external validation for the very things that have caused us internal and external strife (especially in our early years...and yesterday and tomorrow...and today). "Boy, you're quiet." is something I hear all the time. Of course in my head that phrase says a lot more, a personal value judgement that says I'm pretty much the equivalent of a legless turtle.
On stage I can turn that legless turtle into something funny, into something that doesn't make me actually feel like a legless orphaned turtle. And it can be both exhilarating and exhausting. Because while that external validation is great, it can also cause internal anxiety - "Now everyone knows what they've always suspected about me - I really am a legless orphaned turtle with salmonellosis - BECAUSE I JUST TOLD THEM I AM!" If I had a nickel for every person who sees me on stage and then says, "You aren't awkward/introverted/shy." I'd be a millionaire. But of course I am. That person on stage is just me letting my fear out, it isn't me. The real me is the guy who doesn't know if we should shake hands, fist bump, one armed hug or just awkwardly walk away from each other....and will spend the next three weeks worried about how I tried to shake hands when you waved bye.
So please do comics a favor. If you meet somebody that does stand-up or improv or writes Buzzfeed lists or works for Fox News or does anything remotely related to comedy: Please don't ask them to play the clown. Don't ask them to be funny. Don't ask them to tell you a joke. Don't essentially tell them that who they are isn't good enough for you, that you prefer the clown (because that's what they'll hear). Don't make them put their fears and anxieties on display for you - we only do that for money.
Not all comics are depressed. Not all comics will kill themselves. Not all comics had horrible childhoods. I'm exceedingly happy with my life - I have a great family and a great job that I love. I'm not killing myself. I had a great childhood. But all comics have something that drives them. That something is what we're afraid of. Our way of coping with those fears, doubts, anxieties is through comedy. So enjoy the laughter, but don't forget the comic is a person. He or she isn't simply being funny to amuse you - he is being funny because it's the only way for him to deal with a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain.
Matt Fotis is an Assistant Professor of Theatre at Albright College. He is the author of Long Form Improvisation and American Comedy - The Harold, The Comedy Improv Handbook, and "My Fragile Family Tree: Stories of Fathers & Sons."