“Now there’re some sad things known to man, but ain’t too much sadder than the tears of a clown.” This poignant lyric from “Tears of a Clown” by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles aptly captures the thin line between comedy and pain. This 1970s pop hit is upbeat, sugary, and full of energy. But the lyrics are truly heartbreaking. It’s the kind of song you will bop your head to and not realize the lyrics are depressing. Still, it is a great metaphor. The comedian, clown, or life of the party can be the public face of someone who is crying on the inside. Comedy is a tool to relieve tension, pain, and sadness. But like with any tool it can lose its efficacy or simply be used incorrectly. It’s important to understand that comedy can help us make sense of the darkness inside. Yet we should never assume that, because someone is funny and gregarious, they do not know pain. Comedy has helped me understand my journey of managing my own hurt feelings, troubled past, and finding the light at the end of the tunnel.
I have always loved making people laugh. There’s satisfaction when I can break someone’s serious face into a chuckle or full-on guffaw. But I have also found people laughing when I recount a sad story or an angry moment. It took me years to connect the two. But my sense of humor is how my brain processes painful experiences. I was raised to push on through the hurt and sadness, so my brain had to find a way to cope. Whether I was trying to handle a tough childhood, being bullied, having issues with my looks, sexuality, or self-esteem, I had always leaned on laughter. Making jokes or finding a funny turn of phrase helped add a little levity or to provide the right amount of distance to handle tough feelings and experiences. I have learned to use humor to communicate harsh realities to people, or cut through the tension, or to explain something that would otherwise be really painful or uncomfortable.
The comedian, clown, or life of the partycan be the public face of someone who is crying on the inside.
There is a certain magic in laughter. There’s a reason JK Rowling used humor to disarm fear in her popular Harry Potter book series. In Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban, the students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry were confronted with a creature called a boggart. This magical creature could disguise itself as your greatest fear. The children were taught to use a spell to turn it into something funny, so they could laugh at it. That was the only way to neutralize the beast. In The Witches of Eastwick, laughter allowed Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeiffer to do the impossible and fly. Humor disempowers the darkness inside of us and makes it a little easier to handle.
Humor, if used correctly, can lighten up something painful or uncomfortable that we have to say. It can be used to alleviate the tension of an awkward exchange or interaction. It can help you resolve your feelings of anger or low self-esteem. Certain things are universally funny, such as self-deprecating humor, loud angry rants, or farts in an elevator. The common thread is that they are all simultaneously a universal experience and a vent for all that discomfort. There’s a reason you’re compelled to joke after an awkward silence or uncomfortable moment: it is to make you and everyone around you more comfortable. That instinct is healthy, and channeling that instinct can prove invaluable.
Now, just because humor and pain are linked doesn’t mean every cancer patient or POW survivor should be headlining in Vegas. But there is something to be said for using that pain to help yourself and others. When generating stand-up material, comedy teachers like Judy Carter in her how-to book, The Comedy Bible, suggest starting with a list of things you hate. Seeing how you talk about things you don’t like, things that make you angry, will help you relate to an audience. It’s a way to both initiate a shared intimacy and give voice to a universal frustration. Stand-up comedy is rarely just about whimsical things like sunshine and rainbows. It’s often about putting a voice to the everyday vexations and long-term pain we all share and then helping people laugh at it. Often, when we see people processing their anger it can be funny. Humor is a natural human response to try and keep us alive. It’s like the safety valve that keeps us from going postal. After all, so many people who have faced darkness and adversity find their way into humor. The common thread to many successful comedians is a need to overcome something, whether it’s poverty, racism, misogyny, homophobia, or just plain Daddy issues.
While stand-up lets us laugh at our universalstruggles and vexations, improv lets us laugh at how uniquely we see the world.
Stand-up comedy can help a lot of people process their more difficult feelings. It forces you to be more dynamic and communicate with authority. It forces you to realize who you are as a person and how you interact with people. As you cultivate your stage persona, you see how people see you and how you see yourself. You see what makes people laugh and how to garner that response from people. You start to see patterns in the stories you tell and in that which people like to see from you. It can be transformative. I firmly believe everyone should try stand-up comedy at least once. In shifting the focus from making ourselves laugh to making others laugh, we unlock the secret power of humor. We learn the power of using laughter to soften blows, add levity and perspective to dark situations, and most of all to keep us grounded and sane in times of stress.
Stand-up comedy helped me realize a lot about myself. In telling self-deprecating jokes to the audience, I started to realize that the way I viewed myself was hugely different from how other people saw me. I saw that my natural stage presence was something that was a blessing and a skill. I learned how to command attention and respect not by laughing but by finding a commonality with people who don’t know me or might not even like me. Rather than living in the narrative of my own failure and sadness, I started to see ways out of that mindset.
There is a dark side of comedy. Popular comedians like Chris Farley, John Belushi, and Robin Williams all died due to depression and addiction. Being confronted with so much darkness but making light of it can make people think you have it all together. If you have ever spent time with stand-up comics you know they are not balls of sunshine: they’re prone to dark subjects and even darker jokes. But that’s because even the best of defense mechanisms can turn on us. If you get positive validation for commiserating with total strangers, it can seem like that’s okay. As with anything, we have to ensure we are learning and growing from our experiences. It can seem like defeating your inner demons will cause you to lose your edge in comedy, but that isn’t the case.
In my comedy experience, I hit a wall with stand-up . I started over in multiple markets and found myself constantly going to open mics at bars, coffee houses, and even the back of a Thai restaurant. I found that there was always this dark cloud as people performed in front of people who were only half-listening, waiting for their chance to perform. Over time, I realized there are other access points to comedy. Besides stand-up , I also believe everyone should try improv, at least once. While stand-up focuses on what we don’t like—negative feelings and our painful memories—improv is based solely on positive communication. By embracing a “Yes, and . . . ” attitude you can collaborate with perfect strangers to do what people in our government cannot do—compromise and cooperate.
When you learn to improvise, you learn to be a better communicator. You start to look for nonverbal cues, subtext, and most importantly, the other person there to help you. As you hone improv skills, you hone better communication. You learn how saying no or negating someone’s ideas or offerings halts progress. You start to see that if two or more people are working towards something, it helps to work together. You learn that if you judge people less you can turn their worst brain fart into a diamond. While stand-up lets us laugh at our universal struggles and vexations, improv lets us laugh at how uniquely we see the world. The specific brand of toothpaste one person picks or the name of their high school gym teacher will provide tons of laughs to an audience.
My journey in comedy helped me learn how to make light of my struggles and to trust in myself. It helped me celebrate the tools I’ve used to navigate the troubles in my life. Rather than giving myself completely over to the darkness, I found that I would ultimately need to make connections and learn to be vulnerable and let people in. I found that, because of my gregarious charming nature, I was battling so much alone. I believe comedy saved my life by providing me with an outlet for all the pain I experienced, and a way to connect with others amid all my issues. Pain is universal, and whether I’m on stage telling dick jokes, or playing make-believe with other adults on stage, I know that life becomes a bit more bearable. I try to use my humor and comedy not just to get me out of bed but to let other people know they aren’t alone and that this too shall pass.