Saturday, May 30, 2009



I don’t envy comedians. I respect their craft, but I know I could never be one. That’s not to say that I do not admire them. I have idolized many comedians in my life, especially George Carlin and Richard Pryor. But behind all the mirth and jest, you could just sense that something was gnawing at them. Carlin and Pryor dwelled on troublesome issues beyond jokes. In finding humor, they also laid bare our world’s deep flaws. On some level, that must have made them unhappy. Not all comedians address large social issues; some just keep it simple and silly. As artists, however, they can never show unhappiness. They can never be “down” or “in a bad mood.” In that light, I think comedians face a tremendous challenge: They must always seem upbeat, happy, energetic and “amusing” in order to entertain their audiences face-to-face. There is no room for error. Comedy performances are startlingly immediate. The audience is there and wants to laugh. If the comedian can’t deliver, he is personally ridiculed off the stage. Imagine how that must feel. And they face that risk every day. They put their fates in the audience’s hands.

Good comedians always seem to get laughs. They make it look effortless. Their material sounds conversational and natural, even though they meticulously rehearsed it. They smile and move about cheerfully. In provoking laughter, they must at least appear to be “having a good time.” We don’t generally laugh unless something “funny” or “amusing” happens, and to be “funny” and “amusing” you must be energetic. We laugh when we sense a certain energy from another person’s actions or words. In that light, comedians must find the energy to amuse their audiences—every day. That is a substantial skill. Look at Jim Carrey. Can he possibly be that energetic every moment, every day? When he performs, he is a walking caricature. He moves his body spastically. He alters his voice constantly. To delight his audience, he works his energy into a frenzy. He wants to get laughs. And to get laughs, he turns up the energy. After a while, the audience begins to think that the comedian—whether Jim Carrey or anyone else—must always have high energy. They associate the man with the act. The man becomes a “high-energy caricature." His own identity means nothing next to his distinctive “performance art.”

I can only imagine what this does to a comedian’s self-image. It is hard to muster up frenetic energy every day. I know from experience that I can’t do it more than a few times a week. My moods naturally brighten and darken depending on my circumstances. Sometimes I don’t feel like laughing. In fact, sometimes I really want to be serious. I might be sad or morose. There is nothing wrong with this. We humans are emotional creatures and our feelings change with our stimuli. Sometimes we have energy. Other times we want to loaf around and do nothing. This is all perfectly natural.

Yet comedians do not have the luxury to be natural. They must be cheerful and amusing even when they don’t feel like it. They must be “up” even when they feel “down.” Even if they are contending with the worst personal circumstances, they cannot convey their negative emotions to the audience because that wouldn’t be funny. After all, audiences don’t pay to sit there and not laugh at a comedy show. They want energy and mirth, not sadness. They have enough sadness in their lives; they don’t want more sadness from a comedian who is supposed to be funny. I can only imagine how hopeless a comedian must feel when he has to do a show knowing he just “isn’t in the mood to laugh.”

Nonetheless, people do not understand that comedians are not the people they see on stage. They are human beings with all the flaws, foibles and emotional weaknesses as themselves. When comedians make the news in some “non-comedic” way, people can’t understand it. For example, Owen Wilson tried to commit suicide a few years ago. People were flabbergasted. They said: “Owen Wilson? Why would he want to kill himself? He is always so happy and cheerful in his movies. He was so funny in The Wedding Crashers. He never seems sad, etc…” Here, we see a marked divergence between the “personae” that comedians adopt in their “art” and the people they actually are. Who knows what kind of emotional turmoil Owen Wilson faces every day? Unlike most, I understood immediately why a successful comedian like Owen Wilson might want to kill himself. It’s a lot of pressure being funny all the time, especially if you don’t feel like being funny. And audiences are ruthless. They don’t want excuses. They want performances.

Comedians face pressure and judgment from all sides because they depend on the audience for approval. Actors face pressure from the audience, too. But comedians face it more acutely. When watching an actor in a dramatic performance, the audience does not always expect to laugh. They want to see believable action and hear believable words from the actors. Yet when an audience comes to a comedy show, they want to laugh. The performer faces a much tougher challenge in this situation. He faces immediate, specific expectations from the audience: “Make me laugh or I will boo you off the stage. Worse, if I boo you off the stage, you lose your job and you’ll feel like a failure, too.” Comedians, then, must meet the audience’s specific expectations or suffer immediate consequences. Actors, by contrast, do not face such immediate demands. Audiences might brand an actor “bad” in an ensemble performance, but that is not as brutal as being booed off the stage for an individual performance. And the psychic damage is worse for a comedian because he alone is responsible for the bad performance. It’s his show. If he fails, it’s his failure alone. In that sense, the emotional stakes are always high for a comedian. It is no wonder they suffer self-esteem problems. And it is no wonder—at least for me—that some may want to commit suicide after dealing with such pressures over a prolonged period.

Comedians must make the audience laugh to survive. That is no easy task, because laughter reflects approval. In essence, then, comedians seek audience approval. But who is the audience? To some extent at least, comedians are shameless sycophants. They must bow down and “give the audience what it wants” in order to win their approval through laughter. Yet laughter is a perplexing commodity. Not everyone laughs at the same things. It is nearly impossible to predict whether a given person will laugh at something. Some people are dumber than others and they don’t understand certain jokes. Others want to hear classic jokes. Some want “amusing stories.” Others just want silly sound effects. Some want wit. Others want unbridled vulgarity. Some like celebrity impressions. Others like political humor. Put simply, audience tastes are as varied as the sands. And even if a comedian manages to tap into an audience’s “comfort zone,” it still rests with the audience whether to laugh. The audience has all the power. Perhaps an audience really likes fart jokes. But even if the comedian tells his best fart joke, the audience is not required to laugh. Audiences are fickle; and their fickle judgments control the comedian’s fate. They laugh when it suits their tastes. The comedian cannot control their tastes. Whenever a comedian steps on stage, he takes a risk that his act will appeal to those tastes. He cannot know for sure whether it will. Thus, he lives in a world of uncertainty. If he wins approval, he feels elated. If he does not, he feels crushed. Every performance is a gamble and a leap of faith. It is a life filled with pressure, expectations and uncertainty. Against this background, it should hardly surprise us that many comedians suffer from anxiety. And they must summon the nerve to gamble again every single day, no matter how anxious they feel. Maybe this explains why Richard Pryor turned to drugs, Buddy Hackett had a nervous breakdown, George Carlin suffered several heart attacks and Owen Wilson tried to kill himself. Maybe this explains why Jerry Seinfeld just gave up on the craft after a good run, just as a smart gambler quits after a winning streak. In a word, comedians’ lives aren’t funny at all.

Who doesn’t like to laugh? Everyone likes to laugh. When we laugh spontaneously, we feel better, even if our circumstances are terrible. If we happen to make another person laugh with a comment or story, we feel good about ourselves because we know the other person approves us. That boosts our self-esteem. We get an even bigger boost when we amuse a large group of people, because we know that many people approve us all at once. But this quest for self-esteem through laughter causes problems. Once we experience how good it feels to “make others laugh,” we start “intentionally soliciting” laughter. We place expectations on ourselves. And when our targets don’t laugh, we feel dejected, not elated. Comedians experience this emotional cycle on a grand scale. Moreover, they do not “intentionally solicit” laughter merely to win individual favor; they do it professionally for large numbers. Money and emotional stability ride on the joke. This is a dangerous mix. People go into depression simply because they do not succeed financially. When you add lost self-esteem to financial worry, it becomes strikingly clear that comedians face harsh emotional challenges. When they don’t make the audience laugh, they not only feel worthless; they lose their money, too.

I am glad I am not a comedian. If my words make others laugh, I am grateful for their approval. But I do not stake my emotional stability on their reactions, nor do I purposely set out to win their favor. Rather, I simply try to “be myself,” which is not easy. I have always found it strange that people admonish distressed friends to “be themselves” when they face emotional hardship. What does it actually mean? Don’t we spend our whole lives trying to figure out who we are? And if “being ourselves” is so difficult and so exceptional, who are we in the usual case? Are we constantly just playing roles? Is it really so extraordinary to find our own identities? Apparently it is. Yet comedians never even get to “be themselves.” They must always step into their roles, muster energy and perform for the audience’s approval. They do not have the liberty to feel tired, lazy, apathetic, sad, downcast or even neutral. Rather, they must put on their “performance persona” and gamble that their act will please their unforgiving judges.

I am glad I do not have to do this. I will try to find my place in the world without learned artistry or dazzle. If I generate some laughter, so be it. If not, I will not feel like a failure. After all, I cannot control others’ tastes. In my view, it is a losing battle to even attempt to do so. For people have the strangest values; it is impossible to please them all. No one finds everything funny. Some people find nothing funny. Others find many things funny with a few bizarre exceptions. You just don’t know, and you drive yourself crazy trying to figure them out.

We are not really free if our self-esteem depends exclusively on external judgments. Ask yourself how happy you would be if you could never comfortably speak without trying to make your listener laugh. Or you could just ask a comedian.

1 comment:

Timoteo said...

Great piece, as always. However,I don't think comedians turn to drugs or otherwise act out as a result of the pressures of their craft...comics (the best ones anyway)have typically had screwed-up childhoods. They recognize that comedy comes from pain, and they've got a wellspring of it to work with. The skillful ones are able to tap into the irony of life in a way that most of us can identify with...and that makes us chuckle.
But if they go off the deep end at some point, it's more a case of the ticking time bomb than anything else.