According to a tale in the Talmud, the prophet Elijah said that there will be reward in the next world for those who bring laughter to others in this one. Although comedians typically garner less prestige than other artists, they are no less creatively endowed and no less essential to society. In fact, comedians may play a far greater role in the psychological health of a society than previously realized. Experts at restructuring and reframing negative and tragic circumstances into humorous ones, comedians often accomplish on stage what therapists hope to accomplish in their offices. Those who seek an effective means of coping with and overcoming everything from minor life stressors to major tragedies would benefit from learning the way of the comedian.
As you read this, they are traveling across the country, sleeping in old cars or dingy motel rooms, driving from town to town, enduring lonely and uncomfortable nights away from home, arguing with difficult club owners, and boldly getting up on stages in front of drunk strangers who hurl everything from epithets to glassware at them. Why do they do this? To provide us with relief from our miseries; to lighten our loads; to share with us the joys and benefits of laughter. That is part of their motivation, but there is more.
Blessed with high intelligence and sensitivity, but often cursed with unpleasant or tragic circumstances, examples of famous comedians who have overcome traumatic childhoods or suffered through severe adversity abound. Both of Carol Burnett’s parents were alcoholics and she grew up on welfare with her grandmother. Describing the first time she heard the audience laugh while she was performing, she wrote:
What was it exactly? A glow? A light? I was a helium balloon, floating above the stage. I was the audience, and the audience was me. I was happy. Happy. Bliss. I knew then that for the rest of my life, I would keep sticking out my chin to see if I could ever feel that good again.
Richard Pryor grew up in an Illinois brothel where his mother worked as a prostitute and his father as a pimp. Among many other horrors, he was raped by a teenaged neighbor when he was six and molested by a Catholic priest during catechism. After being expelled from school at 14, he became a janitor at a strip club and later worked as a shoe-shine, a meat packer, a truck driver and a pool hall attendant.
Humorist Art Buchwald’s mother was committed to a mental institution when he was an infant and he was raised in seven different foster homes. Art expressed an awareness of the defensive value of humor when he said, “When you make the bullies laugh, they don’t beat you up.”
Comedic actor Russell Brand was raised by a single mother following his parents’ divorce when he was a child. He was molested by a tutor when he was seven, was bulimic when he was 14 and left home and began taking drugs at 16.
Stephen Colbert lost his father, Dr. James Colbert, and two brothers when he was 10 years old in the September 11, 1974 crash of Eastern Airlines Flight 212 near Charlotte, N.C. Following the loss, Colbert says he became withdrawn and more involved in fantasy role-playing games: “I was motivated to play Dungeons and Dragons. I mean, highly, highly motivated to play it.”