In the hit series This Is Us, a revealing episode centers around the show’s clown, Toby, who as a child responded to his mother’s anguish by being funny. The attempt at resolution transforms him into a very funny individual, but also one who suffers from debilitating depression.
The story is a familiar one and it has a name: the Sad Clown Paradox. It explains the association between people who are exceptionally funny, often entertainers by trade, with mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.
In Pretend the World Is Funny and Forever: A Psychological Analysis of Comedians, Clowns, and Actors, Seymour and Rhoda Fisher used childhood accounts, the Rorschach inkblot test and the Thematic Apperception Test to explore depressive characteristics among performers, reports Psychology Today. They found that the funniest of the bunch often came from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and may have adopted the role of the “class clown” in school as a means of overcoming stress and anxiety.
Comparatively, the comedians had faced more adversity at a younger age compared to the actors. There were also trends in parental relationships, as comics more often self-reported a positive relationship with their fathers, while mothers were described as critical, aggressive and non-maternal, a trend that’s been reflected in studies of college-age amateur comedians.
Humor has long been used as a tool against stress and uncertainty, perhaps best captured in The Wipers Times: a satirical newspaper that went to print in the decimated city of Ypres, Belgium, during World War I. So named because most of the soldiers reading it couldn’t pronounce Ypres (they said why-pers instead of ee-pruh), the trench newspaper included sporting notes in which gas attacks were reported as a horse race, regular serials (one of the earliest: a detective series “Herlock Shomes”) and a Things We Want To Know section, including "whether the pop’lar Poplar tree’s as pop’lar as it used to be?"
During the COVID-19 pandemic, humans across the globe took to their windows, bathrooms, and balconies to showcase a similarly resilient sense of humor in the face of life-threatening disease, all while grappling with the stress and isolation of lockdown. And later, amidst the devastation unfolding in Ukraine, hackers found the time to make Russian charging stations display the message: "Putin is a dickhead".
Humor is now considered as a character strength, scientifically speaking. Positive psychology, a field that examines what people do well, notes that humor can be used to make others feel good, to gain intimacy or to help buffer stress. It also figures, then, that a well chiseled sense of humor can be born out of a complicated past as a means of coping, but that doesn’t necessarily spare the “clown” from the mental toll of certain life histories.
Focusing on positive relationships at an early age may be a tool for avoiding the Sad Clown Paradox, but the phenomenon is a reminder that even the funniest of friends may be in need of a shoulder to cry on.