As the old adage goes, “laughter is the best medicine." The escape that comedy offers is a powerful one; a feel-good distraction from all the gloom that could perhaps explain the psychology behind dark humour.
Stand-up comics referencing their own trauma. Funny clowns visiting hospital patients. Meme culture thriving throughout a global pandemic. We've seemingly learnt to seek comfort in humour, channelling pain through jokes while wading through otherwise unbearable times.
TRANSFORMING PAIN INTO ART
You may have seen the likes of Bo Burnham’s Inside and Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette rise to popularity, comedy specials in which each punchline’s driving force was born from the creator’s own trauma. Australian comedian Celia Pacquola garnered critical praise and a Helpmann Award for her stand-up show All Talk, centring around depression and mental health. And in the learning of Robin Williams’ passing, the world mourned. As fans, we grappled with the notion that someone could build a legacy in ceaselessly spreading joy, all the while living with their own personal demons behind closed doors.
Within entertainment, the “sad comedian” has been a long-standing stereotype. In a piece titled 'Why Do Sad Kids Grow Up to Be Funny Adults?', author Lauren Vinopal explores the scientific link between adversity in childhood and humour, noting recent theories which suggest that, for some, "humour not only curbs depression and hopelessness but also might be an adaptive response."
Results from a 2018 study showed that participants who had more adverse childhood experiences also experienced an intensified creative process. These participants showed deeper states of absorption, were more aware of the state of inspiration and showed a heightened sense of discovery. Although they did not look at comedians specifically, clinical psychologist Dr Paula Thomson noted that “these individuals were more likely to display personality qualities that are conducive to humour,” including the ability to respond to situations with wit and frankness. She believes that this ties to resilience, with humour acting "as a buffer for pain."
Think of serious dramas with happy endings, or tragic plays peppered with moments of comic relief. The literary genre that blends both tragedy and comedy through drama, Tragicomedy has been described as “that which provokes laughter through tears… above all, it consoles.”
However, while the entertainment may briefly provide laughter, it does not replace or absorb the tragedy. Psychology professor Jane Gibson delves into the psychology behind dark humour, listing the ways it can help reduce stress. From feeling assured, to feeling in control, to buffering any threats against the immune system, Gibson finds that liking dark humour may in fact point to a healthy mind. She shares, “Being able to see the multiple interpretations of situations, including terrifying ones, is valuable for flexible, executive functions of thinking and decision making.”
Benefits of Humour
Why are we drawn to humour in hard times? Beyond the psychological aspect of easing our stresses, humour is an outlet of expression; a glimmer of hope when there’s not much else to turn to. It creates a new vessel, allowing the impacted person to acknowledge their pain through a form of emotional release.
As Arthur Koestler puts it, laughter’s “only utilitarian function, as far as one can see, is to provide temporary relief from utilitarian pressures.” Above everything else, laughing feels good.
As a species wired to connect, we tackle hardships through humour because it provides a sense of relief; it allows us to socially interact. Laughing with others eases the burden, knowing that we are not alone in our pain.
If you are in need of mental health support, please contact Lifeline Australia 13 11 14