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Humor is a common part of daily life, serving many different functions for different people. While some use it to have a good laugh with friends, others may start using it as a coping mechanism when things are not going well. When it comes to humor, most people look up to their favorite comedians to feel happy and positive as they bring joy and happiness to their lives. However, learning that a comedian is struggling with depression can create a start contrast that may be difficult to understand and accept. From Russell Brand to Pete Davidson, the world knows many “funny people” who have publicly admitted to have struggled with depression and other mental health illnesses, making millions wonder why are comedians depressed?
Comedians and Depression: The Sad Clown Paradox Explained
The sad clown paradox describes the contradictory co-existence of comedy and mental health problems, such as depression. Many experts use this phenomenon to describe comedian mental health. The concept is formed on the idea that arises from Sigmund Freud’s theory, suggesting that comedians attempt to make others happy as a way to relieve their sadness or anxiety. Due to this underlying phenomenon, Freud was the first one to coin the concept of a mental illness clown. It is not uncommon to witness this theory in practice as many comedians have published biographies stating that they acted funny as others needed them to. For some, it was a way to escape the harsh environment and find joy; for the rest, it was to make their parents happy.
The famous Pagliacci joke is a popular example of the sad clown paradox. The joke is particularly famous for being featured in a Watchmen graphic novel by Alan Moore. The joke describes a doctor’s appointment where the doctor recommends comedy of the most famous clown to a patient to treat their depression, only to realize later that the patient is the clown himself. While the joke seems funny superficially, it points out a deeper message conveying that often, the people who make others the happiest are themselves in need of help.
Why are Funny People Depressed? Using Humor as a Coping Mechanism
It is common to use humor to dampen the negative effects of stress, especially when a situation becomes difficult or stressful enough to trigger the use of coping mechanisms. These stressful feelings often translate to anxiety or fear, and humor is one of the ways to keep these feelings under control. Research drawing on the findings of Sigmund Freud also highlights that humor can be a way for many to ward off these feelings. 
Humor can be categorized as an emotion-focused coping mechanism as it can help people lighten the burden of stressful emotions. Laughing can also make people feel good and improve their well-being and health in many ways. While many people believe humor to be a healthy behavior as it makes them feel good, it can be harmful to them and those around them. The negative or positive effects of humor vary, depending on different humor styles, according to a research study. 
Positive humor is healthy and makes people and those around them feel good. This may include the following types:
- Affiliative Humor: This includes light-hearted, good-natured, jolly humor, such as telling funny stories or cracking witty jokes that most people would enjoy without taking any offense.
- Self-Enhancing Humor: This type of humor includes maintaining a funny outlook on life or laughing at oneself for minor failures. Many people use it to make everyday life more upbeat and fun.
- Positive Reappraisal: This type of humor involves identifying humorous points in a stressful situation, and it helps shift a person’s perspective from negative to positive.
This type of humor may seem funny to some but can damage their health in addition to the health of the one practicing it. It may be categorized into the following types:
- Aggressive Humor: This type of humor often comes at the expense of others. Some examples may include making others feel bad to make oneself feel better or constantly teasing them.
- Self-Defeating Humor: This happens when people try to connect with others by cracking jokes about themselves.
Most comedians who end up struggling with a mental health disorder, like depression, often use negative humor.
Humor and Depression: Comedians Facing Mental Health Challenges
The celebrity world has plenty of examples explaining the link between comedians and depression. A shocking number of public figures belonging to the comedy world have come forward and accepted their battles with depression and addiction in the past few years, including the following:
Chris Farley is one of the best comedians of his generation. Beginning his career as an improv, Farley found his first big break following his inclusion in the cast of Saturday Night Live during the 1990s. He received a lot of appreciation and respect from his fellow comedians, including David Spade and Adam Sandler. Unfortunately, Chris struggled with addiction and mental health issues, and his successful and humorful career came to an end in 1997 when he died at a very young age due to a drug overdose.
John has been very open about his struggles with addiction and mental health issues following his trip to rehab in late 2020 and early 2021. The comedian revealed that his friends conducted an intervention that finally convinced him to check into rehab and get help for his struggles instead of hiding them behind comedy and humor.
Sarah has been incredibly successful in her career but her life has also been an example of the strong relationship that comedy and depression share. In an interview conducted in 2015, the comedian shared her initial experiences with depression that began when she was only 13. According to Sarah, depression changed her perspective as she suddenly went from being a class clown to someone unable to see life casually. She withdrew from friends skipped school for months, and eventually started having panic attacks.
While Sarah Silverman eventually learned how to live with depression while managing it successfully, she never stopped entertaining others with her funny and witty humor. She still takes antidepressants to navigate her emotional highs and lows in combination with therapy.
As one of the most popular comedians to struggle with depression and mental illness, Robin Williams has played an important role in raising awareness about the sad clown paradox. Known to Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting, and August Rush and Mrs. Doubtfire, Williams is known to have a natural gift for performing comedy roles that touch viewers’ hearts.
While the comedian did not admit to battling clinical depression, he mentioned how he frequently “felt bummed.” He also struggled with multiple addictions and successfully achieved sobriety for 20 years before relapsing again. The comedian joined a rehab to fight his addictions in 2014 but sadly passed away after a few years as a result of what many believe to be a suicide attempt.
Comedy and Depression: Is Using Humor Effective?
Humor can be a highly effective tool to improve various aspects of health. The benefits of humor are mainly linked to healthy humor styles, such as self-enhancing and affiliative. In rare cases, aggressive humor may also be effective. A review conducted in 2017 explored the relationship between humor and different aspects of health and wellbeing, which indicated multiple benefits of using humor, such as the following: 
- Improving communication
- Improving Recovery
- Relieving tension
- Reducing anxiety and stress.
However, the chance of humor backfiring and creating more discomfort is always there. Inappropriate humor or comedy can also damage relationships in personal and professional settings, according to a 2019 study.  The highest chance of using inappropriate humor is when a person uses negative humor styles. For example, aggressive humor can be socially damaging and is less likely to be received well in social gatherings. Similarly, when a person uses self-defeating styles, others may lose respect for them or stop taking them seriously. While some studies have found this type of humor to carry certain benefits, others conclude it does not improve mental health.
Humor and Cultural Differences
Whether or not humor is effective depends on cultural factors. Studies have found many differences in how people view and use humor across different cultures. For instance, in Chinese culture, people have mixed opinions about whether or not humor is appropriate to use in a social setting. Chinese following the Confucian philosophy generally devalues humor and consider it unacceptable. On the other hand, those who follow Taoism consider humor as a way to increase harmony and peace with nature. Similarly, most Canadians consider humor as a socially acceptable and desirable behavior.
Are comedians more vulnerable to depression and mental health challenges?
With multiple comedians publicly admitting to battling mental health issues, one may wonder if these people are more vulnerable to developing them. While being a comedian does not put one at a higher risk of becoming depressed, research indicates that people struggling with mental health struggles are likely to incline toward comedy as a coping strategy.
Can humor benefit depressed comedians?
Studies suggest that humor is a good option to combine with other mental health treatments to help patients cope with symptoms. The use of humor is believed to empower patients while aiding in their rehabilitation. Because of these benefits, many experts have started using humor as a permanent part of group therapy and other psychotherapy settings.
Why are comedians depressed?
While humor and comedy are generally considered to positively impact mental health, this may not always be the case. Humor is of different types, and some of these types can take a negative toll on an individual’s mental health. For instance, aggressive humor can be used to manipulate people or put them down, whereas self-defeating humor involves putting down oneself to make others happy. These two types of humor can negatively affect mental health and explain why many comedians end up developing depression.
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