Comedians are psychopathic masochists with a death wish

Says John Fleming

I have seen several comedians get very close to big-time success and then destroy their own chances.

Sometimes I have seen a comedian, after years of struggling, so close to their big-time breakthrough that they can almost reach out and touch it… and then they throw the chance away. Because, I think, after years of struggle, they know the taste of failure and know they can deal with that acid-like ache in the pit of their stomach, but they are frightened by the unknown challenges and feelings which success may throw at them.

It is fear of the unknown and also, perhaps, an inbuilt urge to fail.

Masochism.

I have a theory that there is very little difference between a stand-up comedian and someone who walks into a supermarket or sits atop a high building and randomly shoots people. Most of the psycho shooters are not homicidal but suicidal; they are not sadists, they are masochists; they know they will die and welcome it because someone else will kill them, someone else will ‘suicide’ them.

Comedians are, perhaps, psychopaths with a strong streak of masochism stirred in.

The motivation of both the psycho shooter and the stand up comic is to have a God-like, deep and lasting effect on the lives of others.

They want the public to be so affected by their actions that ‘ordinary’ people completely lose control over their emotions. They want to so affect ‘ordinary’ people’s minds, to have such a vivid, immediate impact that their name will be remembered for the rest of their contemporaries’ lives.

In the perfect comedy performance, the audience cannot control their basic bodily emotions – their laughter – the comic is in control. But, equally, if the comedian loses control for even a few seconds, the tables may be turned almost instantly and he or she may ‘die’. In the case of the random shooter, a police marksman may fire a fatal round at him/her. In the case of a comic, not just heckles but beer glasses can get thrown at you. I have seen blood drawn on more than one occasion. But it is the psychological damage which hurts more.

What sort of person decides to randomly shoot people knowing they will eventually and soon be shot themselves? The same sort of person who stands on a stage inviting rejection, even if unjustified, Arguably, psychopathic masochists.

Comedy performers have a need to be in control, yet are totally at the mercy of their audiences’ collective whims. Only the very insecure would risk such total rejection for such total control over others. Standing on stage is a masochist’s delight.

If you succeed, if you play the best gig of your life, you know that future gigs are highly unlikely ever to surpass this triumphant peak; the rest of your career will be less successful. If you fail, if the audience and/or the critics don’t find you or your thoughts funny right now, that reinforces your belief in your own worthlessness. It is a lose-lose situation and who would open themselves up to the risk of such rejection? Most comics I’ve met are a combination of vast ego and vast insecurity and self-doubt. Masochists with a large ego.

Stand-up comics are not like the rest of us. And that is partly why their acts and their minds can be uniquely entertaining and uniquely insightful. If you put a talented masochistic psychopath on stage and say ‘Go on! Make me laugh!’ you are bound to get a wonderfully unexpected result.

The irony is that audiences think it’s easy, that comedians are happy people offstage and that ‘anybody’ can do it.

Give me a well-balanced, happy person, content with their life, content in themselves and I will give you a person who will never be a good comedian.

Give me a psychologically-damaged mess, a mixture of dictator and masochistic neurotic and I will give you a potentially good comedian – which is why I enjoy being with them so much.

Perhaps I should start worrying about my own psychological make-up…

Published: 24 Mar 2011

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