Why comedy is like therapy (and not in the way you'd think) | By Luke Mcgibbon

Why comedy is like therapy (and not in the way you'd think)

By Luke Mcgibbon

I’ve been studying for the last bunch of years to be a mental health counsellor as well as trawling the local open mic circuit trying to be a decent stand-up comedian. At times I’ve noticed that getting better at one of these disciplines often results in me becoming better at the other.

One of the main schools of thought on counselling, humanistic counselling, is founded on the principle that people want to be happy deep down. The counsellor releases this drive to be happy by forming a therapeutic relationship with the client, founded on three ideals, or core conditions, which we’ll talk about later.

In this atmosphere, the client becomes free to talk about anything they want, feel truly listened to, gets little to no direct advice and is simply given a space in which to plan, think and process without judgement, aided by simple, reflective questions from the counsellor. Ideally the client sees that these core conditions are a good foundation for any relationship, including with oneself. I’m simplifying here for the purpose of the article.

In Edinburgh last year, on the night Robin Williams passed away, I sat in on a podcast about comedy and mental health hosted by Christian Talbot and Alan Irwin, with special guests Robin Ince and Eddie Pepitone. Sadly, the recording got corrupted, but I remember Pepitone talking about how audiences look after a truly good stand-up show. He said ‘people look elated, lighter!’

I feel that this elation comes because a truly good stand-up act forms a relationship with the audience that is similar to the therapeutic relationship. I’m not saying doing jokes about somebody’s mum is going to save a life. But the core conditions of the counselling relationship could easily apply to being a good stand-up. They are:

Empathy. Therapeutically, this is a no-brainer. It’s not to be confused with sympathy – when we feel sympathy for someone we might view them with pity. While pity makes a victim of the sufferer, empathy empowers them: ‘I have a sense of your world, you are not alone, we will go through this together" ‘

This is the basis of even the most banal observational humour. A Michael McIntyre joke off the top of my head: ‘My toaster seems to have two settings; bread and burnt.’ Why are people laughing when they hear that? These people aren’t laughing at the ridiculousness of that hypothetical useless toaster; they are laughing because they know exactly what he means, they’ve experienced the same thing before, and have never spoken about it. Endorphins release, laughter follows.

When Louis CK says ‘my 5 year old daughter is an asshole’, it’s the same principle. Because thinking about your kids negatively is something most parents do but never verbalise, there’s suddenly a huge sense of connection with him. Much more so than the first example, because someone’s children are a much more powerful subject than your shitty toaster. Bill Hicks, Russell Brand – these are people who have forged connections to people through sharing their apathy or disillusionment with government and modern life.

Congruence, or genuineness. In counselling and psychotherapy it means you have to be yourself; you have to be genuine. Nobody is going to feel comfortable opening up to someone who they feel is bullshitting them, or who is just agreeing with them to placate them.

In comedy it means a number of things. Chiefly it means being unapologetically, totally yourself; or being able to believably simulate that. Confidence, commitment. Character acts playing it to the hilt. Edgy material being done without a stutter and with the coldest of gaze (successful edgy comedians - a rare breed - have perfected a sort of dead-eyed apathy which helps them get away with it). With observational material it means really selling the ‘this is something real that happened’ element of it (most stories comics tell about themselves are at least 25 per cent exaggeration, right?)

This is why you can tell, sometimes, when a comic uses writers, because it lacks this genuineness. ‘You’ll never guess what happened to my writer last night!’ Even on a successful bit, an audience can tell when you’re bullshitting them, and the bit has less effect.

Non-judgement. This one needs a bit more explaining. In therapy we are asked to be non-judgemental because that gives the clint the space to explore and talk about things that they would never normally talk about with anyone else, since they’re scared of being judged.

‘Sounds counterproductive to comedy,’ says you, ‘since so many jokes seem to be based on a judgement of some sort.’ A point well made, Mr Strawman. You’re right. In the case of comedy non-judgement is turned inward. You take a look at yourself and you switch that inner editor off, because it’s when we say the things that we fear make us ridiculous that we get some truly great jokes, that people truly relate to.

Am I saying you NEED to make a connection to be good? No. But I’m saying to make some sort of lasting feeling of goodness with an audience, that connection is necessary. Am I saying that you need to be an audience’s buddy? Nope. If you’re trying to be the buddy you don’t feel any sort of genuine warmth for that’s not congruent. And they can tell.

Any show that I’ve been to that has felt great or transcendent has had these three core conditions. So has any great friendship or love. The best sex I’ve had has been with people who brought these three things. So while it’s definitely relevant, you could also say it’s a bit broad.

Like your mum.

Published: 2 Jan 2015

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