It's A Paradox: Why Stand-Up Comics Hate Themselves

by Will Julian

The cliché that comics are sad people who hate themselves (often in addition to everyone around them) is a paradox.

How could someone who makes people happy be so sad? They have so much laughter in their lives!

Prior to doing comedy myself, this was something I had trouble reconciling. I’ve been a huge fan of comedy since I was 11 years old, when my parents made the questionable decision to take me to the Comedy Cellar.

As my dad jokingly says today, he wishes he took me to more hospitals, instead.

As I got older and continued to soak up as much stand-up as I could, I soon realized that a lot of the guys I admired more than anyone else in the world were troubled.

I was so grateful for what they could do, in awe of those who could do it well, but it was hard for me to figure out why many of these comics didn’t think nearly as highly of themselves as I thought of them. So why do so many comedians struggle with all the self-hate?

There isn’t one answer for this, but since I began doing stand-up myself, I believe it stems from five sources:

1) Starting Out

Every comic has to begin their career somewhere, and that usually means bars and open mic nights, where there is little-to-no audience, and bombing becomes routine.

Even once you experience success, you may continue to have bad shows (albeit fewer of them). If Dave Chappelle still gets heckled, it clearly doesn’t matter how successful you are.

Rough nights are inevitable, no matter where you are in your career, but in the beginning, they occur frequently, and it can take an emotional toll.

2) The Writing

Writing a stand-up act is a long and often tedious process. It takes trial and error, and jokes go through many revisions before they are remotely usable. Usually, the dirtier the material, the more self-hate it creates.

You can only re-write a dick joke so many times before you start questioning your existence. Then, by the time your filthy joke is just right and you get a big laugh, you’ll probably think to yourself, “How could people find this funny?”

3) The Loneliness

Being a comedian is a solitary existence. While television writers may get to enjoy the company of like-minded people in a writers’ room, stand-ups sit alone in front of their computer or notepad and often only experience contact with people at night.

Being on the road is difficult, too. Hotels, airports, long car rides and being in an unfamiliar place all contribute to the loneliness, as well.

4) Too Much Free Time

There are only a handful of people out there who can make a living doing stand-up. For those who do, the hours are quite appealing. Wake up when you want, and do your shows at night.

However, lots of free time can lead to boredom and nothing makes the mind go to a dark place faster than not knowing what to do with your day. Keeping busy is essential to remaining stable and sane, but when stimulation is lacking, things can start to go haywire.

5) It’s Funnier Than Not Hating Yourself

The truth is, a lot of comics embrace the self-hate and make it a part of their act and stage presence. It’s well covered territory, but it’s for good reason.

When it comes to the writing, it provides a lot of fruitful material. Also, it’s a whole lot funnier than getting on stage and talking about how happy you are.

Who the hell wants to hear about that, anyway? Some even fear that happiness can lead to being less funny, and therefore, they encourage the self-hate, making it a self-inflicted wound.

Even though I feel like I have a reasonable understanding of the experiences that comedians go through, and why the cliché of comics as miserable people exists, I’d like it to be clear that I’m a genuinely happy dude (I’m talking to you, Mom!) and not all comics are like this. Personally, I love doing stand-up, and in no way would I consider myself a self-hating person.

But I get it…

Photo Credit: HBO