There’s an old show biz saying that “comedy isn’t pretty.” The reference stems from the fact that most comedy is born out of pain and suffering. When things go south, laughter is the emotional and psychological first aid kit. Humor, as it turns out, is a wonderful defense mechanism that makes almost any dire experience a tolerable one, if only briefly.
A prime example is gallows humor, making light of things that are deadly serious. If you ever saw the iconic anti-war movie (and later, the hugely successful TV series) “M*A*S*H, you’ll know what I mean. M*A*S*H, Army-speak for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, was about a group of unwilling, but top-notch doctors who were drafted and served overseas during the Korean War (1950 to 1953). They treated everything from the psychologically wounded to the most horribly ripped-apart, barely breathing servicemen who arrived in a relentless stream from the front. M*A*S*H, the movie and the TV show, were comedies. Very dark comedies. Humor was what helped the doctors hold onto some semblance of their sanity while confronting the inescapable irony of fighting a war to keep the peace.
On a much tinier scale, that same mechanism is often learned in the adapt-or-die environment known as “school.” Here is where popularity rules, where being good-looking equals celebrityhood. Luckily, school is also the perfect fertile breeding ground for humor because the majority of us desperately want to be popular, but are, well, genetically disadvantaged to automatically have it. We don’t stand out. We’re average looking. (On the other hand, if it wasn’t for people like me ruining the curve, the “beautiful people” wouldn’t be so beautiful. They’d be average. And heaven knows there aren’t enough good psychiatrists in the world to handle that scenario.)
That’s why most, if not all, comedians (men and women alike) aren’t handsome or gorgeous. Good-lookers don’t need comedy to be accepted or loved. They already are. Comedy is the self-defense and salvation of the average or less-than-average-looking kids who aren’t popular, who don’t go out with the prettiest girl or most handsome guy. They don’t get on the cheerleading squad or become King or Queen of the prom. Humor, they discover, can not only pre-emptively deflect their being judged by their looks, but can raise awareness that they actually exist and are even likeable enough to become popular. Because they’re funny, they find they are more likely to be let off the hook in a tough situation, they’re accepted, invited to go to parties, be someone others like to hang out with and, gulp!, even date.
As adults, this survival M.O. leads them to get into comedy as a profession. They have to “stand up and stand out.” It’s now validation from complete strangers that enables them to still feel accepted—and maybe even loved—post-classroom. The humor is there because the insecurity and angst is still there. Before getting remarried, Woody Allen, who made insecurity and angst a career, said his comedy fame allowed him to “strike out with a better class of woman.”
Like they say, comedy isn’t pretty.