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Published on November 18th, 2008 | by Sharilyn Johnson


Funny for life

Given the theme of recent entries, I think it’s as good a time as any to cover the topic of intent & comedy.

I’ve long been fascinated with the “why” of comedy. What motivates someone to be a comedian, and do those reasons change over time? Should any of those reasons be more highly regarded than others? And does knowing a performer’s motivations change the way you view them?

I’ve posed variations on these questions to a few individuals I’ve interviewed, but I’d love a larger sample.

A hypothetical:

You have a choice of 3 surgeons to operate on you (no, the answer to this one isn’t “the surgeon was the boy’s mother“).
Surgeon A wanted to become a doctor because of parental pressures.
Surgeon B wanted to become a doctor so he could make a lot of money.
Surgeon C wanted to become a doctor because he wanted to save lives and heal people.

It’s impossible to judge who would be the better, more skilled practitioner based on that information alone. But are you more likely to be drawn towards Surgeon C?

I have to admit it’s a “yes” for me, much in the same way I relate stronger to performers who value the human connectivity aspect of what they do.

I’d watched the US version of The Office regularly, never expecting Rainn Wilson to bowl me over with quotes like “God gives us talents and faculties, and making people laugh is one of mine. I don’t have to be digging latrines in Honduras to serve humanity.”

And while I always appreciated Chris Farley, I regarded him much higher upon learning that he viewed comedy as a ministry and carried a copy of A Clown’s Prayer around with him.

I can’t relate to religious aspects (I’m planning on the “fiery inferno” route myself), but the sentiment is there.

Obviously, nobody has completely selfless or completely selfish reasons for doing anything. And wanting to perform due to a desire for attention or a natural ability or the lifestyle are perfectly legitimate reasons for getting into the business.

But I never claimed to be normal. So, dear readers, does a perception of selflessness behind a performer’s intentions make you view them differently? It’s a big topic, but any and all thoughts are welcome.

About the Author

is the author of the book Bears & Balls: The Colbert Report A-Z. Called "one of the city’s most discriminating comedy critics” by NOW Magazine, Sharilyn has been covering comedy for longer than she cares to admit. She served as the comedy reporter for Winnipeg's Uptown Magazine for five years, and was the host of the radio show Laugh Tracks for three seasons. Her work has also appeared in the Toronto Star, the Winnipeg Free Press, The Apiary, and on CBC Radio's national comedy programs LOL and Definitely Not the Opera.

5 Responses to Funny for life

  1. nitroglycol says:

    What about Surgeon D? That’s the one who became a surgeon because surgery reminded him/her of those dissections that were so much fun in high school.

    Seriously, though, I share your bias towards Surgeon C. That’s not to say I won’t enjoy a performer whose motives are “suspect”, but it does mean I might have more appreciation for someone who isn’t a stellar talent if s/he is doing it for sincere reasons.

  2. Chica says:

    Or Surgeon E, who feels compelled to let all this stuff out or he’ll go quite mad. Admittedly that wouldn’t make for a very good surgeon, but he would be funny…

    This is the comedian I was telling you about who combines stand-up with improvisation and is what Eddie Izzard should’ve become. http://www.gairrhydd.com/quench/features-quench/interviews/821/the-noble-man

  3. bacnfusedwiski says:

    with your surgeon analogy, there is no way of knowing who the better surgeon is, unless you look at their survival record. Just as with comedians, there is no way to know if their reason(s) for becoming a comedian is for a “selflessness” or what have you. Not every class clown succeeds on the stage, and selflessness, or lack of ego, is not conducive to funny. a strong sense of self is very necessary. Chris Farley, had that, his very tragic end does not take that away. Attention whore or not, a successful performer must be Selfish – it is after all their psychological well-being being put on the line.

  4. Kristin says:

    Well, obviously I think given only that information, yes, most people would be drawn to C. But it’s a flawed comparison because I doubt many people become comedians because of parental pressure/for the money.

    That said, I personally don’t care much about a performer’s intentions as it pertains to my enjoyment of watching them perform. However, if their intentions are “noble,” so to speak, it would make me more likely to be a bigger fan, if that makes sense.

  5. traci skene says:

    I’m guessing that Bono didn’t become a singer so he could save Africa. Most likely he hopped up on stage because he was hoping he would get laid. But people change as they get older and more experienced. The surgeon who went into the field merely to make money could be continuing in his chosen profession because he now likes to save lives.

    I started doing comedy at 19 because I wanted to see if I could do it. By 29, my reasons for continuing were different from when I began. At 43, my outlook is different yet again.

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