In the hit series This Is Us , a revealing episode centers around the show’s clown, Toby, who as a child responded to his mother’s anguish by being funny. The attempt at resolution transforms him into a very funny individual, but also one who suffers from debilitating depression.
The story is a familiar one and it has a name: the Sad Clown Paradox. It explains the association between people who are exceptionally funny, often entertainers by trade, with mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.
In Pretend the World Is Funny and Forever: A Psychological Analysis of Comedians, Clowns, and Actors , Seymour and Rhoda Fisher used childhood accounts, the Rorschach inkblot test and the Thematic Apperception Test to explore depressive characteristics among performers, reports Psychology Today . They found that the funniest of the bunch often came from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and may have adopted the role of the “class clown” in school as a means of overcoming stress and anxiety.
Comparatively, the comedians had faced more adversity at a younger age compared to the actors. There were also trends in parental relationships, as comics more often self-reported a positive relationship with their fathers, while mothers were described as critical, aggressive and non-maternal, a trend that’s been reflected in studies of college-age amateur comedians.