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Are Professional Comedians Really Shy Off-Stage?


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By Margarita Nahapetyan

You must be surprised to hear this but, according to a new scientific evidence, it turns out that professional comedians are, on average, shyer when compared to people in other professions.

Indeed, this is a very unexpected statement, considering the fact that comedians should have a lot of courage in order to appear on stage in front of thousands of people who will judge and criticize them, whether in a positive or in a negative way. According to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque anthropologist Gil Greengross, the stage gives comedians a chance to become who they really want to be, and does not necessarily represent their personalities in real life.

To come up with the conclusion, Gil Greengross along with his colleague Geoffrey Miller, analyzed more than 30 professional comedians, and assessed their level of openness through standardized personality tests. The 60-question test evaluated the five main personality traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, agreeableness, extroversion, and neuroticism. The participants had to rate their agreement with several statements, such as "Poetry has little effect or no effect on me," "Times I have felt resentful and upset," "I think it might be interesting to get involved in new hobbies," and so on.

The researchers then compared the inner feelings of all the professional comics with those of 400 university students and 10 humor writers, in order to get a closer look on the differences between the people in three groups. They found that while there was no difference in the scores of neuroticism, the levels in other categories differed considerably. On average, the professional comedians scored higher in openness to experience, compared to the university students, but yet lower than the humor writers. When it came to the three other traits, such as agreeableness, conscientiousness and extroversion, here the comedians also scored lower than people in two other groups, which turned out to be a great surprise for the experts. Out of the groups of entertainers, there were three women and 28 men.

Greengross attributed this findings to the fact that professional comics spend a lot of time alone, while traveling, for example, and this is why they tend to have introverted personalities. However, introversion does not appear to be the first quality associated with this profession. The experts explain that comedians are more likely to be restrained in real life rather than on stage because being the funny guy among your friends is a very different skill than being funny to hundreds of thousands of complete strangers.

Robert Provine, a developmental neurobiologist at the University of Maryland, and the authorof the book Laughter: A Scientific Investigation, agrees with Greengross and Miller's findings. But in his opinion there is another characteristic feature of comics that is even more important to consider - their sex. The significant majority of all professional comics are men, and, according to Provine, both men and women tend to enjoy and laugh more at male comedians than female. Some scientists assume that this happens because humor is an adaptive trait that helps women assess the fitness of a potential mate.

Greengross and Miller also made a comparison between 9 amateur comedians and professional comics and found no statistical differences in their personality scores, despite of the fact that there were obvious differences in their routines. In another paper, the researchers found that both male and female see self-deprecating humor as an attractive trait in potential wives or husbands. Greengross plans to conduct more investigation in order to analyze more closely how a success of a comedian is being affected by his/her personality features. The scientist's interest in comedy is purely professional - he has no intentions to launch a career in the funny business, he jokes. "You should go to amateur nights and see how bad people are," he says. "It is a really demanding job."

The study that has been conducted is a part of the dissertation which focuses on the evolutionary value of humor.

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