Jim Gaffigan: The Psychology of Why We Laugh at Self-Deprecating Humor

Comedian

Male privilege is a pretty simple concept. It’s based around one simple fact: historically speaking, white men have a had an easier time just being. Louis C.K. explained it best: “I could get in a time machine, and go to any time, and it would be awesome when I get there. That is exclusively a white privilege.”

So of course things are easier for a white guy, but it can still be hard. Comedian, actor and author Jim Gaffigan didn’t grow up rich, or well-connected, or #blessed. No. He grew up pale. And he laments that paleness frequently in his comedy sets and in conversation. His comedy thrives on a certain brand of self-deprecating humor that he finds not only therapeutic but appealing. Why do people enjoy it so much? Gaffigan believes self-awareness is key in communicating with people; whether it’s one-on-one or to a crowd, showing that you see things the way others do – by calling yourself out for being underdressed, late, rude, or a ghostly shade of white – is an important identification point in the social and comedic arena. People are constantly grappling for humility and are strangely impressed by honesty; self-deprecation is a fast and reliable route there.

Perhaps self-effacement is so successful because it works in a similar way to shock value. People don’t expect you to voice their opinion of you out loud – that’s exactly what they were thinking! – and that elicits surprise, and laughter. Truth can be more surprising and a lot funnier than a one-two punchline.

Self-deprecation has always existed in comedy, but never more than now. Just as the boundary of what’s offensive is constantly expanding, so is the boundary of self-effacement. Comedians are increasingly harnessing one of comedy’s greatest and oldest strengths, observational humor, and channeling it inwards. As time progresses we break more taboos, and take ourselves further and further down off the pedestal of perfection. We are learning to embrace that messiness is what makes us human. So let’s at least have a laugh about it.

And on that note, check out Jim Gaffigan’s book, aptly titled Dad is Fat.

Tune in to the The Jim Gaffigan Show.
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Jim Gaffigan: The appeal of the self-effacing comedy is – I don’t think that it is the defacing of oneself. I think it is the appeal of humility which I think we’ really kind of grappling for. But I think it’s all in doses. I think that similar to pop songs and music being more popular of a certain flavor at a certain time. Supposedly there’s a study that during horrible economic periods songs that are most hopeful are more popular and then during economic booms the more dark nirvana type music is more popular. I don’t know if that’s true. I read that a million years back. But I think, so I think identification in this human experience is a very appealing thing and I think that surprise moment which is very similar to laughter. It’s this moment of acknowledgement and a moment of being out of control and maybe a glimpse into ourselves is really important. And an insight into ourselves. 

I realized that there is a certain victimization complex that I have that I probably had all my life. And again compared to African Americans or women or people in the LGBT community it’s nothing. But like being the whitest white guy was a burden. And in a way maybe we’re all – we all have a victimization complex. And we kind of illustrate that in hopefully a very humorous way through these episodes. And it’s interesting to write and create something and then edit it and see it in its entirety that what is your sensibility, what is your point of view because I have always known that my comedy was self-effacing and observational. But I didn’t realize some of the psychology behind it. And even when you write jokes, when I write jokes I’ll get to, you know, there’s different lines that humor and sarcasm is like liberty. It’s ever expanding and moving. But the line of self-effacing just as the line of irreverence is always moving. So someone just getting on stage and saying I’m ugly is not funny. But it could be funny, you know, self-awareness is a pretty compelling attribute among other human beings and I think that that self-awareness is something that it’s very similar to observational humor. It’s an insight to humanity. So me going on stage and saying I know I’m a pale guy who’s out of shape I think puts people at ease because there are so many of us including myself that do not have this self-awareness, that fix. Because we all think that we’re in a movie about our lives, right.