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

Over a year ago

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.