Humor — The Human Defense Mechanism

The Connection Between Being Funny and Being Hurt

Stand up comedian stage
Has anyone standing on one of these ever seemed to be “well-adjusted” to you? | Photo by Michel Grolet on Unsplash

All standups are innately insecure. — Melissa Rivers, daughter of Joan Rivers

Have you ever stopped to wonder what makes something funny, or how some people are capable of making anything funny? Those things are easy to break down.

Why do we laugh?

We typically laugh as a response when something tense is occurring, but relieved, and there is no negative consequence (especially, to us). That’s why someone ELSE slipping on a banana peel is so funny, but we never laugh when we slip — a tense moment happened to someone and we are relieved that it wasn’t us.

Funny to watch, but not funny if you’re the one who had gravity turn against them. | Photo by Nico Smit on Unsplash

Laughing creates a chemical change in the brain that does many wondrous things ranging from elevating mood to reducing chronic pain. It is a powerful tool.

Humor is often how toddlers learn to communicate. The adults do something funny (unexpected) to catch our attention. The adults will take our nose, creating tension, then show us that we really have our nose, leading to the relief that makes us laugh.

Now, it’s our turn to try. Ever listened to a 2- or 3-year-old create a joke? “Why did the chicken cross the road?” A 3-year-old will have a hundred possible answers. Each of them will be hilarious to the child, having never heard those answers. There being so many of them is why mommy puts a little Irish cream in her coffee after lunch.

As we get older, humor is also what we use to repaint the world as we see it. Some people do this better than others. The ones who are the quickest to turn a situation into something funny tend to be the ones who had the biggest need to be funny while growing up.

You have to laugh to keep from crying.

How many successful comedians have a history that shows they were raised in stable, loving homes? Virtually, none of them. Joan Rivers spent her childhood being teased for being overweight (which led to bulimia issues in her adulthood) despite growing up very upper-middle class with parents who were married and stayed together. Robin Williams grew up in such solitude that he created characters and conversations in his head, as well as dealt with bullying for being an overweight child.

I knew I was an unwanted baby when I saw that my bath toys were a toaster and a radio. — Joan Rivers

I’ve even told jokes about growing up poor. For example:

I’m named after my dad’s brother, who was named after their father. It set the tone for my entire childhood that the very first thing my parents gave me, my name, was a hand-me-down. Their first declaration to me was “Don’t expect no new nothin’ from us, kiddo!”

Humor gives us power over things that we otherwise can’t control. We might not be able to change a certain situation, but by making fun of it, we are showing that we are taking control over how we see the issue. It’s our way of not letting something get to us.

Many comedians were bullied in childhood. They became masters of self-deprecating humor. This gave them a way to disarm the bullies. “You can’t make fun of me if I make fun of me first.” Even I employed this tactic.

A kid would tease me about something, usually being short, leading to other kids laughing at me. I’d respond with an even better short joke, establishing that I was funnier and getting the other kids to laugh with me instead of just at me. Then, I’d roast whoever started it.

Sound familiar to situations in teen comedies? Virtually every comedy writer has experienced this first hand.

Defense Mechanisms In General

Most living beings are designed to have a defense proportionate to the level of threat of their surroundings. Animals with few natural predators have few natural defenses. Some animals, like turtles, have developed a purely defensive form of protection — their shell.

This also happens with people. Sometimes, our situations make us funny enough to be well liked. Other times, we’re put through so much pressure that our shell forms spikes. Worst case scenarios, our defense system crosses over into offense.

This is one funny motherfucker! | Photo by Dušan veverkolog on Unsplash

I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy. Because they know what it feels like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anybody else to feel like that. — Robin Williams

When Robin Williams passed, my first social media post was telling everyone to hug the funniest person they know. Those who didn’t develop their senses of humor in a trial by fire are often surprised to learn that the funniest people they know are also battling the darkest depressions.

How can such popular people be so lonely?

Do you know who is not popular? A Debbie Downer. What is the best defense against things you can’t change? A good sense of humor. It shouldn’t be any surprise that the funniest people struggle with the darkest thoughts.

Mark Twain
Known for such lighthearted adventures. | Photo by Getty Images

One of the reasons they struggle with them is because they can’t discuss them. Being too real is a bummer to people who consider you “the funny one.” When “the funny one” isn’t being funny, other people often distance themselves. Most people can’t handle discussing the heavier aspects of life, so the person dealing with them gets funny in order to discuss heavy ideas in a humorous light, often at the expense of not getting to honestly discuss how they feel.

Comedy is acting out of optimism. — Robin Williams

A sense of humor is what helps many of us keep going against all odds. Even a dark sense of humor is lighter than people think.

I say many controversial things that nobody wants to admit. Things such as “Some people have no rock bottom, which means they’ll never let go of destructive habits.” or “No, not all parents love their children more than themselves nor are birth parents automatically the best people to raise a baby.” This leads people to think I’m pessimistic.


Look it — I was born into poverty to an addict and a mental patient, tried killing myself at 12, was in foster care at 13, and out on my own at 16. I went on to graduate high school, join an elite military program (NNPTC), put myself through college, and beat out licensed attorneys for jobs when I was just a paralegal. Now, I’m paying the bills by writing.


You will not succeed in an industry where you have to be supreme in order to stand out without being optimistic about your chances of doing that. There is a whole lot of wishing on stars while busting your ass because you are aware that there’s a chance it won’t work out. You don’t ignore that chance without optimism.

If anything, we develop our senses of humor to hold on to that optimism. If we don’t work hard to find the funny where there isn’t some, we’ll lose the belief that it is there. If you can’t find the funny where it isn’t obvious, how can you expect to find the good where it isn’t obvious?

Best blessings,


Related Journaling Prompts: How important is humor in my world? Do I long to make others laugh? Why?

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