Sunday, April 22, 2012

"It's a joke." " How do you feel about that?"

Not too long ago, I had a conversation with a colleague regarding a comedian she was just beginning to  see as a client. The situation was presenting issues for my colleague related to the fact that the client had found her Facebook page and that of her current boyfriend and had taken to leaving amusing posts on both of their pages. At the end of one of their sessions, the comedian took out a phone and texted my colleague's boyfriend, asking if he had liked the gift my colleague had given him for his birthday. Understandably, my colleague was quite distraught about what she was experiencing as an invasion of her privacy, knew she should somehow react in a way that was professionally productive and had no idea how that could be accomplished.

Being a therapist, a confused and angry one in relation to her current client, she was tempted to make use of her professional bag of tricks and label the client as narcissistic and lacking empathy; turning over in her mind how she could communicate her negative reaction to what she saw as the inappropriate, intrusive actions of her client in a less judgmental way than her feelings inclined her towards. Her manner indicated she felt rather threatened and had a need to contain the client within a professional relationship that protected her own privacy. Clearly, she found herself engaged in a conflict that was mostly about control; realizing that fact brought us to some interesting reflections related to comedy and therapy.

While I have heard psychotherapy defined as a form of prostitution, as a rent-a-friend service, I haven't encountered a comparison between the exercise of therapy and comedy. We wondered whether it would make sense that psychotherapists and comedians would often come to their professions from the same sorts of backgrounds. My own bias is that good psychotherapists, those who don't simply follow treatment protocols like cook books, are likely to have experienced being outsiders as children and adolescents, having suffered from being rejected by the in-group. An outsider status of good-therapists-to-be could establish a felt distance from the dominant society; a stance from which a critical perspective on the current social norms and mores and a familiarity with strategies of negotiating the dominant culture could potentially arise; along with an empathy towards those finding themselves outside of those norms.

Jewish practitioners are a sort of outsider well represented in the community of psychotherapists. In my own, limited experience I have encountered a striking difference amongst them that illustrates my thesis. Some, although potentially benefiting as therapists from being other than the majority culture, are highly conforming within their own, Jewish sub-culture. It has seemed to me that, to the extent that they have grown up enmeshed and happy in their own sub-culture, they are likely to be what I have called "run of the mill therapists"; characteristically, they are women married to men in a "higher status" profession and have little imaginative identification with those who grow up experiencing social exclusion. Nevertheless, being, themselves, "others" in relation to the majority culture they have the potential of developing a familiarity with the strategies that can be used to negotiate minority status; potentially enabling them to help clients at least become more adept at seeming to fit in, at appearing to be more "normal".

On the other hand, those therapists I have known from within the Jewish community, whom I would consider to be good or highly skilled therapists, tend not to have been at home even within their own, Jewish, sub-culture, let alone in relation to the majority community. Consequently, they have experienced a more profound otherness, which forms the potential for a more radical understanding of difference, a deeper foundation for empathy and a more extensive familiarity with the negotiation of difference;  characteristics, which I associate with being a good therapist; one who questions whether it is even desirable to be "normal" and would be comfortable assisting a client in productively living out their difference within what is feasible in a given society.

Sexual minorities are, also, well represented amongst psychotherapists, though, until recently, it hasn't been professionally safe to disclose that otherness. The experience of exclusion and repression being especially severe in our culture as it relates to gender identity, expression and sexual orientation, children and adolescents living those differences in a hostile environment find them an occasion for either growth or diminishment. In the case of the latter, bullying can, literally, destroy; in the case of the former, it can provide the critical distance and familiarity with coping skills that are essential for the formation of good therapists. The "girly" boy and "butch" girl, if they are going to survive and even flourish, must develop skills that lead  them to an experience of control, competence and self-esteem; skills that are often at variance with those prized in relation to their gender by the dominant culture. The sensitive, caring, non-aggressive boy, who grows into being a skilled, empathic, adult caregiver being a particular case-in-point.

Now consider comedians. They, too, seem disproportionately drawn from amongst outsiders. Again, gay,  lesbian and Jewish peoples are very present, as are second generation members of ethnic communities. Comedians are "others", who have learned to use their verbal skills to bring fellow members of their minority communities to laugh at the oppression visited on them by the majority culture and to bring members of the dominant culture to laugh at their own sets of values and responses to minority cultures. It has been observed to the point of triteness that behind humour often lies the anger and sadness of the excluded.

If it is granted that both good therapists and comedians frequently have experienced being outsiders within the dominant culture, both may be seen as having learned techniques enabling them to cope with that minority status; both have achieved a position from which to critique the dominant culture: comedians to their audiences; therapists in the privacy of their consulting rooms; both sometimes achieve a larger status as significant social critics. While the techniques employed by therapists are framed in a context of care, the techniques of comedians are framed in the context of entertainment.

The tool boxes of the therapist and comedian contain techniques of control of both self and other. The therapist must be, in however subtle a way, in control of the conversation with clients; otherwise, there could be no claim to being particularly suited to bring clients to helpful realizations and different responses to life situations. To be in control of the conversation implies that the therapist be in control of his own emotional expression; that their expression unfolds in an appropriate and non- intrusive manner. Therapy represents a particular sort of conversation and it is the therapist's responsibility to see that it procedes in particular way; that it does not simply become a casual conversation with no helpful outcome or objective. In the process of that conversation the therapist is permitted and expected to make observations and suggestions that would be out of place in usual conversations; sometimes making observations that in other contexts would be considered hurtful, but in a therapeutic conversation are intended to be understood as helpful. The therapist is expected to give feedback to the client that is more objective than might come from friends and associates; even when it might rather be unheard.

The comedian must be in control of the room, however casual the approach might appear. The comedian, like the therapist, must be in control of their own emotional responses, whatever aggravations might emerge from the audience; the goal of producing laughter must be maintained and the unfunny avoided. There is nothing funny about a comic who "loses it" and erupts in anger. Comic remarks that, when made in other contexts, would be considered hurtful are both permitted and expected as part of a routine. Within centuries of tradition, the comedian has been seen as a truth-teller, able to speak to power in the context of humour in a manner that would not likely be tolerated in other contexts.

I am suggesting that those techniques of control employed by both therapist and comedian are frequently grounded in early experience of rejection, impotence and hurt; the techniques of both are grounded in fear of the more physically and socially powerful. The proto-therapist responds to being powerless in the face of the bully by attempting to understand what is driving the aggression, by looking for ways to disarm, perhaps, even to charm, the aggressor; by figuring out a way of being around the bully which is less likely to trigger aggression; to look towards mobilizing more powerful others that might neutralize the bully; seeking safety through a canny understanding of the vulnerabilities of the bully; adopting a stance based upon observation and manipulation, as opposed to fight, flight or freezing.

The proto-comedian learns to turn frightening situations into funny ones; employing humour to form an alliance with the observers of a threatening encounter; an alliance that leads the bully to appear ridiculous to persist in the aggression. Many of us have witnessed the class clown confront and disarm a bully with a comic response that leaves the aggressor perplexed and unable to respond; in the process bringing, not only safety, but applause, appreciation and status from fellow students.

These reflections enabled myself and my colleague to understand the frustrations with her comedian client within the framework of conflicting patterns of control. The client, no doubt anxious about beginning the process of therapy, was responding to that fear by reaching for familiar and comfortable techniques of achieving control and safety: turning the situation into a comic one; using humour to direct attention away from what may be painful to address. A comedian's relationship with their therapist often becomes material for a comic routine. The therapist, in turn, was left feeling threatened and out of control of the therapy process; feeling her privacy was being violated and imagining how their sessions might be made into a joke. In her anxiety she was tempted to reach into her own tool box for techniques of accomplishing control and safety: labeling the client with diagnostic categories, which would provide a blueprint to take back control of the sessions; putting the client in the one-down role of patient.

On the other hand, appreciating that both client and therapist were feeling threatened in their encounter with each other and that they risked aggravating the situation by reaching for their respective protective techniques allowed for a standing-back from a potential impasse. In addition, if our reflections proved correct that those defensive techniques were rooted in a childhood and adolescent experience of difference, a path was opened to the sharing of common, formative experiences that could serve as the basis for a strong, therapeutic alliance.


  1. Although I can accept your thesis that both therapists and comedians can often trace their success to a similar up-binging, I see the comedian client as having two distinct problems: an unhelpful comedic response to therapy and an unhealthy invasion of the therapist's privacy. The latter can lead to highly comedic situations (q.v. the movie, "What About Bob?"), but I see it as a distinct (and more serious) aberration than the former. But I'm no expert.

  2. I agree that there are the two problems you mention, but from a therapist perspective, they are not distinct. The "unhealthy" invasion of privacy could well reflect an issue in the comic's life that extends to other relationships and the "unhelpful" response to therapy might simply be an instance of that issue. Both might relate to the client's conflicts in relation to intimacy and, as a therapist, that would likely prove to be a productive focus.

    Haven't seen that movie. I'll look out for it.

    Thanks for the comment. Glad that you're still reading my musings.