DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: first of all thanks in advance for all your work, I’ve recently found this column and YouTube channel and I’ve been finding them extremely helpful in many ways.
My question is related to how to deal with the internal pressure to be funny. I can trace the roots of this to my middle – early high school days where I was bullied for my looks. This lead humor to be this thing that got me into the in-group and thus stopped bullying. As long as I entertained others I was safe. It was also my main (and only) way to get and keep attention from girls, and I attribute all the relationships I’ve had to being funny alone.
Now I’m 24, finishing college, and this is taking a very big toll on me. Reasons:
1. I’m seen as the “funny guy”. No intensity, no sexuality, nothing. People have told they see me as an “intelligent creative clown/comedian”. I also hate it when people go “Shh guys let me hear what he has to say, I bet it will be really funny”
2. I’m not always in the mood to be funny. Sometimes I just want to talk but I feel I’m not allowed because if I stop entertaining I will be abandoned. And forcing myself to joke when I don’t feel like it will result in bad or offensive jokes.
3. I can’t make a bad joke. If I make a bad joke and get silence or eyerolls I will take that as a personal rejection and it will ruin my mood for the rest of the day. I also feel my relationship with the person is ruined and I’m on damage control. Gets worse if this happens multiple times in one interaction.
4. I compare myself to other guys. If someone laughs at their joke, in my mind that person is now interested in them and I have to one-up them with a better joke if I want that attention back and be seen as the witties guy in the room again.
5. I can’t compliment people because they will take it ironically. I also can’t create a deep connection because all the conversations will revolve around jokes and getting the other person to laugh.
This causes me a lot of stress. The thing is, reading articles and books only supports this belief. Take your video on how to be a high value man, for example. Making others laugh is the first thing on the list when it comes to bring value to others.
I feel like this email is already too long so I’ll cut it here. Any ideas or suggestions on how to break this? Thank you once again and happy new year!!
Funny Like I’m A Clown?
DEAR FUNNY LIKE I’M A CLOWN: There’re a couple of things going on here, FLAC.
The first is that you’re dealing with something a lot of folks experience. You found a defense or coping mechanism that got you through a traumatic period of your life… but the problem is that you overlearned this pattern and it’s gone from something that helps you to something that actively causes you distress. This is really common, especially with folks who come from backgrounds of bullying or abuse. People pleasers are a classic example of this; they’ve learned (or convinced themselves) that as long as they’re “useful”, then people will accept them. If they aren’t useful or, worse, have boundaries, then their friends, coworkers, classmates or even partners will abandon them.
The same goes with humor or being The Funny Guy. It gets you out of trouble, it even helps you make friends. But it can also get to the point where you let it become your dominant personality trait, and it’s what most people know you as because… well, you never turn it off. Because, in no small part, you’re afraid that if you do turn it off or spend a second NOT being The Funny Guy that your friends will somehow wise up and abandon you.
Which actually goes to the second issue: it’s been Your Thing for so long that it’s crucial to your identity. Which means that if you make a joke and it goes over like a lead balloon, that becomes a threat to your identity. You’re terrified that if you aren’t always funny, then people will go back to bullying you or just straight-up ditch you. And if someone else is funny or funnier than you in that moment, they’ve somehow usurped your station as the Alpha Funny Guy and now you’re in danger of being abandoned by the pack.
So now the thing that used to help you brings you nothing but anxiety. You’ve built your life around this aspect of your personality, so you’re terrified to abandon it. But at the same time, that identity causes you stress and the drawbacks to trying to maintain it have started to drastically outweigh the benefits…. leaving you in a perverse catch-22.
Look, I get it. I have been there and very emphatically done that. I have been the class clown because of how it protected me through middle school and high-school. I’ve done the “I’m not good looking but at least I’m hilarious” thing, especially when I was out trying to meet women. And I know exactly how soul-crushing it can be when people think that you’re a joke vending machine, where they can drop a quarter in and get some bon mot out of you… especially at times when you’re not feeling particularly funny or don’t like having to perform on command.
And I understand how it’s served you well over the years but like the man once said: “I love my cigar, but I take it out of my mouth every once in a while.”
A lot of what you’re dealing with the result of always being on; that’s both the reason why people don’t take you seriously when you’re trying to be serious and why they treat you like a joke machine. And while being funny and making people laugh can feel great — and make others feel great — the problem is that if you don’t turn it off, it gets really tedious. I mean, Robin Williams was one of my personal heroes, and I’m deeply sad about the fact that I will never get to meet him in person. But as much as I loved and admired him and thought he was one of the funniest and smartest people on the planet, that manic “four days into a five day coke bender” energy and humor can go from charming to “oh sweet Jesus make it stop” very quickly.
When you’re just the Funny Guy, it gets harder for people to take you seriously. One of the things I dealt with, especially on when I was working on getting better with women, was learning how to be funny effectively.
(“Great! When are you going to start? OH HOHOHOHOHOHOHOHOHOHO!”)
To give an example: while humor is incredibly valuable when it comes to flirting and building relationships — it’s actually a highly desirable quality in a romantic partner — it’s easy to use it in the wrong way. One of my early hang-ups was that I would go for the laugh when talking to women instead of trying to connect with them or show actual interest. Getting the laugh was easier and felt safer, but it also created a barrier between me and them. They were never getting to know me, just my sense of humor. And worse, because I was going for the joke so often, I wasn’t coming off like I was flirting or even interested. Every woman loves a guy who can make her laugh. What she doesn’t love is the guy at the bar who feels like he’s workshopping his tight-five for the open mic night next week.
The same is true for your relationships with your friends and potential partners. You’ve created this persona that doesn’t feel like a person so much as a walking, talking Night at the Improv. You never turn it off and be sincere or real with people and so they never expect it or believe it when you do. And of course, they assume that you’re just there to be funny because… well, that’s all you do.
The problem is that to break this pattern, you have to do the hardest thing possible: you have to stop being The Funny Guy. Not cold turkey, mind you; you don’t need to be StoneFace McGee or Paddy O’Solemn for the rest of your life, but you do need to stop relying on this crutch that you’ve kept around long past the point that you needed it. You have to be willing to just drop the humor for a while and be real with people. Horrifically, terrifyingly, pants-s--ttingly real and vulnerable.
And trust me: I get it. My humor had become such a crutch for me that I was terrified to let it go. I was convinced that my success, what little there was at the time, was going to crater if I stopped being the dancing monkey. But it was either break that routine or never actually improve so I had to drop the metaphorical act. I had to let go of this thing that I thought I needed and I honestly believed that it meant that I was going to go back to being a lonely loser.
But the thing is, by doing this I learned two important lessons. First, I learned that being able to make people laugh wasn’t the only value I had. I could connect with people in an authentic and genuine manner because I wasn’t convinced that I needed to define myself so narrowly. Second, I learned how to use comedy and humor the right way. Humor is great for setting an initial mood and getting people interested in talking to you. It’s also an incredible way to build and break tension; a well-timed joke or comment can provide a massive release that, rather than ending sexual attraction, actually enhances it. Because you subvert their expectations and create this sudden release of tension — especially while flirting — it not only helps generate dopamine and oxytocin in the brain (causing them to feel pleasure at your presence) but creates a sort of vacuum that they, in turn will try to fill.
Similarly, when you use your ability to make people laugh more precisely and in a more targeted manner, it helps people realize when you’re being sincere and when you’re being funny. It also helps you learn an important lesson: irony doesn’t work when it comes to flirting. While teasing is a great flirting tool, you want to use it in such a way that you don’t bring people down. If you’re always using humor in a cutting way — only ever building someone up so that you can undercut them with the punchline — then you teach people that your compliments are a prelude to an insult. If you only ever tease about meaningless or insignificant things, things they don’t take seriously, then it’s much easier for folks to recognize that you’re being sincere.
So here’s what you need to do.
First: dial things back. Cut back on the jokes, cut back on the gags, goofs, put-downs and the like. Just drop ’em. If anyone asks, just tell them that you want to be real with them instead of just trying to keep up the stream of humor.
Second: use your humor carefully and strategically. Don’t chase the laugh, especially to the exclusion of all else. If you can make someone laugh great, but let that be part of how you relate and vibe with them, rather than the end-goal. By being more sparing with your humor, you actually increase its potency. You aren’t shotgunning it all over the place and making weak contact, you’re driving it home like a perfectly aimed stiletto. Less is often more this way; the well-timed joke gets a better effect than just constantly filling the air with verbal flack.
Third: be aware of how you use your humor, especially with people you’re attracted to. Humor that builds people up works far more effectively than humor that insults them or negs them. Similarly, you can give someone a sincere compliment but use humor to undercut you rather than them. This actually lets you both be sincere and create an amount of tension, with a release that doesn’t negate the tension or insults the person you’re flirting with. Craig Ferguson is the master of this; his disqualifying jokes are aimed at him, rather than the person he flirts with.
Fourth: sincerity is your greatest weapon when it comes to flirting and complimenting others. By not making a compliment a joke, you help ensure that your friends understand that when you’re telling them something you admire about them or that’s great about them, you’re being real. Never underestimate the power of “oh, I never joke about X” when it comes to paying compliments.
Fifth: work on having boundaries. The more you can say “hey, I’m not just a vending machine” or “look, I really don’t feel like giving the Funny Like I’m A Clown show right now”, the more you’ll help people realize that there’s more to you than just being a joke dispensary.
I get that this is all intimidating. It requires that you pull down a shield you’ve spent a lifetime building. I get that you worry that if you do this, your friendships will dissolve. But I am here from the future to tell you: they won’t. People may need a little adjustment period, but they will adapt and, in all likelihood, appreciate this new, more vulnerable and more sincere you. And if they do leave you because you don’t want to be The Funny Guy all the time?
Well… that’s a pretty good sign that those were friendships that needed to end in the first place.
Trust me: it’s hard, it’s scary, but it’s worth it. Letting go of that crutch will help ease the stress you feel, let you not obsess about other dudes out-joking you and help strengthen your relationships.
And as a bonus? It’ll make you funnier than ever.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org