I recently met Louis C.K. backstage before a stand-up performance (documented in this post). One striking observation was his demeanor during the performance was much more appealing than during the interview. Why? A large literature in psychology finds that people are strongly influenced by situational rather than dispositional consideration, and in that regard, he could have viewed me as a negative distraction from his pre-show routine (which involved eating a ham sandwich). Nonetheless, recent research makes me think that the onstage and backstage Louis C.K.’s are different people.
A study by Greengross and Miller compares the Big Five personality traits of professional comedians, to amateur comedians, comedy writers, and college students.
Here is the paper’s (excellent) abstract:
Stand-up comedians are a vocational group with unique characteristics: unlike most other entertainers with high creative abilities, they both invent and perform their own work, and audience feedback (laughter or derision) is instantaneous. In this study, the Big Five personality traits (NEOFFI-R) of 31 professional stand-up comedians were compared to those of nine amateur comedians, 10 humor writers and 400 college students. All four groups showed similar neuroticism levels. Professional stand-up comedians were similar to amateur stand-up comedians in most respects. However, compared to college students, professional and amateur stand-up comedians on average showed significantly higher openness, and lower conscientiousness, extraversion, and agreeableness. Compared to stand-up comedians, comedy writers showed higher openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, and agreeableness. These results challenge the stereotype of comedians as neurotic extraverts, and suggest a discrepancy between their stage persona and their true personality traits.
It is difficult to use the study’s findings to say that any one comedian is not agreeable, but the results suggest that comedians as a whole play a role on stage that may not reveal their true personality. Indeed, it behooves a comedian to be liked by an audience, which makes the audience more receptive to potentially off-color jokes. Moreover, simply getting on stage is an powerful act of extroversion that may not generalize to other situations (e.g.,, being the life of the party).
- Greengross, G., & Miller, G. F. (2009). The big five personality traits of professional comedians compared to amateur comedians, comedy writers, and college students. Personality and Individual Differences, 47, 79-83.