The Positive Psychology Behind Stand Up Comedy

Martha Wyatt-Luth ’25

Opinion’s Editor

Graphic courtesy of Anyelly Herrera ’24

Oh, Netflix. It’s hard to remember life before it existed. Nowadays, I’ll be trudging through my day and sometimes stop to dream about the possibility of curling up into a fuzzy blanket and popping on a ridiculous show to forget about life…even if for just a little while. Whether it’s Netflix, Hulu, HBO, or even Youtube, we all have our necessary outlets. Depending on the day, I may choose to rewatch a show like “Grey’s Anatomy” or “Seinfeld” for the millionth time, or I may try something new like the “Icarus” documentary. But one thing I find especially beneficial for the days when I just need a break from life is a stand-up comedy special. 

There is something unique about stand-ups. Maybe it’s the raw, authentic material or the personal touch of someone speaking directly to you. Stand-up comedy is something not only to laugh at but also to laugh along with. It makes the audience members feel seen. It simultaneously validates the suffering experienced while lifting another’s spirit. It’s also remarkable that it is rooted in in-person experiences, just like going to intimate jazz concerts where players will make spontaneous riffs and try new things out. Every performance is unique, unparalleled, and therefore, becomes even more personal to the audience. 

In recent years, Netflix has acquired many stand-up specials, including comedians like Dave Chappelle, Gabriel Iglesias, Jim Gaffigan, and Ali Wong. But one, in particular, I would like to acknowledge is Taylor Tomlinson, who recently came out with her second Netflix Comedy special called “Look at You.” While her first special the “Quarter-Life Crisis” was incredible, this new special is a true knockout. 

As Netflix describes it, “Tomlinson uses her unflinching candor and buoyant delivery to give fans an intimate and hilarious look at her struggles with mental health, grief, and dating.” I would also note that the material she uses is quite personal, and possibly even too much information for a sensitive viewer. But Taylor has a brilliant ability to put a comical, bright spin on everything she speaks about. 

For example, Taylor says, “When I was in high school, I was like, ‘Dad, I think I’m depressed.’ And he was like, ‘You just need some protein. Get a scoop of peanut butter.’” While this joke is hilarious in its absurd, completely off-the-mark suggestion, it touches on a very personal subject. Taylor continues to say that obviously, the spoonful of peanut butter did not make her depression go away and that it’s a constant work in progress with therapy and medications. 

The balance between light-hearted comedy and sincere vulnerability in her jokes gives a genuine sense of hope to her viewers that a motivational quote on Pinterest just can’t accomplish. Because with Taylor, she doesn’t say the bad stuff in life will go away eventually. She acknowledges its presence and shows a way to cope with it. This phenomenon is actually discussed in the field of Positive Psychology. There is a time and place for optimism that can be quite beneficial but there is also a need to acknowledge life will always have good and bad parts. As noted in one scientific journal article, “Acceptance of the diagnosis has very different consequences. By accepting that life is compromised (but not over), people develop adaptive parameters within which to live the time that is left. Acceptance may actually serve the purpose of keeping the person goal-engaged, and indeed “life-engaged,” (Synder, Lopez, 2021). 

This phenomenon is similar to the idea that we can experience both “good” and “bad” stress. Reality innately comes with stressors and relievers meaning we cannot avoid stress no matter what, but the degree of stress experienced is what our personal intuition must regulate.  For example, consider the difference between telling yourself, “Am I able to run today?” and “What time will I run today?” Just the mere difference between questioning the situation and making the situation a reality completely flips the outcome. If we can come to terms with something occurring, then we can move on to how we will approach it. If we never come to terms with it, we will never be well-equipped to handle it.

I was really drawn to Taylor’s stand-up specials because she described both her initial and proceeding thoughts towards situations. For example, when she revealed she was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder she said she was initially taken aback and was nervous about this diagnosis. Later, she came to terms with it and found the diagnosis only helped her more with taking care of herself. If this was just a post on Instagram, it would probably just show the latter of the two, where someone says how much they are embracing their identity. But the journey from the beginning is what is important. We all have unwanted, negative thoughts that show up out of nowhere, but they don’t have to stay with us. Taylor shows her audience that it’s okay that those thoughts come up, but that we also have the ability to shove them aside and grow towards a healthier frame of mind. 

Whether it’s needing a good laugh, a good cry, or entertainment while eating a meal, “Look at You” and “Quarter-Life Crisis” should be added to your weekend plans. With its rise in popularity on streaming devices, it seems comedy specials are here to stay. And I’d say that’s certainly for the better. 

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