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Self-deprecating humor makes light of insecurities, awkward situations

Everyone has imperfections, yet the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield braved the task of highlighting his own flaws to the scrutiny of the public eye as a career. Back in the ‘80s, Dangerfield was one of the most popular comedians, from dazzling hundreds of cheering fans at his own venue to starring in hit comedy movies such as Caddyshack and Back To School. Dangerfield became a household name and his jingle “No respect!” a catchphrase of America. How he captivated the nation? By making himself look bad.

Named “the king of self-deprecation” by New York Times journalist Stephen Holden, Dangerfield’s endless jokes about his failing sexual abilities, condemns of marriage and reflections on ugliness, obesity and stupidity were fan favorites.

Senior Ellen Dill-Hirsch sees self-deprecation as a form of comedy, like Dangerfield’s gag. Self-deprecation is more for professional comedy than for everyday life, but she can see some upsides to self-ridicule.

“It’s necessary for [people] to make fun of themselves, especially in the entertainment business where comedians will be facing harsh comments anyways,” Dill-Hirsch said. “People in the spotlight will be critiqued for almost everything, whether it be physical appearance or their belief… so it’s important [for them] to take things lightly.”

Merriam Webster defines self-deprecation as belittling or being excessively modest. In that sense, self-deprecating humor consists of criticizing oneself in a lighthearted way as entertainment. It’s strange, based off the definition, but viewing this humor can come from devaluing oneself.

In a 2008 study, anthropologist Gil Greengross and psychologist Geoffrey F. Miller found that self-deprecating humor can have a positive or negative impact on a person. High-status individuals benefit from the humor because listeners perceive them as modest and confident. Low-status people, however, may be counterproductive because it suggests they are defeatists.

Dr. Golan Shahar, a professor of clinical-health psychology at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, has his own opinion on self-criticism and why it’s used. He believes self-deprecating jokes activate teens’ interests. Adolescence is a period where the mind seeks to understand issues and these jokes can be a way through each teens’ struggle with self-criticism.

“Teens are fascinated by their identity and self. Jokes are a form of information processing; they are ways for us to know ourselves. When strong self-critical thoughts come up, jokes are a way to modulate and make sense of those thoughts,” Dr. Shahar said. “If the joke includes an accepting and playful tone, then such jokes might actually serve to diffuse self-criticism. In contrast, if the joke includes a harsh, punitive, gleeful tone, it is merely an expression of malignant self-criticism and should be neutralized.”

A playful tone rings in sophomore Khalid Ibdah. Ibdah likes to make people laugh, and one of the ways he achieves this is through making spirited jokes. Though the style of humor downplays his intelligence and pokes fun at his imperfections, he considers the jokes to be upbeat and something everyone can relate to.

“I personally know I am not being serious [when making self-deprecating jokes]. It gives me control over my own humor, and it has taken control from those who have teased me in the past,” Ibdah said. “I personally see these problems reflected in other people, so it’s a nice way to make light of them and. . . make them seem kind of silly and lighthearted.”

So far, self-deprecating humor is beneficial to high-status individuals, a drawback to low-status individuals, and a way for teens to know themselves. If this is true, are other deprecating jokes made at someone else’s expense just as acceptable?

In 2000, psychology professors Leslie M. Janes and James M. Olson conducted a study over the difference between self-deprecating and other deprecating humor. Participants were split into two groups: one that viewed a video with a self-deprecating host, and another with a host deprecating his assistant. Afterward, all participants were asked to perform tasks. The results showed those who watched the other deprecating video had a bigger fear of failure, while those who watched the self-deprecating video did not.

The professors explained that those who watched the other deprecation video were afraid of being the target.

Despite this crude humor, sophomore Harper Dailey and her friends often tease each other in another depreciating way, but it’s not meant to be taken seriously. She believes other deprecation can be hurtful, but if people are on a level of friendship and comfort, then it’s acceptable.

“I don’t really like [other deprecation] personally, because you never know what someone’s going through,” Dailey said. “If you’re close enough with each other, it’s fine though. But if you’re just casual friends, then it’s too personal.”

Ibdah and his friends make both self-deprecating and other deprecating jokes, too. Yet, instead of feeling the need to conform, he believes it’s more of a bonding experience.

“Everyone has insecurities that come and go. These jokes typically don’t play to the serious nature of [the insecurities] and can instead lighten the mood and tension in most situations,” Ibdah said. “People in the past tried to hide their insecurities, not to say that people don’t do that today, it’s just that more people today don’t see them as a weakness but as something we all share and something to get through together.”

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