Are (successful) stand-up comedians exceptionally intelligent as a rule?

I can’t think of a single stand up comedian (that’s prominent enough for me to see on TV) whom I’d charactarize as dumb or even of average intelligence – it seems like you have to be very observant, mentally agile and able to make incongruous connections between topics that will jolt the audience into looking at things in a new way. Not to mention dealing with hecklers.

And it seems like the funniest comedians are the ones that pretend like they’re dumbing down a bit with a wink to the audience.

To start off with the funny clips: Jim Gaffigan on the holidays.

As a general rule I think this is true, although “exceptionally” may be a bit over the top. I have friends who were in comedy biz and I did some writing for comedians so I have met quite a few. Most are the kinds of people I would hang out with - bright, quick witted, amusing and interested in stuff. However I work with people who are just like that as well. In fact I work with 2 guys who are funnier than 90% of comedy professionals I have known.

Now that I think of it, look how many comedians come from university backgrounds. In England it was everyone from the 60s onward. And Working Dog the Australian production company includes a doctor amongst its graduates.

Were any of the comedians of your acquaintence withdrawn or depressed? I get the impression (maybe it’s the popular impression) that once some comedians are offstage the light kind of goes out and they withdraw into themselves. From what I’ve read in various places, Phil Hartman and Johnny Carson were like that as well as (maybe?) Jerry Seinfeld.

Not really. The two I knew best used to go to the same parties as me when we were younger, we played sport together and hung out. Most comedians aren’t terribly outgoing and don’t like to feel that they have to be funny all the time.

I think the whole tortured funny man thing is a bit of a myth. A lot of the population are prone to depression and comedians may or may not be over represented - I don’t know.

I thought the recent movie Funny People gave a pretty accurate portrayal of how comedians are in private (at least in my experience). Some things rang very true. I recall once sitting at a comedy club with a bunch of comedians. They sat there quietly dissecting the acts on stage without ever really laughing at the material. They knew the origin of every line uttered though.

To get an idea what Seinfeld is like check out Comedian in which he sets about creating a new stand-up set. It is quite interesting as you get to see him dying on stage.

Carlos Mencia had his own tv show and he’s never struck me as exceptionally intelligent. He’s probably not a moron, but his standup comedy and skits weren’t very clever (or funny).

It is often alleged that his jokes are stolen. If you don’t write your own material, I guess you wouldn’t need to be that intelligent.


You might not like his act or his current bitter view of the world at the sunset of his career. How does that make him unintelligent? By that standard, I suppose George Carlin was a moron too, hm? :dubious:

I remember seeing a few minutes of Gallagher smashing watermelons in the 80s. Probably from the Montreal Comedy Festival. I didn’t remember any jokes. Here is why:

his website

Did you read that link? He sounds like Grandpa Munster as a teabagger. Not an original or coherently expressed thought in his head. Just “Get off my lawn!” with shades of racism and delusion.

Thank you.

Like I said, just like George Carlin in his later years, except GC was saying it on stage . . . [maybe from a left wing rather than right wing perspective, but still bitter and off the wall]

ANNNYWAY, I’d put Gallagher more in the category of performance artist rather than stand up comedian.

Right. Along with Carrot Top.

They’re all intelligent on a craft level. As for intellectual depth, they vary. Sam Kinison was a genius performer–who dated strippers and hemorrhaged cash. Mort Sahl was kind of the opposite (even though he married a Playboy playmate): genuinely intellectual, but overestimated his audience’s tolerance for extended JFK conspiracy minutiae instead of jokes.

Al Franken–who knew? I think he genuinely hits on all cylinders. So, in an opposite kind of way, does Dennis Miller.

I think there’s a distinction to be made here.

Successful comedians need not be intelligent. Dane Cook and Carlos Mencia are proof of that. Good comedians likely will be, unless their delivery is just so amazing that they could read the phone book and have you crying with laughter.

Read Born Standing Up by Steve Martin. He has a well established and earned reputation as an intellectual - writing plays, New Yorker articles and novels, his respected collection of modern art, etc. - but reading how he broke his craft down as he built up his skill and experience makes it clear how cerebrally he approached saying “Well excuuuuuuuuuse me!”

I’m not an insider or anything so what I have to say is put together from interviews and such.

It’s very hard to say, because there are so many types of intelligence they could be using. Dane Cook or Carlos Mencia might be brilliant at marketing and business. Were comedians like Gallagher and Andrew Dice Clay out there doing these characters and then discovered by the people, or did they smartly identify a market for a certain kind of gimmick and exploit it brilliantly? Would that itself make them “exceptionally intelligent?” Above average at least, since most people obviously don’t accomplish such feats.

I get the impression from the OP that’s not what he meant though. He seems to be describing stage personae, which should not be used to judge a comedian. That stuff like winks and laughing along with your own jokes and looking like you just thought of something clever, and apparently off-the-cuff ripostes to hecklers is almost always rehearsed or recycled. But they might be excellent performers to pull it off well. Is that its own kind of intelligence?

I can’t credit “exceptional intelligence” to good joke-making… A comedian could spend years putting together a decent act, refining it through trial and error. I should hope anyone could do that if it was their full-time job. At the end of the day it is mostly about delivery. Those people most prolific at coming at stuff from oddball angles like Mitch Hedburg and Emo Phillips could be attributed with brilliance, or as easily with plain mental illness.

Don’t even get me started alternative/indie comedy, which is exclusively the domain of the over-educated and psuedo-intellectual. Actually I have no reason to get started on that, I just want to get a dig in on it.

I’d like to ask the OP who is their smartest comedian. They may be very talented, but I don’t know if that really dazzles me with their intelligence. Bobcat Gothwait, for example, seemed to just screech his act, back in the day. Now, he may have worked at perfecting the character, and he may be a prolific writer of comedy skits for stage and screen, and maybe some movie stars aren’t – but I don’t know if I’d rush to him, or Jerry Seinfeld, for political opinions, or the ethical considerations of a new technology, or the social impact of a new astronomical discovery.


You know, what Eternal: said.