Navigating a Path from Stand-Up Comedy to Psychology

I remember very clearly when I first realized that I wanted to be a comedian. I was young, probably six or seven. It was late on a weekend. My parents and I were watching the iconic Steve Martin “King Tut” sketch on a rerun of Saturday Night Live. If you haven’t seen the sketch, it’s worth three minutes of your time. Before the music starts, Steve Martin stands on a dark stage, illuminated by a single spotlight. He is dressed in a very glitzy ancient Egyptian costume, more reminiscent of Las Vegas than the Valley of the Dead. He laments to the audience in a serious tone about the over-commercialization of the King Tutankhamen art exhibit that was touring the Unites States at the time. He explains that after reflecting in the woods, he wrote a song using ancient Egyptian “modalities and melodies” to “help us all learn something.” He then steps back from the mic and assumes a cartoonish pose that loosely mimics human forms depicted in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. The lights come up behind him revealing a modern band and go-go dancers dressed as ancient Egyptian women. Steve, the band, and the go-go dancers all perform Steve’s song and choreography in a way that is just as exploitative and anachronistic as the over-commercialized art exhibit.

My parents dissolved into paroxysms of laughter during the King Tut sketch. I relished watching funny shows with them. Mom and Dad worked long hours, and Saturday night in front of the tv was often the only time during the week the three of us were united in the same room. I was the kind of kid who craved attention, so I don’t think It takes any deep Freudian psychoanalysis to identify why, when I observed my parents laughing at Steve Martin’s antics, that it suddenly occurred to me that I too wanted to be a comedian.

After graduating from Wichita State University with a BA in Communication (emphasis in theater), I moved to Chicago to pursue comedy. I trained in improv and sketch writing at the Second City and IO Theater, and appeared in hundreds of live performances.

My road to psychology and research science was much less direct, but still can be credited to Steve Martin. Unfortunately, there is a long list of troubled comedians and entertainers who have accidentally killed themselves by self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. Anecdotally at least, there is something about the comedy profession that seems to attract individuals who have experienced trauma or emotional isolation. Comedians often grow up feeling different for one reason or another and they compensate for their insecurities by making people laugh. During my time as an actor and comedian, I often saw my peers struggle with substance abuse and mental health disorders. After a close friend and colleague died from alcohol poisoning, I felt called to leave comedy and pursue a career in counseling.

In the fall of 2019, I started my Master’s in Clinical Psychology at Murray State University. During my coursework, I started to get really interested in researching new treatments for traumatized adolescents. When I learned of the opportunity to become a research assistant at MRG, I jumped at the chance to learn and grow with an organization that has made major strides in the science of leadership and motivation. MRG’s innovative development of reliable semi-ipsative measures has allowed them to create an impressive library of data to inform future research.

I love what MRG can reveal about the relationship between emotional intelligence (EQ) and motivation. As a future clinician, I am very interested in improving the emotional experiences of human beings. Many of us spend half our lives at work. Studies have shown that increased emotional intelligence in the workplace leads to reduced staff turn-over, increased personal well-being, decreased occupational stress, improved decision making, increased team performance, and increased leadership ability. MRG is in the unique position to study EQ in relation to the IDI assessment. When viewing David Ringwood’s MRG webinar “The Relevance of Emotional Intelligence: Finding the Motivation Behind EQ” I was fascinated by Mr. Ringwood’s point that our internal motivators uncovered in the IDI can pose risks as well as benefits. He uses the example that people who are extremely motivated by giving may pay an emotional consequence by always putting other people before themselves. He raises some interesting questions about whether or not our motivators serve us well or just serve themselves. I’m eager to examine the relationship between motivation, reward, and consequences. The immediate relief a chronic procrastinator feels when putting something off is a powerful reward that outweighs future consequences. I would like to see how IDI motivators can help override the immediate emotional rewards of maladaptive behaviors like procrastination or substance abuse.

When talking about his career in comedy, Steve Martin once wrote, “Bad psychoanalysis would say I enjoyed pleasing people, working really hard and pleasing people, which is probably related to my father in some way. But I really liked working hard. When I worked at Disneyland, I’d do 12 hours straight and go home thrilled.”

In this short statement, Steve recognizes that his true inner motivator was a love of hard work, not people pleasing (like me). MRG’s scientific assessments push past untested psychobabble and allow professionals to identify what truly motivates them. With that information they can work toward goals more efficiently. I can’t wait to be a part of that process!

About the author

Nancy is a Research Assistant at MRG. She is currently earning her Master's in Clinical Psychology at Murray State University. She is fascinated by the healing power of laughter and hopes to one day research the effects of improvisational comedy exercises on mood and interpersonal relationships. When she's not studying or conducting research, Nancy plays geeky board games you've probably never heard of, because you are too cool.

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anne defrancesco
anne defrancesco
4 years ago

Welcome to the MRG Community!

Stephen Spencer
Stephen Spencer
1 year ago

I saw that sketch on my first visit to the USA and was mesmerised by it too. Didn’t Steve Martin also claim that you learn enough in three years of Psychology studies to screw yourself up for the rest of your life?