Comedic Psychology, Joan Rivers, and Robin Williams

September 26, 2014

Like all good comedy, there must have been some therapeutic benefits to the laughter Robin Williams and Joan Rivers both elicited.

PSYCHIATRIC VIEWS ON THE NEWS

I've been on the verge of doing a view about Joan Rivers ever since her recent death. I was intrigued by her unexpected departure -- and how that might relate to outcomes in for-profit medicine, as well as the ethical implications if her personal physician really did take a "selfie" at her procedure. I was just awaiting confirmation of certain news stories.

But, as my friend and medical colleague, Randall Levin, MD, told me recently, I need not wait to comment on her particular kind of comedy. He's right.

My disclosure and disclaimer is that I never much cared for her kind of humor as I did for Robin Williams, the subject of a prior eulogy here. At the risk of oversimplification, Robin Williams seemed to convey an otherworldly sense of humor, otherworldly both literally (as he played the alien Mork in Mork & Mindy) and figuratively.

Joan Rivers' humor seemed to me to be more earthy. She expressed what was on people's minds, and what they dared not state out loud.

Like all good comedy, there must have been some therapeutic benefits to the laughter both Rivers and Williams elicited. Perhaps both even modeled a kind of desired responsiveness we look for in certain kinds of psychotherapy.

Robin Williams might be a paradigm of psychoanalytic free associations. Joan Rivers might be a paradigm of getting one's anger out.

Did both provide a sort of vicarious psychotherapeutic process for society?