The 1980 graduating senior class of Escambia High school voted me their wittiest classmate. In other words, I was what you might describe as the class clown. Except that I wasn’t your typical class clown. In one class I might sit quietly in the back row and be thought the James Dean of the class. In the next I might be cracking jokes that would even make the teacher start laughing uncontrollably. I was a weird class clown, but probably not as unique as you might think. Every school needs a handful of class clowns if for no other reason than to break up the stressful monotony. I have had to deal with class clowning both from the perspective of the student and the teacher. As a teacher, I very much welcomed the humorous input from the clowns in my class. In my own James Dean classes (mostly math and science) I very much welcomed the humor of such contenders for Wittiest Student as Billy B. and Jimmy I. (They know who they are.) It made things less stressful for me. As the class clown, being funny made the classes I liked even better. But is there a downside to being a class clown?
Most mental health professionals are in agreement that the reason students become class clowns is because they desire attention. I’m not so sure. Most class clowns don’t tend to be physically imposing, so they can’t get attention through sports, but more than a few funny guys (and class clowns are mostly, though certainly not exclusively, male) are also near the top of their class academically. In fact, Celebrity Jeopardy is almost always won by the comedians; Cheech Marin, I think, still holds the record for the biggest payoff on Celebrity Jeopardy and who would have ever thought such a thing possible while watching Up in Smoke. (Obviously, there is a huge difference between winning Celebrity Jeopardy and regular Jeopardy, but I think Cheech Marin would be more than competitive on the regular edition.) Since class clowns could very easily get attention in many cases based on their smarts, the idea that being funny is a cry for attention sounds like typical psychological stereotyping.
Still, not all class clowns are alike. Unlike me, many students try to use humor more in those classes in which they don’t excel as a way of coping with a fundamental lack of academic ability. Still others turn to humor, often inappropriate humor, because their social skills have not developed to the point where they can make friends or just interact with other students in any other way. You’ve met this type, I’m sure: the guy who turns every comment into an off-color remark. (I’d like to theorize her relativity!) That kind of class clown is becoming more and more prevalent simply because off-color remarks are no longer as forbidden, and because the internet society has sheltered many of these actually shy kids from engaging in enough social interaction to develop proper skills in dealing with other people. Many schoolchildren today have actually spent more time alone doing everything from surfing the internet to playing video games than they have spent with other flesh and blood carbon-based beings. No wonder the only method they have of dealing with other kids comes from watching American Pie movies.
Very often the class clown becomes so disruptive that he become a discipline problem and, if your Principals are anything like the average Principal in Escambia County, the suggestion will arrive that the class clown receive psychological testing. 99 times out of a hundred this is a big mistake. Of course, your funny kid is going to come up troubled. Being funny automatically means being troubled. Almost all humor has a dimension of pain attached to it and the only thing you’ll probably really learn from such a test is that your kid is actually more sensitive than you realized. But rarely is it the class clown who goes on to develop mental trauma that requires therapy. Why? Because he’s already got therapy; that’s what his clowning is all about! Almost every comedian, infamously, is an unhappy and unsatisfied soul. Think about it; how many stand-up comics have you laughed at whose routine was all about how great the world is? None! Funny is about complaining about everything from the size of airplane peanut bags to your mother-in-law to the idiocy of whoever is occupying the Oval Office. Comedy is about working through the things in the world that bug you. Class clowns aren’t the ones who need therapy; athletes who think sports are actually important in life need more therapy than the funny kid who sits in the back row.
If you are the parent of a class clown and your Principal is suggesting that he seek counseling, your best bet is to jettison that school and save not only money, but potentially your kids’ educational career.