Dec 7, 2014
Raj Persaud discusses new research on the mortality of comedians with Dr. Gil Greengross an evolutionary psychologist and anthropologist at Concordia University in Montreal and formerly at the University of New Mexico. His interdisciplinary research bridges traditional fields of study such as psychology, anthropology and biology, and his studies focus on the adaptive value of humor and laughter, mainly in the context of sexual selection and mating.
Dr. Greengross is also fascinated by the life and personalities of stand-up comedians as we can learn a lot from people who have extreme humor ability.
Dr. Greengross won the 2007 Graduate Student Award at the International Society for Humor Studies conference and was invited to give two lectures at the International Summer School and Symposium on Humor and Laughter. He has also designed and taught several popular college level classes on the psychology of humor.
Dr Raj Persaud is now joint podcast editor for the Royal College of Psychiatrists and also now has a free app on iTunes and google play store entitled 'Raj Persaud in conversation', which includes a lot of free information on the latest research findings in mental health, plus interviews with top experts from around the world. You can hear this interview on the app and read the article below on this subject.
Download it free from these links:
Why the funniest comedians die first
Raj Persaud and Professor Adrian Furnham
A study about to be published in the ‘International Journal of Cardiology’ has found that the funniest comedians suffer dramatically reduced longevity, compared to their relatively less funny counterparts.
The research, from the Australian Catholic University, Melbourne, Australia, analysed the life span of 53 male British comedians born between 1900 and 1954. A key finding is that the higher the score by which the comedian was rated as funny, also the higher the mortality rate.
Of the 23 ‘very funny’ comedians, 78% had died, versus 40% of the rest. Average age at death for the comedians adjudged as ‘very funny’ was 63.3 years old versus 72.3 for the rest.
Those working in comedy duos (e.g. Morecambe and Wise) or teams (e.g. Monty Python) were also designated, for the purposes of this research, as the “funny” or “straight” man in that comedy team.
Within comedy teams, those identified as the funnier member(s) of the partnership were more than three times more likely to die prematurely when compared to their more serious comedy partners.
Examples that bear out this newly established macabre law that the funny man in a comedy team always dies first, include Ernie Wise being the straighter comedian in the duo, living to 73, while his funnier partner, Eric Morecambe died at 58. Ronnie Barker died at 76 while his straight man Ronnie Corbett is still alive and now past 84 years old.
Graham Chapman died at 48, while all the other original members of the Monty Python comedy team, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones remain alive, yet it is widely understood that Chapman was the most surreal, or the funniest, of this uniquely surreal comedy team.
For example, perhaps the most famous Monty Python sketch of all, the ‘Dead Parrot’ sketch started off being written by John Cleese as about a man returning a toaster, and it is reported that it was Chapman who inspired the idea it should be about the attempt to return a dead parrot.
The findings of this study are particularly intriguing because, consistent with the inherent nature of comedy tandems and teams, individual members were predominantly born around the same time, and come from the same social class and economic background.
The authors of the study, Dr Simon Stewart and Dr David Thompson, conclude that elite comedians are at increased risk of premature death, compared to their less funny counterparts.
The study involved ranking all 53 comedians according to their ability to make people laugh on a scale of 1 to 10. Those scoring 5 and below were considered to be relatively funny, 6-7 pretty funny and 8-10 ranging from very funny to hilarious. This last group would be considered ‘elite’ comedians and include John Cleese and Billy Connolly.
The study used a popular website that ranks the best of only British and Irish Comedians, on purpose, because the researchers focused on a group of comedians from one geographical part of the world. This ensured the similarity of background meant the key issue being investigated was whether there was something about purely being funnier, as opposed to any other differences between comedians, is linked to higher mortality rates.
Dr Simon Stewart and Dr David Thompson argue that a preliminary examination of the comedy scene outside of the UK suggests that their study reveals a more universal phenomenon.
For example, the survival profiles of famous and celebrated comedy duos such as Abbott (funny man who died aged 52) and Costello (straight man who died aged 78) suggest these findings may hold true across the Atlantic.
Dr Simon Stewart and Dr David Thompson point out that previous research has established that comedians score high on measures of psychotic traits, and display an unusual personality structure characterised by ‘introverted anhedonia’ combined with ‘extraverted impulsiveness’.
One theory is that there is something about the kind of personality and psychology involved in being particularly funny, which is also linked to this high mortality rate.
The authors of the study point out that many comedians have publically admitted to being depressed, or manic, or sometimes even both.
Examples include John Cleese, Peter Cook, Stephen Fry, Tony Hancock, Spike Milligan and Kenneth Williams. In the case of some like Tony Hancock (widely regarded as a genius comic) this resulted in taking his own life.
The study was partly inspired by the recent suicide of comedian Robin Williams.
But suicide alone cannot account for this finding, as many of the comedians who died early, did so from natural or medical causes, not suicide, including the recent death, aged just 56 years old, of funny man Rik Mayall.
However, it may be they manifest self-destructiveness in some more long term ways – Graham Chapman died of cancer possibly secondary to smoking, and was reportedly a heavy drinker.
Psychologists Gil Greengross and Geoffrey Miller from the University of New Mexico, United States, compared the personalities of 31 professional stand-up comedians with those of nine amateur comedians, 10 humour writers and 400 college students.
The study entitled, ‘The Big Five personality traits of professional comedians compared to amateur comedians, comedy writers, and college students’ found that, surprisingly, comedians are more introverted than other people.
Gil Greengross and Geoffrey Miller argue that you would expect comedians’ pursuit of fame and attention to mean they are bound to be highly extravert, like we know actors tend to be.
The intriguing result, published in the journal ‘Personality and Individual Differences’, suggests that comedians do not seek fame the same way as actors.
While the authors of the study acknowledge that the public perceive comedians as ostentatious and ﬂashy, perhaps their persona on stage is mistakenly seen interchangeably with their real personality.
The jokes they tell about their lives might be considered by many to contain a grain of truth in them, however, the results of this study suggest that the opposite is true.
Gil Greengross and Geoffrey Miller speculate that perhaps comedians use their performance to disguise who they are in their daily life. Comedians may portray someone they want to be, or perhaps their act is a way if defying the constraints imposed on their everyday events and interactions with others.
The authors speculate that ‘impulsive dis-inhibition’ is at the core of the comedic personality, and is necessary to come up constantly with weird new ideas that are funny. Comedians also need this to violate social rules by publicly declaring unconventional sentiments. But does this ‘impulsive dis-inhibition’ end up killing them, because they then don’t look after themselves properly?
The very funniest, who bring the house down, also seem to pull the curtain down early.