You don’t have to be mad to be a comic, but it can help get a laugh

Spike Milligan. (Photo: Brian Smith)
Spike Milligan. (Photo: Brian Smith)

Comedians are mad. That is a largely uncontested fact. The idea of standing in a badly lit basement bar in front of 150 drunk strangers, armed with nothing but a microphone and some pre-written mother-in-law jokes and trying to make them laugh is just a crazy thing to do.

If you’ve ever been to a stand-up comedy gig, you’ll know the gut-wrenching awfulness of watching someone try and fail – the pitilessness of an unimpressed audience, the total lack of anywhere to hide. Imagine that, seen from the perspective of the guy trying to tell the joke. I did it, once – I was a straight-man guest on someone’s comedy show at a Soho theatre a couple of years ago – and even one line falling flat made me want to immediately run home and cry and phone my mum. (Several lines fell flat.) Doing that for a career? No. It’s just insane.

Of course, my describing stand-up comedians as mad is hugely insensitive, since so many have genuinely struggled with mental illness. The “sad clown” archetype has several real instances. Tony Hancock suffered for years from depression and alcoholism, and eventually committed suicide. Spike Milligan had severe bipolar disorder, or manic depression as it was known in those days. During one of his low periods, he said: “I cannot stand being awake. The pain is too much. Something has happened to me, this vital spark has stopped burning. It’s like another person taking over, very strange.”

In more recent years, Stephen Fry has spoken of his own struggle with the same illness. In his teens, during a manic phase, he rampaged around London on stolen credit cards, buying “ridiculous suits with stiff collars and silk ties from the 1920s”, drinking cocktails in the Savoy. And, in a depressed phase, he walked out of a play he was starring in, and sat for two hours in his car, the door of his garage sealed, on the edge of killing himself.

Now research in the British Journal of Psychiatry (BJP) has suggested that “psychotic” personality traits – those associated with bipolar disorder, and with schizophrenia – are common in comedians, and that they may even aid the creativity and the unorthodox view on the world that comedy relies on.

A survey of more than 500 British comedians found that they scored significantly higher than a control group on various traits, such as “cognitive disorganisation” – a difficulty in focusing and marshalling one’s thoughts – and “impulsive non-conformity”, a tendency towards doing socially unacceptable things on a sudden whim. They also had a tendency towards “unusual experiences”, which involves belief in the paranormal or supernatural, and “introvertive anhedonia”, or a reduced ability to feel pleasure, both physical and social.

It’s easy to imagine that these traits could help someone become a comic. Disorganised thoughts become anarchic digressions; antisocial impulses become wild, taboo-busting spontaneity. And being less sensitive to social pleasure could drive you to seek more approval, and get ever bigger laughs from ever larger groups.

Whether that’s the case or not – and we should always be a bit wary of telling superficially plausible just-so stories like this – there always has been a link between creativity and mental illness. An article in the Journal of Creative Behaviour, “The Sylvia Plath Effect”, showed that creative writers are more prone to mental illness than the wider population (and that female poets were the most prone, hence the title). It’s all too easy to think of examples of artists and writers – Vincent van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Hunter S Thompson – for whom creativity came at too high a cost to their mind.

And the BJP  article suggests that the same is true in comedy. They point out that Milligan, in his manic phases, used “the freely associating thought processes of his manic states to generate the zany humour and the wildly ridiculous ideas” that made his name. Comedy and creativity can also, it suggests, be an outlet for depressive thoughts – a form of self-medication.

Of course, all of this is a huge and wild generalisation. The study found a statistical tendency for comedians to score more highly in these personality traits. That does not imply that every comedian, or even very many, are struggling with mental health issues. We’re all on a spectrum for all of them, to some degree, and while comedians scored above average, there’s a long way between “average” and “pathological”.

I’ve met and interviewed several comics – I used to review stand-up for a living – and all the ones I’ve come across have been perfectly well-adjusted people. (In fact, some, such as Robin Ince and Tim Minchin, are fiercely rational and opposed to the hippyish magical thinking implied by “unusual experiences”.) Perhaps psychotic traits are more pronounced in comedians than in the wider population, but “more than not very” is often still “not very”.

Even so, the sad clown and the genius madman are such vivid images that when we read something which seems to support them, when we have our existing stereotypes so utterly confirmed, we can’t help but leap on it. And, of course, we all think there’s something crazy about deliberately going on stage, staring into the lights, trying to think of a comeback to the beery heckler in the third row. You don’t have to be mad to work here, and all that.

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