‘Most – but not all [comedians] – are either depressive or suffer from personality disorders … having done in-depth TV interviews with seven leading comics and having met many others, I feel that it must be acknowledged that misery is a necessary condition for great humour in the vast majority of cases.
I’ve just been reading The Naked Jape by comedian Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves. I’m not going to review it for this site, but it is an interesting and thoughtful discussion of jokes, jokers and their societal context. In the book Carr and Greeves discuss the ‘sad clown stereotype’ and basically disagree with it. They quote a 1992 study by psychologist James Rotton which found that comedians were actually no more prone to suicidal depression than any other group.
Assuming that we buy the line that childhood trauma or hardship can, in some cases, spur individuals on to high-profile achievements, it’s not surprising that many successful and famous jokers have less than Walton-esque family backgrounds. But would you find any fewer damaged individuals if you were to look at rock musicians, or actors, or any other deeply competitive profession where the stakes are high, your personality is exposed to harsh public criticism and you have a bit too much time on your hands?
Apparently the Rotton study also compared the longevity of comedians with that of other entertainers and non-entertainers. The entertainers died younger, but there was no difference between the life expectancy of a comedian and any other sorts of entertainers.
I’ve been searching for this paper (the book gives no reference) and can’t find it on either pubmed.org or Google scholar so I don’t know how robust it is (I’ve emailed the publishers). We can poke holes in both viewpoints. James has anecdote on his side and also personal experience, and in interviewing leading comics he essentially presents case studies. But it is a big leap that the comedians he has met, who are themselves self selecting, represent leading comedians in general. Carr and Greeves present evidence to the contrary, but commit the heinous sin of not referencing their work, which makes it difficult to research the basis of their assertions. You could argue that Carr, as a professional comedian, is not an impartial researcher. Indeed, there is at least one skeleton in his cupboard.