When I first learned of the circumstances around Robyn Williams’ death at 63, I was astounded that someone who made so many people laugh – and even cry with laughter – would feel so alone and take his own life.
But on deeper reflection, it didn’t seem so absurd that behind the manic bravado and mayhem there was a sensitive soul who was, perhaps, forever seeking attention and applause. When times became relatively tough, the silence was probably deafening and unbearable. A quote attributed to Williams says it all:
All it takes is a beautiful fake smile to hide an injured soul and they will never notice how broken you really are.
Having a strong interest in public health and epidemiology, I began to think of all comedians I had grown up with. And I quickly formed the (untested) hypothesis that perhaps the funnier a comedian was, the more likely they would die prematurely.
After working my way through the “usual suspects”, from the Goons to Monty Python and the Carry On teams, to the famous comedy duos of Morecambe and Wise, The Two Ronnies and even Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, I saw nothing to challenge my working hypothesis.
I was even more surprised to find that no one appeared to have commented on – or investigated – this intriguing phenomenon. Out of curiosity, therefore, I decided to undertake my own investigations; knowing full well they may prove to be controversial given the subject matter.
Two subsequent analyses (both necessarily retrospective) examining the potential negative correlation between comedic ability and longevity add weight to the theory that comedians die young.
An initial analysis was of 53 British and Irish (male) comedians identified from a popular voting website. (On the website, thousands of people vote on their favourite comedians – and other entertainers – ranking their popularity.)
In this instance, myself and my colleague, Professor David Thompson, decided to rank these comedians independently according to how funny we thought they were. We found those who were the funniest were more likely to have already died (78% versus 40% of those deemed less funny). They also had died at almost a decade younger (average age of death 63). As reported in the International Journal of Cardiology, therefore, we had found a significant and independent correlation between “funniness” and reduced longevity.
Most strikingly, within comedy teams, the funniest partner was three times more likely to die prematurely than the “straight man”.
In our more recent analysis, also published in the same journal, we particularly focussed on the “pure” form of comedy – stand-up – as opposed to the scripted comedy largely seen in television sit-coms and films.
Using the same public “ranking” website, we identified 200 stand-up comedians (13% women), 113 comedy actors (18% women), and 184 dramatic actors (29% women). We then retrospectively studied their longevity according to their funniness (as ranked by the website) and life-expectancy.
As hypothesised, if a stand-up comedian died, they did so two to three years younger than comedic and dramatic actors.
Moreover, in stand-up comedians only (and independent of year of birth), the funnier a comedian was judged to be, the greater their risk of dying. The comedians had been ranked on the website from 1-200. Each ten-point difference in ranking gave a 6% higher risk of death.
The reverse appeared to be true for dramatic actors: those ranked as the very best thespians live the longest. No real trends were seen in comedic actors.
So what does the “science” tell us? There are a (limited) number of reports in the psychology literature examining the potentially unique characteristics of comedians.
Not surprisingly, these reports suggest that many comedians live on the edge of mental wellness with strong traits indicative of bipolar disorders; with accompanying high levels of mania and depression as well as impulsive behaviours.
Such reports have to be balanced by the large volume of anecdotal evidence (the recently departed Victoria Wood comes to mind) suggesting that many high profile comedians have successfully developed a comedic persona to overcome inherent shyness and/or childhood trauma and turned that into a career.
Rather than being mentally ill, they may well be introverted individuals who have developed a highly successful coping mechanism for dealing with other people. Intriguingly, there is some evidence to suggest that the longevity of children deemed to be funny is significantly reduced compared to their more serious counterparts.
Beyond the world of comedians and the need to investigate this phenomenon further with more rigorous studies, what relevance does this have to do real life? I can only reflect on the case of my father, who died prematurely at the age of 48 after suffering from cancer for a number of years.
I knew him as a quiet, loving and introspective man who spent much of his leisure time reading. To his friends though, Tom Stewart was a “natural born entertainer”, the “life of the party” (he didn’t drink) and the “funniest man alive”.
Was my father one of those “comedians” who walk among us and make us laugh, but through their introspection (and perhaps inner turmoil) leave themselves exposed to physical and mental ill health and reduced longevity?
Authors: Simon Stewart, Director, Mary MacKillop Institute for Health Research, Australian Catholic University