Comedians across the globe are going crazy over a new British Journal of Psychiatry report by an Oxford team of researchers, led by Dr. Victoria Ando, showing that comedians have even stronger psychotic traits than other creative types, like actors.
The Guardian’s headline – “Successful Comedians Display Symptoms of Psychosis, Study Says” – and their reporting that 523 comedians were in the study, prompted me to actually go get the original article. I just had to find out where the hell they found that many successful comedians. I’m also trained as a scientist, so a little obsessive compulsive (as well as a little psychotic).
To be clear, “successful” is an overstatement – over half the 523 comedians described themselves as amateurs with only 1-3 years of experience. The article didn’t go into how they defined “professional” either – were they full-time comedians that headlined 4 nights a week? Or professional as in, perform as an opening act on a LYGO showcase for a free beer, if you help set up the stage or write for the blog?
After reviewing the report a bit more, here are some other thoughts I had:
1. Causality, i.e. chicken or egg.
What if you develop the psychotic traits because of comedy? It takes years to become successful and half that time is spent waiting around to do 3- 5 minutes at a shitty open mic 3-5 nights a week. That would drive anyone insane.
However, the scales they used to measure psychotic traits supposedly do measure predisposition. And I suppose you do have to be a little nuts to go into comedy in the first place, given how brutal it can be. Maybe psychotic traits get you into comedy, and comedy just makes you kind of depressed.
Still, Ando’s next study should look at how folks score on the measures before and after trying out comedy for a couple years.
2. Miserable Traits that make Comedians Funny
Ando and colleagues found that the traits comedians score high on include being distractible, impulsive, antisocial, avoiding intimacy, and having difficulties with feeling social and physical pleasure. Finally, hard numbers to what comedians have known all along. Throw in insecure, especially among comedians under the age of 30, and now imagine waiting in line with these people to get a spot on a mic week after week… This will also drive you insane (to my point above).
To be clear, Ando points out that what comedians have are “healthy equivalents” of these characteristics, and not the pathological forms that lead to psychosis. These traits are found in a lot of other creative types and lead them to do creative things, like paint, sculpt, act etc. They lead great comedians to write really funny material. Of course, they also lead not so great comedians to write horrible dick jokes.
3. Female Comedians
There were 119 female comedians in the study and they outscored the men on all four of the traits that were measured, including on “Unusual Experiences” (that I’ve highlighted with the red box below).
Unusual Experiences is a measure of “magical thinking, belief in telepathy and other paranormal events, and a tendency to experience perceptual aberrations”.
Part of me is not surprised, because just about every woman I’ve dated has had magical thoughts that I can read their minds. Looks like this is even more pronounced in their sample of female comedians. I’m planning to invite all 119 out to DC to do a showcase…
4. My favorite line in the report
The comedians were compared to actors (and both were compared to another group of regular folks). My favorite line of the report is their description of the actor group:
94% named ‘theatre’ as their preferred genre, with relatively few choosing ‘musical’, ‘pantomime’ or ‘circus’
I was kind of shocked that pantomime is even a category. Is it popular in Oxford? Clearly, Ando and colleagues are into it enough to include it on their survey.
Maybe I’ll start a pantomime scene in DC. That would truly be insane.