New Study Suggests Comedians Display Signs of Mental Illness

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Comedians have been joking about being “crazy” for a long time. Well, crazy may be an ill-fitting word for it, but a new study says comedians often display characteristics associated with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. It may also shed insight on the link between creativity and abnormal thought patterns related to high levels of psychotic characteristics.

Comedian Spike Milligan, cited for his struggle with manic depression

Comedian Spike Milligan, cited in the study for his struggle with manic depression

The findings come from a survey of 523 comedians from he UK, USA, and Australia who were asked to describe their own personalities and beliefs in a questionnaire aimed at measuring psychotic traits in people who are not clinically struggling with mental illness.

“The creative elements needed to produce humor are strikingly similar to those characterizing the cognitive style of people with psychosis – both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder,” said Professor Gordon Claridge from Oxford University’s department of experimental psychology. Claridge is one of three co-authors of the study, which was published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

While these comedians show high levels of psychotic traits, the key to their success appears to be more mild forms of psychosis. Claridge suggests more moderate forms of mental illness allow for unique ways of thinking about and associating topics which often form the basis of comedy.

“Although schizophrenic psychosis itself can be detrimental to humor, in its lesser form it can increase people’s ability to associate odd or unusual things or to think ‘outside the box’. Equally, ‘manic thinking’, which is common in people with bipolar disorder, may help people combine ideas to form new, original and humorous connections,” he explained.

The comedians responses to the survey were compared against 364 actors, as well as 831 people in non-creative occupations. They were assessed unusual experiences (which included magical thinking, belief in telepathy and other paranormal phenomena), tendency to experience perceptual aberrations such as cognitive disorganization, introvertive anhedonia (a reduced ability to feel social and physical pleasure), and impulsive non-conformity.

The actors scored higher than the general group on three of the four measures, but the comedians came out “significantly higher on all four types of psychotic personality traits” compared to both groups. Unsurprisingly, the actors did not share the tendency for introverted personalities that the comedians demonstrated.

The researchers believe manic thinking, a key feature of bipolar disorder, to be one of the main contributing factors to the psychotic tendencies reported. “It is easy to see how this can account for the relationship between the manic side of bipolar disorder and comic performance,” the authors wrote.

In the context of the study, it may also offer some explanation as to why several comedians have publicly struggled with mental illness. The Guardian notes the study cited the late Spike Milligan, famous UK comedian known for The Goon Show. Milligan battled manic depression throughout his life. He “used the freely associating thought processes of his manic state to generate the zany humour and the wildly ridiculous ideas that were the hallmark of his depression.”

Maria Bamford in 2013 Source: Jason Baldwin

Maria Bamford in 2013
Source: Jason Baldwin

American comedian Maria Bamford has also publicly struggled with bipolar disorder, which was put at the forefront of her comedy in her album Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome.

It should be noted that the studies findings do not mean the majority of comedians suffer from clinical mental illness. The survey was not a diagnostic test of the individuals, but it does offer some insight into unique thought patterns that might help someone find their way to comedy. But, mental illness can affect anyone and doesn’t automatically create a comedian.

Sara Pascoe says in her response to The Guardian’s report, “everyone I know who is really, really good at comedy works really, really hard.” She’s not wrong. These thought patterns often associated with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder may contribute to a comedic mindset, but we can’t forget the talent and hard work that also goes into making us laugh.

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