As death of one of the UK’s best loved comedians, Ronnie Corbett, is announced – latest medical research poses the question – why do the funniest comedians die first?
The death of Ronnie Corbett, one of Britain’s most popular and loved TV comedians, has just been announced – he was 85. Corbett was possibly best known as one half of a comedy duo referred to as ‘The Two Ronnies,” a famous British TV series boasting a comedy partner, Ronnie Barker, who died in 2005, aged 76.
But was it in fact possible to predict which half of the comedy duo would live the longest, using the latest psychological research and could this prediction reveal something about the psychology of longevity?
A study recently published in the International Journal of Cardiology has found that the funniest comedians suffer dramatically reduced longevity compared to their relatively less funny counterparts.
The research, from the Australian Catholic University, Melbourne, Australia, analyzed the life span of 53 male British comedians born between 1900 and 1954. A key finding is that the higher the score by which the comedian was rated as funny, also the higher the mortality rate.
Of the 23 ‘very funny’ comedians, 78% had died, versus 40% of the rest. Average age at death for the comedians judged as ‘very funny’ was 63.3 years old versus 72.3 for the rest.
Those working in comedy duos (e.g. Morecambe and Wise) or teams (e.g. Monty Python) were also designated, for the purposes of this research as the “funny” or “straight” man in that comedy team.
Within comedy teams, those identified as the funnier member(s) of the partnership were more than three times more likely to die prematurely when compared to their more serious comedy partners.
Examples that bear out that the funny man in a comedy team seems to always die first include Ernie Wise being the straighter comedian in the duo, living to 73, while his more overtly funnier partner, Eric Morecambe, died at 58.
Ronnie Barker died at 76 while his straight man Ronnie Corbett has just died aged 85.
Graham Chapman died at 48, while all the other original members of the Monty Python comedy team, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones remain alive, yet it is widely understood that Chapman was the most surreal or the funniest, of this uniquely surreal comedy team.
For example, perhaps the most famous Monty Python sketch of all, the ‘Dead Parrot’ sketch started off being written by John Cleese as about a man returning a toaster and it is reported that it was Chapman who inspired the idea it should be about a dead parrot.
Does Comedy Kill?
The findings of this study, entitled, “Does comedy kill? A retrospective, longitudinal cohort, nested case–control study of humour and longevity in 53 British comedians,” are particularly intriguing because, consistent with the inherent nature of comedy tandems and teams, individual members were predominantly born around the same time and come from the same social class and economic background.
The authors of the study, Dr. Simon Stewart and Dr. David Thompson, conclude that elite comedians are at increased risk of premature death compared to their less funny counterparts.
The study involved ranking all 53 comedians according to their ability to make people laugh on a numbered scale. Some scored as ‘relatively funny,’ others scoring higher were found ‘pretty funny’ and the best were rated ‘very funny’ to ‘hilarious.
This last group would be considered ‘elite’ comedians and include John Cleese and Billy Connolly.