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.
The study used a popular website that ranks the best of only British and Irish Comedians. The researchers therefore focused on a group of comedians from only one geographical part of the world. But Dr. Simon Stewart and Dr. David Thompson argue that a preliminary examination of the comedy scene outside of the UK suggests that their study reveals a more universal phenomenon.
For example, the survival profiles of famous and celebrated comedy duos such as Abbott (funny man who died aged 52) and Costello (straight man who died aged 78) suggest these findings may hold true across the Atlantic.
Dr. Stewart and Dr. Thompson point out that previous research has established that comedians score high on measures of psychotic traits and display an unusual personality structure characterized by ‘introverted anhedonia’ combined with ‘extraverted impulsiveness.’
One theory is that there is something about the kind of personality and psychology involved in being particularly funny, which is also linked to this high mortality rate.
The authors of the study point out that many comedians have publicly admitted to being depressed or manic or sometimes even both.
Examples include John Cleese, Peter Cook, Stephen Fry, Tony Hancock, Spike Milligan and Kenneth Williams. In the case of some like Tony Hancock (widely regarded as a genius comic) this resulted in taking his own life.
The study was partly inspired by the recent suicide of comedian Robin Williams.
But suicide alone cannot account for this finding, as many of the comedians who died early, did so from natural or medical causes, not suicide, including the recent death, aged just 56 years old, of funny man Rik Mayall ostensibly from a heart attack.
However, it may be they manifest self-destructiveness in some more long term ways. Graham Chapman died of cancer possibly secondary to smoking and was reportedly a heavy drinker.
Psychologists Gil Greengross and Geoffrey Miller from the University of New Mexico, United States, compared the personalities of 31 professional stand-up comedians with those of nine amateur comedians, 10 humor writers and 400 college students.
The study entitled, “The Big Five personality traits of professional comedians compared to amateur comedians, comedy writers, and college students” found that, surprisingly, comedians are more introverted than other people.
Greengross and Miller argue that you would expect comedians’ pursuit of fame and attention to mean they are bound to be highly extroverted, like we know actors tend to be.
The intriguing result, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, suggests that comedians do not seek fame the same way as actors.
While the authors of the study acknowledge that the public perceive comedians as ostentatious and ﬂashy, perhaps their persona on stage is mistakenly seen interchangeably with their real personality.
The jokes they tell about their lives might be considered by many to contain a grain of truth in them, however, the results of this study suggest that the opposite is true.
Greengross and Miller speculate that perhaps comedians use their performance to disguise who they are in their daily lives. Comedians may portray someone they want to be or perhaps their act is a way of defying the constraints imposed on their everyday events and interactions with others.
The authors speculate that ‘impulsive dis-inhibition’ is at the core of the comedic personality and is necessary to come up constantly with weird new ideas that are funny. Comedians also need this to violate social rules by publicly declaring unconventional sentiments. But does this ‘impulsive dis-inhibition’ end up killing them because they then don’t look after themselves properly?
Those who bring the house down also seem to pull the curtain down too quickly.
Follow Dr Raj Persaud on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@DrRajPersaud
Dr Raj Persaud’s new novel “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” on the narcissism of stalking and obsessive love is released in support of UK National Stalking Awareness Week April 18 with all proceeds from sales donated to the Suzy Lamplugh Trust the UK’s anti-stalking personal safety charity.
Empty stage photo available from Shutterstock