Are comedians really depressed? Or is sadness just funny?

Entry 9: Are comedians really depressed?

Photo by VvoeVale/Thinkstock, photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

Photo by VvoeVale/Thinkstock. Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo.

The Laugh Factory, one of the biggest comedy clubs in L.A., has an in-house therapy program. Two nights a week, comics meet with psychologists in a private office upstairs, discussing their problems while lying on a therapy couch formerly owned by Groucho Marx. “Eighty percent of comedians come from a place of tragedy,” explains Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada. “They didn’t get enough love. They have to overcome their problems by making people laugh.”

Masada isn’t the only one who believes most comics are tragic creatures. One of the most enduring stereotypes in all of comedy is of the road-weary, alcohol-soaked, and/or drug-addled comedian. Certainly there is a long line of victims: Lenny Bruce overdosed on drugs while stand-up icon Mort Sahl lost himself in obsession over the John F. Kennedy assassination; Richard Pryor set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine. Even these days, for every seemingly stable and disciplined comic like Pete Holmes and Chris Hardwick, there’s a loose cannon like Katt Williams, who has a history of confronting hecklers at his shows and has been arrested repeatedly for assault and other crimes, or someone with a tumultuous backstory like Darrell Hammond, who says he dabbled in alcohol, drugs, and cutting because he was abused as a child. No wonder that when McGraw and his team at his Humor Research Lab ran an online study asking people what they thought of comedians, 43 percent said they believed there was something wrong with them, and 34 percent said comics are on the whole “messed up” in some way.

The notion that comedians are unhinged can be traced back to the beginnings of the art form. Some historians believe Charley Case, an African-American vaudeville performer, gave birth to stand-up when, in the 1880s or ’90s, he starting performing comic monologues without props or costuming, something that hadn’t been done before. While Case enjoyed relative success at the time, he lived a troubled life. He suffered a nervous breakdown and died in 1916 at the Palace Hotel on 45th Street in New York “while cleaning his revolver,” as reports later put it.

Does success in the comedy industry really depend on psychological instability? Is there scientific proof that it helps to be a bit crazy in order to be funny?

In the early 1980s, husband-and-wife psychotherapist team Seymour and Rhoda Fisher looked into the matter. The Fishers made a name for themselves crusading against overmedicating children and, in their book The Female Orgasm, connecting women’s sexual proclivities to their relationship with their father and their food preferences. Now they were fascinated with the idea that comedians were what they called “schlemiel children,” kids who’d become class clowns because of stressful home lives. They conducted detailed psychological examinations, including Rorschach inkblot tests, of more than 40 professional comedians, among them Sid Caesar, Jackie Mason, and Tommy Smothers. Sure enough, according to their book Pretend the World Is Funny and Forever, the analyses revealed that most of the comedians grew up in chaotic households with critical, indifferent mothers, leading them to become obsessed with notions of good and evil, angels and demons. As the Fishers note in their book, “We would propose that a major motive of comedians in conjuring up funniness is to prove that they’re not bad or repugnant. They are obsessed with defending their basic goodness.”

While many psychologists now question the validity of using inkblot tests, there is contemporary evidence that supports the Fishers’ findings. A recent article in the British Journal of Psychiatry detailed the results of 523 American, British, and Australian comedians’ self-assessment tests measuring psychotic personality traits. The researchers found that the comics did tend to score significantly higher for psychotic traits than the general population. (A control group of actors who took the test also scored higher than normal for psychotic traits but not as high as comedians.)

But the story might not be so simple. Gil Greengross, an anthropologist from the University of New Mexico, has been subjecting stand-up comics to a greater variety of tests over the years, and he reports different findings. He’s found that comedians on the whole don’t report having more childhood problems than is typical among university students, nor do they appear to be more neurotic. He did find that they tend to be slightly more introverted and disagreeable than others, an odd finding considering that they’re always making jokes in front of crowds. But as Greengross notes, “The personalities they project on stage might not be their personalities in daily life.”

So then why do so many people assume successful comics are troubled? Maybe the problem isn’t with the comics, it’s with the act of creating comedy. Comedians are constantly disclosing problems and discussing taboo topics—because that’s what’s funny. According to McGraw’s theory of humor, the benign violation theory, humor arises when something seems wrong or threatening but is simultaneously OK or safe. If comedians are going to mine their lives for material, they’re naturally going to start by looking for violations—the foibles, neuroses, and bad behaviors that are great for a laugh (and might make others think they’ve got a screw loose).

To test his theory, McGraw recruited grad student Erin Percival Carter and Colorado State University professor Jennifer Harman to run an experiment in which they had 40 people come up with a short story they might tell to others at a get-together. Half were asked to recount a funny story while the others just had to be entertaining. Among the humorous stories were tales of a dog swallowing a box of tampons, a guy getting caught singing in the men’s room to Cyndi Lauper’s “Time after Time,” and someone deciding one drunken night to let a buddy burn a lightning bolt into his forehead so he’d look like Harry Potter. (Merely interesting stories included one about driving around in a homemade off-road truck and another about trying out for New Jersey’s first pro ultimate frisbee team.) When others read the stories and chose which authors seemed the most “messed up,” the funny storytellers were rated significantly more disturbed than the others.

So perhaps comedians aren’t much more disturbed than anyone else—they’re just in the business of telling the world about their foibles. That is, except for the Harry Potter lightning bolt guy. He clearly needs professional help.

Next up: Are men really funnier than women?

This series is adapted from The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny.