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Is Comedy a Crazy Profession? Researchers Say Stand-Ups Have Psychotic Traits


Robert De Niro stars in "The King of Comedy"

Photograph by Everett Collection

Robert De Niro stars in "The King of Comedy"

University of Oxford researchers have added a new group of creative professionals to the age-old debate about the link between mental illness and creativity: comedians.

A study published online Thursday by the British Journal of Psychiatry purports to show that funnymen and funny women score high for personality traits that, in the extreme, are associated with psychotic disorders.

Here’s how the researchers described their mission: “The poet and writer Antonin Artaud, who himself experienced serious mental illness, wrote, ‘No one has ever written, painted or sculpted, modeled, built or invented except literally to get out of hell.’ Against this background we set out to test the hypothesis that comedians would resemble other creative individuals in showing a higher level of psychotic characteristics, both schizophrenic and manic depressive.”

Their research is built on self-assessments by 523 comedians drawn largely from the U.K., the U.S., and Australia. About 85 percent of the participants described themselves as “stand-up” comedians. The study included a control group of 364 actors, providing potential fodder for running battles in TV writers’ rooms around the world. (The authors said a limitation of their work was that they couldn’t assess the importance of the fact that comedians mostly write their own material, while actors don’t.)

The self-assessment completed by participants is called an O-LIFE Questionnaire. It’s a four-scale test designed to tap and measure psychotic traits. The results: Comedians did indeed show a high level of traits that, in their extreme, could predispose people to psychotic illness. But what the authors found most surprising was that, unlike actors, comedians scored highly across every area of the test—including for personality traits that seem to contradict each other, such as those of introverts and extroverts.

It’s possible, the authors said, to envision how these “various features combine synergistically to facilitate comedic performance.” They quoted one participant who compared a comic’s brain to a Google (GOOG) search:

“Comedians train their brains to think in wide associative patterns. This relates to joke writing, where the word ‘bicycle’ brings up a picture of a bicycle in the mind of a noncomedian, but for the comedian it’s like running a search on the Internet—everything related pops up, from images of fat people riding bicycles naked and getting chafed to the fact that Lance Armstrong has only one testicle.”

Of course, the study is just out, so we will have to wait for researchers to dissect the methods and findings. But the professionals already are chiming in. As British stand-up Susan Murray said on BBC Radio 4′s Today program: “It doesn’t take a genius to work out that comedians are a little bit nuts.”

Simpson is a senior international correspondent for Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Businessweek in London. Follow him at @CamSimpsonNews.

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