Does comedy kill? Stark survival rates no laughing matter
Thursday, 18 December 2014
An early death appears to be a common phenomenon among comedians but is it true?
The recent suicide of comedian Robin Williams reminds us that behind a seemingly happy on-stage persona, can often lie darkness and distress. An early death appears to be a common phenomenon among comedians in general – just think of Rik Mayall, Tony Hancock or Peter Sellers.
But it is this actually true or just anecdote?
Researchers from the Mary MacKillop Institute of Health Research (MMIHR) at Australian Catholic University (ACU) set out to investigate this very question. Their research, published in the International Journal of Cardiology, found that the funniest comedians are most at risk of premature death and reduced longevity, compared to their less funny counterparts.
Researchers Professor Simon Stewart and Professor David Thompson examined 53 male British and Irish comedians born between 1900 and 1954. The comedians included both individuals and those in comedy partnerships such as Morecombe and Wise or Monty Python.
All comedians were given a subjective score from 1 (relatively funny) to 10 (hilariously funny), as chosen by the researchers and a popular ranking website. Researchers termed those with the highest ranking scores as ‘elite comedians’.
Of the 23 elite comedians examined, researchers found that 18 (78 per cent) had suffered a premature death, compared to 12 (40 per cent) that are still alive. The mean age of death for the elite group is 63 years.
Within a comedy team, researchers discovered that the difference in survival rates was stark – the designated funny members of the team were found to be three times more likely to die sooner than the ‘stooge’. For example, Ernie Wise, the ‘straight man’ of Morecombe and Wise, lived to 73, while his funnier partner, Eric Morecambe, died aged 58.
Co-author Professor Simon Stewart, Director of the MMIHR, said that the research team were surprised by the strength of their findings.
“As we reach the festive part of the year, it is sobering to think that many of the people who make us laugh the most are vulnerable to emotional and psychological distress that leaves them at risk of a premature death” said Professor Stewart.
Professor Stewart said that mental health issues such as mania and depression and distinct personality traits that help shape the talents of elite comedians may well explain their reduced longevity.
“The fate of our elite comedians reminds us of the importance of achieving a balance between our mental and physical well-being. Many of the people we think of as most vibrant and strong in their public persona may be struggling at the personal level.”
Professor Stewart said that the study’s findings could help identify the risk factors for early death and help mitigate the likelihood of premature death for comedians.
“These striking data might also have relevance to comedians in other countries and cultures as well as provide further insights into the mental health and longevity of the general population – particularly those who share the same characteristics as our elite comedians”.
“Ultimately, our comedians may well pay a high individual price for making us all laugh – knowing that laughter is good medicine overall and we would be the poorer for not having them as a key component of our community” Professor Stewart concluded.