Behind the Laughter

14/08/2014  -  10.41

Paul McDonald

There is much research linking creativity and madness - we all know about Van Gogh and Sylvia Plath – but mental illness blights the lives of comedians too; indeed, the image of the sad clown is one of the oldest clichés in the book. It is epitomised by the tale Groucho Marx tells of a patient who goes to see his psychiatrist with depression: the psychiatrist advises him to go to the circus and cheer himself up by watching the world famous clown, Grock. The patient replies, ‘I AM Grock.’

Certainly comedy is associated with manic depression and some of our most respected comics have been high profile sufferers. Spike Milligan was tormented by extreme depression for most of his life, and Stephen Fry has done much to raise awareness of depression as an illness. Other victims include; Caroline Aherne, Woody Allen, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Frankie Howard, Bill Oddie, Peter Sellers, Sarah Silverman, David Walliams, Ruby Wax, and Kenneth Williams, to name just a few.

This often has tragic consequences, and the list of comedians who have died as a result of drugs, alcohol or suicide is also depressingly substantial: John Belushi, Lenny Bruce, Richard Jeni, and Tony Hancock are among the best known, and the recent death of Robin Williams has once again raised the issue of a link between comedy and mental illness. While by no means applicable to all comedians, the evidence for a relationship is strong.

Why is that?

To some extent it might be explained by the nature of humour itself. All humour is informed by incongruity – i.e. by the juxtaposition of things that don’t normally go together - and it is possible that some forms of mental illness are conducive to incongruous thinking. Research by Professor Gordon Claridge of the University of Oxford, for instance, suggests that mild forms of schizophrenic psychosis “can increase people’s ability to associate odd or unusual things or to think ‘outside the box.’” In other words mental illness is associated with the capacity to entertain the kind of absurd and bizarre contrasts that are fundamental to comedy; likewise, “manic thinking, which is common in people with bipolar disorder, may help people combine ideas to form new, original and humorous connections.”

Mental illness can actually facilitate comic thinking then, and comedians are often people who are aware of this and learn to use it to their advantage. Many create comic personas around their own pathological state of mind:  consider Woody Allen’s neuroses, Tony Hancock’s lugubriousness, or Robin Williams’s mania. Such comedians offer perspectives on the world that are entertainingly at odds with conventional ways of thinking and behaving. The disparity between normal and abnormal is inherently funny for audiences who can enjoy the spectacle of their pathology from a safe distance - anxiety, alienation, cynicism, depression, mania, misanthropy and paranoia are all potentially hilarious when they are happening to someone else.

Dr Paul McDonald is Senior Lecturer in English and Course Leader for Creative and Professional Writing.
He is the author of thirteen books, including three novels and three collections of poetry. His work on humour includes, Laughing at the Darkness (2010), and The Philosophy of Humour (2012). He takes perverse pleasure from the fact that Googling ‘the oldest joke in the world’ generates several hundred pages with his name on.