The sad clowns... | Comedians who have had mental health issues

The sad clowns...

Comedians who have had mental health issues

New research has found that comedians tend to have personality types linked to psychosis: a mix of introvert and extrovert characteristics with tendencies to be depressive and unsociable. While the psychologists admit some of these traits help the comic mind think ‘outside the box’, it also fuels the ‘tears of clown’ image of a tortured comedian. And here are ten comedians who fit that picture, with well-publicised mental health issues…

Spike Milligan

Spike Milligan was one of the first famous people to talk frankly about his battle with manic depression, most notably in the November 1970 documentary The Other Spike. He also co-wrote a book called Depression and How to Survive It with Dr Anthony Clare. Episodes he suffered included storming backstage into a theatre vowing to kill Bill Owen and attacking a stage doorman with a walking stick – while he would also lock himself in his office for days on end when depression hit. He attributed his problems back to shell-shock during the Second World War – although his father was also prone to mood swings – and said of his illness: ‘Early days, I had no control over it, but it’s like getting used to a hump on your back.’

Stephen Fry

Stephen Fry has also spoken openly about his battles with the black dog of depression, and in an interview with Richard Herring last year revealed he had made a second suicide attempt, no more successful than the first in 1995. His condition became public when he fled the West End show Cell Mates, after which he was diagnosed bipolar. ‘I’d never heard the word before, but for the first time, at the age of 37, I had a diagnosis that explains the massive highs and miserable lows I've lived with all my life,’ he said. He too made a documentary, The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive.

Tony Hancock

In 1968, at the age of 44, Tony Hancock took his own life in a flat in Sydney, vodka and amphetamines by his side. In one of his suicide notes he wrote: ‘Things just seemed to go too wrong too many times.’ It was the sad end to a career that, although wildly successful, let to bouts of crippling self-doubt for the over-analytical Hancock, who became an alcoholic. He also had an egotism that led him to ditch all his collaborators: Bill Kerr, Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques, Sid James and scriptwriters, Galton and Simpson

Kenneth Williams

Depressive, neurotic and a sufferer of obsessive compulsive disorder (he refused to let house guests use his toilet), the full extent of Williams’s private angst was revealed when his diaries were published after he died in 1988 from an overdose of barbituates. Although an open verdict was recorded at the inquest, his final diary entry was: ‘Oh what's the bloody point?’ Another entry, from 1966, sums up his misery: ‘There are no words to express the deep unhappiness that possesses me. I have no privacy in the streets, always there is the moron's nudge or cretin's wink to make me hasten away - always there is the emptiness of existence to which I return.’ And in a TV interview he said: ‘I certainly wouldn't call myself a happy human being. All the comedians I've known have been deeply depressive people, manic depressive.’

Ruby Wax

Ruby Wax has experienced episodes of depression for most of her life and in 2007 found herself hospitalised with what she calls ‘the tsunami of all depressions’. She has written widely about the subject, including a live show, as part of her campaign to take the stigma out of mental illness. ‘The trouble is, nobody wants to talk about it. And that makes everything worse,’ she said. ‘We need to take the stigma out of mental illness. People shouldn't be ashamed of it. It used to be the C-word - cancer - that people wouldn't discuss. Now it's the M -word. I hope pretty soon it'll be okay for everyone to talk openly about their mental health without fear of being treated differently.’

Paul Merton

Shortly before becoming famous on Have I Got News for You, Merton booked himself into the Maudsley psychiatric hospital for six weeks,which he put down to overwork aggravated by anti-malaria pill. He said he had been hallucinating conversations with friends, and became convinced he was a target for the Freemasons. Of his problems, he said: ’I’ve never felt any shame or stigma, but I know a lot of people do, and that's hard. We can be too harsh on ourselves. If we're mentally ill it's not our fault, it's just a chemical imbalance, or the pressure of how life has treated us recently, or whatever.’

John Cleese

John Cleese spoke about his depression in the 1993 book he co-wrote, Families And How To Survive Them. He said: ‘Life seemed almost pointless. I felt very cut off from everything - including my body… I felt rather isolated. Also, I seemed to be fighting the feeling instead of accepting it. And the sense of humour was an early casualty. In fact, when I began to be able to laugh at it all, it began to clear.’

Caroline Aherne

The Royle Family, creator has been dogged with mental health problems, including agoraphobia and a 1995 suicide attempt bought on by severe depression. She later said: ‘There was my divorce, my dad dying, Matt [her boyfriend)] dying and I was trying to cope with being famous. It was too much for me.’ She sought treatment for alcoholism in the Priory and reportedly underwent electric shock treatment, which helped her recover.

Russell Brand

Recovering drug addict Russell Brand would identify with many of the manic traits confirmed in the new research, but he reluctant to ascribe his personality to any sort of mental illness. ‘I know I have dramatically changing moods, and I know sometimes I feel really depressed, but I think that’s just life,’ he wrote in his autobiography My Booky Wook. ‘I don’t think of it as “Ah, this is mental illness”, more as, “Today life makes me feel very said.” I know I also get unnaturally high levels of energy and quickness of thought, but I’m able to utilise that’

David Walliams

The Little Britain star has grappled with suicidal depression, too, speaking of ‘periods of intense self-loathing’ and revealing how he tried to take his life several times, the first when he was aged just 12.. He said his condition came from ‘over-thinking’ and having an over-active mind. Writing in his autobiography, Camp David, he said: ‘'Wanting to die has always been in me.’ And on Desert Island Discs in 2009, he said he would want a gun as his luxury item so he could kill himself due to his fear of being alone.

Published: 16 Jan 2014

What do you think?

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.