Inside the comedian's mind

Richard Herring talks to The Psychologist...

Comedians tend to be overbearing control freaks with an 'innate confidence' that sometimes tips into self-delusion, according to Richard Herring.

The double Chortle Award-winner gave his analysis of the comic psyche for the new edition of The Psychologist magazine – saying that the intense self-belief is shared by great comics and terrible newcomers alike.

'The best and the worst performers have the same psychology,’ he said: ‘Whatever happens, they seem to think they are brilliant. The genius comedians will go on stage, no one will laugh, and they will still come come off and say “I was fantastic”. The worst comedians will do exactly the same.'

He added that some comics are ‘very insecure’, combined with the overbearing nature, adding: ‘There is a real autonomy to stand-up and you get used to controlling everything.

Herring also told psychologist Richard Wiseman: 'In my experience, there is no relationship between being funny onstage and offstage. Lots of comedians are competitive with each other, and want to be the funniest person in the room. I believe that Frank Carson never turned off, but to me that sounds like a nightmare.'

A study quoted elsewhere in the magazine supports his view. The American research found evidence that comics' private selves are distinct from their public personas, with the comedians also scoring higher on introversion than others. 'Perhaps comedians use their performance to disguise who they are in their daily life' researchers suggested. Comedians also scored highly in openness, but relatively low in conscientiousness, agreeableness and - perhaps surprisingly – neuroticism.

Herring, who is currently writing a ‘surreal, satirical and slightly insane’ historical sitcom about Rasputin, reveals that 'what interests me and slightly terrifies me about comedy is the way that much of it, for me at least, is about dancing on the edge of the abyss of madness.

'In accessing the subconscious and trying to deliberately think about everyday things from unusual and unexpected angles there is occasionally an overlap with what would be considered mentally ill behaviour if it wasn't being done on purpose.'

Having evoked mental illness in his improvised podcast Me1 v Me2 Snooker, in which he recreates his lonely childhood by playing himself at snooker and commentating as he plays, Herring reflects that 'I am doing this for humorous effect and am largely in control of the situation but as the game and the podcast are improvised I find they often say things that I am not expecting.

'I take on multiple personalities, all me, in the podcast and am aware that there are parallels with schizophrenia, albeit playful and pretend ones. Though I fear that by playing with madness I might tip over the edge, like in the classic Tweedledum episode of the TV series Colditz, in which a prisoner fakes mental illness in order to get sent home, but actually succumbs to it over months of pretence.

Most comedy, 'involves inhabiting a false or exaggerated character of some kind and sometimes comedians do fall over the edge of the cliff, or at least seem to be affected in reality by their fantasy persona. I’d be interested in seeing some research into this, as well has having someone check that I am still sane. And yet I fear that tampering with the delicate balance might throw off the funniness. I don’t know if I want to be cured.'

The April issue of The Psychologist also includes coverage of research suggesting that wittier people are 'seen as particularly attractive for a short-term fling'; an investigation into the psychology behind socially awkward, Larry David-style moments; interviews with stand-up and neuroscientist Dean Burnett and comedian and 'cognitive laughter and humour consultant' Stephanie Davies, plus a review of Ricky Gervais' care home comedy Derek.

It is out today, and it can be purchased here.

Meanwhile, it was also announced today that Richard Herring's Edinburgh Fringe Podcast will return as part of The Stand's festival line-up.

- by Jay Richardson

Published: 1 Apr 2013

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