Are comedians more prone to mental health issues than everyone else? | Alice Fraser has some thoughts...

Are comedians more prone to mental health issues than everyone else?

Alice Fraser has some thoughts...

I have a theory.  I’m not sure artists are inherently any more tortured than anyone else. They just articulate it more honestly; there’s just no value to the business in a banker articulating their psychological distress. 

I say this having been (briefly) a corporate lawyer (oh the briefs!). That’s an industry with extremely bad rates of bad mental health outcomes, and yet I’m constantly coming across the tortured comedian/damaged artist trope from both audience members and comedians themselves. 

So, apparently, comedy is a risky business. Or maybe ‘we’re all going to die!’ Or rather, to avoid confusing causation and correlation; for whatever reason, a recent crunching of numbers seems to indicate that (famous) stand-up comedians tend to die earlier than their (famous) actor colleagues. 

Can I make it through this article without grabbing for flaccid jokes over the fact that comedy slang is all graphic, violent and lethal? Discussing the mortality and statistically early death of comedians who fret every day about ‘dying’ on stage is the obvious weak pun that you might deploy to keep a news piece sounding chatty, while it delivers its sweet payload of under-researched facts. 

Comedians die earlier (than actors), and the funnier (or more famously funnier) ones die quicker. Obviously, its important to compare stand-up comedians with comic actors, because if you were comparing them with, for example, miners in third world countries, it would be less a peppy and entertaining statistic, and more an accurate and depressing reflection on the distribution of privilege in the modern world. Boo. Who wants that in their Twitter feed? 

Quicker than you could boringly call it ‘no laughing matter’, the news-cycle gets all over statistical correlation and blows facts out of the water. It’s a prime click-bait science story made for the modern think-piece spore-spaff phenomenon. There’s one sort of fact, with a bit of speculation attached, and a million opinions bloom fungally in the nutrient rich undergrowth of people avoiding their day-jobs. 

Is it that comedians are crying-on-the-inside clowns, while actors are saner? I doubt it. I’d probably point to a lifestyle in comedy that compounds sadness. Where actors tend to work with other people closely through their careers, the more successful you are as a comedian, the more likely you are to be doing long tours more or less on your own, left to come down off a performance high in a hotel bar with three groupies who want nothing more than to get drunk with their hero. I’m not saying that’s not a recipe for depression; I’m just saying you could put an investment banker on tour, and they’d end up about as miserable.

Yes it’s ironic that the people who bring laughter to the people also often suffer from addiction, depression and anxiety. If by ironic you mean obvious, considering that people who have laughter in their lives don’t constantly feel compelled to force laughter to happen in strangers and then pathologically collect all the things they said to make that laughter, and then travel to different locations to try to make those words do the same laugh-makey thing to other strangers. 

As a side note, the demographics of the study that compared the longevity of actors and comedians were pretty obvious and depressing: According to Discover Magazine the cohort study of industry wide mental health included 200 stand-up comedians (13 per cent women), 113 comedy actors (17.5 per cent women), and 184 dramatic actors (29.3 per cent women) listed in the top 200 in each category in a popular online ranking website. Longevity within each group was examined adjusting for life expectancy by year of birth and within-group ranking score.

I mean, those numbers taste about right, when I feel them in the back of my throat like an argument for equality that everyone’s agreeing enthusiastically with before going to watch eight men and one woman on a line-up show. 

But maybe it’s just that women have a better survival instinct than men? Women are indeed statistically underrepresented in a lot of risky dirty work. Do comedy and acting seem unappealing to women because of their inherent risk? Hm, very good point, and probably… but what does that do to the stereotype that women are heaps better at talking about things than men - you’re right, it’s absolutely sexism. Again. It’s mostly always sexism. Sexism is the butler in the whodunit of why so many things are shit.  

I’m not trying to defend comedians here as bastions of sanity in a world gone mad. Comedy is difficult because it’s irregular, and it does attract its fair share of people who desperately need love, and people who can’t hold down a stable job. The funniest comedians are outsiders, who are constitutionally incapable of comfort in the world they perceive around them; compulsive truth-tellers and compulsive liars. 

But I think plenty of people in plenty of jobs have pathological issues. It’s just that when you take a person of about average fragility and introduce them into the ecosystem of the comedy industry, there are some stress factors that are particularly good at breaking down a normal level of human resilience. 

The rewards you receive in comedy have very little to do with how much work you’re doing at any given moment – you can slog away for ten years on the circuit, and some fresh young thing gets a television contract six months into a career that is by definition, ab initio better than yours will ever be. They also then graduate to comedic actor and get another few years tacked onto their projected life span.

 You can charge $5,000 for a 20 minute corporate gig slinging gags in a quiet room at some bank Christmas party, or get $200 for a 45 minute headline spot in a club. And the club might feel like more fun, or better work. 

It’s no surprise that the ups and downs of comedy cause or correlate with bad health outcomes. Late nights, irregular hours, motel coffee, terrible wracking self-doubt. Success in standup is a moment of bright thrill in a spotlight that doesn’t last more than an hour, and melts immediately back into airy self-doubt. And then there’s death. 

Death on stage. Failure and humiliation bundled together into a stinging package. The feeling of dying on stage when you’re a stand-up is something you remember forever in cringing late night moments or when people compliment you or when you look into the eyes of your firstborn child and feel overwhelming joy. 

And then you remember that charity gig where the audience turned on you five minutes in but then you had to MC for an hour and a half and then there was a raffle and they made you call the raffle. You will remember that forever, or at least until you actually die. Actually, death can’t come soon enough, if you ask me. At least investment bankers don’t have to do a raffle. 

Alice Fraser’s new stand up show Mythos will be at the Gilded Balloon Billiard Room in Edinburgh from July 31,

Published: 19 Jul 2019

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