Shy, vain and unsociable

Scientists' portrait of the modern comedian

Comedians are becoming increasingly shy and self-obsessed according to new academic research.

Behavioural psychologists interviewed 40 comics and found that they were less agreeable and conscientious than average people, and demonstrated little human empathy.

‘Great comedy requires a nasty streak that pushes people out of their comfort zone,’ the scientists say in their paper, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

The study said that previous generations of comedians were often riddled with self-doubt or haunted by personal demons – while today’s breed are more likely to be driven by a desire for professional and financial success.

The scientists at the University of New Mexico tested the personality traits of 31 professional stand-ups – 28 male and three female – nine amateurs, ten comedy writers and 400 college students.

The results indicate d that comics were more introverted and suspicious that the wider population, with the writers more open, conscientious, extravert and agreeable than the performers.

All four groups showed similar levels of neuroticism, confounding at least one stereotype of comedians.

The participants had to rate how much or how little they agreed with 60 statements such as ‘I think it’s interesting to develop new hobbies’, ‘at times I have felt bitter and resentful’ and ‘poetry has little or no effect on me’.

One of the authors of the research, anthropologist Gil Greengross, told The Sunday Times: ‘The comedy scene has changed a lot since the days of people like Peter Sellers. Thousands of professional comedians are trying to make a living and it’s a tough job.

‘They perform on stage three or four times a week but other than that they are pretty much by themselves. That might explain why they do have introverted personalities .

‘They have become more ruthless and are trying to push comedy to the edge.’

Published: 17 May 2009

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