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Is There a Link between Mental Illness and Comedy Genius?

by Lauren M Foster about a year ago in celebrities
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by Lauren M Foster

Tony Hancock by Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Is There a Link between Mental Illness and Comedy Genius?

Have you heard the one about the man who goes to his Doctor and asks him what he can do to ease his depression? ‘Go to the Circus,’ says the Doctor, ‘Watch the clown. Have a good belly laugh.’ The man starts to cry. ‘But Doctor,’ he says, ‘I am the Circus clown.’

Mental illness and comedy certainly appear to have a history that goes back as far as comedy itself. ‘The way men treat each other makes me so depressed,’ states Alceste, the melancholy protagonist of The Misanthrope, Moliere’s 1666 comedy of manners. Moliere – arguably the father of contemporary comedy – himself suffered from bouts of deep depression and The Misanthrope is considered by some scholars to be semi-autobiographical.

Maybe humour develops as a way to attempt to stave of the furthest depths of the abyss- and perhaps that defence mechanism offers a unique vantage point from which to observe the absurdity of the human condition. Certainly, many of those widely regarded as comic geniuses have been known to suffer from mental ill health.

Spike Milligan – an original, influential comedic writer and lifelong sufferer of bi-polar disorder, experienced several major breakdowns throughout his career. During one bout of mania, Milligan suffered severe paranoid delusions and became convinced his close friend, comedian Peter Sellers was out to get him. Milligan apparently crashed through Seller’s glass patio door while brandishing a vegetable knife, screaming ‘I have come to kill Peter Sellers!’ Many more incidents of this nature were said to have occurred throughout Milligan’s life.

One of Britain’s most acclaimed comedians of the 1950s, Tony Hancock, struggled with depression for a large portion of his life. Hancock had major radio and TV success with Hancock’s Half Hour which ran for from 1954 to 1961. Said to be a perfectionist, he never enjoyed the same level of success after the show came to a close, and his out-of-control alcoholism began to adversely affect his performance. His second marriage to Freda ‘Freddie’ Ross ended in divorce in 1968. A few days after the divorce was finalized, Hancock committed suicide in a Sydney hotel room at the age of 44.

Steven Fry and Ruby Wax are two contemporary comedians who have spoken publicly about their experience of mental illness. The stigma attached to mental illness can often prevent people seeking help and both Fry and Wax work to promote a better understanding through their associations with organizations such as MIND, and the recently de-funded Time to Change campaign, which aimed to encourage honest and open discourse with regards to mental illness.

In addition, in 2006, Stephen Fry wrote and presented a documentary series The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, and a follow up, The Not So Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, aired in February 2016. Ruby Wax explores her dark times and puts them to good comedic effect in her excellent TED talk: What’s So Funny about Mental Illness?

Research, published in 2014 in the British Journal of Psychiatry, suggests that comedians – to a greater extent than other groups – tend to have unusual, introverted personalities with thought patterns and beliefs similar to the symptoms of bi-polar and schizophrenia. While it may be jumping to conclusions to say that this is true of all comedians, and conversely, that all of those who suffer with poor mental health have great comic talent, it would seem that adverse mental health has shaped comedy as we know it.

I will leave the last word on the matter to John Hegley, a poet and comedian who has battled depression. The New Statesman once described him as: ‘one of the funniest men alive’.

Mental Health Poem by John Hegley (1999)

When he went out of his mind

we helped him find

the key to get back in.

It was behind the dustbin.

The one that had it in for him

Find this poem and an interview with John Hegley at

https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/arts-i-think-i-ll-go-and-eat-worms-1045108.html

Ruby Wax’s TED Talk What’s So Funny About Mental Illness? https://www.ted.com/talks/ruby_wax_what_s_so_funny_about_mental_illness?language=en

If you have been affected by any of the issues in this article the following organizations may be of help (UK only):

MIND https://www.mind.org.uk infoline 0300 123 3393

Rethink Your Mind https://www.rethink.org Freephone 0808 801 0525

Samaritans https://www.samaritans.org call 116 123 for free anytime from any phone

Bipolar UK https://www.bipolaruk.org

Living With Schizophrenia https://livingwithschizophreniauk.org

SANEline http://www.sane.org.uk/what_we_do/support/helpline

Anxiety UK https://www.anxietyuk.org.uk

Depression UK https://depressionuk.org

NHS phone 111 https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/advice-for-life-situations-and-events/where-to-get-urgent-help-for-mental-health/

All links and numbers correct at the time of going to press, May 2021.

This article first appeared in The Demon Mental Health Issue 2016 and has been amended.

celebrities

About the author

Lauren M Foster

Writer, artist and musician based in Charnwood. Drummer and vocalist in The Cars that Ate Paris, a garage-punk band.

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