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Sad Clowns

Updated on February 10, 2014

The Sad Clown

A recent British study has asserted that “comedians” seem more prone to conditions similar to bipolar disorder which could be the secret to being funny.

The British Journal of Psychiatry has found that comedians may be more disposed to “high levels of psychotic personality.” Research suggests that an “unusual personality structure” with traits similar to bipolar disorder could be the secret to being funny.

The researchers said the belief that creativity is associated with madness has increasingly been researched by psychologists and psychiatrists, yet added: “comedy and humour have been largely neglected.”

According to the report famous comedians, past and present, such as Stephen Fry, Spike Milligan, Ruby Wax, Paul Merton and David Walliams have all talked openly about their experiences with mental health problems.

The idea of the sad clown is not a revelation. Depressiveness and/or erratic behaviour have both been linked to comic performers on both sides of the pond. Also, there have been drug and alcohol dependency linked to famous comedic talents such as Richard Pryor and John Belushi.

Therefore, the question begs does depression draw people towards comedy as a coping mechanism? Many famous comics have had challenging childhoods.

As a form of entertainment comedy is often self-deprecating. In ancient Greece, audiences would laugh at the fool getting things hopelessly wrong. Even nowadays, there is humour in misfortune.


The study asserts that comedians have "high levels of psychotic personality traits".

523 comedians filled out a questionnaire, and their results were compared with the results of actors and a group of people in non-creative industries.

The questionnaire measured four personality aspects:

  • The belief in unusual events involving telepathy and paranormal events.
  • The difficulty in focusing thoughts or distractibility.
  • An avoidance of intimacy,
  • A tendency towards impulsive and anti-social behaviour.

On these four measures the comedians scored particularly high on personality traits such as being unsociable and depressive as well as displaying more extrovert manic-like traits, which are the symptoms of bipolar

The research found stand-up comedians can be separated from other stage performers such as actors, because they were more introverted.

“These personality profiles could explain how each relates to their respective audiences and what motivates them to do so,” it said.

The study is interesting, and invites more discussion as to why comedians can be be prone to melancholia, a form of narcissism.

The idea of the sad clown is not a revelation.

Here is my Top Ten list of famous and talented comic performers, who have suffered mental health issues.

1.Tony Hancock. He was post-war Britain’s most popular comedian. Both his radio and TV series Hancock’s Half Hour would clear the streets as whole families tuned in to listen. Pubs would clear so people could catch the show.

Hancock’s peerless timing and subtle changes in intonation marked him as a comic genius, ahead of his time amongst the backdrop of old time variety acts and setting the precedent for furure comedians. Behind Tony Hancock’s success, however, hid the self-destructive behaviour that plagued him all his life. His private life was wracked by his ever increasing alcoholism and bouts of self-doubt, anxiety and depression. He destroyed friendships and eventually destroyed himself. His ratings fell and, feeling washed up and alone after divorcing his second wife, he committed suicide in an Australian hotel room in 1968.

2. Peter Sellers. He was another giant of comedy first starring in British radio and TV programmes before becoming an international star. He was a master of disguise and accents and his Inspector Clouseau from the Pink Panther films was inspired comic genius. In private, however, he was a complicated soul, who could be mean and vindictive behaviour towards others, even his own children. However, recent research states that it is likely that Peter Sellers was mentally ill and suffered from manic depression and crippling anxiety. He famously became dependent on alcohol and drugs and claimed that “Peter Sellers did not exist outside his film roles”. He died of a heart attack in 1980 aged just 54.

3. Kenneth Williams was a hugely popular member of the Carry On team but his private life was not so funny: he was a depressive loner and highly neurotic whose obsessive compulsive disorder made him refuse to let guests use his toilet. He was a homosexual who lived a life of celibacy, who loathed his homophobic father as a child but doted on his theatrical mother.

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."

On his death it was apparent he regularly wrote a diary where he recorded his sometimes bleak thoughts. In 1966 he wrote: "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."

He died aged just 62 in April 1988 from an overdose of barbiturates which recorded an open verdict at the inquest into his death, because of his suicidal thoughts. His final entry in his diary was: "Oh what's the bloody point?"

4.Jim Carrey. Carrey grew up in Canada in an eccentric and alcoholic family, where everyone had to pitch in for rent. When his father lost his job, the family sank into poverty and had to live in a van. Carrey had to work which ended his High School education. He got very depressed and would not talk to anyone. At one point when his mother was sick, he used to throw himself against the walls and let himself fall on the stairs.

He became a stand-up comedian first facing a hostile audience but masochistically persevered and he is now incredibly famous for his manic brand of humour. Apparently he has long suffered from from ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), depression and has admittedly taken Prozac during bad spells. He has admitted to a newspaper that depression was the motivation behind the comedies that he produced.

5. Richard Pryor. In many ways, this groundbreaking black American comedy star is a classic example of someone using comedy as a coping means of dealing with adversity. Pryor was born to a prostitute who abandoned him at the age of ten. He went to live in his grandmother's brothel and was subsequentally sexually molested at the age of six by a teenage neighbour and then by a neighbourhood priest. Richard Pryor did not go to therapy (as it was not an option in those days for poor black American kids) but distracted himself from his traumatic life by watching movies. He wanted to be in entertainment and found his niche in comedy where his life provided much material for his routines. But Pryor had personal demons and despite his success he hit the self-destruct button.

Although he was making millions of dollars, and was a huge inspiration for black artists as well as a huge comic influence, he started to use large amounts of drugs. Shortly after the death of his grandmother, in 1980, he attempted to commit suicide by dousing himself with cognac and igniting himself with a cigarette lighter.

Pryor also had a history of violence going back to his youth and when high on cocaine and alcohol, he frequently beat the women he was involved with. He was married six times and confessed he used "relationships like taxis". He was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in later years. In 2005 Pryor died of a heart attack at the age of 65.

6. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. A brilliant comedic partnership which was overshadowed by jealousy, insecurity and alcoholism. Both Cook and Moore had their demons and despite their success with British TV and film audiences in the 1960s, things rapidly went downhill. Moore managed to make it big in Hollywood in films such as Arthur and 10, which drove Cook jealously insane.

Peter Cook was brilliantly clever satirist from a privileged background but could be cruel to the insecure and working-class Moore, who was only 5 foot 2 and born with a club foot. Cook was also an alcoholic depressive who claimed he drank because he was “bored." Cook died in 1995, aged 57, having suffered a gastrointestinal haemorrhage (a direct result of severe liver damage.)

Similarly, Moore too had his demons. Married several times and saddled with crippling self-loathing, he wrote in his diary “The futility of my life and of every sort of activity is overwhelming. The knowledge that the way out of this impasse is hidden from me is intolerable." In, Moore announced that he was suffering from a terminal degenerative brain disorder some of whose early symptoms were so similar to intoxication that he had been accused of being drunk, He died on 27 March 2002, as a result of pneumonia.

7. Stephen Fry has had a life of privilege and a Cambridge education. The British star has also enjoyed unmitigated success as a comic performer, actor, presenter and writer. he constantly features on Briton's most wanted dinner guest due to his erudition and charm. But in 1995, feeling inadequate as a stage actor, he sat in his sealed-up car, and spent two hours wondering if he should turn on the ignition and kill himself with exhaust fumes. He had recently been unable to perform at the West End and famously “disappeared.”

It was only afterwards that he learned, from a doctor, that he was bipolar. He said: "For the first time, at the age of 37, I had a diagnosis that explained the massive highs and miserable lows I've lived with all my life."

8. Caroline Aherne, is an original and immensely talented writer and actress with working-class origins, who shot to fame in the UK with her Mrs Merton persona. She has been garlanded with awards and hailed as a comic genius but has suffered personal problems such as a well-publicised broken marriage, bereavement, a drink problem and a string of failed romances, all of which drove her to a suicide bid in 1995. Aherne has admitted to suffering severe depression and has undergone electro-convulsive therapy.

Speaking of her suicide attempt which involved taking a cocktail of champagne and pills, Aherne said: "I try to piece together what I did and why I did it - but it's just a big blackout. I remember buying champagne and the next thing I woke up in hospital."

In recent years, she has became increasingly reclusive, keeping in touch with only a tiny circle of family and trusted friends.

9. Spike Milligan was an inspired genius, famous in Britain and Australia, who wrote prolifically throughout his life as well as performing. His manic and surreal type of humour hugely inspired Monty Python. He suffered from manic depression for most of his life, particularly after his fighting involvement in the Second World War, having at least ten major breakdowns, several lasting over a year. He spoke candidly about his condition and its effect on his life:

"I have got so low that I have asked to be hospitalised and for deep narcosis (sleep). I cannot stand being awake. The pain is too much... Something has happened to me, this vital spark has stopped burning - I go to a dinner table now and I don't say a word, just sit there like a dodo. Normally I am the centre of attention, keep the conversation going - so that is depressing in itself. It's like another person taking over, very strange. The most important thing I say is 'good evening' and then I go quiet."

Milligan died in 2002 at the age of 84. He managed to outlive his equally tortured friends and comic cohorts Tony Hancock and Peter Sellers. He had endured the ravages of his illness with great bravery and candidness and his amazing creativity contributed hugely to British comedy.

10. Owen Wilson. In 2007 actor and funny man Owen Wilson shocked the world by attempting suicide by slitting his wrists. Fans were astonished because Wilson's actions did not match the lighthearted public persona they saw on the screen, that of the laid-back slacker dude with the Texan drawl. But it seems that Wilson had been suffering from depression and it was speculated that his suicide attempt was because of the fall-out of the end of his romance with actress Kate Hudson. He was unable to work and his role in Tropic Thunder, directed by long-time friend Ben Stiller was given to Matthew McConaughey while Wilson recovered.

Wilson thinks of himself more of a writer than a star. He wrote the screenplay for The Royal Tenebaums and he suggests that there is more depth to his personaility than his on-screen persona suggests.

"I think of myself as a doom person. I'm a worrier. But I like the idea of being an optimist. Maybe I'm the kind of optimist who deep down knows it's not going to work."

Tony Hancock

Richard Pryor


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    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 

      4 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama


      You are very welcome. I meant every word.

    • RachaelLoxston profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachael Loxston 

      4 years ago from Worcestershire, UK

      Thank you x

    • kenneth avery profile image

      Kenneth Avery 

      4 years ago from Hamilton, Alabama

      Oh, Rachael,

      This hub IS PERFECT. Honestly.

      I love this hub. And here are the reasons why:

      1. This is an excellent piece of writing. Honestly, it is amazing.

      2, I loved every word.

      3. Graphics, superb.

      4. This hub was helpful, informative and very interesting.

      5. Voted Up and all of the choices.

      You are certainly a gifted writer. Keep the great hubs coming.


      Kenneth Avery, Hamilton, Alabama

    • RachaelLoxston profile imageAUTHOR

      Rachael Loxston 

      4 years ago from Worcestershire, UK

      I'm sorry about Jonathon Winters--- I have never heard of him but will look him up!

      Thank you for your comments. I find it interesting that many comedian are creatively brilliant but mental problems and I am glad you did too!

    • mperrottet profile image

      Margaret Perrottet 

      4 years ago from San Antonio, FL

      I think comedy is the hardest form of entertainment to pull off, and you have to admire these comedians who put themselves out there despite their mental problems. You left out one of my favorite comics who was known to have bipolar illness - Jonathon Winters. Anyhow, great article - voting up and interesting.


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