Research published this week in the International Journal of Cardiology set out to uncover whether stand-up comedians are more likely to die prematurely than comedic actors and dramatic actors. Perhaps the tears of a clown are justified after all.
The research was carried out by Prof. Simon Stewart, a cardiac researcher from the Mary MacKillop Institute of Health Research at Australian Catholic University.
He wanted to see if there was any truth to the theory that comedians are more likely to die young.
In an earlier study, Prof. Stewart concluded that funnier comedians were more likely to die prematurely than their less funny counterparts.
For his latest study, he cast his net a little wider; he hypothesized that if funnier people did indeed die prematurely, those involved in the purest comedic art form - stand-up - would be the most at risk.
The study is titled "Is the last 'man' standing in comedy the least funny? A retrospective cohort study of elite stand-up comedians versus other entertainers."
"Specifically, we hypothesized that among stand-up comedians, the inverse association between comedic ability and longevity would be both present and demonstrably stronger than observed in an equivalent cohort of comedy."
Prof. Simon Stewart
In all, the study used retrospective data from 200 stand-up comedians (87 percent men), 114 comedic actors (82.5 percent men), and 184 dramatic actors (70.7 percent men).
Each participant was drawn from the top 200 on a popular crowd-ranking website (ranker.com), from the following categories: "Funniest People of All Time," "Funniest Stand-Up Comedians of All Time," and "Greatest Actors and Actresses in Entertainment History."
The hidden dangers of being hilarious
Prof. Stewart concluded that there was a "significant gradient in the age of death, with stand-up comedians dying at a younger age (67.1 years) than their comedy actor (68.9) and dramatic actor (70.7) counterparts."
It was also noted that comedians with the highest ratings for their comedic ability had a higher chance of dying prematurely. As Prof. Stewart notes:
"It appears that for stand-up comedians, being at the very top may be no laughing matter."
Below are the numbers of premature deaths in each of the three categories:
- Stand-up comedians - 14 out of 36 deaths (38.9 percent)
- Comedy actors - 9 of 33 deaths (27.3 percent)
- Dramatic actors - 11 of 56 deaths (19.6 percent)
The researchers also collated information on more non-natural deaths:
- Stand-up comedians - 7 out of 36 deaths (19.4 percent)
- Comedy actors - 3 out of 33 deaths (9.1 percent)
- Dramatic actors - 6 out of 56 deaths (10.7 percent)
Despite controlling for the differences in life expectancy defined by birth year, stand-up comedians were associated with a shorter lifespan, whereas neither comedy actors nor dramatic actors showed any difference in premature mortality.
The results are backed up by previous studies; for instance, a study conducted in 1993 found that children who were rated by teachers and parents as optimistic and funny had a greater likelihood of dying over the next 7 decades.
Comedians vs. dramatic actors
The findings are clear, so the next question is: "Why is this so?" Of course, no two comedians are the same, so there will be more than one answer to the conundrum.
One potential factor is that comedians are more likely to display psychotic traits than non-comedians, including manic-depression and schizotypal features. But there is more to this interaction than mental health.
Prof. Stewart describes the life of a stand-up comedian as a:
"Highly competitive profession with low pay and low job security; years of working under this pressure may exert a cumulative stress effect even once success has been achieved.
In contrast, elite dramatic actors [...] are more likely to have attained some degree of financial security, with the attendant benefits to health and well-being."
The authors go on to describe other factors that may be involved; for instance, successful dramatic actors are considered role models and are often coerced into displaying respectable behavior by minders and managers. Conversely, stand-up comedians are rewarded for their zany, outlandish behavior.
A stand-up's unusual routine
Another factor might be that professional actors are often required to wake up and be on set early, regularly working in the same location for weeks at a time. A stand-up comedian, however, is much more likely to spend extended periods of time traveling from place to place, generally working in the evenings, in bars and clubs.
This type of lifestyle can make healthy behaviors more difficult to stick to. As Prof. Stewart explains: "The associated difficulty in maintaining regular patterns of sleep, nutrition, and exercise may contribute to detrimental physiological effects and health outcomes, including increased inflammatory markers, higher blood pressure, reduced glucose tolerance, obesity, heart disease, and mortality."
With this type of transient, late night, club-dwelling lifestyle, a stand-up's exposure to behaviors, such as drinking, smoking, drugs, and risky sexual behavior is likely to be more pronounced than a dramatic actor's.
The pattern of early death in stand-up comedians seems to be a complex mix of psychological factors, that, quite possibly, added to their appeal in the first place, added to the difficult lifestyle and performance pressures produced by the role.