After Robin Williams' (probable yet unconfirmed at the time of writing) suicide at the age of just 63, the question is once more in the air - are comedians more prone to depression than, say, plumbers, gamekeepers or human resources managers? Does the iconic 'tears of a clown' cultural trope have any basis in fact?
My instinct is to say no, it doesn't - but it is just that, instinct, for I have no data. It is a difficult case to prove, for the evidence to the contrary seems so overwhelming. When a comedian like Robin Williams or Tony Hancock takes their own life, with all the consequent publicity engendered by those tragedies, it is definitely tempting to conclude 'there goes another one.' Every comedian's suicide has the effect of strengthening our belief that if your profession involves the pursuit of laughter, then your propensity for experiencing 'sadness' is somehow greater than other people's.
I'm not sure this is true. I think it derives from the mistaken belief that comedy is happiness, and that because comedians are perceived as being people the very living of whom involves the pursuit of happiness, that therefore their sensitivity to a lack of happiness must be greater.
Comedy is not happiness. It can be happiness, but it is not exclusively happiness. I think we're deluded into believing comedy is happiness because the result of good comedy is laughter, and we equate laughter with happiness. But I don't think we laugh when we're happy - laughter is a nervous reaction to an intellectual construct, either spoken or visual. Its triggers are numerous and too vast and complex to list here, but the umbrella term 'nervous reaction to a rupturing of logic' is as bald a summing up as one can make.
Happiness is altogether different state of mind - watching your child play, motoring along a country lane, making love in a Paris hotel. Comedy is not happiness, it's an intellectual and artistic pursuit exactly like painting or poetry or mathematics. You can get happiness out of it - and it tends to swindle us by making us think we will inevitably gain happiness by chasing it - but it is not in itself a mental act that ipso facto engenders happiness in the practitioner. It's a craft, like chair-making. Chair-makers are pleased when they make a good chair, comedians are pleased when they put on a good performance or write a good script.
The view that comedians are more prone to depression than others is bolstered by the fact that the centuries are littered with comic casualties: just to pluck a few at random, the great clown Grock (who, famously, was advised by a psychiatrist to cheer himself by going to see Grock), the genius Dan Leno, cited as the first great modern comedian, whose mental breakdown led to his suicide in 1904. And 14 years later Mark Sheridan (of I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside fame) who shot himself in a Glasgow park. Spike Milligan (whose greatest triumph, I think, was in NOT committing suicide - I feel that after Hancock's demise Milligan made a kind of pledge to himself to be a survivor) was perhaps the depressed modern clown par excellence, who rightly wore his suffering on his sleeve and brought out into the open the mental difficulties of being bi-polar when it was still called manic depression. More contemporary figures giving voice to the illness include, of course, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.
But there have been just as many carpenters who've succumbed to depression and self-slaughter, just as many advertising executives or cleaners; the depression is not the profession, it is an existential and biochemical disease to which no human being is immune, and to focus on comedians' suffering does, I think, partly belittle the suffering of plumbers, decorators, MP's, bankers, and waitresses.
When poor Robin Williams took his own life, it wasn't because he was a comedian. It was because he was human, with the same faulty mechanism inside his head that we all have.
We either govern it, or become engulfed.
Julian Dutton is the co-creator and co-writer of the forthcoming BBC1 comedy series Pompidou, starring Matt Lucas.
His book, 'Keeping Quiet: the Story of Visual Comedy in the Age of Sound: 1927-2014' will be published later this year.
Image of Dan Leno in the public domain.
Image of Tony Hancock by Tony Hisgett, 2009.
Image of Robin Williams by Darsie, 2004.Suggest a correction