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When 'Madness' Is Confused With Genius

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There has been a lot of mainstream print and social media coverage this last week because of the findings by researchers from the University of Oxford and Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust who conducted a study amongst 523 comedians (404 men and 119 women) from the UK, US and Australia who were asked to complete an online questionnaire designed to measure psychotic traits in healthy people.

As a control group 364 actors were also asked to complete the questionnaire plus 831 people who worked in non-creative areas. The study found that comedians scored significantly higher on all four types of psychotic personality traits than the general group, scoring particularly high on questions that demonstrated a pattern of behaviour that fluctuated from being extremely extrovert to almost reclusively introvert.

To quote the question asked so frequently over the last few days: is this really news? Pondering my own levels of psychosis, there is no survey on earth that we really need to further prove that the scales of mental health are tipped precariously for most creative individuals. Please note that even the actors' responses in the 'control' group almost equalled the comedians' but were, again, unsurprisingly less introverted. To deem this a form of 'madness', as it has been labelled in some of the media, has caused more of a furore than the findings themselves!

It takes a particular kind of creative, self-obsessive, imaginative, observant and courageous person to bare their very soul on stage. It is not always funny either, the image of the sad clown and smiley face, sad face masks of comedy and tragedy are emblematic of the tortured genius that inhabits some of the world's greatest comedians. We find this so entertaining because we can all identify with the highs and lows of life. At its worst, comedians and truly great writers, actors, and other creative geniuses who have drawn the bi-polar or schizophrenic straw can easily self-destruct. Losing their mental ability to create can drive them into a spiral of drink, drugs and obsessional despair.

Professor Gordon Claridge, of the University of Oxford's Department of Experimental Psychology, said: "The creative elements needed to produce humour are strikingly similar to those characterising the cognitive style of people with psychosis - both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Manic thinking, which is found in those with bipolar disorder, may help people combine ideas to form new, original and humorous connections. Comedians tend to be slightly withdrawn, introverted people who may not always want to socialise, and their comedy is almost an outlet for that. It's a kind of self-medication."

It has also not escaped my notice that almost four times as many men responded to the survey than women. Are men quicker to admit to their psychosis than women? We have had more than our fair share of psychosis attributed to us over the years - from the 'vapours' and 'hysteria' so stigmatised in Victorian society with lives that often ended in sanatoriums and asylums, to the hospitalisation of a modern day French president's partner diagnosed with the 'blues'. We women wear our emotions more outwardly so are we less enthusiastic about bearing our souls in a survey, or even on stage?

Without wishing to over intellectualise this subject, which is best left to others better qualified and funnier than me, it was generally felt by our community that this was a very big storm in an already well stirred tea cup... with sugar... that was already lukewarm. Yet, my own company's website took up the cause and we published two great articles in the wake of the survey's publication and promotion.

The first article to go up was 'The Funny Side of Mental Health' by the brilliantly eloquent Jessica Brown who says: "There has long been the myth of the 'mad creative', and now it looks like research has successfully connected comedians to the stereotype, too. There have been claims disputing the study's findings, however, and accusations of giving misleading information about psychosis.

"Of course, one study can't really produce ground-breaking results, but the results are interesting nevertheless. What we can take away from the study, though, is that whatever career path you choose may reflect your personality - or appears to, at the very least."

Then there is the question of where 'madness' becomes genius. Not everybody gets their time in the spotlight either - there is lots of undiscovered genius much of which is coupled with the crippling side effects of self-doubt and flagellation, the hallmarks of poor mental health.

The talented new comic and writer Jane Postlethwaite sums this up brilliantly in another article 'The Funny Personality Type'. She says: "Most of the comedians and actors I look up to and respect have or have had some kind of mental health condition such as Sarah Silverman, Julia Davis and Stephen Fry. My condition doesn't define me - it is only a part of the person I am today. If I met someone in this business who didn't have a mental health condition at one time or another I would be shocked!"

In the same article, the longer established comic, Suzy Bennett, who regularly alludes to her mental health issues in her stand-up routine, says: "I have had a lot of therapy in the last couple of years so I am possibly a textbook case of seeking approval through performing. We all go a bit mad sometimes and it's just that some of us choose to channel it through a microphone. Laughter and applause is better than Prozac and should be available on prescription!"

We are all 'a little bit mad' and for a creative with above average imagination and ambition to be cooped up in the wrong environment, bound and gagged to process, it is enough to send them into a mind bending spiral of depression.

Not fulfilled by the Walter Mitty approach of mental escapism, my 'day dreams' fuelled the founding of Funny Women 11 years ago when sheer logic dictated that I was faring pretty successfully in my previous career as a public relations consultant. Yet the need to 'create' or find another way to truly express my own ideas of how to achieve equality and visibility for women have brought me to the brink of mental breakdown on several occasions. Does this mean I am 'mad'?

Well, yes, for sure I am in some people's eyes. This is not the normal behaviour of a woman in her mid-fifties - the media would have me salivating over Kirstie Allsopp's home-made patchwork cushions and Mary Berry cake recipes, whilst enrolling for the University of the 3rd Age (which I will do eventually but not quite yet...) instead of chasing around the country on a treasure hunt for new female comedy.

It is that quest to bask in the first light of genius that propels me along in my own little bubble of introverted mania. Maybe I am demonstrating a kind of 'madness' but like all thrill seekers it is the first 'hit' that rewards the most - like the first time I saw Michael McIntyre, Alan Carr, Jack Whitehall and Sarah Millican performing live. These were moments of comedy genius and the public agree as all these acts have won acclaim, sell out their shows, and top the viewer ratings with their television shows and appearances.

I think Jane Postlethwaite speaks for quite a few of the Twitterati and other social commentators who jumped on the 'madness' train last week when she says "I just hope people will be sensitive with this latest research and not start using words like 'psycho, mad, insane' which only encourage more stigma."

If we can accept that what is often glibly described as 'mad' in the comedy business, is actually as close to genius as we are ever likely to get, then maybe the world will be a funnier happier place.

Please join me for two nights of comedy genius: featuring Jane Postlethwaite and Suzy Bennett on Saturday 25th January at Funny Women Brighton Nights, Komedia, Brighton, and for our annual Funny Women Charity Night at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond in support of The Victoria Foundation, hosted by Suzy Bennett on Sunday 26th January.