The astonishing levels of drug- and alcohol-related morbidity in the history of jazz and popular music is well described by Wills (2003). After reading his paper I reflected on another group of my heroes, comedians, about whom popular biographies also abound. As I thought of a list of comedy greats, the well-published problems of many - indeed, almost all - of them was striking. Here follows an unresearched short list of some of my favourite great comedians, who manifest a range of neuroses, affective disorders, psychoses and substance problems: Caroline Aherne, Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Peter Cook, Tommy Cooper, Tony Hancock, Spike Milligan, Dudley Moore, Richard Pryor, Victoria Wood.
The thought of a 2-minute after-dinner speech, let alone three shows per night at the Glasgow Empire, illustrates how unusual any group of comedians must be. There may be a need for somewhat hypo-manic thinking to improvise comedy. There is possibly some mileage in the ‘bullied at school’ manic defence explanation for becoming a clown. Such factors suggest the possible preselection of high-risk people to enter the comedy field. Once selected, the factors suggested by Plant (1981) to explain why some occupations have a high risk of drinking, and by extension drug use, all seem applicable: availability; social pressure to use; separation from normal social or sexual relationships; freedom from supervision; very high or very low income; collusion by colleagues; and strains, stresses and hazards.
The popular ‘myth’ that, beneath the motley, clowns are distressed, may account for some over-reporting of comedians' problems, but perhaps some truisms are just that.
- © 2004 Royal College of Psychiatrists