It's almost the job of a comedian to leave you thinking that he or she is a little off in the head. Take the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode where a Survivor contestant argues with a Holocaust survivor about who's the tougher survivor. Or Dave Chappelle portraying Clayton Bigsby, the blind, white supremacist who doesn't realize he's black. Or Louis C.K. entertaining the idea that maybe everyone with a peanut allergy is actually supposed to die. Or pretty much anything Sarah Silverman has ever said.
Truth is, when you look at it on paper, many of the cognitive traits that could describe a good comedian are similar to those that—in a more extreme form—define psychosis. Drawing a connection between seemingly unrelated items or ideas rests at the root of schizophrenia, but it's also the punch line of many a Family Guy joke. Wild shifts in mood can mark a bipolar episode just as it can produce a funny scene in a sitcom.
Recently, a group of psychologists led by Victoria Ando of the University of Oxford followed these similarities to their logical conclusion by giving a psychiatric questionnaire to more than 500 comedians. The participants were drawn from talent agencies, comedy clubs, and other professional groups in the United States, Great Britain, and Australia. Each went online and completed the Oxford–Liverpool Inventory of Feelings and Experiences (O-LIFE)—a tool that measures psychotic behavior.
The O-LIFE looks at four cognitive scales. The "Unusual Experiences" scale measures things like magical or paranormal beliefs. "Cognitive Disorganization" looks at distractibility and focus. "Introvertive Anhedonia" scores the ability to feel social pleasure or intimacy. And "Impulsive Non-conformity" evaluates a tendency toward impulsive or even antisocial behavior.
Comedians might be a lot funnier than you, but the results showed they're also a little closer to crazy. The participants scored much higher than normal on all four O-LIFE scales, Ando and collaborators report in the British Journal of Psychiatry. As a point of comparison with other performers, the researchers also gave the O-LIFE to a few hundred actors. On all but one measure—the Unusual Experiences scale—the comedians scored higher than them, too.
The results align nicely with emerging research linking creativity and madness. This evidence suggests that both ill and creative minds exhibit "cognitive disinhibition"—a failure to filter out useless or extraneous thoughts. Indeed, one comedian in the current study cited "wide associative patterns" as the source of good joke-writing. The word "bicycle" can't just conjure up an image of someone on a bicycle; it has to call to mind everything "from images of fat people riding bicycles naked and getting chafed to the fact that Lance Armstrong only has one testicle."
That comedians scored high on both the Introvertive Anhedonia and the Impulsive Non-conformity scales of the O-LIFE struck Ando and company as especially interesting. Those scales seemingly measure diverting traits—the first suggesting a reserved or depressive manner, the other pointed to extraverted or manic behavior—leading the researchers to make a connection with bipolar disorder. "Sometimes I’m extremely introverted or uncomfortable socially and other times I'm the life of the party type of person," one comedian told them.
"The results presented here convincingly demonstrate that, as creative people, comedians rate highly on the same personality traits as those regularly observed in other creative individuals," the researchers conclude. "Humor and the conditions for it are particularly good examples of this 'madness/creativity' connection and deserve more attention than they have received hitherto."
Of course, if comedians are a little nutty, it's worth wondering what that says about those of us laughing at them. One recent theory of humor—in particular, of why we often find negative or tragic events like the ones described above so funny—suggests that people are amused by social violations so long as they're not threatening. There may be a thin line between someone acting crazy for laughs and someone who's actually crazy, but the key to the whole operation is that it's not so thin the audience can't see it.