Laughter, it is often said, is the best medicine. Yet from Robin Williams to Bill Hicks, it often seems like the funniest comedians are the first to go. This puzzling trend has long been noted, but a new study has found evidence to back it up, discovering that stand-up comedians are more likely to die early than dramatic actors, and that those who are the funniest have the highest chance of going first.
The research, published in the International Journal of Cardiology, has looked at the top 200 stand-up comedians, comedy actors, and dramatic actors, as ranked by the public on the website ranker.com. It then looked at who made the list, but had also died. They found that the stand-ups tended to die younger, at an average age of 67.1 years old, compared to comedy actors at 68.9 and dramatic actors at 70.7.
The researchers then took into account the date of birth and life expectancy for those on the list, and found that there were “significantly more deaths among stand-up comedians categorized as 'premature' relative to population-based life expectancy.” In fact, they calculated that close to 39 percent of the standups had died prematurely, including suicide and drug-related deaths, compared to just 20 percent of the dramatic actors.
Not only that, but the researchers also found that those stand-ups who were deemed the funniest by the general public were also more likely to die early compared to their less funny colleagues. “It appears that for stand-up comedians, being at the very top may be no laughing matter,” says Professor Simon Stewart, who conducted the study.
Why this effect is seen, though, is slightly trickier to disentangle. The researchers note that there are inherent demands associated with the profession; years of working in a highly competitive environment, with low pay and low job security ramping up the stress that comedians experience, even for those supposedly at the top of their game. Constant traveling and staying up late also has an impact, as it messes up sleep, nutrition, and exercise patterns, contributing to detrimental physiological effects and health outcomes.
“Successful dramatic actors are often regarded as 'role models' and expected to maintain a positive public image, with managers and 'minders' invested in enforcing certain standards of behavior that might exert a protective effect on health and longevity,” explains Professor Stewart. “This does not appear to apply to stand-up comedians, who are often expected to behave eccentrically.” Not only that, but while an actor’s place of work is a tightly regulated set or theater, comedians are often found performing in bars and clubs, increasing their exposure to risky behaviors such as smoking and drinking.