Do you need 'psychotic' traits to be a comedian? Perhaps, but we just let loose the insanity that lives in ordinary folk

You can only be so mad when you've got a gig to perform

Related Topics

Once it was enough for an audience to content themselves that the comedians that made them laugh left the stage and wept into whisky night after night. That isn’t the case anymore. Now it turns out we have to be psychotic too, or at least have psychotic traits. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has walked through the Edinburgh streets in August at 2 a.m. and seen hordes of wide-eyed, screeching stand ups, wailing or smiling to such extremes that the corners of their mouths seem about to tear apart.

Analysis of the mental peculiarities of comedians is often in danger of being self-aggrandising. Our possible melancholy or psychosis a branding that says, “we are not as other humans, you mortals will never know what it is to stand in front of 3000 people laughing and yet be all alone”. The lonely clown makes a lovely postcard.

Having spent almost all my adult life as a stand up comedian, and most of my childhood wanting to be a writer or performer, I have mulled over the possible idiosyncrasies of this world many times. I lap up those documentaries on Tony Hancock and Kenneth Williams, I voraciously read those terrifying accounts of the behaviour of Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. I am afraid that for television producers in the future, the generations after them may be less rich seams for endless tales of misery and fear. Most of the big names of comedy I have brushed shoulders with are surprisingly sane.

The act of stand up may well be the valve required for that sanity.

When the film director and Pope of Trash John Waters used to lecture to prison inmates who had committed the most extreme crimes, he would say his knack had been to commit all of his atrocities on celluloid. 'Don’t really kill, make the strangest things in your mind into art'. While many people lives consciously keeping in their weirdest notions, we are paid money to share them with rooms full of people.

Perhaps the mental health of comedians is improving because a performer can use the stage to be honest and autobiographical in a way that the music hall and society did not permit. It will be hard for a TV producer to make a documentary on The Private Pain of Simon Amstell as Simon himself plays that all out in front of his audience.

As a drama student Peter Sellers lived on a barge, which sank after too many people came to a party One of the shows I am working on now is about the human mind and in the early warm up shows it has been fascinating to see the reactions when talking about certain, predominantly secret mental behaviour.

I have been talking of the imp of the perverse; the perilous and taboo thoughts that we may experience, sometimes with great frequency. You may be standing opposite an elderly relative who is telling you of those friends they lost in a war and suddenly you think, “my god, what if I lent forward and kissed him on the mouth right now”. Similarly, you might be holding a baby and think, “what if I threw it over those bannisters”. You walk away and think, “I am mad”.

Yet all you are really doing is imagining the worst thing that could happen. Your evolutionary advantage of being able to imagine and avoid the worst case scenario is overactive - you are not a baby killer. I have the freedom to express this on stage and afterwards I find people eager to talk. They had thought they were quite mad too.

We have licence not merely to be the fool, but sometimes to be the insanity many people fear is inside them.

It is not all rosy. It is a peculiar way to make a living. Each night, you wish to stand in front of strangers and show off to them. You want to make people you don’t know laugh. If you fail, you're judged and reviled. You are lacking. You then return to your hotel on your own and have ample time to mull over the fact that what you act has been judged to be substandard. The next night, in another town, you must try again in front of a whole new group of strangers. No doubt that can do something to your psyche.

To want to do this for a living, to both have the arrogance to believe your words are worth hearing but still stand in the wings about to vomit in a fire bucket  before going on, probably does require a “different sort of sanity”.

So in terms of this latest research into the “psychotic traits” of stand up comedians, of course we need to be delusional, manic, introverted and impulsive; they're the perfect ingredients to be a show off for a living. It could be worse. I could be sane enough for a real job.

Robin Ince is currently touring five different shows, for dates and details

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Election catch-up: I’m not saying the Ed stone is bad – it is so terrible I am lost for words

John Rentoul

Election 2015: The SNP and an SMC (Salmond-Murdoch Conspiracy)

Matthew Norman
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living