Lembit Opik

A living, breathing punchline*

Few would be surprised to hear that many comedians suffer from mental health disorders. Am I one of them? Is there something about the process of creating and performing comedy that makes it more appealing to certain personality types? And which came first: the comedy or their mental/personality disorder?

I am surrounded by shrinks.

Not only did I marry a psychologist, I have many friends and acquaintances in my life who are psychologists, psychiatrists and mental health professionals, as well as an unusually large number of friends whose lives are blighted/blessed by mental disorders.

Living in a personal space clogged full of mental health analysis, it’s unsurprising how many times I’ve heard it suggested that I have my own fair share of syndromes. Although I’ve never received an official diagnosis – and wouldn’t really want to have one either – throughout my life many people with “Dr.” in front of their names have said I’m obviously suffering from depression, bipolar disorder, and Asperger’s syndrome (ASD).

I’ve always been hesitant about mentioning this fact publicly, as I don’t really feel like my unusual mindset is anywhere close to being a hindrance to my happiness or success. Quite the opposite, in fact. And also, I don’t want the stigma. The stigma of being “different in the head”. The stigma that’s stereotyped as belonging to the crazy homeless guy shouting randomly at strangers.

My life is too stable and comfortable for me to be deserving of any labelling.

However, I can’t deny I’m different. I can’t pretend that the way I think about the world isn’t very unusual. (As is my love of layering sentences full of double-negatives!)

So why am I writing about this today? Well, it’s all to do with an interesting study into the personalities of comedians published by Psychology Today which subjected a group of comedians to various tests including the well-known Big Five common personality traits – openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. I recognised a lot of the researcher’s conclusions as matching my own (comedian’s) way of thinking about the world.

As the article predicts, I am very open to new experiences, as seen by my numerous career shifts and my impulsive jaunts to different corners of the world at a moment’s notice. Also as predicted, my conscientiousness is low in that I struggle to be organised in many different areas of my life and I revel in telling jokes that insult both my own dignity and assault the audience’s sense of decency.

The article’s most surprising finding – at least from the general public’s perspective – was that comedians have the classic introvert personalities as opposed to the extraversion common amongst actors and politicians. In fact, this was one of the key differences that really stood out for me and also explains why so many actors and politicians have spectacularly failed when turning their hand to proper stand-up comedy. (Yes, I am looking at you Lembit Öpik, you walking punchline.) I do appreciate there are actors who have put on funny performances in one-man theatre shows in front of polite overcharged audiences, but that’s nothing like doing real standup comedy in some backroom bearpit full of inebriated strangers who got in for free.

The research also predicts that comedians confound the “neurotic comic” stereotype  – perhaps this links well to the findings around uncommonality of extraversion – and the reality is that comedians demonstrate strong emotional stability and resilience similar to those who take part in other “extreme” activities like mountaineers, skydivers and base jumpers. (All activities I’ve really wanted to try, as it happens.)

The one part of the study’s predictions that I don’t think described me well was the finding that comedians are low on “agreeableness”. The research suggests that joke-peddlars are highly competitive and enjoy diminishing the work of others. This is the one aspect I don’t recognise in myself. I love the art of comedy. I’m continually wishing other comedians do well, and always feel bad when another comic bombs on stage. I naturally empathise because it’s an experience I’ve endured myself on occasion. (Other comics will tell you, I’m the guy in the crowd laughing loudest for the other comedians on stage.)

However, there is an aspect of agreeableness where I personally score very low, and that’s the willingness to be placid and conform. There is no hope of my accepting the status quo quietly and I take great pleasure in pushing other people outside of their comfort zones.

So what do I take away from this? Well three things actually:

  1. I made the right decision turning down the Conservative party’s offer to field me as a Parliamentary Candidate.
  2. I need to hurry up and book myself some skydiving lessons.
  3. I had no choice but to become a comedian. It’s just the way my brain is wired.

(Also a lot of the above research might explain why so few women make good comedians. What’s that? “That’s sexist!”? Nope. That’s science.) 🙂

The full article can be found here.



(*image by bobaliciouslondon)

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2 Comments Already

  1. I’d be careful with the skydiving. Isn’t that how Lembit got his wonky face?

  2. I read the Psychology Today article and also recognised a lot of its conclusions as fitting where I stand in the world, as a relative newbie to the standup comedy scene. Like you, I’m also surrounded by psychologists and people with mental health conditions, and also have a theory that being, in some way ‘unhinged’ is almost a pre-requisite for doing well in this business.

    I have ADHD and see many of its symptoms in your analysis of the article. Openness to experience, for example, is classic ADHD. People with ADHD are restless, easily bored, and therefore constant change isn’t a nuisance, as for most people, it is essential for life! Conscientiousness is also classic ADHD – being impulsive, blurting out the ‘wrong’ thing, being disorganised. Just like in the article, many people assume that people with ADHD (let’s call them Adders) will be extroverts, but time and time again my scores tell me I’m introverted. Being bouncy and full of energy doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be outgoing and sociable (in fact many Adders also have a hint of Aspergers, so are not naturally drawn to being that sociable anyway).

    When it comes to agreeableness, I’m on the same page as you. Definitely a non-conformist, a bit of a rebel, strong willed, but not generally disagreeable within the world of standup. Neuroticism, I’m not sure. I do know that risk-taking is classic ADHD, which is partly why I believe there are more Adders in comedy than most other professions (e.g. Lee Evans, Lee Mack, Bill Cosby, Jim Carrey, Robin Williams, Rory Bremner, to name but a few).

    I’m fascinated by the psychology of comedy, but even more fascinated by the potential link between ADHD and comedy. The pluses of ADHD include the love of change, risk-taking, creativity, energy, making connections between apparently unrelated things, hyper focus (when the topic is engaging), and not being too fussed about conforming – all traits which I would suggest are pluses for standups too.

    I assume your comment about women in comedy was tongue in cheek so I’ll not rise to it (!), just to say that when it comes to mental health and comedy, I don’t really see how or why there should be any difference between men and women.

    Nice article, thanks for provoking some thought. Now, what was it that I was supposed to be doing……?

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