Bob Hope and George Burns lived to be 100 years old. Phyllis Diller died at age 97. Jackie Mason (82), Joan Rivers (80), Mel Brooks (87), Don Rickles (87), and Carl Reiner (91) are all alive and kicking, but Lenny Bruce (40), Mitch Hedberg (37), and Andy Kaufmann (35) died young. Not to mention John Belushi, Bill Hicks, and Chris Farley who never lived to celebrate their 35th birthdays. What is going on here? Do comedians live longer or die young? More generally, do comedians have better health?
If humor is good for one’s health, we can expect that comedians, who surround themselves with humor, would have better than average health. After all, they not only produce high quality humor but also see other great comedians perform, and talk about humor with others.
As I discussed in previous posts, the notion that humor is good for your health does not get much empirical support from scientific research. For example, one study found that cheerful kids who have been followed for decades, suffered more health problems and died younger compared to the non-cheerful kids. More specific to comedians, several studies have shown that comedians and humor writers died younger than other people who achieved fame in other areas. Why might that happen?
As I discussed in my first post in this series on comedians, comedians’ lifestyle and work environment make it difficult for them to stay healthy. Stand-up comedy is a very stressful job with little job security and little pay in many cases. Comedians travel a lot, and they need to be very disciplined in order to stay healthy. On the road, it is much harder to eat healthy. Comedians do not often have the means to buy or cook healthy foods, and rely mostly on fast food restaurants. Money is an issue here. To eat healthy in good restaurants costs more, and since many comedians get paid very little, it is not surprising they choose to eat unhealthy, cheap food.
Getting regular exercise is difficult. A comedian working far from home may find it hard to sustain a routine of working out. There are also some “occupational” hazards in this regard. The stress and competitive nature of comedy might lead comedians to drink, smoke, use drugs, and get involved in casual and unprotected sex with an increased risk of STDs. Many clubs allow comedians to have a drink or two for free every night. Even getting a good night’s sleep could be a problem if you party and drink all night after the show.
Working in the comedy business also makes it harder to treat a health problem one can encounter. It is more complicated to find a doctor on the road, and a comedian that is sick may not want to lose an opportunity to perform if it means getting treatment for his or her health problem.
In my own study, I took a somewhat different approach to study comedians’ physical health. First, I wanted to check whether comedians are indeed living unhealthy lives, specifically in relation to food and exercise. To do so, I calculated their body mass index (BMI). BMI measures the shape of an individual based on their weight and height. It’s not a perfect measure since very muscular people tend to have high BMI even if they are overall healthy, but is a good gauge of health for the average person.
The results showed that comedians had an average BMI of 30.5. This number indicates borderline obesity. For comparison, students had an average BMI of 24.5, which is normal. Of course, students were younger, which might explain the difference, as BMI tends to increase with age, but it might also have to do with comedians’ lifestyle. I should also point out that there was some variation in this number and some comedians did have normal BMI. On the other hand, some comedians also have higher BMI.
Second, I wanted to know how susceptible comedians are to infectious diseases. Susceptibility to infectious diseases is another good measure of overall health, as unhealthy individuals tend to have more infections. To do so, I asked comedians about their history of being sick. I specifically asked them how often do they get respiratory (chest) infections (e.g. persistent cough, pneumonia), head colds, stomach or intestinal flu (e.g. diarrhea, nausea) and skin infections.
The results showed that overall, comedians had significantly fewer cases of infections in the past three years, compared to my student sample. Students had twice as many infections compared to the comedians (13.8 vs. 6.8). In addition, the total number of days they were actually suffering from those infections was much higher for the students (49 compared to 26.5 for comedians). This might be especially surprising given the amount of travel comedians have and the risk of getting infected by interacting with many strangers (though students, too, interact with many people at school). Students also reported using antibiotics twice as much as comedians, but this might be influenced by the fact that most students had health insurance and thus the cost of antibiotics is low, while many comedians might not have had health insurance.
The results of my study are somewhat mixed. Comedians were more obese than students but less susceptible to infections. This apparent discrepancy might reflect two different sources of health determinants. On one hand, we have unhealthy life choices or constraints by the comedians’ profession that causes them to be overweight. On the other hand, there might be something inherent in comedians that makes them healthier, at least in regard to infectious diseases. Maybe traveling around the country boosts comedians’ immune systems and makes them less likely to get sick. Maybe it is true that being funny and surrounding yourself with funny people can make you healthier.
One way or another, there is still much more to explore about the relationship between humor and health in general, and specifically in regard to comedians’ health. Even if humor does not affect health directly, its influence on health can come in other ways. Maybe humor serves as a distraction from health problems and makes one feel better, but inadvertently causes more health problems in the long run, instead of preventing them. If you are happy and cheerful, you might not pay too much attention to signs that you are sick and would not go to a doctor, which ultimately can have dire consequences on your health.
In the next post I will discuss childhood experiences of comedians (you can find it here).