Monday, May 14, 2007

Heights of comedians: Average Joes   posted by agnostic @ 5/14/2007 07:54:00 AM

Continuing the series on the maintenance of variation in human height, let's have a look at how comedians measure up. (See the previous entry in the series here, which has links to the other entries.) I could see their heights go either way: maybe they're shorter than average, and their comedy routine is their way of getting attention -- or maybe they're taller than average, since you might need a more commanding height to put hecklers in their place.

As explained in the previous entry on daredevils, females in general prefer a male who is taller than average. For a man who's average or below-average in height, then, he had better have something to make up for his unremarkable stature. Since a sense of humor is typically listed near the top of women's preferences (search this page for "humor"), perhaps perfecting comic skills could save a shorty from romantic oblivion. In a recent advice column for short guys, we read:

Bill, a 35-year-old publishing executive from Rochester, NY, who's 5'6", says he's had a good response online from women of all heights. "I have taller girls emailing me a lot, even though I don't meet the height they say they're looking for," he says, "They all tell me my profile made them laugh. I think the key is having something to capture their attention other than height. Humor's the best."

To investigate this possibility, I took a list of the Top 100 comedians as ranked by Comedy Central in 2004 [1], and looked up their heights at the CelebHeights website, for which I found 42 data-points. I then looked up the remaining individuals on Imdb, which gave me new total of 61 heights. But to correct for ubiquitous lying in self-reported height, I subtracted 1 inch from the heights listed at Imdb (a generous assumption). The means and SDs were not different for the group of 42 culled only from CelebHeights vs. the pooled group of CelebHeights plus Imdb data, so I used the larger sample to increase N.

I ignored the 8 or so females who made the ranking, and I left out individuals who were born before 1935, in order to make sure their height wouldn't have been affected by growing up during the Great Depression or anything like that [2]. See here (PDF) for data on a representative sample of male American height.

Below is a frequency distribution of heights in this sample of comedians:

The points show what percent of the group lies strictly above the next-lowest height and up to & including the height where the point is (e.g., 26% were above 68 inches and at most 70 inches). It's an almost normal distribution, and its skewness of 0.29 means that it's more or less symmetrical. Comedians here have a mean height of 69.5 inches (median = 69 inches), with one SD = 3.0 inches. If that sounds like a perfectly representative sample of the general population, that's because it is: a two-tailed t-test to test the difference from the population mean of 69.6 inches gives t = -0.26, which is nowhere near significant (p = 0.8). Out of curiosity, I checked whether height and rank in the Top 100 list were correlated -- they were not: Spearman's rank correlation = -0.06, but p = 0.64.

It's pretty clear that variation in height will not be eroded by female preferences for tall males, provided the average and short males have some way to compensate. Upon realizing that they are not cut out for most sports, hand-to-hand combat, executive positions, and so on, they carve out a niche where this flaw of theirs is unimportant. They still manage to do all right for themselves, and enjoy the side-effect that they are probably much better flirts than their competition. While not knowing much about the history of comedians, I still doubt that a person was able to earn a living as a comic until very recently, so I don't claim that the benefit of comic skills was in attaining high financial status and attracting a bevy of groupies like some modern comedians do.

At the same time, most comedians -- until they are very rich and famous -- typically hold down a day job and perform before an audience during their leisure time. So being a comedian would not have meant that you couldn't have earned a living some other way. And even if there weren't large audiences to tell jokes to, a first-rate comic would surely have acquired a reputation for his skills and would have impressed enough women -- either via reputation or by face-to-face flirtation -- that he would've earned distinction as a local star. After that, mating opportunities would have ensued.

So, there are at least four ways for men to compensate for unimpressive stature: as rockstars (and perhaps as musicians broadly), daredevils, and comedians. All involve cultivating a talent which one can display in front of an audience and which is difficult to copy (as anyone who's tried to make up their own jokes has quickly figured out). This increases their social status. The other way we've seen is to simply be a pretty boy -- no talent there, really, but it's conceivable that women would be attracted to pretty boys due to "good genes" selection. I don't think this necessarily says that short guys will tend to gravitate toward performance-based niches -- it's just that the CelebHeights website only keeps data on celebrities. It would require funding that I don't currently have in order to investigate what other pursuits are shorty-friendly.

Again, let this serve as "news you can use" for sub-tall men currently in the dating arena, or men who plan to have sub-tall sons but still wish for them to do well with girls.

[1] You can bicker about who should be where, but it's a representative sample of famous comedians.

[2] Actually, Jackie Mason's data-point (65 inches) made it into the first round of data collection, and I forgot to throw it out when I calculated the statistics, made the graphs, made these into images, and so on. Rather than waste another 30 minutes to correct all of these just to weed out this one point, I'll keep it in, since its exclusion wouldn't affect any of the results.

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