When John Belushi died of a drug overdose in March of 1982, not too many people were shocked. Unlike, say, the murder of John Lennon a year and a half earlier, his death was not the result of circumstances beyond his control. Instead, it resulted from Belushi’s own behavior, which became increasingly self-destructive as his fame as a comedian grew. In a relatively short amount of time, a man who made people laugh for a living became a source of worry to his friends and family, and ultimately, a source of sadness to his fans and everyone who knew him.
John Belushi wasn’t a rare case. It’s become almost axiomatic that if you scratch the surface of a comedian, you’ll find the unhappiest person in the room underneath. While it’s certainly not always true, there seems to be some validity to the idea that insecurity and a need for approval drive the comic’s need to make people laugh. It may be the very same need that leads some comedians down a tragic path in their personal lives. Of course, not all funny people are self-destructive; for others, it just seems as if Lady Luck, who has a wicked sense of humor all her own, starts to look elsewhere once they have achieved a certain measure of success. These comic lights also burn out, many felled by illness at too young of an age.
Today, on the occasion of a sad anniversary for John Belushi, who has now been dead for as long as he was alive, Bio takes a brief look at a few of the comedians who leavened public comedy with personal tragedy. All of them were gifted, but none of them stayed with us long enough.
Although he made his mark during a more conservative, old-fashioned era of show business, Lenny Bruce has since become the archetype for the modern comedian. Sharp, satiric, sometimes vulgar, he paved the way for a new freedom in stand-up comedy. A star in the nightclubs of the 50s, Bruce irreverently addressed topics that most comics of the day were afraid to discuss, including race, religion, sex, and politics. Most of the comics who followed him would be unimaginable without his pioneering spirit. The freedom that these later comedians enjoyed came at a price for Bruce, however: He was arrested multiple times for on-stage obscenity. Persecution from police and government authorities exacted a heavy toll on his professional career, as well as on his psyche, and Bruce took to ranting about his legal troubles at his concerts and overindulging in drugs. In 1966, at only 40 years old, Bruce was found dead of a morphine overdose. Ironically, he was pardoned for almost every one of his obscenity convictions posthumously. Despite his early end, Bruce’s legacy was profound, and he inspired the likes of Richard Pryor and George Carlin in the 60s and 70s to speak their minds without fear of censorship.
Although he lived longer than most of the comedians on this list, dying at age 65 ten years ago, Richard Pryor is a textbook example of how a gifted comedian can sabotage his career and his life. At the height of his fame, when his movies and concerts were not only successful but also extremely influential on other comedians, Pryor derailed himself with drug use, famously setting himself on fire while freebasing cocaine in 1980. It was a spectacular (literal) flameout to the career of one of the most innovative comedians of the 60s and 70s, whose riffs on race in America were not only funny but had social impact. Pryor would continue to have some success in the 80s and 90s with a milder version of his persona in movies like Brewster’s Millions and Harlem Nights, but a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis added to his woes, and his later years were difficult. Before Pryor died, however, his career had already been reassessed through various documentaries and reissues of his albums, so that unlike some of his contemporaries, he died with the knowledge that his prominent place in the comedy pantheon was secure.
Like Richard Pryor, Andy Kaufman was a countercultural comedian who pushed the limits of what was considered acceptable in comedy, but his act was controversial in a different way. Pryor would address issues of race in a traditional comic monologue style; Kaufman’s comedy, on the other hand, was a type of performance art, rooted in absurdity and often showcased in stunts engineered more to provoke than amuse. Although he’s most widely remembered for his turn as the cuddly mechanic Latka Graves on the TV show Taxi, Kaufman’s own comedy was much more prickly, even purposely confrontational. The most famous of his ongoing performances was as a wrestler who only wrestled women, complete with bragging speeches and arranged matches. Kaufman’s satire was so inscrutable that many missed it or misunderstood it, and “Is this for real?” became the common reaction to his performances. By the end of his life, Kaufman had become such a master of smokescreen that even today, some people maintain that he is not dead and that his alleged death is one of his elaborate jokes. Outside of this hopeful group, however, most people admit that Kaufman died of lung cancer at the young age of 35 in 1984. The head swims to think of what hoaxes he may have perpetrated had he lived longer.
Saturday Night, later rebranded Saturday Night Live after its famous opening line, has been a springboard for many comedians over the last 40 years, as the recent tribute show made clear. In fact, both Andy Kaufman and Richard Pryor made memorable appearances on the show during the era of John Belushi, considerably widening their exposure in the process. One comedian who made a splash during the early 90s incarnation of the program was Chris Farley. Farley used his rubbery face and considerable girth to bring a raucous brand of physical comedy to the show, and his popularity led to a film career that looked promising. Unfortunately, like John Belushi before him, Farley developed an appetite for drugs that led to his early death (at the same age as Belushi) in 1997. Sadly, he was not the only member of his SNL class to meet an early end. Less than six months later, drugs would also play a part in the death of fellow cast member Phil Hartman. Hartman was regarded as a friendly, well-adjusted guy with few vices, but drug abuse would also be the culprit in his demise: His wife was high on antidepressants and cocaine when she killed him and then herself in May of 1998.
Madeline Kahn was one of the most distinctive comedic actresses of the 70s. Known for her faux operatic singing and loony physical comedy, she played the female lead most notably in a series of wacky Mel Brooks movie parodies including Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and History of the World, Part I. She performed on stage as well as in movies and on TV, and she was nominated for Oscars, Emmys, and Tonys (she never took home an Oscar, but she did take home the other two). A natural comedienne, she made her way into show business through Broadway, although she finished it on television in the Bill Cosby sit-com Cosby, which ran for four years in the late 90s. In 1998 she contracted ovarian cancer and died a year later, far too young, at age 57. Along the way, however, she set a standard for movie comedy that even now few can match. (Ovarian cancer would also claim the life of comedienne Gilda Radner, who died at age 42 from the disease. Kahn worked with Radner on Saturday Night Live, which she hosted three times during her career.)
In the late 80s and early 90s, no comedian had more attitude than Bill Hicks. In a style reminiscent of Lenny Bruce, Hicks performed a stand-up routine that touched on religion, philosophy, and politics, often delivered in a scabrous, sarcastic tone. Chain-smoking cigarettes, Hicks would compel his audience to rebel against cultural mediocrity one minute, only to condemn all of humanity in a misanthropic rant the next. He put out several popular comedy albums, toured colleges and nightclubs, and appeared on late-night talk shows, where once or twice his routine was censored by nervous broadcasters uncomfortable with his jokes about religion and politics. Aware of his reputation as a “truth-teller,” Hicks would sometimes end his show with a mock assassination, but in the end, he was killed not by an irate audience member, but by pancreatic cancer. Hicks died early in 1994, only 32 years old. Posthumously, he has been recognized as one of the edgiest and most socially relevant comics of his generation.
Robin Williams once said that “in the process of looking for comedy, you have to be deeply honest. And in doing that, you’ll find out there’s the other side.” Williams’s exceptional career came to a close on that other side when he committed suicide last summer at age 63. From the frantic, stream-of-consciousness stand-up routine of his early years to the darker movie comedies of his later period, Williams seems a case study of the unhappy comedian, the clown who makes others laugh while privately crying. Notoriously subject to fits of depression and prone to drug and alcohol abuse, Williams nevertheless managed to assemble a CV second to none: a successful TV show (Mork and Mindy), a successful film career that mixed comedy with drama (Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, Good Will Hunting), a voiceover career in children’s animation (Aladdin, Happy Feet), and even appearances on stage, most notably in Waiting for Godot with Steve Martin.
A humanitarian, Williams also used his cachet as a respected stand-up comedian to co-found Comedy Relief, an annual benefit concert for the homeless. Long admired by other comedians for his short-attention-span stand-up style, none were able to imitate him, and he occupies a unique place in the annals of comedy. His loss to the world of entertainment was a major one, and it’s safe to say that despite his personal demons, he brought laughter and joy to countless people while he lived and worked among us.