This year has reminded us that, for most comedians, life isn’t a nonstop laugh riot.
Some of the most influential comics of the last century passed away this year. The most tragic loss was Robin Williams, who committed suicide in August at age 63. Depression, alcoholism and symptoms of dementia and Parkinson’s disease reportedly led to Williams hanging himself.
Trailblazing comedienne Joan Rivers left a scheduled DPAC show forever unperformed, dying from cardiac arrest in September at age 81. We lost Elaine Stritch (natural causes, July, age 89), SNL sketch-comedy legend Jan Hooks (cancer, October, age 57) and bratty Brit comic Rik Mayall, best known for The Young Ones (heart attack, June, age 56). Sid Caesar, who practically invented TV sketch comedy when he starred in Your Show of Shows in the ’50s, died in February at age 91. And we lost two funnymen who started out on the Chicago improv scene before becoming highly respected filmmakers: Mike Nichols (heart attack, November, age 83) and Harold Ramis (complications from autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis, February, age 69).
2014 was also a depressing year for comedians who didn’t die. In June, Tracy Morgan was involved in a late-night, six-vehicle accident, leaving him with multiple broken bones and a traumatic brain injury.
And, of course, we have to talk about Bill Cosby.
For the past two months, numerous womenat least 27 by now, and countinghave come forward with rape allegations spanning decades, all claiming that Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted them. (Sadly, it took a male comedianHannibal Buress, whose onstage rant about Cosby’s prior rape allegations went viralto get a lot of people to pay attention to this.)
Before a Tuesday-night open-mike at Goodnights Comedy Club, a few local stand-ups gathered around a table to discuss how comedians rarely live a wonderful life.
“Comedians are just broken people,” says Greensboro comic Eric Trundy.
“I know some comics who are totally fine, but not many,” chimes in Zack Levine, also from Greensboro. “I think the ones who seem to be totally fine, I can count on one hand.” Adds Trundy, “The ones that are totally fine are usually not very funny, either.”
Living a life of pain, hardship or even trauma is considered a necessity in the world of comedy. “It’s really the only thing that’s keeping me alive,” says Trundy, who has suffered from depression that stems from being abused as a child. “Going on stage and talking about it is definitely cathartic. There’s no way I could handle my life without it.”
Veteran Triangle comic Mello Mike Miller has also used comedy as a coping mechanism since he was a kid, being the son of a heavy drinker. “I always thought I was funny growing up,” says Miller. “But I used that to deflect everything that was happening at my house, all the bullshit.”
These comedians know how hard it is to find humor in such harrowing, heartbreaking experiences, a calling that has led to a tragic downfall for some. But they also believe that being funny keeps them honest and human, which is why people gravitate to them.
“I think they’re all fucked up people, but they’re also generous and nice and sweet,” says Trundy of comedians. “You can meet a person and know them for a year and not know who they are. With a comedian, you can know who they are before you even fuckin’ talk to them.”
Then again, we thought we knew who Bill Cosby was, too.
This article appeared in print with the headline “No laughing matter.”