We are living beings, and we all face death at some point. It’s really sort of unavoidable.
Suicide is a particularly unpleasant topic for obvious reasons. The people the deceased leaves behind are always riddled with questions regardless of the path that lead that person to kill themselves.
But when we receive the news that a comedian – the person who spends their time wearing a happy face and working so hard to make others laugh – has taken their life, either intentionally or “passively intentionally”, we are surprised in a way that we don’t seem to be when someone we know as visibly unhappy, morose, or at least somewhat somber does the same.
Because, on the surface to most, it doesn’t make sense.
“She was so funny.” “Oh, I just saw him, and he was fine!” “Wasn’t she supposed to perform tomorrow??” “She was always laughing.” “You’re kidding, what happened?” “Why?”
These days, we are hearing a lot more about these suicides and the depression and other mental illnesses that leads to them. The stigma of mental illness is slowly but surely eroding away as we look for answers – and that discussion is long overdue, as no good has come from pretending mental illness doesn’t exist.
The idea of the sad clown isn’t new by any means. But it was easier not to equate this to the real life clowns, the funny people who were living, breathing people until they weren’t able to be any longer.
Freddie Prinze took his life in 1977 after struggling with depression. Richard Jeni took his own life in 2007. Multiple “lesser known” comedians have taken their lives before and since.
But the one who really got people to take notice was Robin Williams in 2014 because Robin was someone who had touched so many lives due to his prolific comedy and acting career. He was “everyone’s”.
People were shocked. Because Robin Williams was a comedian. He was a funny guy!
Since Robin’s death, many discussions about this very subject were started and it’s been very helpful to those who so many who didn’t understand – because depression was not a side that most people saw from their beloved funny man.
So many other funny people who had reached a level of fame with their comedy have ended their own lives, too, but it was easy to blame on “drugs”, i.e. “passively intentionally”. Chris Farley, John Belushi, Mitch Hedberg, Greg Giraldo, the list goes on: Comedians who self-medicated to ease their pain but emoted in the form of their comedy to make sense of the war within themselves.
And when it happens in your community, it takes another form. It’s personal.
I have seen reactions to deaths within each local comedy community I’ve called my home as I’ve moved from city to city range from shock to confusion to despair…with deaths of comics that maybe we hadn’t gotten to know as well as we wanted to but feel like we should have, and the secondary reaction being:
“Do I have the right to be this upset? I didn’t even see her perform more than once or twice” or “I met him at a couple open mics and he seemed like a good dude. Why does this affect me so much?”
As a comic, I’ve wrestled with my reactions to each death. And I’m finding that, regardless of whether we were close friends or just “comedy friends” who engaged in friendly conversation when able…these deaths are all hard to accept. And I feel like, with every one, it gets harder to cope with. Not easier.
Why the hell would it get easier?
I see this struggle from many of us in comedy, and, other than the obvious void they leave behind, I think I have a handle on why.
It’s because we see ourselves. We see ourselves in every single one of our friends and comedy colleagues who have lost the grueling fight with their demons.
And we can relate. Too well.
We can feel it. We can feel it touching us. Staring us down.
We think about that time they were debuting a bit on stage about how they had intended to finally kill themselves…but realized they “just didn’t have the follow-through”.
We think about that story they conveyed to us with a tentative smile, the one about how they kicked their meth addiction and were looking towards the future.
You weren’t sure if they were trying to convince you or convince themselves. Or both.
You think about the awkward comedy bits that they worked out at the open mics that upset and offended non-comics in the audience because of the fully graphic nature (“Why would they even think that was funny??”) but the rest of us knew it wasn’t necessarily just a “bit”.
And most of us knew why it was funny. Because it had to be.
We think of ourselves…and our onstage therapy sessions. And our unfortunate ability to fully relate to that moment where they decided to call it all off…or at least imagine we can.
But, worse, we know that, if we didn’t see it coming with one…we won’t see it coming with another.
And, as we watch the comedy community band together, once again, comforting each other, sharing stories, we commiserate, drink, pay tribute to our fallen friend, acquaintance, neat girl we shared a stage with every couple weeks or so…we’re comforted. And haunted. And scared.
Because we know, maybe not after the first one, but we figure it out…that we will see this again. And people will say:
“She was so funny.”
“Oh, I just saw him, and he was fine!”
“Oh god, wasn’t she supposed to perform tomorrow??”
“She was always laughing.”
“You’re kidding, what happened?”
And we will know. Kind of. More or less.
We know that comedy and death go together like peas and carrots. Laugh or cry, but really, what where does one stop and the other begin?
It’s a grim cliché we come to accept as a hard fact after a while, after maybe the second or third person who leaves us.
But we still won’t have an answer.