“But I will say that most comedians are the saddest people I know. That is the biggest paradox to me.”—Jean Reno
It seems contradictory, but it’s true: the people who make us laugh are often the least happy among us. Some comedians have masked truly dark memories, tortured feelings, and destructive addictions, while others have directly drawn from those experiences in their acts. For these funny men and women, while their comedy continued to inspire millions to laugh, their own lives were negatively impacted offstage and offscreen. Their stories are often painful and sad, but we just can’t seem to look away. Here are 42 facts that shed light on the darker sides of these beloved funny folks.
43. Problem with Parents
For some people, comedy offers solace to suffering. Such was the case for Ruby Wax, whose home life growing up in Chicago was deeply troubled. Her mother suffered from an extreme case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, while her father was infamously short-tempered. Wax grew up isolated and lonely, until she turned to comedy as a mechanism. As Wax once put it, “I don’t think you’d bother standing on the stage by yourself if you had a great home life”.
42. Sick Burn…
In 1980, Richard Pryor’s cocaine addiction nearly cost him his life when he had a total mental breakdown. Pryor allegedly drenched himself in rum and set himself on fire. He suffered severe burns, but thankfully he made a full recovery and was back onstage a year later. He even included a few self-deprecating jokes about the fire incident into his acts! Now there’s the mark of a true comedy genius!
41. Maybe Talk to Someone About That?
Richard Pryor was abused by a neighbor when he was a child. This, among other things in his life, led to a period of self-medication with drugs and alcohol. Pryor also made many jokes at his own expense, using his pain for comedic purposes. However, the laughter didn’t always mask his anguish. According to Pryor’s friend, David Banks, Pryor actually had 13 personalities “and while you could deal with nine of them, the other four were a nightmare.”
40. Woman’s Best Friend
In the late 1980s, Joan Rivers was in a bad place; her husband, Edgar Rosenberg, had taken his own life, and her psychologist, with whom she’d been very close, died of AIDS. According to Rivers, she was on the cusp of suicide when her dog picked that moment to sit in her lap. As Rivers later reflected, “My little, stupid dog, a Yorkie, who I adored, literally came and sat on my lap…. and literally, he saved my life. Truly saved my life.” Rivers went back to counseling, all thanks to her dog’s heightened sense of empathy.
39. Who’s Laughing Now?
British comedian Lee Evans is known for his whacky antics and eccentric persona. However, this bumbling awkwardness is less feigned than you might think. Evans spent a large portion of his childhood being cruelly bullied, which didn’t help with his anxiety. Comedy became an escape for him and allowed him a chance to have fun without losing himself. Since then, he’s started a family, lives a grounded life, and earns his fortune by making people laugh. Wonder where those bullies are today?
38. Marriage on the Rocks
In 2014, renowned comedian Chris Rock divorced from his wife, Malaak Compton, after a marriage which had lasted nearly 20 years. Rock admitted to his unfaithfulness being a factor in the divorce, as well as a personal addiction to pornography. To paraphrase Rock’s own jokes on life, he went from being married and bored to single and lonely. Which sounds better?
37. BB Goes AA
Comedian Brett Butler’s substance dependence and her erratic behavior famously caused problems on her show, Grace Under Fire. Allegedly, she once flashed her breasts at her 12-year-old co-star, Jon Paul Steur, leading to his mother pulling him out of the show. Eventually, Butler’s behavior became too much and the show was canceled despite its popularity. What fewer people know is that Butler’s alcoholism became such a burden that she completely ran out of money due to her unchecked spending habits. She ended up needing to visit a homeless shelter until she got things sorted. As of 1998, she has been sober, and has resumed working on her career.
36. Somebody Stop Me!
Canadian comic Jim Carrey grew up in a rather unfunny home after his father lost his job when Carrey was 12. The whole family was forced to live out of a van, according to Carrey himself, and when Carrey turned 15, he dropped out of school to get a job as a janitor. Safe to say that he was one of the funniest janitors who’s ever lived! As one can imagine, having to support your family when you should be hanging out with your friends in high school put a big chip on Carrey’s shoulder. He admitted that he carried a baseball bat on his janitor cart because he would sometimes become so enraged at the unfairness of life that he would just need to hit something really hard. This certainly explains all the violence in The Mask!
35. Maybe Find an Inuit Actor?
One of the most legendary cursed projects in Hollywood is the film Atuk. Based on a book by Canadian author Mordecai Richler, Atuk is a satirical look at an Inuit man trying to live in a city. The project has never gone into production due to the fact that so many of the actors interested in playing the lead role have died before they could make good on their interest. John Belushi, John Candy, and Chris Farley all fell victim to this “curse.”
34. A Morbid Curse
Some might say that Mel Brooks’ The Producers is one of the funniest movies ever made, but in that wake of that film’s success, two of its leading actors had eerily similar fates. Both Dick Shawn (Lorenzo) and Zero Mostel (Max Bialystock) died of heart problems ten years apart from each other. Both these deaths occurred while they were onstage, performing in front of crowds who hadn’t expected to watch the entertainment literally die in front of them.
32. Marrying for Money?
Comedian Kathy Griffin spent more than four years married to Matt Moline, but the marriage ended in divorce due to “irreconcilable differences.” Griffin elaborated on some of those “differences” in a 2006 interview with Larry King, accusing her ex of stealing more than $70,000 from her without her knowledge or consent. It seems he took the term “what’s mine is yours” far too literally.
31. The Straw that Broke Chevy’s Back
While being on Saturday Night Live made Chevy Chase a star, it also led to severe back pain after years of physical comedy began while he was on the show. This led to Chase taking painkillers until he developed an addiction for them. He was admitted to the Betty Ford Clinic in 1986 to treat his addiction.
30. Oh Mother, Where Art Thou?
When Scottish comedian Billy Connolly was four years old, his mother abandoned the family while Connolly’s father was in Burma fighting with the Royal Air Force. Surprisingly, Connolly doesn’t have hard feelings over what happened—as he put it: “She was a teenager with two kids in a slum. A guy comes along and says, ‘I love you. Come with me.’ Given the choice, I think I’d have gone with him. It looks as though it might all end next Wednesday, from where you’re standing.” We’re glad that he made peace with it.
29. Ace Ventura: Accomplice
In 2015, Cathriona White, Jim Carrey’s former girlfriend, tragically died of a prescription drug overdose. Despite the fact that Carrey was a pallbearer at her funeral, White’s family later accused Carrey of using his “immense wealth and celebrity status” to provide White with the drugs which contributed to her overdose.
28. Giving Back
Before 2002, British comedian Russell Brand dabbled in illegal drug use. This ended when his agent, John Noel, caught Brand taking heroin in the bathroom at a Christmas party and convinced him to become sober. Since then, Brand has acted as a sponsor for others undergoing their own drug rehabilitation.
27. That’s not Funny…
Sadly, drug use wasn’t the end of Brand’s controversies. While he was hosting the “Russell Brand Show” on BBC Radio, Brand invited fellow British comedian and talk show host Jonathan Ross to join him in a series of prank phone calls to the home of actor Andrew Sachs. Each of the messages they left on Sachs’ answering machine became cruder than the previous one, with Brand eventually admitting that he had had intimate relations with Sachs’ granddaughter, Georgina Baillie. The public reacted with outrage at Brand and Ross’s antics, and Baillie has admitted that the prank calls not only violated her privacy, they damaged relations between her and her grandparents. But hey, all’s good when joking around, right?
26. Laughing That He May Not Cry
British comedian and author David Walliams made his name on Little Britain and also established his reputation with such charity work as swimming the English Chanel. What fewer people realize about Walliams is that he has battled depression for most of his life. It’s no laughing matter either (no pun intended); starting when he was just 12, Walliams has attempted suicide several times, leading him to be hospitalized when he was 18. The charity swim itself, as Walliams put it, came from a place of self-loathing, as he felt he needed to redeem himself. For our part, we hope Walliams continues to find the help he needs to live a full and happy life which he deserves.
25. Thanks, Mom
Bernie Mac became well known for his own show, as well as for appearing in movies such as Bad Santa, The Players Club, and Booty Call. It’s hard to believe that Mac had to shoulder great tragedy during his youth. He was raised by his single mother for his entire young life, and she tragically passed away when he was only 16 years old. No doubt she would have been proud to see how far her son managed to get in life.
24. But Did He Inhale?
Rodney Dangerfield has gone down as one of the funniest comedians of his time, fueling his schtick with self-deprecating jokes that made a mockery of himself and his life. Sadly, some of that feeling was genuine, as Dangerfield secretly struggled with depression throughout his life. He didn’t become open with his struggles until the 1990s. One strategy he had was to smoke marijuana to keep his negative thoughts at bay. Dangerfield allegedly spent decades of his life enjoying some herbs to put himself in a slightly better mood.
23. But I was Joking!!
Before he was a legendary comedian and movie star, a young Bill Murray was celebrating his 20th birthday by being arrested at O’Hare Airport while carrying ten pounds of cannabis. How did he get caught, you might be asking? Apparently, he was joking with a passenger beside him that he was smuggling drugs. I guess the police didn’t find the punchline very funny!
22. Pressures of Stardom
British comedian Tony Slattery became well known to TV audiences for his many television appearances, including his star-making turn on the British improv show Whose Line Is It Anyway? (bet you didn’t know that the American show is a remake!). However, Slattery began to have great difficulties in his personal life as he struggled with mental health concerns, which only got worse as he became more dependent on alcohol and drugs.
21. We All Need That Kind of Friend
Thing escalated even further when Tony Slattery’s father succumbed to cancer, which he’d been battling for some time. Slattery spent six months in 1996 simply hiding in his apartment, refusing to answer the door or the telephone. Finally, however, one of his personal friends came around and physically broke down Slattery’s front door and persuaded him to seek medical attention. Slattery later credited this friend with saving his life.
20. Mental Health Awareness
In 2006, Stephen Fry headlined a two-part television documentary titled Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive. Fry openly addressed his struggles with bipolar disorder. Aside from Fry, noted comedians Jo Brand, Griff Rhys-Jones, Tony Slattery, and actress Carrie Fisher appeared as subjects.
19. When I was a Boy…
We all start from somewhere, but it’s safe to say that Richard Pryor started in a harder place than most, making the fact that he would become one of the funniest and most successful comedians of all time that much more amazing. Pryor was the son of a prostitute and a pimp, and he lived in a brothel during his early years. Maybe that’s where some of his raunchier material came from?
18. She’s Her Own Hero
Ellen DeGeneres is one of the most famous LGBTQ figures in the entertainment industry and has served as a role model for the LGBTQ community for a long time. However, when she initially came out of the closet in 1997, her career and public life suffered greatly from a society which was much less tolerant of such openness than it is now. DeGeneres has talked of how her coming out left her unable to find work for three years, and that she was “mired in depression” for quite some time. However, her determination to be recognized for who she is endured, and she refused to let the intolerance of others keep her down.
17. Don’t Bring Me Down
When Saturday Night Live star Leslie Jones joined the cast of the Ghostbusters reboot, her online profiles across the World Wide Web were assailed with racially-charged attacks. Not only that, her website was hacked in August 2016, with pictures of her driver’s license and several private nude photos being posted. Jones refused to be kept down by these assaults, however, and even joked about the incidents when she returned to Saturday Night Live in October 2016. Now that takes some serious strength!
16. Weight Concerns
Gilda Radner’s early life was fraught with eating disorders. Radner herself commented on how she and her mother were stressed over her body weight, and this stress continued into adulthood, when she weighed as little as 93 pounds and as much as 160 at different points in her life.
15. A Tough Guy to be Around
Throughout his star-studded career, Bill Murray has gotten a reputation for clashing with people on sets. Murray and Chevy Chase once had an argument which devolved into a physical fight on the set of Saturday Night Live, minutes before Chase was to step on stage. He and his longtime friend Harold Ramis broke apart over professional disagreements on the set of Groundhog Day, only reconciling just before Ramis’s death in 2014. Lucy Liu allegedly punched Murray on the set of Charlie’s Angels when he commented that she couldn’t act. Perhaps foreshadowing these events, his frequent co-star Dan Aykroyd reportedly gave him the nickname “the Murricane.”
14. A Fateful Retreat
Renowned British national treasure Stephen Fry has long been a beloved figure on television, stage, radio, and film. Sadly, Fry has had to battle powerful demons almost from the very beginning. In 1995, Fry suffered a nervous breakdown in the middle of the theatre production Cell Mates. He ended up leaving the UK altogether, contemplating suicide before he finally re-emerged in Belgium. Fry has been open about his battles with bipolar disorder, and currently works to raise awareness of mental health problems which affect so many people such as himself on a daily basis.
13. Murder Most Foul
Renowned Saturday Night Live and Simpsons star Phil Hartman had a less-than-stellar marriage to his wife, Brynn Hartman. Brynn suffered from debilitating drug addiction, and also felt eclipsed by her husband’s fame as an actor and comedian. This all culminated one terrible night when a drugged out Brynn murdered Hartman while he slept, before turning the gun on herself as the police escorted the couple’s children from their home.
12. Didn’t Hear About This in “Delirious” or “Raw”…
When Eddie Murphy was three years old, his parents divorced. Murphy’s father, Charles Edward, was a police officer and amateur comedian who was killed in a crime of passion by a woman he was involved with. Murphy was only eight years old when it happened, and the horrible event is one of the few parts of his childhood which didn’t get mined for comedy later in his life.
11. Interesting Source of Inspiration
Raising her children by herself, Eddie Murphy’s mother was forced to see her kids put into foster care when she became too ill to look after them. Murphy and his brother stayed in foster care for a whole year. As sad as it must have been, Murphy did credit that year with helping to form his comedy and sense of humor. This makes us wonder if his foster family had a farm with a fast-talking donkey in the barn.
10. Raised by Racism
Growing up as a biracial child in South Africa, Trevor Noah’s existence was a crime according to the laws of South Africa under Apartheid. Noah’s mother was actually fined and jailed by the government because she had fallen in love with someone outside of her own race. However, that’s not where the heartbreak ends. When she remarried, her husband was abusive, and she eventually left him, but not before having two children with him. In 2009, when she finally married again, her abusive ex shot her in the leg and head, and threatened Noah. Miraculously, she survived, and he was convicted. Noah hopes that the incident will bring attention to the issue of domestic violence in his home country and abroad.
9. This Makes Cat’s in the Cradle Seem Uplifting
Tracy Morgan’s father, Jimmy, fought in the Vietnam War and returned to civilian life with an addiction to heroin (Tracy is actually named after an army friend of Jimmy’s who had died in Vietnam). Jimmy eventually abandoned his family when Tracy was six years old. Years later, in 1985, Tracy discovered that his father had contracted AIDS. Jimmy Morgan died in 1987, when Tracy was just nineteen.
8. For a Friend
Tracy Morgan’s tragic loss of his father was, sadly, just one of several concerns that he had around that time. He’d dropped out of high school to look after his ailing father, and had also gotten married and had his first child by that time. Living on welfare, Morgan tried selling drugs to make ends meet, even as his best friend suggested that Morgan try standup comedy. After his friend was murdered, Morgan began performing comedy on the street, and even earned money for his talents. His career slowly burgeoned from these humble beginnings, eventually leading him to Hollywood and prime-time television.
7. A Strange Recycling of a Name
Famous for playing Beast in the X-Men franchise, Sideshow Bob on The Simpsons, and Frasier Crane on Cheers and Frasier, Kelsey Grammer has built an impressive career for himself. However, his personal life has been rooted in terrible tragedies which threatened to undo him completely. When Grammer was a child, his father, Frank, noticed that somebody had set fire to his car. When Frank stepped outside to investigate, he was shot to death by the stranger, whose name was Arthur B. Niles. This makes us wonder how awkward it must have been when he discovered his brother on Frasier was named Niles.
6. A Fate Nobody Deserves
However, the death of his father wasn’t the last, or even the worst, tragedy to befall Kelsey Grammer. Years after that, his sister, Karen, was working at a Red Lobster which was attacked by four men seeking to rob the place. Instead of money, however, they abducted Karen, kept her in their apartment, and finally murdered her. Her body was left in a trailer park for her brother to identify a week later. How Grammer could even laugh at any kind of joke again after that is a testament to his strength of character.
5. Insult to Injury
Bill Hicks was an incredibly respected and beloved standup comic who inspired the likes of Dave Attell, Lewis Black, Joe Rogan, Patton Oswalt, and David Cross. Tragically, he died of pancreatic cancer at the tender age of 32, but to make his life even harder in his final years, his once friend Denis Leary was widely accused of stealing Hicks’ material whole-cloth in his special No Cure for Cancer.
4. Method Man
Carrey is known for completely becoming Andy Kaufman for Man on the Moon. He had people call him Andy and constantly took things a bit too far while filming. This got on the cast and crew’s nerves, and at one point he got so caught up in the role that he spit in Jerry Lawler’s face, who then went after Carrey and tried to choke him. Carrey became so fixated on the role of Kaufman that he claims “Jim Carrey” didn’t exist during the filming of the movie and instead he was possessed by the spirit of Kaufman. It’s also worth noting that Carrey said he had a psychotic breakdown while filming Man on the Moon, which might contribute to the whole possession theory.
3. Starting Another Age Club
Movie star and beloved comic Chris Farley was perhaps a little too inspired by the equally beloved John Belushi. Both men were overweight comedians who got their big breaks on Saturday Night Live. Sadly, both men also struggled with substance abuse problems which led to their deaths by overdose. To add a final haunting detail, Farley and Belushi both died at the age of 33.
2. There but for the Grace of God Go I
In the case of John Belushi, his tragic end did inspire a fellow comedian to kick his drug habits. In 1982, Robin Williams was still working on Mork & Mindy when he spent an evening with Belushi, bonding over drinks and cocaine. Belushi was found dead the next day, much to Williams’ shock and dismay. He immediately began his own path to sobriety, fearing the same fate that his friend had suffered. And while we all know that wasn’t the end of Williams’ troubles, we can take solace in his personal triumph over drug addiction saving him from an even more tragic end than that which eventually claimed his life.
1. A Friend in Need
Everyone knows that Robin Williams struggled with drugs and depression prior to his suicide. But most people don’t know that one of his co-stars from Jumanji, Bradley Pierce, confessed that Williams had been an inspiration, motivating Pierce to talk openly about his own struggles with depression. Despite his own troubles, stories about Williams helping his co-stars through their problems, especially his young co-stars, abound. After his death, one of his Mrs. Doubtfire co-stars revealed a damning letter Williams wrote, which was addressed to her school principal. Lisa Jakub, who played Lydia Hillard, was expelled from her school after she spent too long on the set of Mrs. Doubtfire, and Williams reacted by sending an amazing and critical missive to the school’s administrator. In it, he wrote that “a student of her caliber and talent should be encouraged to go out in the world and learn through her work,” and asked him to reconsider his policy. What a fine friend and advocate.
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