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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Death and the Comedian -- It Happens Way Too Often

Posted By on Wed, Jan 11, 2012 at 8:00 AM

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Comedians die. It sucks. It totally sucks. And worse, it seems to be happening with more frequency. Maybe it is the fault of the Internet that I now hear about comics dying that I never met. Four comics -- that I know of -- died in the past year. Two of them Patrice O'Neal and Mike DeStefano were known enough that they got some mainstream media coverage. But the most recent ones, Kibibi Dillon and Angelo Bowers, hadn't yet achieved enough to merit mainstream recognition. But they are remembered by their friends and family and the comedy community. Angelo's people have even dedicated Twitter handle to his jokes.

The thing that mostly sucks about all of these comics' deaths is what usually sucks when a comic dies (Mitch Hedburg, Greg Giraldo, Freddy Soto) -- it feels like they could have been avoided. To me it feels like the lifestyle of being a comic was also partially responsible in their deaths, not just a stroke (O'Neal), or a heart attack (DeStefano), or a car accident (Dillon), or a drunk driver (Bowers). The profession of stand-up comedy is way more risky than people -- even comics -- like to think.

We stay up late. Many of us drink and/or do other substances on the job. Much of this is done with the encouragement of our co-workers and management. Do you have a job like that? We have huge emotional swings. "I KILLED! I'M INVICINBLE!" to "I ATE IT! I'M THE WORST!" And these can happen in one night if there are two shows. We spend lots of time on the road by ourselves wondering what we are doing with our lives, taking less money than we think we deserve to do shows we might not do if we had other options. And that leaves lots of free time for bad decisions, like too many substances, too many of the wrong people, and too many pancakes at 3 a.m. Late at night is also when you get in a car exhausted after a gig (or several) and when drunk drivers tend to kill people.

Stand-up comedy doesn't come with medical insurance, dental or vision coverage, career counseling, shop stewards, therapists, not the broken promise of a pension, and not even someone in human resources to scream at. So when the shit hits the fan, it's all on you. I remember when it was all on SF comic Dan Crawford, who died of the flu because his only choice of medical help was an emergency room -- an emergency room that sent him home because he seemed fine. Right now it is all on comedian Josh Adam Meyers, who was in the car with Bowers and is now in the hospital. And it is all on legendary comedian Ron Shock, who recently was diagnosed with urethral cancer.

I don't want this to sound like whining. When it is great, comedy is glorious. And many Americans -- not just comedians -- have the burden of no support when things go bad. But most comics don't talk about this for fear of appearing something close to human. Nobody wants to hear us complaining about the life they imagine filled with laughter. To be clear, I didn't know any of the four comics who recently died. I had met Kibibi and Patrice only once, but it still sucks. A guy I barely know, who knows I'm a comic, said to me, "I heard Patrice died." As if Patrice were my cousin. It's like we are all an extended dysfunctional family.

A couple of days ago I received a survey from The Actors Fund asking about the risks and stresses of stand-up comedy. It came from Ted Alexandro, the brilliant New York comedian. When I asked him why he was involved, he responded, "I was happy to assist because, like you, I felt concerned and upset about several our colleagues dying without health insurance or sometimes in dire financial straits. I agree with you that some of these deaths can be prevented and pain can be alleviated along the way."

Let's hope so.

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Kamau's Komedy Korner is a weekly blog column about San Francisco comedy by W. Kamau Bell. Check back next week for more.

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W. Kamau Bell

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