News

The Tragic Side of Comedy

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | May 25, 2013

"There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt."
Erma Bombeck

Years ago I heard someone describe comedy as “tragedy plus time.” Perhaps we didn’t have our driver’s license to check in at the airport, or we dropped the bowl of spaghetti just as we were about to serve it to our guests, or we got caught in a downpour without an umbrella. At the time they happened, these things were not funny but today they probably make us smile.

But Erma Bombeck’s “thin line” is referencing something much more serious about comedy and I have been pondering it ever since I watched the gripping television documentary titled “The Tragic Side of Comedy.” As I listened to the tragedies surrounding the 10 featured comedians, all who had untimely deaths, the humor they were known for didn’t seem so funny anymore.

Some of these deaths were the results of personal excesses. John Belushi, Richard Pryor, Freddie Prinze and Chris Farley all got caught up in various kinds of substance abuse including drugs and alcohol. These behaviors took a toll on their bodies. Some tried rehab but positive change just did not come and their lives ended way too soon.

The documentary showed clips of these four men whose comedy was often very funny but the way they often laced their humor with foul language seemed to give the emerging comedy culture a coarse and sometimes vulgar tone. After their deaths I wondered if those darker parts of their humor, which made me stop listening rather than laughing, were really an extension of what was going on inside of them.

Phil Hartman died from addictions but they were not his own; they were his wife’s. Someone was once described this fellow comedian as “one of the great straight men in comedy.” Sadly, his third wife shot him three times and then committed suicide while being on a cocktail of drugs and alcohol. He ended up as collateral damage to someone else’s darkness.

Bernie Mac had sarcoidosis and he died because he worked too hard and too long and didn’t take care of himself. He kept going and going and going. Someone said, “Some comedians fall to their vices, others fall to the forces of those around them.” Since he did not take care of himself, his disease worsened and he died.

At age 31, Bill Hicks felt pains on the left side of his body and all too quickly pancreatic cancer ended his life.

Sam Kinison grew-up in a religious family and soon became known as a comedian who took his comedy as close to the edge as he could. Most listeners who had a religious background were often offended by the way he referenced religious matters. He was known for living large and seemed to be finding some help with A.A. meetings. But on a beautiful day, while clean from his excesses, a drunk driver who had his own excesses struck his car and killed him. Someone called it, “The definition of irony.”

The tenth comedian, Richard Jeni, committed suicide three months after his first sign of depression.

During the documentary other comedians shared reflections on these ten men. They talked about their personal and public lives, as well as this uncanny mix of tragedy and comedy.

One of them said, “There is a dark side to comedy. You don’t get your happiness from yourself; you get it by trying to get people to laugh.”

Parker Palmer writes about living a “divided life” where a chasm exists between our public side and our private side. Without “hidden wholeness,” Palmer says we suffer and all of those around us suffer. Palmer speaks of a “fault line” which goes through the middle of our lives and can split us apart.

Without a “hidden wholeness,” the line between comedy and tragedy may disappear.

Think about it.


Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
Responses can be mailed to president@vfcc.edu 
Official page: Facebook.com/DrDonMeyer