Death and the Comedian -- It Happens Way Too Often

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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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Jim Smith
Jim Smith

Greg Giraldo overdosed on prescription medication.

Mike DeStefano was a heroin and crack addict for years and was HIV-positive.

Angelo Bowers wasn't wearing his seatbelt.  Neither was Sam Kinison, who, by the way was on cocaine, marijuana, Xanax and Valium when he died.

Patrice O'Neal weighed 300 pounds.

Mitch Hedberg was a heroin addict.

I don't know the circumstances surrounding Kibibi Dillon, but my question, is why was she driving at 6:31 AM?  Was she drunk or stoned?  For some reason, in the comedy business there's this peer pressure to stay up all night after shows partying. Why? We perform for working people and the shows are usually over by 11 PM or midnight at the latest.  There is absolutely no need to stay up late. Besides, all the bad stuff happens after midnight.

Somehow, this kind of behavior is excused just because we are "artists". I know a comedian who has no health insurance, yet he bought his fiancée an $8000 engagement ring.  I know of another Australian comedian who stays up all night drinking and partying, wakes up at 4 PM and eats the same breakfast – bacon and eggs and sausage, washed down with coffee.  He can't perform anymore because of stomach problems and has left the country to go back to Australia to get medical care. What on earth do you expect?

One cannot constantly engage in this kind of stupid behavior and expect to survive.   

I'm sorry to be harsh, but in almost every case, the comedians' own stupidity and negligence contributed to their deaths.  Think of it as evolution in action. 

RIP KIBIBI
RIP KIBIBI

Kibibi wasn't driving at 6:31 AM. That's when she was found. The accident most likely happened around 1:30 AM, very shortly after she wrapped up an incredible set at Dorsey's Locker. I was with her before it happened. She was clear-headed and sharp as a tack. On a side note, I believe the article acknowledges your concerns--drug use, late nights, unhealthy habits--and speaks to the causes of such problems realistically, referencing outside pressures and internal responsibility.

Pablo
Pablo

Hey Kamau, excellent essay. I dont think most non-comedy nerds realise this stuff. Was pointed to it by the splitsider site. I dont know if you remember me, but this is Pablo, I worked at the punchline for a couple years back in 2001/02 or so. Good to see you are still keeping it up, greetings from wintry Berlin!

hamppy tabb
hamppy tabb

But the most recent ones, Kibibi Dillon and Angelo Bowers,hadn't yet achieved enough to merit mainstream recognition. But theyare remembered by their friends and family and the comedy community.Angelo's people have even dedicated Twitter handle to his jokes.Hertz orlando fl

Comicslove
Comicslove

Thanks for honoring the craft with this article.

Mike Strong
Mike Strong

Good article Kamau, but I think you got the title wrong; it should have been: Death and The Comedian -- It Happens Way Too Soon.

Everyone dies, but the people we love, it seems, - die too soon ...

Endless hours of waiting, writing, smoking, 3 am pancake breakfasts at The Lucky Penny, and long, stoned drives down dark roads listening to weird shit on the radio take their toll.

... take care of yourselves comedians. Eat healthy, get some exercise, and take care of your teeth !

m. strong

zengfoo
zengfoo

No way man that dude is like totally rocking. Wow.www.Total-Privacy dot US

Guest
Guest

Great blog posting.  My advice: learn to meditate. Great for the health, great for keeping the emotions steady, and the quieter the mind gets, the more creativity has room to blossom.  Find a path to develop a daily practice -- it's cheaper and much more effective when practiced on a regular basis -- when compared to you know, doing it right before that big show.  Be well! :~)

kreisler
kreisler

I'm a comic. I self insure thru freelancers union. Last year, had a check up b/c i was having a kid. A series of tests later, i was getting heart surgery. Got no family history, actually eat healthy, dont smoke... But i got stress. I also got lucky & caught it.

Comics: go splurge on a physical & some tests.

Evilclownshoess
Evilclownshoess

I am musician never really had to worry about being up there alone be listening to to Jim Norton  Bob Kelly And all the comics that go on O&A i have such a great respect for you Guys!

Rajeev Dhar
Rajeev Dhar

I try telling people this all the time. Being a comic (or a performer) isn't often fun. And if you have a day job like me it's tough trying to stay out late to get stage time without getting bored or restless or jittery about one's fluctuating energy, which inevitably makes healthy choices harder to manage and morning of regret common enough to screw with establishing a routine. Thanks for this article. More intelligent discourse on our medium is needed an welcome. It really got to me.

Evilclownshoess
Evilclownshoess

I got to meet  Patrice at the O&A virus show he came from backstage to watch jim breuer onstage in like 5 years. there was a extra seat so my chick told him have a seat. he look at me and asked how much do i pay here to hang with me. Listening to him made you forget color or race. I don't want to be one of those dicks that attaches him self to stuff. I lost my job  and i was more screwed up or Patrice then much else. 

Also support his family buy his shit from I tunes!  

I cant wait for " Mr P " to come out.

A ton of love to Patrice Family Evil Zeke

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