COMEDY: Premature Parting Shots

Substance abuse is no joke in the world of comedy

Julie Seabaugh

Cult-hero comedian Mitch Hedberg, who died March 30 at the age of 37 in a New Jersey hotel room, was born with a congenital heart defect. His family was told he suffered a fatal heart attack, but those in the comedy industry know his cause of death may not have been that simple.

"Some are saying it was heroin, some a heart attack," comedian Steve Hofstetter says. "But whatever it was, it had to do with Mitch's lifestyle. It was widely known that Hedberg was into drugs. He even had a great joke about it. 'I used to do drugs,' he'd say. 'I still do, but I used to, too.'"

Hedberg was arrested for heroin possession in May 2003, after which he returned from a short hiatus to perform on the high-profile Comedy Central Live Tour starring Lewis Black and Dave Attell that September. The 50-plus performances were among the best of his life, but a year later, when he co-headlined a Comedy Central Live Tour with Stephen Lynch, things had deteriorated. Though he began a New York City show by assuring the audience he was "fine, whatever you may have heard," in some cities, Phoenix in particular, he blew his jokes and was unable to do much more than lie on the stage and giggle. "I've definitely learned over the years that you can't do copious amounts of drugs and stay alive," he said earlier that day. "That's not going to happen."

Drinking and drug use have enjoyed acceptance as glamorous parts of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle for generations of musicians. And plenty of artists, writers, actors and sports figures are also substance abusers. In comedy, where it's all about getting the big, spot-lit laughs, there is also a dark side.

"[Hedberg's death is] a senseless loss, and another dimming of the comedy light," says Jim Mendrinos, comedy historian and author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Comedy Writing. "Every generation has their self-destructive heroes. Those for whom life means very little, and death snuffs out their brilliance all too soon. For those few comics, the only moments that matter are the high from the stage and drugs."

Instances of comedy industry substance abuse outdate even the first rubber-chicken appearance. Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle was an alcoholic and heroin addict who was accused of raping a woman with a Coke bottle in 1921. Jerry Lewis was addicted to Percodan from 1974-78 and attempted suicide in 2002 (according to author Shawn Levy in The King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis) before checking into a Vegas rehab center for steroid dependency. Lenny Bruce fatally overdosed on what is alternately referred to as heroin or morphine in 1966. Tim Allen was arrested for cocaine possession in 1978 and a DUI in 1997 before entering alcohol rehab in 1998. Richard Pryor set himself on fire while freebasing cocaine in 1980. Brett Butler was arrested for drunk driving in 1981 and entered rehab twice for addiction to painkillers. The cocaine intakes of the earliest Saturday Night Live casts are legendary; Not-Quite-Ready-for-Prime-Time Player John Belushi succumbed to cocaine and heroin in 1982, with drug devotee Chris Farley following suit with a similar speedball in 1997. Even drug-addict poster-boy Robert Downey Jr. was an SNL cast member from 1985-86.

Does a more established public image bestow a greater determination to seek help? Or is it an advantage for comics whose lives are under less public surveillance than their A-list counterparts to wrestle their proverbial demons a bit more quietly? Jim Norton (Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn, radio's Opie & Anthony) tried to kill himself and was in and out of rehab before his high-school graduation. Though he still battles depression, he's been sober since 18. His buddy, Rich Vos (Tough Crowd, Last Comic Standing), beat a crack addiction 19 years ago. There was a time when he tried to trade his coat for drugs; today he attends Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and frequently plays benefit shows for similar causes.

But Vos' triumph is overshadowed by the story of Rick Shapiro. He grew up writing plays and poetry—and going to school drunk every day—before acting ambitions led him to New York City. As an in-debt NYU student, Shapiro turned to prostitution and picked up cocaine and heroin habits from the wealthy businessmen he catered to. He was heralded as the next Robin Williams (who had a cocaine monkey on his own back during the late '70s), but while playing a recurring character on Late Night with Conan O'Brien, and up for a regular role on Seinfeld and a leading movie role opposite Eddie Murphy, several outbursts resulted in Shapiro's dismissal from Late Night, a lost part in a Damon Wayans movie and a blown pitch meeting with the WB network. Shapiro locked himself in his apartment in a panic, finally re-emerging to enter Cedars-Sinai.

After logging months in psych wards and rehab programs, Shapiro now regularly attends 12-step meetings and has been clean for years. "I'm on more drugs now than when I was on drugs!" he exclaims when he remembers the anti-depressant pills in his pocket. He also sells bumper stickers that read, "I Sucked Dick for Heroin."

Can dependency be blamed on industry, audience and personal pressure? Does it provide the advantage of an "edge?" Or is it because, as Carol Burnett said, "Comedy equals tragedy plus time." Arbuckle's father physically and mentally abused him, and his mother died when he was 12. Lewis suffers chronic back pain after attempting an onstage back flip at the Sands in 1965; he was declared clinically dead following a 1982 heart attack and diagnosed throughout his life with prostate cancer, viral meningitis, diabetes and pulmonary fibrosis. Pryor was physically and sexually abused as a child, suffered a nervous breakdown onstage at the Aladdin in 1967 and was later diagnosed with heart trouble and multiple sclerosis. There are as many underlying predispositions as there are additional comedy talents whose battles have made headlines: Margaret Cho, Martin Lawrence, Rodney Dangerfield, Paula Poundstone, Denis Leary, etc. The list stretches farther than the line of hopeful newbies at an open-mic night.

"For years, they've tried to advance little unofficial theories like that, that more comedians come from broken homes or something," says George Carlin, who previously overcame cocaine addiction and checked himself into rehab this winter for dependency on wine and Vicodin. "But I would imagine that if you were to go through professional military, cops, bankers, and if you had some button you could push that would really show you these statistics—broken home, alcoholic father or whatever other kinds of attributes you'd want to assign—I bet you they'd come out fairly similar.

"People experience an awful lot of pain through all stages of their life, but they just don't have the skill to do comedy. They're either not verbally gifted, or they don't see the funny side of things, which is a kind of accidental gift that you're given, if you can develop it a little."

Bill Hicks and Sam Kinison, both of whom died in their 30s of causes unrelated to substance abuse, derived humor from their hard-living experiences, and Hedberg was able to develop his accidental gift, as well. "Because of acid, I now know that butter is way better than margarine," he would deadpan. Or, "My manager said, 'Don't use liquor as a crutch!' I can't use liquor as a crutch, because a crutch helps me walk."

"I actually tried to talk to him about his problems," Dave Attell said at a recent Hedberg tribute in New York City. "He laughed, and later I realized why: Me telling him to clean up was like a prostitute telling a stripper she's wearing too much makeup."

On Comedy Central's Insomniac, Attell is semi-accurately portrayed as a notorious imbiber looking for fun at all hours of the night. The show might be so successful because, as Carlin says, "The hardest-hitting, most sincere comedy revolves around or comes from the minds of those who can make sense out of and make light of pain." Drug humor from someone who has dealt with drugs is funny; drug humor from someone who hasn't is hackier than a set of mother-in-law jokes by a lifelong bachelor. Yet, if the funny-truth of such onstage behavior correlates to sad-truth behavior offstage, who's to blame when such a death as Hedberg's occurs? The performer? The comedy industry? Society at large, which rewards the sad-truth with laughter?

"When you see a man at the top of his game, who had just about everything you could ask for in this business, lose a battle to a substance like that, it should be a wake-up call to everyone," frequent Hedberg feature writer Josh Sneed noted in a March 31 website entry. "No matter what your vice is, get your life in check."

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