Comedians Who Died Tragically

Pagliacci, the masterpiece opera composed by Ruggero Leoncavallo about a tormented clown, is a perfect mirror for the individuals on this list. The idea that comedy is derived from some sort of pain has been variously attributed to quotes by towering comedic figures such as Mark Twain, Lenny Bruce, and Steve Allen, according to The Critical Comic. Even something "lowbrow" like slapstick comedy, per Britannica, requires "absurd situations, and vigorous, usually violent action."

Pain seems to be necessary to produce a laugh from the audience, and comedians seemingly have to tap into pain, either internal or external, to become successful at their craft. Comedian Sarah Silverman said in a documentary titled Laughing Matters on the relationship between comedy and subjects like mental health and trauma, "Humor is how we all survive. I think a lot of people find humor in the darkest places." As with authors and musicians, this pain sometimes becomes too great for many comedians, and they turn to sex, drugs, or alcohol to numb themselves. In other cases, life treats them like any other person in terms of diseases or fatal incidents that they have no control over. Here are a few comedians who both made their audiences laugh and who passed away tragically.

Lenny Bruce became a counterculture icon before overdosing

From Dustin Hoffman's Oscar-nominated portrayal of him in the 1974 biopic Lenny to his award-winning portrayal by Luke Kirby on the Amazon Prime show The Marvelous Mrs. MaiselLenny Bruce's life has been a point of interest for many people. Bruce became a counterculture icon in the late 1950s and 1960s, with his controversial comedic style and eventual arrests on "obscenity charges" throughout his career, most infamously after a 1964 show in New York.

As a comedian, Bruce combined social criticism and an edgy style with a colorful vocabulary and improvised style similar to that of a jazz musician. Bruce is ranked the third greatest comedian of all time by Rolling Stone, behind only George Carlin and Richard Pryor.

However, his style eventually led to his downfall. In 1961, he was arrested in San Francisco for "obscenity" following his act. The authorities would follow Bruce throughout his career afterward, making it harder and harder for him to earn a living and adding stress, coupled with his drug addiction. On March 31 and April 1, 1964, Bruce performed at the Café Au Go Go in New York, shows for which he was arrested and eventually convicted of violating obscenity laws in a highly publicized case, according to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Thirty-seven years later, Bruce's conviction would be posthumously overturned. On August 3, 1966, Bruce died of a morphine overdose in Hollywood Hills, California.

Pancreatic cancer took away Bill Hicks

In June 1993, Bill Hicks was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died the following February at 32, leaving behind a massive comedic legacy. Much like Lenny Bruce in the 1950s and '60s, Hicks achieved cult status (in the United States at least) throughout his comedic career and has become more known and celebrated following his early death.

Hicks grew his audience and comedic style through relentless touring in the late 1980s and working in the Houston-based "Comedy Workshop" while a part of the Texas Outlaw Comics, a group of young comedians that famously included Sam Kinison. According to Britannica, Hicks did about 300 shows a year for a five-year period. He drew comparisons to the likes of George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, and Richard Pryor for tackling "taboo" subjects in society such as the First Amendment, advertisement, religion, and substance abuse. Britannica described his later comedy as "ontological," discussing human existence itself.

Like Lenny Bruce, these subjects limited his commercial viability in the United States outside of an intense cult following, though Hicks, unlike Bruce, saw great success overseas. Unfortunately, Hicks was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died from the disease within nine months. One of his last appearances was on the Late Show with David Letterman, a slot which became infamous for Letterman cutting the entire set to avoid controversy, enraging Hicks. In 2009, Letterman invited on Hicks' mother, Mary Hicks, to apologize and played the entire performance.

Chris Farley lived fast and died young

Similar to how Kobe Bryant was seen as the heir to Michael Jordan, Chris Farley was seen as the next John Belushi when he appeared on Saturday Night Live. Belushi and Farley were robust men who could steal a sketch with seemingly endless energy. Unfortunately, Farley also carried the same demons that Belushi held — demons which ultimately ended both their lives.

Farley joined SNL in 1990, and during his five-year tenure on the show, he became one of its most celebrated actors. Rolling Stone ranked him as the No. 15 all-time SNL cast member. His sketches like the Chippendales audition and Matt Foley: Van Down By The River became some of the most memorable bits of any era. Following his time on the show, he starred with his SNL co-star David Spade on the films Tommy Boy and Black Sheep.

While Farley's career was on the rise, his personal life was marred with drug and alcohol addiction. Farley was eventually let go from SNL in 1995, though he returned two years later with hosting duties. The New Yorker reported in a 2015 piece that Farley "had lost his voice during a dress rehearsal, and was breathless throughout the live broadcast." Less than two months after hosting the show, Farley died of a cocaine and morphine overdose (known as a speedball) at the age of 33, the same age and the same combination of drugs that killed John Belushi in 1982.

Gilda Radner died of ovarian cancer

As one of the original cast members on Saturday Night Live, Gilda Radner earned herself an Emmy award in 1978. The New York Times commented on her 1979 stage show Gilda Radner: Live From New York that "she combines the physical humor of Lucille Ball with the diverse characters of Lily Tomlin." Radner's influence can be seen in popular television characters such as Elaine Benes from Seinfeld and Liz Lemon from 30 Rock, per The Guardian.

It's not surprising that both actresses for these characters, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Tina Fey, were themselves SNL alumni. After leaving the show, Gilda appeared in few movies throughout the 1980s, often ones that featured her eventual husband, comedian Gene Wilder. The two met on the set of 1982's Hanky Panky and married two years later. 

In 1986, Radner started to suffer from a myriad of issues, such as cramping, bleeding, weight loss, and aching, to name a few. During this time, she and Wilder were attempting to have a child. Eventually, after visits to multiple doctors and a number of medications prescribed to her and misdiagnosis after misdiagnosis, Radner was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. According to Wilder, her reaction after months of doctors misdiagnosing her and questioning the severity of her ailments was, "Thank God, someone believes me!" Unfortunately, Radner would die in May 1989 at age 42 from the disease.

Flip Wilson died of liver cancer

As the radical activism of the 1960s turned to the 1970s, Flip Wilson's popular comedy program, The Flip Wilson Show, illustrated how far the nation had come in terms of race relations. While Wilson was not the first African American to host his own television program, the popularity of his show led Time to refer to Wilson as "TV's First Black Superstar." His popular character of Geraldine, a sassy and unfettered Black woman, can be seen in other drag characters such as Jaime Foxx's Wanda and Martin Lawrence's Sheneneh Jenkins. 

Wilson understood his role as a popular Black comedian palatable for a white audience."A show hosted by a black had never been accepted," he said. "I may have been the first black in the house." In this way, Wilson played the role of Joe Louis in boxing, staying clear of the political turbulence of his time in order to put a foot in the door for future Black comedians to be free to discuss anything.

By the 1980s, Wilson had left show business to focus on his family, though he would struggle with drug addiction during this period. He returned in 1985 to play the father in the CBS series Charlie & Co, which was considered an answer to NBC's The Cosby Show. It ran for only one season. Wilson would pass away from liver cancer at the age of 64 in 1998.

Bernie Mac succumbed to sarcoidosis

Between his explicit stand-up and movie characters and his role as a sitcom dad on his eponymous show, Bernie Mac was as diverse of a comedian as he was fearless. He came to the comedic center stage when he told a raucous crowd at HBO's Def Comedy Jam, "I ain't scared of you muthaf*ckers," to applause and laughs in 1992.

Bernard McCollough spent the 1980s working a variety of jobs in Chicago to care for his wife and child while working on his comedy routine at night and during the weekend. After his Def Comedy routine, he gained notoriety for being a no-nonsense comedian. Throughout the rest of the '90s, he got bit roles for a number of shows and films before he hit it big at the turn of the century when he co-starred in the 2000 Spike Lee-directed documentary The Original Kings of Comedy with D.L. Hughley, Cedric the Entertainer, and Steve Harvey. The next year, The Bernie Mac Show made its way to television.

Privately, Mac had spent decades fighting sarcoidosis, a disease that inflames tissues and attacks the lungs. On the morning of August 9, 2008, Bernie Mac went into cardiac arrest and died from complications of pneumonia. His fellow King of Comedy, Cedric the Entertainer, said of Mac, according to The Root, "He was just our comedian. He was just the black folks' comedian and he was a secret."

Sam Kinison's haunting last words

Sam Kinison began the 1980s as a former fire and brimstone Pentecostal preacher trying to make it as a comedian. He ended the '80s as one of the decade's most successful comedians, known for his routine that would have gotten him kicked out of every church in the nation.

Kinison was the angry man of comedy, known for his iconic scream and explicit rants about different subject matters. In the early 1980s, he was a part of the Texas Outlaw Comics, with Bill Hicks and others, where he refined his routine. Hicks said of Kinison, according to GQ, "What I learned from Sam was this. He was the first guy I ever saw to go on stage and not in any way ask the audience to like him. That gave me confidence because then I knew you could just be yourself."

On April 5, 1992, Kinison married his girlfriend Malika Souiri. Five days later, Kinison was traveling to Nevada for a show when he was struck head-on by a pickup truck. According to Final Words Project, Kinison carried on a conversation with seemingly no one just before he died. Kinison was pleading that he did not want to die, asked no one in particular why he had to die, and then seemingly accepted an answer, saying "Okay, okay, okay." Kinison died at the age of 38.

Robin Williams' suicide left many shocked

Robin Williams became a star with characters such as the alien Mork in Mork and Mindy, voicing the Genie in Disney's Aladdin, and his more serious roles in films such as Dead Poets Society and his Academy Award-winning role in Good Will Hunting. Outside of the small and large stage, his comedy specials were filled with improvisation and characters he could break into, like a comedic Swiss army knife.

At the same time, Williams struggled throughout his career with depression and addiction to drugs and alcohol. The phrase "tears of a clown" fit Williams like a glove both on and off the stage. He kicked his cocaine habit following the death of friend John Belushi, who had been with Williams the night before his fatal overdose, though Williams struggled with alcohol and depression for the remainder of his life.

Months before his suicide, Williams was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Cheri Minns, Williams' makeup artist on one of his final films, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, said to Vanity Fair that Williams "wasn't in good shape" and "was sobbing in my arms at the end of every day." People close to him said he was losing weight, and it was becoming harder and harder to hide the effects of his condition. On August 11, 2014, Williams committed suicide. After his death and autopsy, it was discovered Williams actually had Lewy body dementia. 

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Mitch Hedberg predicted his death four years in advance

In a 2001 interview with Penthouse, Mitch Hedberg said when asked how he'd end his life: "First, I'd want to get famous, and then I'd overdose. If I overdosed at this stage in my career, I would be lucky if it made the back pages."

Mitch Hedberg's comedy was a bit of a throwback, as it relied more on clever puns and a quick wit, similar to that of Rodney Dangerfield or Jerry Seinfeld, the latter of whom he was compared to by Time. Entertainment Weekly referred to him as "comedy's Kurt Cobain." Much like the rock star, Hedberg seemed very uncomfortable with his popularity, many times mumbling his lines and keeping his head down and voice low. Also like Cobain, Hedberg was heavily addicted to drugs, an issue he fought throughout his life.

Hedberg developed a passionate cult following who would be able to shout his punchlines before he could finish the jokes he set up. Unfortunately, Hedberg was unable to overcome his drug dependency. On March 30, 2005, he was found dead in his hotel room from a heroin and cocaine overdose. Thirteen days prior, Hedberg appeared on The Howard Stern Show and said that he had his drug problem "under control." He was 37 years old. Marc Maron said about Hedberg's influence to Vice, "He's one of those guys that you'll hear in other comics. Just a hint of Mitch."

Freddie Prinze shot himself

Before he was out of his teens, Freddie Prinze was already a popular television and comedy star, and then he died at age 22. His career lasted less than five years, but he still left a large legacy with his show Chico and the Man, his appearances on celebrity roasts, and his stand-up.

In 1979, CBS made a television movie about Prinze's life titled Can You Hear the Laughter?: The Story of Freddie Prinze. Producer Peter Greenberg said of Prinze, "He never got a chance to think. He was moving too fast." By 16, Prinze was already using cocaine, and he took tons of Quaaludes, according to Entertainment Weekly. His big break came in 1973, when he had a great performance on The Tonight Show, leading to his sitcom-starring breakthrough the next year on Chico and the Man with co-star Jack Albertson.

By 1977, however, Prinze had become depressed and dependent on drugs. His marriage was crumbling, and he worried about being separated from his child. On January 28, 1977, while his manager Marvin Snyder was present, Prinze shot himself in the head and died the next day, per The New York Times. His death was originally declared a suicide, but Prinze's family launched a civil case, leading to his death being declared accidental because of the actor's hobby of playing Russian roulette, according to CBS News.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

John Candy suffered a heart attack

With his roles in films such as Uncle Buck and Planes Trains, and Automobiles, John Candy became known for being a comedic star who played warm-hearted characters. This made his 1994 death from a heart attack even more painful, as people loved Candy's characters for both their humor and heart.

Candy spent the 1970s and 1980s acting in television (such as on the award-winning comedy program Second City Television) as well as playing minor characters on film, only obtaining lead roles in two critically panned movies, Summer Rental and Armed and Dangerous. 1987 would be Candy's breakout year in cinema, co-starring in Mel Brooks' Star Wars parody Spaceballs and the holiday classic Planes, Trains, and Automobiles with Steve Martin. The next seven years would see Candy star or co-star in a number of classic family comedies such as Uncle Buck, The Great Outdoors, and Cool Runnings.

On March 4, 1994, Candy died of a heart attack at 43 as he finished filming his penultimate movie Wagons East. Years later, REELZ released a docuseries, Autopsy: The Last Hours of..., which focused on the deaths of celebrities. According to the series' host, forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Hunter, career setbacks would drive Candy, who struggled with obesity throughout his life, to episodes of binge-eating. Dr. Hunter also named Candy's cigarette addiction and cocaine use as contributing factors to his fatal heart attack.