Perhaps no better, more influential comedic voice was more tragically cut short Bill Hicks. The comic — who should have been a household name, and would have been had he not passed prematurely — was a brilliant satirist and darkly honest comic who could eviscerate any given topic with the ferocity of a chain-smoking attack dog. Hicks died of pancreatic cancer in 1994. He was only 32 years old. Though he died too young, his legacy lives on in the comics he inspired.
- Lenny Bruce
One of the godfathers of modern stand-up comdy, Lenny Bruce fought for free speech and pushed the limits of what a comedian could say and do on stage — and came up with some classic stand-up routines in the process. Bruce, who had been a drug addict for some years, was found dead of an overdose in 1966. He was 40 years old. Comedy would not be the same without his contributions, short-lived as they may have been.
- Greg Giraldo
Like a number of comedians on this list, Greg Giraldo seemed to just be hitting his stride when he died suddenly of an accidental overdose of prescription medication in September of 2010. He was becoming quite a comedy star thanks to his killer appearances on the annual Comedy Central roasts. His comedy was smart and dark and bitingly ascerbic; he was, to put it simply, one of the best comedians of his generation.
- Mitch Hedberg
Mitch Hedberg is that rare comedian whose popularity and success came largely after he died or a drug overdose in 2005. He was the master of the aburd one-liner. It wasn’t until after he was gone that the mainstream public became aware of his genius, finally discovering his 2003 album Mitch All Together. Hedberg was on his way to becoming one of the biggest, most influential comics of his generation, and his death at age 37 was a tragic waste.
- John Belushi
- Chris Farley
Chris Farley idolized John Belushi, so it’s no surprise that the simllarites between them are uncanny: like Belushi, Chris Farley started out doing sketch comedy at Chicago’s Second City. Like Belushi, he went on to become a breakout star on Saturday Night Livebefore transitioning into popular comedy films (like Tommy Boy). And, like Belushi, Chris Farley lived too hard and was addicted to drugs and alcohol. When he died in 1997 of a drug overdose, he was 33 years old — the same age as Belushi when he died.
- Robert Schimmel
Robert Schimmel survived tremendous hardship only to be tragically killed by a random occurance. He beat cancer, survived a heart attack and lived through major marital difficulties (divorcing his wife multiple times, then marrying the best friend of his oldest daughter before separating from her, too), mining all of that pain in his brutally honest, dark stand-up routines. It’s all the more tragic, then, that Schimmel’s difficult life was cut short when he died of injuries sustained in a car accident in September of 2010.
- Andy Kaufman
Andy Kaufman was one of comedy’s greatest oddballs. From his iconic performances on Saturday Night Live (lip-synching the theme toMighty Mouse) to his supporting role as Latka Gravas on Taxi to his alternate personality as nightclub singer Tony Clifton to his late-career run as an amateur wrestler (who only wrestled women), seemingly all of Kaufman’s comedy ventures were offbeat, anti-comedy stunts. Though he lived his entire life as a health freak, Kaufman was diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer at age 34 and died just one year later. Who knows what the next phase of his comedy might have been.
You can now add Patrice O’Neal to this list, as well as others like Bernie Mac and Sam Kinnison.
To be continued…