One year ago Robin Williams was still with us, Joan Rivers was alive, and Bill Cosby was a comedy icon and role model.
The loss of these three living legends has changed the face of comedy. It’s been a long and emotionally charged year for comedy fans and each of these events have left marks on the genre that will resonate for years to come.
One year ago Tuesday, the world was stunned to learn that not only had we lost one of our generation’s greatest comedians — Robin Williams– but also that he had taken his own life. It was unthinkable. Such a devastating loss to millions of fans, and the details of William’s suicide were unspeakable. It was particularly shocking because Williams’ performances embodied the lightest and the brightest side of comedy, with fans of all generations finding joy in his performances, and so suicide was unimaginable. Everyone who knew Robin personally spoke of a person so generous, so selfless that when he met fans, he would be more interested in hearing about their lives, than speaking about his own. He was giving of his time and attention, and nobody had a bad word to say about him. The world has lost many comedians to suicide, overdoses, and other troubling deaths before, but never one as infamous, as celebrated as Robin, and certainly never someone who projected such joy and delight during performances.
We’re all still in shock at the enormity of the loss. Not only did we lose an incredible performer, but we started to question whether the people who made us laugh and smile might not be as untroubled as we thought. Even after we later learned that Robin’s suicide may have been caused by a rare neurodegenerative disease, fans of comedy were now wondering whether there wasn’t a darker side to comedy than they realized.
It was only 17 days later on August 28th that vibrant comedy legend Joan Rivers went in to a surgical center for a simple procedure. She was put under anesthesia and at some point during the procedure complications ensued. She would never wake from that procedure and died on September 4th. If it had been possible to create a hierarchy of living stand up comedy performers Joan would have been sitting right at the top of the pyramid. But like most comedy legends, Joan was so much more than just one of the funniest people on the planet. She was the guardian of the idea that comedy didn’t have to be politically correct. Not only did Joan fiercely defend the right to joke about everything and everyone including race, religion, physical appearance, politics, and social issues– she was willing to take great personal risks to abide by her principles. She regularly took down sacred cows and she did it with razor-sharp wit, making you laugh at your own views and even reconsider them.
In May of 2014 we called Joan the bravest performer in comedy. She was. Her no-bullshit attitude and refusal to concede to demands for apologies were an important safeguard against PC nonsense. Her voice can not been duplicated and the void she left may be irreplaceable.
Then in late October, another bombshell. Bill Cosby– America’s dad, one of the most influential performers in comedy, and a man whose influence on the Civil Rights movement was arguably as far-reaching as Martin Luther King– was exposed as a sexual predator, with dozens of women coming forward alleging that Cosby drugged and assaulted them. Prior to last October, Cosby was considered by almost every performer in the business to be one of the most influential in comedy history. His name was uttered along with the likes of Carlin and Pryor, his albums praised by many comedians as being the inspiration that drew them to the art. If there were a Mount Rushmore of Comedy, there is little doubt he would be one of the faces carved in stone. And the in October fellow comic Hannibal Buress made a joke about Cosby and rape that went viral, and information started to come out that had previously been stuffed into corners and under seat cushions and hats for years. There was immediate outcry denouncing Cosby, and over the months that followed more of his defenders would come to the conclusion that they could no longer support him. We learned he wasn’t a nice man. He wasn’t a moral man. And he wasn’t in a position to judge others.
But where did that leave us as far as his comedy? Was it still brilliant? It’s a question that hasn’t really been answered yet. Since October, networks, corporations and individuals have raced to disassociate with Cosby, not only in the present and future, but even in the past. Comedians asked for their recommendations to be removed from books, murals have been painted over, contracts have been cancelled. It has been a death in many ways, that nobody knows quite how to mourn.
The fast and far-reaching rush to disassociate with Cosby may be understandable, but there’s also a troublesome side to making swift and final pronouncements. In the short time since, we’ve already seen “cutting ties” start to become de rigueur when controversy breaks out as companies run to escape scandal and hope to score positive pr points with the public. Both Hulk Hogan and Donald Trump have felt the effects, and anyone who has ever worked around a confederate flag. Where the ‘whitewashing’ effects will land and whether it will prove to be positive or negative has yet to be fully seen but you can expect to see far more ‘hand washing’ from corporate and social media America in the year to come.
The losses of three of our comedy heroes were not the only momentous changes in comedy this year. We watched finale shows for five of our most influential Late Night Talk Show hosts, leaving us with Kimmel and Conan as our only Late Night veterans holding on to their longterm time slots. Chelsea Handler, Craig Ferguson, David Letterman and Jon Stewart all left their posts this year and each host had their own unique contributions. Handler became the first strong female voice in Late Night since Joan Rivers’ short lived stint in 86, and launched dozens of comedy careers whose voices weren’t heard on other networks. Stewart was able to show that comedy could be smarter, as he routinely introduced his audiences to new ideas, new authors, and became the first mainstream Late Night talk show to regularly and directly call out politicians, members of the media and corporations while still being comedic. Ferguson brought a similar disregard for the status quo to Late Late Night. And Letterman was a giant who changed more than late night talk, he actually changed comedy when he premiered Late Night with David Letterman at NBC. When he moved to CBS, his support of stand up comedy performance went above and beyond the other hosts, and in the industry, getting on Letterman was a rite of passage, a sign that you had “made it” leaving us to wonder if stand up comedy still has a home in Late Night. Late Night suffered another loss this year; Stephen Colbert decided to retire his “character” when he signed up to take over for Letterman at CBS. We don’t yet know what Stephen at Home will bring to Late Night but his character’s addition to the late night mosaic will be missed.
Late Night has always been in flux with someone coming or going, but the gigantic waves made this year, particularly with Letterman and Stewart hosting their last shows, will undoubtably have a lasting impact. With so many late shows already angling toward a YouTube friendlier format, the loss of two of the strongest holdouts against viral programming could mean a permanent shift in Late Night television.
When Sony Pictures made the decision to pull the Seth Rogen movie The Interview from theaters on Christmas Day in December 2014, the comedy industry shuddered. The decision was made in response to terroristic threats from a group with ties to North Korea who were unhappy with the film’s portrayal of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. The threats followed on the heels of a massive hack of Sony’s computer systems, which resulted in scandal, embarrassment and firings as unflattering private emails were made public. The film was ultimately released anyway, in a handful of independent theaters and online, but the damage had been done. And if anyone had the illusion that terroristic threats to comedy couldn’t be real, those illusions were shattered in January of this year when an attack on the Paris offices of satire magazine Charlie Hebdo left 12 cartoonists dead. There was nothing hypothetical about the devastating attack. The repercussions of these events will be long lasting and unquantifiable. You will never know which projects will never be made, that will never even be pitched, or will never receive financing as a direct result of these events.
It’s been a tough 365 for comedy, and there have been other major events with good and bad effects as there are every year. But with the deaths of Robin and Joan, both legends of the highest magnitude, both deaths well before their time, and both losses leaving us feeling they should have been preventable, this year seems harder than most. As the first anniversaries of these events all come to pass we’ll likely re-live some and analyze the effects of others. Tomorrow the anniversary of Robin Williams passing will be the first. Take some time if you can, and enjoy the art of one of the greatest performers of our lifetime.