Depression is so prevalent among comedians that it’s practically a cliche – “Tears of a Clown” and all that. Various theories abound as to why that is – some say that stand-up is a form of therapy, used by comedians to release their inner anguish. Others say that making people laugh is a serious business and the strain of it can make comedians turn to drugs or alcohol to drown their sorrows. Whatever the reasoning, there certainly is a high correlation between the people that make millions laugh and various forms of mental illness. Comedians also seem plagued by broken marriages and unhappy family relationships. So, here are the Top 10 Comedians with a Less Than Funny Personal Life.
10. Stephen Fry
British comedian Stephen Fry made his name in the 1980s, with his comedy partner Hugh Laurie and is now regarded as a national treasure. He is highly intelligent, presents a quiz show that debunks popular beliefs and he suffers from bipolar disorder. He describes it as a “disease that will never go away” and said that he filmed whole episodes of his quiz show while being so depressed he wanted to die. In 1995, he had a nervous breakdown and walked out on a play he was in in the West End. Following that, he went missing for a few days before resurfacing in Belgium. He is now the President of mental health charity Mind.
9. Robin Williams
A comic whose quickfire wit hid a barrage of personal problems. His first marriage lasted just ten years, and his affair during it saw him being sued by a cocktail waitress for infecting her with herpes. He had a cocaine addiction throughout the 1970s and 80s, until the death of his friend John Belushi gave him what he describes as a “wake-up call” and he went into rehab. He later returned to rehab when he started drinking again in 2006. He later admitted on TV that he was lucky to be alive still and it would have been a tragic waste of talent if he had died because of his excesses. Fortunately, even when he started drinking again, he resisted the lure of cocaine because he said “I knew that would kill me”. He continues to get help for his addictions.
8. John Belushi
John Belushi, however, was not so lucky. After partying with Robin Williams for years, he died on March 5 1982 at Chateau Marmont, on the Sunset Strip. He had been out drinking and retired back to the hotel for more drinking and drugs. Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro came by at 3am and then left Belushi for the rest of the night. He finally went to sleep at 9:30am, after injecting himself with a heroin and cocaine speedball, but was found dead at lunchtime. Prior to his death, he was a hugely successful comedian, co-creating cult film “The Blues Brothers”, but his addictions overwhelmed him and the comedy world lost a rising star. It did, however, serve as stark warning to his celebrity friends that it could happen to them too.
7. Charlie Sheen
This was one star who failed to keep his private and professional lives separate. While other comedians sustained their careers while battling addictions, Charlie Sheen’s very public meltdown caused him to be fired from his hit show “Two and a Half Men“. His character was killed off in a very undignified way, and the producers humiliated him further by shooting a funeral scene where his character’s reputation (also called Charlie) was ripped to shreds by various ex-girlfriends. If you annoy producers, they will exact their revenge.
The warning signs had all been there for a while – in 1990, he accidentally shot his fiancee in the arm and his 2005 divorce from Denise Richards cited drug and alcohol abuse and threats of violence. In 2008, his sons were taken away from him following the break up of his third marriage. Then in 2011, it all peaked with the public argument between Sheen and his producers after which he posted an hour-long rant on the internet, flanked by his “goddesses” and babbling about “tiger blood”. He may have made his name in comedy, but he destroyed it in a painful and very public way.
6. Whoopi Goldberg
Another much-loved comedian and actress who has struggled with addiction and depression. She has been married three times, although she claims not to have loved any of her husbands. She describes her former self as a “fully functioning addict” and worked throughout her addiction, knowing that she needed to keep making films in order to raise her profile. However, she was suffering from paranoia and eventually got help. She has now been clean for several years and has used her story to encourage other young actors to seek help.
5. Graham Chapman
Another high-functioning addict was Graham Chapman, of British comedy troupe Monty Python. He was an alcoholic from his time as a student and drank every day, in order to “face the world”. He would forget material he’d written just a few hours previously and embarrassed the other Pythons by giving a drunken interview to the NME. Following that incident in 1977, he stopped drinking but died of cancer in 1989.
4. Owen Wilson
Owen Wilson is a sad example of an actor who worked hard, turned out a huge number of films and then crashed down in spectacular fashion. He appeared in 27 films between 1996 and 2006 and had a solid relationship with both director Wes Anderson and the other actors in the “Frat Pack”, headed by Ben Stiller. As a result, the work kept coming in and he was due to start work on “Tropic Thunder” which starred and was directed by Stiller. However, in August 2007 he was rushed to hospital amid rumors of a suicide attempt. He had recently broken up with girlfriend Kate Hudson and their split was said to be the reason behind it. He was treated for depression and withdrew from both “Tropic Thunder” and public life in general.
Friends of Wilson, and Courtney Love in particular, laid the blame on British comedian Steve Coogan who allegedly plied Wilson with drugs when he was trying to break the habit. Coogan denied the allegations, saying they were “unfounded, unhelpful and hurtful to all concerned.” The episode had spooky parallels with the Wes Anderson film “The Royal Tenenbaums” in which Wilson played a celebrity who battled with drug addiction. In that film, it is Owen’s brother Luke who attempts suicide. In real life, it was Luke who found Owen after his attempt.
Gradually, he returned to work albeit at a slower pace, and had a son in January 2011.
3. Tony Hancock
Another British comedian who drank heavily, Tony Hancock was best known for his eponymous series “Hancock’s Half Hour”, which ran on first radio then TV from 1954 to 1961. He was a “difficult man to get on with”, according to fellow comic Spike Milligan and he certainly gave the impression of alienating those around him. First, he pushed away comedy partner Sid James and then his scriptwriters. From 1960 onwards, he was a man on a self-destructive downward spiral and he later blamed this on an interview he did for the BBC’s “Face to face”. The probing nature of the questions caused the already self-critical man to over-analyze himself and pick fault with everything he’d achieved. It is said that he never quite recovered from that interview.
His romantic life was a mess as well. He married Cicely Romanis in 1950, but took Freddie Ross as a mistress, eventually replacing Cicely with her in 1965. At the same time, he was conducting an affair with Joan Le Mesurier, the wife of one of his best friends. Freddie attempted suicide in 1966 and the marriage was dissolved 2 years later.
Hancock himself committed suicide in 1968 with a combination of pills and vodka. His suicide note contained the poignant words “Things went wrong too many times”.
2. Richard Pryor
Richard Pryor was a groundbreaking comic, who led the way for other black comedians to make it in mainstream culture. He was a stand-up primarily, and used his platform to address the thorny issue of race in post-apartheid America. He also made a number of comedy films in the 1970s and 80s. Without Richard Pryor, the entertainment world would look very different today.
However, he was not a tame man – his stand-up was outrageous and full of swearing, he was addicted to drugs and alcohol and he set fire to himself while freebasing cocaine, an incident he would later describe as a suicide attempt. He was also an MS sufferer and broke yet another taboo by talking openly about his condition. He was married seven times, but only to 5 women, and in some ways is the epitome of the fast-living, fast-talking comedian. He died at 65 from a heart attack and black comedians are still enjoying his legacy.
1. OJ Simpson
Top of our list is a man not primarily known for his comedy. He rose to fame as an American football player but put in a very funny and credible performance as Nordberg in the Naked Gun films. He had a promising comedy career ahead, but in June 1994 his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ronald Goldman were found dead and Simpson – who had previously been accused of violence against Brown – was tried for their murders. He was acquitted, but his reputation never recovered and he spent the next few years in and out of trouble with the law before finally being arrested in 2007 for various felonies (including armed robbery) and sentenced to 33 years in prison. It’s hard to imagine a harder fall from grace than OJ Simpson’s.