Why Do So Many Comedians' Lives End in Tragedy?

  • In Education
  • 2022-08-15 08:34:07Z
  • By The Daily Beast
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty  

Dark Side of Comedy is designed to be no laughing matter, turning a morose eye toward the saddest stories in modern comedy history. Nonetheless, it would be nice if the wittiness of its subjects got a bit more celebratory treatment in this spin-off of Dark Side of the Ring (about the tragedies of professional wrestling) and Dark Side of the '90s (about that decade's most notorious tabloid scandals). As it stands, Vice's 10-episode compendium of cautionary tales is full of archival clips but shockingly light on humor, tackling its material in such ominous and melancholy fashion that the reasons for its stars' renown wind up drowning in a sea of horrors.

Premiering Aug. 16 and narrated by Dave Foley, Dark Side of Comedy delivers on its nominal promise, delving into the underbelly of its chosen showbiz field via installments on Chris Farley, Andrew Dice Clay, Freddie Prinze, Artie Lange, Maria Bamford, Roseanne Barr, Greg Giraldo, Brett Butler, and Richard Pryor. Though spanning decades, genders and races, these exposés aren't as diverse as they initially appear, in large part because certain core commonalities soon emerge: childhood traumas; struggles with the sudden pressures and expectations of spotlight success; exploitation and enabling perpetrated by an industry that views its marquee draws as simply cash cows to be used and discarded as needed; and jaw-dropping substance abuse that in some cases led to suicide attempts and/or death. The impression imparted by these nightmares is that fame is an awful curse that no one should covet-sex, money, and adoration be damned.

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Perhaps nowhere is that lesson more apparent than in Dark Side of Comedy's sixth episode about Dustin Diamond, known the world over as Saved by the Bell's resident dork Screech. Diamond passed away from cancer in 2021 at the age of 44, and yet in showrunner Paul Taylor's series, that untimely demise comes across as merely the final injustice suffered by the actor. As recounted by his father Mark, childhood friends and colleagues, Diamond had it tough from the get-go, developing a passion to perform for the camera as a child when he would entertain his older Down syndrome-afflicted brother Ryan. The depression that gripped him in the wake of Ryan's death was offset by his love of acting, and before long, Mark was relocating his clan to Los Angeles to pursue his son's thespian dreams, which were realized when Diamond nabbed the role of the perpetually goofy Screech on the Disney Channel show that would evolve into Saved by the Bell.

Making it to the top was at first great for Diamond, but doing so as a decidedly uncool and embarrassing clown took its toll, and it's not long before Dark Side of Comedy is miring itself in Diamond's post-sitcom travails, which were almost wholly driven by his desire to recast himself as the polar opposite of his iconic character. A porn video, profane stand-up routines, and a villainous turn on VH1's Celebrity Fit Club all served as vain Diamond attempts to rewrite his persona in adult terms, leading only to further ignominy and trouble, peaking with a bar fight that landed him behind bars. What emerges is a familiar if nevertheless depressing study of the pitfalls of achieving long-coveted dreams.

Similar portraits are painted by the other episodes of Dark Side of Comedy, whose recurring elements are all found in its chapter on Richard Pryor. Regularly beaten by his father and raised in a brothel where he was exposed to all manner of adult sexual activity at a young age, Pryor's upbringing was a horror show that fueled his comedic ascension, which was marked by multiple transformations-notably, from a "diet Bill Cosby" funnyman who strove to appeal to white audiences, to a candid, race-addressing pioneer-and, infamously, by severe and inescapable drug addiction. Pryor's cocaine habit was a byproduct of his personal demons and exacerbated by his stardom, since few wanted to derail the gravy train by confronting him about his problems-a situation that also wreaked havoc for Freddie Prinze, whose taste for quaaludes and blow wasn't dealt with by his employers at NBC's Chico and the Man, and ultimately contributed to him taking his life at the age of just 22.

Dark Side of Comedy follows in its predecessors' formal footsteps, mixing interviews with friends, relatives, admirers and collaborators (not to mention the occasional psychologist) with old clips of its comedians performing on film, stage, television programs, talk shows and radio, all of which is further embellished by old photographs, newspaper headlines, and news reports of their misdeeds and misfortunes. The series additionally utilizes the franchise's trademark dramatic recreations, although they prove somewhat ill-fitting in this context; while such sequences are enlivening in Dark Side of the Ring precisely because they enhance those subjects' mythic larger-than-life aura, they fail to do likewise in Dark Side of Comedy, coming across as unconvincing and perfunctory flourishes that could have just as easily been left on the cutting room floor.

In the final tally, however, what's missing from Dark Side of Comedy are funny or eye-opening anecdotes that can't otherwise be found on a Wikipedia page, or unique critical insights into its narratives. The sight of Artie Lange's now-deformed nose, the result of a drug binge gone awry, is sure to stun those who haven't followed the former MADtv and The Howard Stern Show comedian's recent hardships, but such moments are few and far between during this ten-part affair. It's nice, for example, to hear former castmates like Orlando Jones and Debra Wilson speak fondly and sympathetically about Lange, yet there's nothing to be gleaned here that isn't online, making the proceedings more of a diverting rehash than an indispensable investigation. Just as frustrating, some of the profiled comedians who are alive don't participate, which leaves their biographical installments feeling fundamentally incomplete.

Still, Vice now has this general Dark Side formula down pat, and the impressive roster of talking heads featured in this first season (from Patton Oswalt and Marc Maron to Scott Thompson and the late Gilbert Gottfried) keeps it reasonably entertaining throughout-even if it is light on notable revelations.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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