When New Year’s Eve 2021 decided to usher in the new sheaf of calendar pages with the death of beloved comedy icon Betty White, we should have figured 2022 was going to be rough. And indeed, the ensuing months did bring the deaths – some very unexpected – of multiple boldfaced names from the comedy world: big unruly personalities more readily associated with standing noisily at a mic than with lying quietly in a box.
Loss is never easy or uncomplicated, and mourning a comedian is especially tricky. I mean, irreverence is kinda their whole deal. If you’re not making tasteless jokes about them within hours of their deaths it seems like they’d probably be offended. But laughing along with their words is probably an even better tribute. Really, if you’re thinking or talking about them in any context at all, that’s probably enough: nobody goes into comedy because they hate attention.
Betty White had such a long and illustrious showbiz career that at a certain point, like George Burns before her, she became famous in part for just still being around. But she left her inimitable imprint on every comic creation she committed to the screen, from The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s conniving Sue Ann to The Golden Girls’ guileless Rose. At age 88 she became the oldest person to host Saturday Night Live thanks to a grassroots campaign on Facebook. In her monologue she said she hadn’t even known what Facebook was, “and now that I do know what it is, I have to say, it sounds like a huge waste of time.”
Bob Saget enjoyed probably the most famously bifurcated career of anyone in comedy. On broadcast TV he was the G-rated family-friendly dad-joke king from Full House and America’s Funniest Home Videos; everywhere else he was the filthiest, foulest stand-up ever to single an entendre. These incompatible personae would occasionally bump up against one another, as when the dirty-joke documentary The Aristocrats found a wide audience and you could hear people leaning over and whispering to each other “Hey, what’s the matter with Danny Tanner?”
Louie Anderson took on many roles: after coming up as a successful stand-up in the 1980s he went on to host Family Feud, create a children’s cartoon, and – most unexpectedly – winning Emmys for his straight-faced performance as Zach Galifianakis’s mother on the TV series Baskets.
Gilbert Gottfried made a lot of his money lending his trademark screechy, grating voice to a couple of famous birds: Iago in Disney’s animated Aladdin and the pauciloquent duck on Aflac insurance commercials. But on stage he was as dirty as Bob Saget and even more edgy. His willingness to make the kinds of jokes in public that other comedians only make among themselves in the back rooms of comedy clubs led to his getting censured and fired at least three or four times in his career. He even lost the duck gig.
Possibly none of the other comedians on this list were as unrepentantly weird as Judy Tenuta, who hung an accordion around her neck, toggled her voice between a melodious coo and a guttural snarl, demanded to be worshiped as a goddess, and verbally abused her audiences. Her work isn’t as widely available now on video and audio as some others’, because her stubbornly idiosyncratic style excluded her from many mainstream outlets – it’s hard to imagine her in a cameo as a quirky aunt on Full House, unless maybe the episode ended with her sacrificing Kimmy in the woods – but it’s worth seeking out.
The wry and courtly Leslie Jordan became a beloved superstar so gradually it was easy not to notice it was happening. But between his showstopping appearances on Will and Grace and his massive Instagram following, his southern lilt and unaffected charm made him an indelible comic voice of the twenty-first century.
There’s prop comedy, and then there’s smashing a bunch of stuff with a sledgehammer. Gallagher was just another touring comic when, in the early 1980s, he basically pioneered the idea of the self-contained hourlong stand-up comedy cable special. His specials for Showtime made him a household name, or kind of, and while they always began with assorted proppy gimmicks and observational gags, you could tell everyone was mostly there to see watermelons get smashed by the eagerness with which the first few rows pulled out their tarps and slickers about halfway through.