They Really Died Up There: 5 Comedians Who Lost Their Lives on Stage

Easily the least funny comedy shows of all time
They Really Died Up There: 5 Comedians Who Lost Their Lives on Stage

Anyone with half a wit about them knows that comedy and tragedy are closely related. It’s well-trodden territory, whether it’s about humor as a coping mechanism or the umpteenth unnecessary examination of the “sad clown” trope. At this point, we can probably guess that what made Pagliacci so sad in the first place is everyone asking if a messed-up childhood informed his clowning. Tragedy is falling down an open manhole; comedy is someone else falling down an open manhole. Cliches abound to cover this conflict.

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Occasionally, though, a particularly ugly cosmic joke gets tragically bestowed on an audience and a comedian who certainly didn’t ask for it. Given how many comedians there are in the world, and how much of their life they spend in the public eye, it seems unavoidable that one or two have been unlucky enough to meet their end mid-act, but there’s still more than would seem to come from simple chance. If anything, the glass half-full way to look at it is that they truly died doing what they loved. Glass half-empty, they never got paid for the hardest gig they ever did.

These are five comedians who tragically died onstage…

Tommy Cooper

Cooper was a showman in every sense of the word. A giant of a man whose image was immediately smile-inducing given his trademark red fez, just one entertainment discipline wasn’t enough in his eyes. He reached fame as a comic magician, mixing sleight-of-hand and tongue to put on an old-fashioned show that could never have been accused of lacking effort. His jokes were quick, but he utilized snappy writing as well, knowing deeply what putting on a show entailed.

All this only ended up making his unfortunate on-stage death more garish. As he performed live on the TV show Live From Her Majesty’s, he suddenly collapsed and slumped against the curtain, next to his assistant, but even she didn’t realize the seriousness of the situation. He wasn’t a healthy man, and that overindulgence seemed to have caught up with him at the worst possible time. When realizing what happened, the show cut to commercial, but maybe most grimly, the show continued as resuscitation attempts occurred backstage.

Ian Cognito

You have to hope that a comedian can have a final laugh from beyond the grave when obituaries have to be written in a silly stage name. Paul Barbieri, a British comic who performed under the Homer Simpson-like nom de plume Ian Cognito, passed away only a few years ago in 2019, on stage at the Atic Bar in Bicester. It’s a real comic’s comic who’s willing to die on stage at a regular ol’ bar gig.

A common thread among these stories is the audience being initially unsure if the act in question is a bit or not. That night in Bicester, it was even more understandable, given that only minutes earlier, Cognito had joked about dying. He’d, in fact, said the words “imagine if I died in front of you lot here” and joked about having a stroke and waking up speaking Welsh. So when he slumped to the stool and stopped talking, it didn’t feel off-topic. A few minutes later, a friend realized it wasn’t an act, but it was too late to do anything about it.

Dick Shawn

You may not know the name Dick Shawn, but he had a long and fruitful career in film and as a solo stage performer. If nothing else, his voice is probably part of a particularly nostalgic pocket of your memory as the “Snow Miser” in The Year Without A Santa Claus. But for all his on-screen success, he never lost sight of what he truly felt was funniest: some truly insane live comedy antics.

Although his career was decades ago, his sense of humor still tracks as not only modern, but cutting edge. A bit he did as part of his show The Second Greatest Entertainer in the Whole Wide World, in which he climbed out of a pile of trash at the start, could be pulled straight from an episode of Eric Andre. These sorts of strange physical decisions made it not particularly shocking when he collapsed on stage in 1987 at a show at the University of California, San Diego. Unfortunately, it proved not to be another pratfall, but a genuine heart attack, and Shawn passed away that day.

Frank Fontaine

Fontaine had a brief stint in the national eye thanks to a casting by his friend Jackie Gleason. He played a drunk named Crazy Guggenheim, and the country was a fan. Outside of that role, though, he spent most of his career working the clubs, an off-screen grind that requires constant effort and no reruns or royalties.

All that hustling seemed to finally catch up with him as he exited the stage in 1978, when he suffered a heart attack. He’d had heart issues before, and that night he passed away without ever having a second chance on the silver screen. Forever unable to escape comedy, though, even his death had an odor of irony: The show he’d just performed on was a medical benefit, for which a large sum of money was going to be donated on his behalf to heart disease research.

Andy Kaufman

For the last entry, we’ll look at a comedian who didn’t die during his act, but instead made his death part of it. Kaufman is well-known as maybe the forefather of alt comedy, with awards still bearing his name for subversive comics in the modern age. So when a man who you took seriously only at your own risk was reported dead, it only added to his legend. 

It certainly wasn’t helped by the fact that he’d talked about faking his own death before, despite the fact that his lung cancer diagnosis would be a stretch of an act even for him. You’re not going to get much assistance from his family or friends, either, which is probably why Kaufman still being alive continues to be a popular theory today. It seems more and more unlikely, but hey, who knows? Maybe someday, you’ll walk into a restaurant and see Kaufman, Elvis and Tupac sharing a booth.

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