4 Big-Time Bummers That Launched A Comedy Career
These days, the relationship between comedy and tragedy is so well-trodden as to feel dominating. At this point, it feels like it’s the rule rather than the exception, and if you tell somebody you do comedy, they’re more likely to assume your parents locked you to a radiator than that you were a class clown. Even with its overexposure, though, comedy remains one of human life’s premier coping mechanisms.
And sometimes, the tragedy in a future comic’s life can be more than vaguely traced to their eventual success. Now, I’m not such a results-oriented sociopathic robot that I think any of these outcomes are actually positive. If I was, I would be running Disney by now instead of writing internet articles. But if you look at them instead, as a triumph by that same person to not only work through for themselves, but in a cathartic way for fans, it gets a little less dour.
Either way, here are four big-time bummers that launched a comedy career…
One of the most famous comics of all time, Pryor’s childhood was a series of horrific brain-twisting abuses and tragedies. He grew up in a brothel, where he was an unwilling spectator to his mother’s sexual escapades with a variety of customers. Look, I support sex workers, but you gotta get your kid a babysitter, or at the very least, a separate room and an iPad, while you’re working.
Pryor was also physically and sexually abused as a child. It’s the sort of formative experience that feels like it could open a Netflix serial killer documentary just as easily as one about a famous comedian’s life (he didn’t get out entirely unscathed, with accusations of abuse at his own hands later in life.) But as Pryor sought to escape the horrors thrust upon his unworthy young head at the movies, he saw a path for himself that he’d eventually follow to worldwide success.
Where Pryor unpacked his childhood trauma over the course of a career, Titus somehow managed to wrangle much of it into a single, blistering show that would almost single-handedly land him his first sitcom. Titus grew up with an alcoholic father who did things like read entries from his diary to his friends at poker, and a schizophrenic mother who would eventually shoot and kill one of her abusive husbands, acquitted after the jury saw evidence of her beatings.
Not exactly a childhood out of a storybook, unless you’re talking about one of the original, horrifying Hans Christian Andersen nightmares. Titus took all this horror, twisted it and compressed it into a one-man show with the disturbingly perfect title, Norman Rockwell Is Bleeding. The show was a huge success, and after appearing at the famous Just for Laughs festival, Fox gave Titus a deal to turn it into a sitcom. The eponymous Titus, a foil to feel-good family comedies of the time, would run for three seasons on Fox and expose him to a nationwide audience.
It would be disrespectful to really say that Notaro’s comedy career was made by her tragedy. She’d already carved out a space as a cult favorite comic through deadpan performances, as a beloved podcast guest, a Conan set and with the excellent debut album Good One. You could accurately say, though, that her now-famous performance at Largo in Los Angeles, in the extremely recent wake of a cancer diagnosis, launched her career into a higher stratosphere of public attention.
Unlike other performances dissecting tragedy, the show came with little warning even to the performer herself. Given that Notaro was previously known for funny, creative observations, things like imploring the audience to imagine how funny a baby taking a shower would look, nobody’s brain was tuned to deal with an onslaught of awful plot twists that belong in a soap opera, not in a real human life. In the next half-hour, Notaro unpacked, with the same rare perspective she brought to her evaluation of hotel signs, an absolutely grueling segment of her life, including a recent cancer diagnosis, the death of her mother and a couple more tragedies just to bring out the flavor of the first two.
The three aforementioned comedians proved the attention worthy, and all three remain active and well-known today, if at different levels. Singular events may have made their career, but they used it as a stepping stone. Trump trauma comedy homunculus Sarah Cooper wasn’t so lucky. She rocketed to internet fame by lip-syncing Donald Trump audio-bites, something that, for whatever reason, resonated comedically with a nation of brains that were ashen and sparking like a destroyed computer bank.
Despite her claim to fame involving no displayed talent for writing or even speaking, those that be smelled cash and attempted to wring every dollar they could out of the phenomenon, leading to her guest hosting Jimmy Kimmel Live! She also released a Netflix special, doing herself no favors to questions of originality by cribbing its title, Everything’s Fine, from an inescapable-comic-turned-meme from KC Green. She’s returned to TikTok recently, informing her followers she will no longer be lip-syncing, but it’s hard to imagine a second elevator ride to the top.
Eli Yudin is a stand-up comedian and writer in Brooklynk. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @eliyudin and listen to his podcast, What A Time to Be Alive, about the five weirdest news stories of the week on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever else you get your podcasts.