A lot of Oscars viewers were upset Sunday night by who the Academy Awards had snubbed and otherwise ignored during its annual “In Memoriam” montage segment, and most of those snubs just happened to be comedic actors and actresses: Joan Rivers, Elaine Stritch and Taylor Negron.
Let us take one more look back at the comedians we still love and miss so dearly, who left us in the past year.
How sad, how brutal was 2014 for comedy? The New York Times had Patton Oswalt speak to fellow comedians about the passing of six comedic icons, and still they left out David Brenner. And Elaine Stritch. And Chespirito. And insert your own role model here. Otto and George? John Pinette? As Chris Rock observed in his New York magazine cover interview: “It’s a weird year for comedy. We lost Robin, we lost Joan, and we kind of lost Cosby.”
Last year even opened on a sad note, as we learned of the passing of Charlie Hill (July 6, 1951 – Dec. 30, 2013), an Oneida-Mohawk-Cree stand-up comedian, actor and writer. He broke barriers as the first Native American comedian to appear on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, although his first network TV appearance was on 1977’s short-lived sketch series, The Richard Pryor Show. A regular at The Comedy Store, Hill later wrote for Roseanne and more recently hosted a Native American stand-up comedy showcase for Showtime. In between, he made multiple appearances on Late Night with David Letterman, and Letterman with friend Jeff Altman paused during a show first week back in January to reflect on Hill’s career and passing.
Elaine Stritch (died July 17), 89. Stritch was a Broadway darling, with Tony Award nominations for her roles in the 1955 production of “Bus Stop,” 1961 musical “Sail Away” and 1970’s Stephen Sondheim musical, “Company.” She won the Tony in 2001 for her one-woman show, “Elaine Stritch at Liberty.” Across the pond, the BAFTAs nominated Stritch for her work on the ITV sitcom, Two’s Company, in the 1970s. On the American telly, Stritch won an Emmy in 1993 for a guest role on Law & Order; a second Emmy in 2004 for the TV airing of her Tony-winning one-woman show. Thereafter she had a recurring role as Alec Baldwin’s mother on 30 Rock, and won another Emmy for that.
Sheldon Patinkin (died Sept. 21), 79. Patinkin was an improv comedy pioneer, having gotten his start in Chicago as an original member of the Playrights Theatre Club. Without Playrights, there would have been no Compass Players and Second City to follow their lead. Patinkin worked behind the scenes of SCTV as a writer and producer, and also mentored generations of young improvisers and sketch comedians at Second City. He even wrote the book on that greatest of Chicago comedy proving grounds, Second City: Backstage at the World’s Greatest Comedy Theater.
Roberto Gomez Bolanos, aka Chespirito (died Nov. 28), 85. The actor known to generations of Latin American kids as Chespirito, died from heart failure after a six-decade career in television. His most popular roles came in the Televisa series El Chavo del Ocho, El Chapulin Colorado and Chespirito. He inspired kids in America, as well, with Matt Groening saying his “Bumblebee Man” character on The Simpsons was inspired by Chespirito.
People like Bill Young and Gus Lynch in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis/St. Paul, who died toward the end of 2014. Lynch worked as director of live events for Stand Up! Records and also launched the Akumal Comedy Festival in 2012 — this year’s fest on the Yucatan Peninsula is dedicated to him.
I know we cannot keep comedians from dying. But can we keep it to natural causes in old age after all of our funny men and women have enjoyed lengthy careers and the chance to say a proper farewell?