Welcome to the latest installment of Tragedy Plus Time. Each segment will focus on a particular ‘life crisis’ — sometimes globally tragic, sometimes more of a personal affair — and we’ll explore how many of the comedians we know and love have dealt with it.
Comedians having been talking about the chaotic state of their marriages since the dawn of time, or at least since Henny Youngman got into the game. Marriage is an unavoidable topic for performers that want to use their personal lives in their material. And they know the audience doesn’t want to hear about how happy or in love they are — they want to be entertained. “Sure, sure, you’ll always love each other. BUT…?” Poking fun at your most intimate relationship is one of the cornerstones of comedy.
Everything changes when a comedian’s marriage ends, and it becomes clear there was a lot more truth to their routine than perhaps they’d hoped for.
Comedians who’ve been through a divorce are at an interesting crossroads with their material. Being able to discuss the break up or trash the ex-spouse is every comedian’s god-given right (This man in the UK went through a legal battle just for the right to do it). They all know the audience is silently asking them: “so what happened?” from their chairs, hungry for new jokes and juicy stories, all served with a side of schadenfreude. This is especially true for celebrity comics whose high profile splits make headlines.
You can get a sense of how the end of a relationship has affected a comic by seeing how they work the event into their material. How is the ex-spouse being portrayed? Will there be bitterness towards the person, or will they turn the focus towards their own flaws? There are certainly comedians who bring up the intimate details of their lives more than others, but no matter who it is, if there’s truth to be found in their work, rest assured it will be addressed in some form or another.
We’re going to take a look at some high profile examples and find out how each comedian’s divorce affected his or her material.
Larry David Is Happy to Play the Bad Guy
Larry David has been blessed with two popular, thinly veiled caricatures of himself: the neurotic, self-loathing George Costanza on Seinfeld, and the obstinate ‘Larry David’ in Curb Your Enthusiasm. Many of David’s real life quirks and personal experiences serve as the foundation for each character. The fictionalized Larry David begins Curb living a comfortable life in Los Angeles, enjoying his marriage to ‘Cheryl’ (played by Cheryl Hines) while the real Larry David was enjoying a very similar life while in the middle of his marriage to Laurie Lennard.
In mid 2007, David and his wife announced that they would be amicably separating after fourteen years, with very few specific details about the divorce spoken by either person. David appeared a short while later on the The Tonight Show, and when questioned as to what went wrong (a surprisingly direct question on Jay Leno’s part), he joked that “my wife decided she wanted to have sex with someone she liked,” and followed up with a monologue describing why no one should ever do that:
Keeping the art/life balance in check, the fictional Larry David was put through the same ordeal on the following season of Curb. During a particularly turbulent flight a panicked Cheryl calls Larry for emotional support, but Larry cuts her off citing an important visit from the TiVo guy. Cheryl’s frustration leads to a separation, and when asked to pick sides nearly everyone in their lives chooses her, naturally. Larry nearly gets Cheryl back a season later by agreeing to a Seinfeld reunion just to woo her, but he loses her again over an obsession with stains on wooden tables (a wonderfully specific Larry David problem).
The entire plot follows the typical pattern of the show: Larry causes a stir, usually over some faux pas, makes a big scene and in the end almost always loses. David has been open about the Larry David persona in Curb being a version of himself without a filter, and this heightened character is portrayed as unanimously at fault for the crumbling marriage. Pulling this detail from his actual life and willingly making himself the sole reason for the separation — even simply for the sake of laughs — makes the real life Larry David stand in stark contrast alongside the characters he portrays.
"It would be a silly thing to do. Why would I do it? Why would I want that contract? I already have kids. The best situation is being a single parent. The best part about is that you get time off, too, because the kids are with their mom, so it's the best of both worlds. There's a lot to be said for it. You get married, you have kids — you should plan this from the beginning. We're going to have these kids, then we'll get divorced when they're four. All right, six.
Comedic Useage: High
Bitterness Rating: Low
Kathy Griffin Puts The Brakes On Self-Deprecation
Even before she was the star of My Life On The D List, Kathy Griffin balanced out her social commentary on A-list celebrities with an acknowledgement that she herself would never be that famous. Griffin clearly knows that self-deprecation goes hand in hand with any act that makes fun of others. She keeps one step ahead of the dreaded celebrity-bashing cycle by taking herself down a notch first, thus robbing others of the chance to do it. It’s a foolproof plan if there’s ever been one.
Much to everyone’s surprise, when Griffin’s five-year marriage to Matt Moline ended in 2006 the topic wasn’t immediately addressed on her reality show. She attempted to the keep the subject quiet, since the actual reason wasn’t quite so easy to brush off or joke about. It turns out Moline was actually stealing money from her on a regular basis — in total, about $72,000 over the course of a year and a half. This breech of trust did irreparable damage to the relationship, and despite attempts at reconciliation, slowly eroded their marriage until Modine himself pushed for the divorce.
When she felt like public perception was shifting the blame onto her for her presumed guilty silence, Griffin decided to speak out — but not on stage via a bit, or on her reality show. She chose instead to go onto Larry King Live and lay out all the facts without any sad music or a comedic crutch to soften the blow (though this is still Kathy Griffin after all — she joked around plenty throughout the interview).
Griffin’s appearance on Larry King served as a cathartic moment for her, and it made the topic of her divorce more comfortable for use in her regular material. Afterward she began openly discussing it on her show, in her 2009 memoir and of course, her stand up:
Griffin has since returned to the dating world, though any man that considers her as a prospect should know that all aspects of their relationship will be potential comedic (or non-comedic) fodder.
Comedic Useage: Low
Bitterness Rating: Medium
Louis CK Downplays the Details
The highly quotable Louis CK has delved into the topics of marriage, divorce, and everything in between both on and off stage. He’s shared vivid details of his marriage to Alix Bailey on stage, taking us step by step through intimate stories such as describing the world’s saddest hand job.
Since his divorce in 2008, his comedy has shifted to being a single father and dating in your 40’s:
CK’s show Louie comes off like a distorted shadow of his actual life, keeping the above details in his standup pieces and the portrayals of the character ‘Louie’s’ life. But it wasn’t until the third season of his show that he finally introduced his ex-wife and mother of his children (the kids are featured prominently on the show). The character is played somewhat controversially by a black woman, despite his actual ex-wife being white. CK claims this was done simply because Susan Kelechi Watson was the best actress for the role. She is portrayed as a fit, confident women in a committed relationship, marking a sharp contrast with Louie through much more than just her skin tone.
There’s plenty of vitriol to go with along the truth contained in CK’s material. He’ll bash entire cross sections of people or industries without remorse, always circling back to being a pathetic, sad sack of man himself. But though he acknowledges the end of his marriage as an inevitability, he’s refrained from placing the blame on either person. Rather, he sums it all up succinctly in a commentary on divorce itself:
Divorce is always good news. I know that sounds weird, but it's true because no good marriage has ever ended in divorce … That would be sad. If two people were married and they were really happy and they just had a great thing and then they got divorced, that would be really sad. But that has happened zero times.
While CK has avoided making fun of his wife post-divorce, his children appear to be fair game. We can only hope his love for them — which he’s always made very clear above all else—- overrides any number of bits at their expense. (Side note: look for a future Tragedy Plus Time on the children of comedians!)
Comedic Value: High
Bitterness Rating: Low
Kevin and Torrie Hart Try to Keep the Audience on Their Side
There’s something fascinating about watching a comedian who’s attained such popularity and confidence that he can actually talk about any aspect of his life without shame. You need the popularity to pre-emptively have the audience on your side, and you need the confidence to believe that they will love you no matter what you then say to them. I suppose you could say it’s like any relationship, only in this case it’s between one person and a very large group of people.
Kevin Hart literally encouraged schadenfreude in his highly popular 2011 tour Laugh At My Pain, when he openly discussed growing up with his father’s cocaine addiction and the travesty that was his mother’s funeral. Around the same time of the tour, he was also in the process of ending his nearly eight year marriage to Torrie Hart, a fellow comedian with whom he has two children.
Hart had no problem admitting on stage during his next tour that it was his cheating (or more specifically, his terrible lying about his cheating) that led to the divorce, and he mined plenty of laughs describing his bad behavior along with his wife’s justified suspicions.
Recordings of him discussing his ex-wife during his act are (as far as I can find) unavailable, which is likely a sign that he eventually reconsidered making this topic a regular part of his routine. It seems likely that he found the point at which the audience was no longer on his side. After all, this wasn’t about his actual pain anymore, so much as it was about the trouble he was getting himself into, and the pain he was potentially causing another person.
On the other side of the divorce we have Torrie Hart, a lesser known comedian with what you could argue was a much bigger need to vent. She performed an angry rant (note: NSFW) about her Hart while the two were still together, delving into the topic of his cheating while trying to downplay looking like a victim. The video surfaced post-divorce and she immediately expressed regret over it. The timing of the release made her seem incredibly bitter, and it helped her career no more than it helped Kevin’s.
Nowadays both Kevin and Torrie state for the record that are amicably separated, and they remain a part of each other’s lives through their children.
There aren’t a lot of examples of comedians outright trashing their ex-spouses in their acts, and the story of Kevin and Torrie Hart might be the perfect example why. You really can’t do it without coming off bitter and hateful, no matter which position you’re in (scorner or scornee) or how famous and beloved you are. And while it can be fun to imagine a scenario in which Kevin and Torrie Hart attempt to trash talk each other into oblivion in a post-divorce comedy war, both sides would ultimately have everything to lose and nothing to gain.
Comedic Value: Medium
Bitterness Rating: Medium
John Cleese Uses His Ex-Wife to Pay His Alimony
By the time former Monty Python member John Cleese married Alyce Eichelberger in 1992, he was no stranger to marriage or divorce. He’d been through two nearly decade-long marriages prior to meeting this third wife, and he has remained good friends with his first ex-wife Connie Booth, who both wrote and co-starred with him in the BBC show Fawlty Towers. Unfortunately his third attempt at happily ever after wound up ending far worse than the previous two.
After two years of bitter divorce trials Cleese came out owing over five million dollars in assets, a million dollar home in London, and continuing payments of close to $400K a year to Eichelberger in alimony, a price he could no longer afford to pay out of pocket, though the way he saw it there at least there was some silver lining:
I got off lightly. Think what I’d have had to pay Alyce if she had contributed anything to the relationship — such as children, or a conversation.
At 70 years old, Cleese was forced to come out of semi-retirement from the world of comedy and write something new that he could sell. What he came up with was a one man show called The Alimony Tour:
Cleese openly disparages his ex-wife, showing a picture of her withdrawing money from an ATM within the first two minutes of his show for big laughs. By brazenly playing the victim card he’s able to be open about both his bitterness over the divorce and about the show being nothing more than a mere cash grab.
The tour started in Scandinavia and went on for over two years through the U.S., U.K., and New Zealand. Despite the fact that Cleese didn’t want to do the tour in the first place, the artist in him has found himself tweaking and refining the material, which incidentally includes a fair amount of nostalgia-based stories and audience participation along with the ex-wife bashing.
Amazingly enough, John Cleese has not given up on finding love. He married his fourth wife Jennifer Wade in August of 2012. To his detractors, he said: “I never felt there was anything wrong with the institution of marriage — the only thing wrong was my ability to choose the right person.” No word on whether or not there was a pre-nup this time.
Comedic Value: Medium
Bitterness Rating: High
Matt Shafeek is a writer and performer living in Astoria, Queens. He performs at the Magnet Theater in NYC, and has blogs about life, productivity, and Batman. His love for comedy is matched only by his love for games. He'd love it if you'd follow him @mattshafeek.
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