The Comedy Legends We Lost in 2014
We lost several funny people of note in 2014, but the year was a real doozy for comedy legends in particular, including writer/directors, TV announcers, critical mentors, and legendary performers we grew up watching. Many of the people below had careers so vast and influential that they’re impossible to sum up in a single paragraph. But I’ll try. So let’s bum ourselves out and then lift our glasses in remembrance. They are sorely missed.
Christopher Evan Welch (December 2013), 48
An Obie-winning character actor with a long-running career, Welch technically passed away in December 2013. But I included him in this list because he came to many people’s attention in 2014 through his performance as Peter Gregory in Silicon Valley. Welch’s film resume is long and includes Lincoln, Synecdoche NY, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona. He gave a scene-stealing performance in Silicon Valley, and in many of their promotional appearances, the other actors credited his performance as the show’s funniest.
Sid Caesar (February 12), 91
An icon of American comedy, Caesar was best known for his 1950s variety show Your Show of Shows. Long before SNL, Caesar was doing a live 90-minute show that put the focus on sketch rather than stand up or vaudeville. Your Show of Shows was considered groundbreaking for adding narrative elements into the variety show, and boasted the young talents of Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, and Carl Reiner as writers and (in Reiner’s case) performers.
Harold Ramis (February 24), 69
Ramis will forever be known as Egon Spengler in Ghostbusters, but behind the scenes, it’s hard to name an 80s comedy hit he didn’t have a hand in. Starting in the 70s, he was the first head writer of SCTV, and later was a writer for National Lampoon’s Animal House, Ghostbusters, Stripes, Meatballs, Caddyshack, Groundhog Day, and so many more. Ramis’ directing resume is just as formidable, including Caddyshack, Groundhog Day, Analyze This, and several episodes of The Office.
James “Jimmy Mack” McNair (June 7), 62
A standup comedian and host of “The Original Uncle Jimmy Mack’s Amateur Hour,” McNair was Tracy Morgan’s long time friend and writer. He was killed in a New Jersey wreck that also injured Morgan, Ardie Fuqua, and Jerry Millea when a Walmart tractor trailer hit their tour limo from behind. Prior to the accident, McNair had been helping Morgan develop new stand up material. Morgan is still recovering from the accident, and has (along with Fuqua and Millea) since filed suit against Walmart, alleging that the truck driver was sleep deprived.
Elaine Stritch (July 17), 89
Stritch began her career on Broadway in the 1940s, performing in everything from sketches to musicals to sparkling Noël Coward repartee to Tennessee Williams dramas. She moved into TV in the 50s, starring in several sitcoms, and later added a long film resume, but Stritch continued performing stage comedies into the 2010s. Of course, she was most recently known as Jack Donaghy’s disapproving mother on 30 Rock, for which she won her third and final Emmy in 2007. A documentary about her career — Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me — was released this year.
Robin Williams (August 11), 63
Williams’ suicide last August left the entertainment world in a deep sadness. Even now, it feels ridiculous to sum up his stage, TV, and film credits as if we don’t already know them. Williams was an icon and an legend, equally adept at comedy and drama. I grew up watching him thinking he was magical like the Genie and immortal like his bubbling energy suggested. Among the manyexcellent retrospectives and re-watching of his work last summer, I enjoyed watching his stand-up specials the most. He has three posthumous films due out in the next year.
Don Pardo (August 18), 96
The sonorous voice of Saturday Night Live, Don Pardo passed away just before starting the show’s 40th season. Pardo had been announcing SNL’s cast in the opening credits since it’s 1975 debut season, but his career started long before that. Pardo began working in radio in 1938, and over the years was an announcer for such shows as The Price is Right and Jeopardy. His career lasted seven decades, all of which were spent at NBC. Pardo was so essential to SNL that after he moved to Arizona, the show flew him back to New York weekly, until his health forced him to prerecord the show’s opening credits.
Joan Rivers (September 4), 81
Rivers first got on the public’s radar through her appearances on Johnny Carson and later as his occasional guest host. She was the first woman late night host, a short-lived move that ended her friendship with Carson. Described as an icon and a legend, Rivers was also underappreciated at turns in her long career, but the 2010 documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work brought seemed to revive interest and appreciation of her hardworking no-hold-barred joke telling. Even into her 80s, Rivers remained current and worked obsessively. Somehow I doubt she’s done. If there’s anyone who couldn’t be stopped, even by death, it’s Joan Rivers.
Sheldon Patinkin (September 21), 79
Sheldon Patinkin was among the first generation of Chicago improvisers, and an original member of Playrights Theatre Club, an early forerunner of the Compass Players, the group that later became Second City. Patinkin was a writer-producer for SCTV in the 70s, and he later served as chair of the Columbia College Chicago’s theater department and as artistic consultant at both Second City and Steppenwolf Theater. He had countless directing credits to his name and authored Second City: Backstage at the World’s Greatest Comedy Theater in 2000. A beloved mentor at Second City, Patinkin remained in Chicago as a teacher and mentor to many of comedy’s most celebrated names today.
Jan Hooks (October 9), 57
Jan Hooks was a beloved SNL performer from 1986-1991 and left the show to take a role on Designing Women for two seasons. Hooks was known in particular for her celebrity impressions on SNL, including Sinead O’Connor, Nancy Reagan, and Hillary Clinton, but it was her original characters like Brenda the Waitress where Hooks and her ability to disappear into a character really shined. She later made several TV and film appearances, and did a hilarious turn on 30 Rock as Jenna Maroney’s selfish mother, Verna. SNL aired a tribute to Hooks in the October 11th episode, and Tina Fey dedicated her Women in Hollywood award to Hooks, calling Hooks her idol.
Mike Nichols (November 19), 83
Writer and director Mike Nichols is best known for his many iconic films, including The Graduate and The Birdcage, but to comedy nerds, he will always be fondly remembered as one half of the groundbreaking Broadway sketch-prov duo Nichols and May. Previously, he’d been a member of the Compass Players, a forerunner of Second City. Nichols later worked in film, television, and theater, and for his genre-spanning work, he was one of the few people to earn an EGOT. The breadth and diversity of his artistic career is demonstrated by some of his most recent Broadway directing credits, including Spamalot and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (in which Phillip Seymour Hoffman played Willy Loman).
Erica Lies is a writer and improviser in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in Bitch, Rookie Mag, and The Hairpin.