The Comedy Luminaries We Lost in 2016
The verdict is in and 2016 was a real whopper of a year, one that’s felt more like the Twilight Zone or ever-so-slightly less intense episode of Black Mirror. Politics aside, this is due in large part to the many entertainment titans that passed away this year. While music certainly took the worst hits (Good god, David Bowie? PRINCE?!), the comedy realm wasn’t exactly spared. Here’s a few of the folks who deserve a look back and will be sorely missed.
Andy Ritchie (November 2015, age 39)
Ritchie passed in late 2015, but given his youth and his connections to my home base in Austin, TX, I’m including him anyway. A standup comic, Ritchie won the Funniest Person in Austin contest in 2011, a hallmark of things to come for the comic who re-located to Los Angeles soon after. Still early in his career, Ritchie was known for a committed and absurd humor and as an exceptionally kind person by the comedy scene who mourned him. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2014, passing away in late November just before he was to start a TV writing job. He was only 39 years old.
Bob Elliott (February, age 92)
Father of Chris Elliott and grandfather to Abby and Bridey Elliott, Bob Elliott’s legacy is both his body of work in addition to the line of professional goofs he’s brought into the world. Elliott had a decades-long career in TV and radio as half of radio duo Bob and Ray, purveying an understated comedy that critics say would fit right in today and was also lauded during its time. The duo won three Peabody Awards and were inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame. More recently, he’d played his real life son’s TV father on Get A Life in the early 90s.
Ken Howard (March, age 71)
President of the Screen Actors Guild, played the clueless yet lovable head of Kabletown (and Chloe Grace Moretz’ TV grandfather) Hank Hooper on 30 Rock. Howard was an actor for decades, and most recently served as the long-time president of SAG-AFTRA, leading the merger of those two organizations in 2012. Most of his career was in dramatic performance, and in 2009, he won an Emmy for his role in Grey Gardens.
Garry Shandling (March, age 66)
Best known for It’s Garry Shandling’s Show and Larry Sanders Show (both of which are considered seminal in influencing the current comedy landscape), Sanders started his career as a comedy writer and standup. He wrote for such shows as Sanford & Son and Welcome Back Cotter before getting traction as a standup doing guest appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. His death was unexpected and sudden from a heart attack, and many current comedy heavyweights came out to mourn his passing and celebrate his long legacy.
Garry Marshall (July, age 81)
Having started his career in the 1960s, Garry Marshall’s first TV credit was as a writer on The Tonight Show for Jack Paar. He went on to have a hand in creating and developing much of the classic comedies of the 70s such as The Odd Couple, Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, and even Mork & Mindy, and all this was after years of writing on The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Lucy Show. He later directed 18 films, the likely best of which was 1989’s Pretty Woman, which of course cemented Julia Roberts as America’s sweetheart. In more recent years he’d produced celeb-fest rom coms like New Year’s Day, and even appeared in an episode of Louie.
Matt Villines (July, age 39)
Matt Villines of the directing duo Matt & OZ (the other half of which is Osmany Rodriguez) was a major face behind some of SNL’s most popular recent pre-taped sketches. Villines joined the SNL staff in 2012 and co-directed such memorable sketches as “Do it on my Twin Bed,” “Back Home Ballers,” and “Grow a Guy.” Together, Matt & Oz also directed several episodes of The Last Man on Earth. Before moving to SNL, Villines taught film at Los Angeles Film School and made videos for Funny or Die and Super Deluxe, including a now-classic parody of The Wire. He passed away this summer far too young after a year-long battle with cancer.
Gene Wilder (August, age 83)
This one hit me hard. I adored Wilder’s Willy Wonka as a kid, laughed my ass off at Blazing Saddles as a teenager, and came to appreciate the incredible work and timelessness of Young Frankenstein as an adult. Wilder was a long time collaborator with other comedy legends Richard Pryor and Mel Brooks, the latter of whom he met when he made his Broadway debut in Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage in 1963. Wilder considered himself an actor first but was best known as a laugh titan. And somehow he managed to deliver many of those laughs with a warmth and kindness and compassion undergirded by a streak of sadness. Maybe it was those luminous eyes. Unbeknownst to the public, Wilder had been suffering from Alzheimer’s, which he kept secret because he reportedly didn’t want to sadden the children who knew him as Willy Wonka.
Florence Henderson (November, age 82)
Even if you didn’t grow up in The Brady Bunch’s 1970s heyday, you likely knew Florence Henderson as your amiable TV mom, Carol Brady, thanks to the 80s and 90s reruns on TVLand. Before the show, Henderson had had a long career as a Broadway soprano, playing the lead in Fanny and touring nationally in Noel Coward’s “The Girl Who Came to Supper.” She often guested on The Tonight Show during both Jack Paar and Johnny Carson’s reigns, and was one of the first women to guest host the show.
Alan Thicke (December, age 69)
Many remember Alan Thicke as one of America’s favorite TV dads from his years on Growing Pains, but less known is that he co-authored the theme songs to iconic 80s sitcoms Diff’rent Strokes and The Facts of Life with Gloria Loring and Al Burton, and also wrote the themes of several game shows, including Wheel of Fortune. Thicke had a varied career in addition to acting and songwriting. He also wrote on a satirical talk show titled Fernwood 2-Night in the 1970s, and hosted a short-lived game show. Most recently, he’d made a guest appearance on Netflix’s Fuller House, but he’ll always be as best remembered as the amiable and reliable “America’s Dad,” Dr. Seaver.
Erica Lies is a writer and comedian in Austin, TX. Her non-fiction work has appeared in Bitch, Rookie Mag, The Hairpin, Paste, and Screener.