Many comedians “kill” onstage. The feeling of walking offstage after a “killer” set is one of the most triumphant feelings someone can have. You feel invincible, as if you’re untouchable and anything is possible. On the flip side of that? The act of dying onstage.
This is something that is not exclusive to comedy, but with Halloween right behind us, we wanted to take a look at this compelling notion. The comedians who are responsible for bringing so much joy and happiness to others being met with their tragic demise right in front of those they are there to entertain.
We recently spoke to comedy historian, publicist, and now author Jeff Abraham, who told us all about his first book The Show Won’t Go On, which he co-wrote with Burt Kearns. We talked about the idea of dying onstage, how to dispel rumors and myths, and some of the performers who have met this horrible fate, including Dick Shawn, Parkyakarkus, and Tommy Cooper.
But beyond death, what The Show Won’t Go On does is it celebrates the life. These people, who might otherwise only be remembered for their onstage casualty in some unfortunate cases, you can now understand them on a level you might not have been able to otherwise. It goes beyond the superficial headlines and really dives deep into who they were as performers and people and why this is noteable.
As someone who is often referred to as a comedy historian, one can assume you were most excited to write about some of the comedians that died onstage.
Um I mean not automatically. There were definitely comedians that I was aware of. I was just fascinated, and it really wasn’t death, I was more intrigued by the trivia of performers who died going to a show, died just after a show, died onstage. I thought it was an interesting book of those kind of stats, you know? Cary Grant was rehearsing in Davenport, Iowa, of all things, and he dies in rehearsal. What a way to go. One of the Righteous Brothers dies somewhere in the Midwest during the tour.
And honestly I obviously knew of Tommy Cooper and Albert Brooks’ father [comedian Parkyakarkus] and Dick Shawn. But you always hear people go “I should’ve seen Tom Petty. He died a week after his last concert.” So I was always intrigued by the fascination of people’s final performance.
It’s interesting what leads up to the death as much as the death itself.
You’re absolutely right. And once we, and I use we a lot because [co-author] Burt Kearns was a great way in shaping the book… The original concept was going to be before, after, and during. And then we realized we had so many deaths onstage that was going to be the focus of the book. And even though the word death is in the title, we wanted this to be a celebration of lives. And an agent once said to us “This is the worst murder mystery I’ve ever read because everybody dies on the first page of every chapter.” So you really needed to be engaged and caring about the person and their journey so when they meet their final demise, you’re kind of taken aback.
So fleshing out the stories, that was really working with Burt. And we would find a paragraph in a newspaper or a book and turn that into three pages to make it enjoyable. That was key. We wanted you to care about Jane Little who collapses during the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
How did Burt Kearns get on board? Because I understand you came up with this idea separately.
Right. I came up with the idea after seeing an Elvis performer and the announcer was Al Dvorin, who famously said “Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building.” And after the show, he was mulling around in the lobby talking to fans. And someone said “Al when are you going to write a book?” And he said “I have time. I’ll get to it.” And this was Saturday night. I left at 10:30. He was killed in a car accident at 9:30 Sunday morning after having breakfast. So literally less than 12 hours. That would take you aback. So that’s when I came up with this idea. The Show Won’t Go On.
Burt and I had known each other for more than 20 years. He did a wonderful book about tabloid journalism called Tabloid Baby, which I promoted. And then he did a documentary about Neil Ennis which I promoted. So we stayed in touch over the years.
And I kept on saying to everybody “I’ve got a great idea for a book.” And they’d go “Yeah, yeah. Whatever.” And Burt was the only one who said “Shut up or put up. I think you’ve got a great idea for a book.” And he was able to take lemons and turn them into lemonade. He said ”Let’s just do death on stages. There’s enough there for a book.” And then shaping it and turning it into that. He gave life to a book about death. How’s that for a sound bite?
And as far as comedians go, we’ve all heard the myths of people like Dick Shawn or Tommy Cooper dying onstage. Who were the people that you were most excited to explore and highlight for the book?
I think the Dick Cavett Show episode, where health expert J.I. Rodale died on camera. It is the most famous T.V. episode that has never aired to this day. I was very fortunate. A very good friend of mine Robert Bader, who is a leading historian of The Marx Brothers and worked for Dick Cavett, said to me “You sell this book, I will allow you to watch this episode.” I said “Wow. Talk about trying to sell a book.” So we got to watch the episode. And we got to audiotape it and get the exact words right.
The story was that he did his segment, and when they went onto the next guest, the journalist Pete Hammil, and all of a sudden you heard a snoring sound and Dick said to him “Am I boring you?” Well that never happened. It was too good a line. In our book, we do have things that are ironic but true, like a woman who died after singing “Talk About Me When I’m Gone.” So there are a lot of ironies in the book. But that episode didn’t have that many ironic things in it, though he did say “I hope I’ll be back on the show,” And Dick Cavett said “Don’t worry. You’ll be back.” So that was great. Even Dick it’s not like he sits at home watching his old episodes every day. Even when he’s told the story, some facts are misremembered. So it was great to watch that and report it as it’s never been done before. So that was fascinating.
People also claimed he said “I’m gonna live to be 100” on the show right before dying.
Another one. He did not say that on the show. He was profiled in The New York Times on a Sunday and he was a guest on the show a few days later. And he does make that claim, because he was a longevity expert. And Cavett says “The Gods of Television were very good to me. Who better than a longevity expert to die on your show?” So he did not say that on the show but he did say it a few days earlier.
I think it’s so great you were able to see this because it’s never been transcribed with such accuracy before the book. It’s always been hearsay.
Absolutely. In fact one guy even said “I think I’ve seen that on YouTube.” You can literally almost count the people who’ve seen that episode on one hand. Dick, Mr. Bader, and probably the guys who transferred it. But it’s really locked away. He’s never put it out. And it’s a story that Dick has been telling since 1971. He told it on Seth Meyers earlier this year.
And other urban legends, this is not death related, but Dick Shawn it was always said was banned from The Tonight Show and flipping over Johnny’s desk. Well that is some twisted history. He was not the host of the show that night, Rich Little was the guest host. Somehow they got into a wild bit and they did flip over Johnny’s desk and pretended to be Washington crossing the Delaware. And Johnny came back the next day and was rather pissed. And Dick did come back on the show a couple of times with guest hosts but he eventually did come back with Johnny I think for Johnny’s last year. He did come back but that was an urban legend. They said “Dick Shawn was a crazy comic and banned from The Tonight Show.” But that never happened.
Right. Johnny did decide though that he could keep going on but just with guest hosts.
Right but at the very end, in the final year of his life, he did come on with Johnny. I guess Johnny realized he was too good a performer not to have on the show.
He was such an unpredictable performer and anything was likely to happen. He’d be lying on the stage under a pile of newspapers and he would pop up. And the audience would be like “Wow,” because they’d been sitting there staring at a pile of newspapers. For someone to collapse like him was not unpredictable. It would not be out of the realm of possibility I should say. It’s not like Gary Shandling or Jerry Seinfeld collapsing. He was a physical, take no prisoners stand up comedian.
It’s so weird that so many people only know Dick Shawn because he did die onstage in San Diego. People often overlook what a great comedian he was.
And the other thing in the book is these performers we talk about they should be remembered for more than being a footnote. “Oh yeah, Dick Shawn the guy who died onstage.” He was only in two of the greatest comedies ever made, The Producers and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
And he was making a comeback. He was in the Captain EO ride and his one man show, The Second Greatest Entertainer in the World, was critically acclaimed. It was wonderful. In the early 50’s he was on The Judy Garland Show. He was a great performer. So yes, we wanted people to realize these guys were not one hit wonders.
And as far as urban legends go, there were two urban legends that were too good not to put in the book. John Ford did say “When in doubt, print the legend.” One is at the Roast with Parkyakarkus, Harry Einstein who is Albert Brooks’ father, where he collapses after his performance and the audience is very unsettled as doctors are trying to bring him back to life. And Milton Berle apparently says to Tony Martin, “Tony, get up and sing,” and he sings “There’s no Tomorrow.” And Milton is another guy who loves to embellish. And I did speak to another brother, Cliff Einstein, who said Milton has embellished his part over the years. But it was too good a line not to put in the book. It could’ve happened. The number of people who were witnesses to that event are really none.
But do we know for a fact that Tony Martin actually sang?
I don’t know that he got up and sang right after that. But what happens is people tell the story as if they were there. “Hey I remember when Milton Berle said this.” Because they heard Milton Berle tell the story.
Another person was comedian Joe E. Ross from Car 54, Where Are You? He was performing at the end of the life in a retirement home in their community rec room. And he died in mid-performance. And his wife went to collect the $100 and the guy said “Here’s $50. He didn’t finish the show.” And so many people are like “I was there that night. I was there with him.” You know what I mean? Everybody just told the story so many times they make it like they were there.
It’s good that you’ve done as much research as you have so that you’re able to dispel so many of these rumors and myths.
Yeah. One of the reviewers, the first review we got, when we mentioned Jane Little who died playing “There’s No Business Like Show Business”. We didn’t make that up. That was a fact that she died playing that song. And if we didn’t report that, it wouldn’t be good journalism. And we didn’t make it as a snide remark but we kind of had to have a button, to make a little twist at the end. Because otherwise the book would read like “And he had a heart attack… And he had a heart attack…”
Like going back to Dick Shawn, one newspaper said he was younger than he was. One newspaper said he was 56. Another newspaper said he was 62. So we said “Even in death he gained the last laugh. He gained 6 extra years.” Finding those little twists are interesting, but sometimes things have been repeated so many times it’s hard to get the exact detail.
So after writing this book, how would you respond if you saw a comedian die onstage? Would you assume it’s a joke?
It depends on the type of performer, you know? And what he’s talking about. With Dick Shawn, his line was “Pretend there was an atomic blast had happened and the entire world has been destroyed except for everyone in this room. And I’m your leader.” And right there he has a heart attack. You wouldn’t think “Oh, he’s having a heart attack.” What a great set up for a punchline, right?
But if you’re a straight monologuist and there’s no reason to do it… Like for example, George Carlin had a line like “If this is not the case, God should strike me dead at this very spot.” And then he moved over like an inch. “Oh I guess I’m fine!” Now George is not a a physical comedian but if he wanted to feign a heart attack and go “Oh my chest,” you’d go “He’s trying something.” Or if Bill Hicks is doing a bit about Jesus on the cross and he collapses, you’d think “Oh, Jesus just got to him.”
And that was the thing with the British comedian Tommy Cooper dying on live television. He was the equivalent of Carl Ballentine doing crazy magic tricks. And he was doing this thing where he’d put on the cloak and he would produce items from underneath the cloak and the items would get bigger and people were passing them from underneath. So it was very possible that he was passing a very big item and going “That was difficult.” It really didn’t fit into the act but with a performer that physical, people go “Anything’s possible. I guess he’s doing schtick.” So that’s why it takes 40 seconds and you have a body sitting there and you realize he’s not in great health he can’t really take a fall like that. Like Adam Shawn said. When Dick fell, “he doesn’t fall at that point in the show. He took a fall harder. That’s not a really gingerly fall.”
And this is not in our book, but will be in our sequel, Redd Foxx. He was having a heart attack. No one would believe him. He was a man who made a living out of “Elizabeth! I’m coming to get you Elizabeth.” [Where Foxx would fake a heart attack].
Were there any families or Estates that were turned off on the idea of a book like this where you’re talking about their death?
No, actually some people were rather flattered. It was the fact that we were letting people know that the book was a celebration. It was a title that people thought was sweet. It was something we tried to convey to people with our questions. And The Amazing Joe [escape artist] his son cried. And Adam Shawn is still sad that his father died. So no, we didn’t really have resistance from people who said “I don’t want to talk about it.” I think they realized what we were doing.
The Show Won’t Go On can be purchased here. Jeff Abraham and Burt Kearns are currently working on a follow-up that will go beyond the stage and explore people such as Redd Foxx, Cary Grant, athletes, and many more.