“Let’s all drink to the death of a clown.”
Another year, another group of people funnier than you or I who passed away. Death’s such a bitch, isn’t it? Below are 10 individuals — ranging from a Blacklisted comedy musical genius to an award-winning Colonel, from a woman who had her marble rye stolen to everyone’s favorite ex-cop, security officer uncle, from a Jackass to a great football player-turned-even better comedic actor — that made us laugh, and were taken away from us in 2011. Here’s hoping for a death-less 2012!
Betty Garrett, February 12 (91)
Betty Garrett could do it all. She more than held her own with Frank Sinatra in MGM’s comedy musicals, Take Me Out to the Ballgame and On the Town, in which she sang “Come Up to My Place” (she also sang the Oscar-nominated “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in 1949’s Neptune’s Daughter). She rebounded from getting blacklisted because of her and her husband’s, Larry Park, interest in the Communist Party. She was a successful sitcom actress, playing feisty neighbor Irene Lorenzo on All In the Family and landlady Edna Babish on Laverne & Shirley, a role that won her a Golden Globe; she was also nominated for an Emmy in 2003 for her guest appearance on Becker. She even taught musical comedy at Los Angeles’ Theater West, right up until her passing from an aortic aneurysm.
Mike DeStefano, March 6 (43)
In the days following Mike DeStefano’s shocking heart attack, there was something everyone who ever came in contact with him wanted us to known: though he was known for his profanity-laced, brutally honest stand-up routines about his former addiction to heroin, DeStefano was one of the nicest guys in the world. He was a regular at comedy clubs around New York City, and appeared on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and Last Comic Standing, where he was a top-five finalist in 2010. In his act, DeStefano was known to say, “I am a stand-up comic. Before that, I was a drug counselor. Before that, I was a drug addict. Before that, I was 12.” A great joke from a great comedian.
Ryan Dunn, June 20 (34)
To millions of teenagers (and thousands of adults), Ryan Dunn was a hero. As a member of the CKY Crew, who appeared in Jackass, Viva La Bam, and Homewrecker, Dunn had the greatest job a 15-year-old boy could ever want: he got paid to hurt himself and act like an idiot on national TV. That’s what made his death all the more tragic; he died do something stupid. On June 20, Dunn was drunk and driving a car at 130 MPH when it crashed and caught fire in Pennsylvania. It’s a damn shame, too, because Dunn was maybe the best member of the Jackass crew — he always looked like he was having fun. At least we’ll always have this.
Bubba Smith, August 3 (66)
Bubba Smith had two equally memorable professions. He began his career as a football player, drafted number one by the Baltimore Colts, after having been awarded All-America honors in 1965 and 1966 while playing college ball for Michigan State. In his nine seasons in the NFL, playing for the Colts, Oakland Raiders, and Houston Oilers, Smith was an All-Pro once and won a Super Bowl with the Colts in 1971. After Smith retired in 1976, he began his second vocation: actor, best known for portraying Moses Hightower in the Police Academy series. He appeared in dozens of other movies, commercials, and TV shows, including The Odd Couple and Taxi, until passing away from drug intoxication.
Uncle Frank Potenza, August 23 (77)
Rather than having me explain to you why ex-cop Uncle Frank was maybe the funniest thing about Jimmy Kimmel Live!, I’m going to instead let Kimmel do it himself, in a special heartfelt, tear-filled tribute that aired on the show on September 6. View it — and cry — here. Best part: when Kimmel says, “I wanna say thanks to my co-workers who talked to him and visited him and picked him up 12 hours early for work. He loved you. And thanks to all of you who came to the show and watched, for indulging me and letting me put my crazy uncle on television.”
Frances Bay, September 15 (92)
Frances Bay didn’t begin acting until she was nearly 60 years old, but she didn’t stop until she passed away at the age of 92. In between 1978 and 2011, she appeared in everything from Happy Days (as the Fonz’s grandmother) to Seinfeld (as Mabel Choate, the old woman Jerry stole the marble rye from), from The Karate Kid to Blue Velvet. Long after most people lose their sense of humor, not to mention their marbles, Day was as sharp as ever in Happy Gilmore, as Adam Sandler’s grandma (amusingly, she was “cared after” by Ben Stiller four years after appearing in an episode of The Ben Stiller Show); The Hughleys, as Mrs. Fitch; and The Middle, as the silent Aunt Ginny, her final on-screen role.
Bil Keane, November 8 (89)
No, Bil Keane’s gentle comic strip, The Family Circus, was never very funny — or really even the slightest bit funny — but there was something reassuring in knowing that day after day, week after week, year after year, decade after decade, Jeffy & Co. were still getting into wholesome, religious mishap. Plus, those dotted-line panels are kind of awesome. Family Circus began in 1960, and now appears in over 1,500 newspapers, the most of any syndicated panel. Even after Bil’s passing from congestive heart failure, Family Circus continues on, with his son, Jeff, taking over.
Patrice O’Neal, November 29 (41)
On December 10, less than two weeks after Patrice O’Neal passed away from complications of a stroke, a Twitter user asked Louis C.K. who his favorite “comic working right now” is? C.K. responded, “patrice till he died. Dunno who now.” The fellow-comedian Twitter love continued in the days surrounding his death, with tweets of respect coming from Sarah Silverman, Patton Oswalt, Ricky Gervais, Kevin Hart, and dozens more. He was best known for his taboo-tackling, confrontational stand-up act, in which no subject was too controversial (AIDS, sexual harassment, white people loving Radiohead’s “Creep”), but he also appeared in mainstream sitcom series, including Arrested Development (as T-Bone) and The Office (as warehouse employee Lonny). The world is a less funny place without him around, to point out how fucked up things are.
Alan Sues, December 1 (85)
Alan Sues began his career as a “serious” actor, working with the likes of Elia Kazan in Tea and Sympathy on Broadway. He used that clout to get more gigs around New York City and began to embrace his goofier, more insane side. Eventually, Sues landed on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, the popular NBC sketch show, where he found his greatest fame. Between 1968-1972, Sues created some of the show’s most flamboyant, memorable characters, including clueless sports anchor Big Al and hung-over children’s show host Uncle Al the Kiddies’ Pal. Other highlights in Sues’ career, before passing away from an heart attack, include the Twilight Zone episode, “The Masks”; a series of commercials for Peter Pan Peanut Butter; and playing the evil Moriarity in Broadway’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
Harry Morgan, December 7 (96)
Harry Morgan was lucky and talented enough to have portrayed two of TV’s most memorable characters: Officer Bill Gannon in the revived version of Dragnet (1967-1970) and Col. Sherman Potter on M*A*S*H (1974-1983). As Col. Potter, Morgan won an Emmy in 1980 and was an integral reason why M*A*S*H never dropped lower than #15 in the Nielsen ratings from 1974 to 1983, its final year on air. Of his most well known character, Morgan once said, “He was firm. He was a good officer and he had a good sense of humor. I think it’s the best part I ever had.” Morgan also appeared in AfterMASH, its lesser loved spin-off, and kept busy taking small roles in shows like 3rd Rock from the Sun (as Professor Suter) and The Simpsons (as Bill Gannon in “Mother Simpson”). He passed away peacefully in his sleep.
Josh Kurp hates death.