Congratulations on making it to the end of another week! Unfortunately, these people didn’t. Light a candle for Funeral Friday.
There’s been a lot of unnecessary talk about “legitimizing” comics in the past 20 to 30 years, which happened as soon as The Man realized many comics fans were, in fact, old enough to have income that didn’t come from their mothers’ purses, and would gladly spend that money over and over again on anything tangentially related to their obsessions. A lot of that “legitimizing” was done through Comic-Con, a once-humble gathering dedicated to honoring veteran inkers and letters, and giving people a place to come together and debate stuff like DC’s “Multiverse” nonsense, but which eventually became such a huge, all-encompassing juggernaut that Hollywood soon figured out that it needed to throw millions of dollars at it if, say, it wanted anyone to watch their little Obama-is-a-reptilian-overlord show. By that transitive property, Comic-Con founder Sheldon “Shel” Dorf accidentally became one of the most influential people in the industry when he first launched his San Diego Comic-Con International in the 1970s. Of course, for Dorf it was never about making money; he was just a lifelong fan of comic strips and comic books who loved seeking out idols like Jack Kirby and particularly Dick Tracy creator Chester Gould and bending their ear.
Those early friendships he formed paid off in some unexpected ways, like when he was drafted as a consultant on Warren Beatty’s Tracy adaptation and suddenly found himself en route to the Academy Awards, or when Kirby honored him by modeling two characters after Dorf: a member of rock ’n’ roll assassins the San Diego Five-String Mob and also New Gods inventor Himon. He was also the prototype for “Thud Shelley,” a football player who inhabited the universe of Milton Caniff’s long-running Steve Canyon strip, which Dorf also worked on as a letterer for the last 14 years of its run. And although Dorf eventually parted ways with Comic-Con once it became, in his words, “an ordeal” that was less about comic books and more about pimping the likes of Twilight, he’s still regarded as the patron saint of the convention, and one of the few people in the business with the foresight to realize that comics were a perfectly respectable, eminently profitable art form. Dorf died on Nov. 3 at the age of 76.
In his 40-plus year career as a television writer, David Lloyd wrote for everything from The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson to The Bob Newhart Show to Cheers. But really, he could have stopped writing sometime in the late ’70s and we’d still be talking about him, because he wrote what many consider to be one of the finest half-hours the medium has ever seen: the “Chuckles Bites The Dust” episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Still regarded as one of the first sitcom storylines to step outside the usual “Granny Clampett fights a giant kangaroo”-style of yukkety yuks and scratch below the surface of its characters, the “Chuckles” episode is a masterpiece of black comedy, one that was named as recently as this year by TV Guide as the third-best episode of any television show ever. In it, Lloyd used the unfortunate death of a clown (who, dressed as a giant peanut, was stomped by an elephant) as a hilarious, surprisingly poignant commentary on the way people deal with death. It managed to be reverent and totally ridiculous at the same time, which is a formula all decent sitcom writers have been trying to ape ever since.
And again, while he could have rested on his laurels and quit right there, he was just getting started: Lloyd churned out 31 episodes for Mary, went on to write for spin-offs Rhoda and Lou Grant, and then continued to deliver the goods for shows like Taxi, Wings, and finally Frasier, where he worked with his son, fellow writer and executive producer Christopher “Not The Actor” Lloyd. (His other son, Stephen Lloyd, is also a writer/producer behind shows like How I Met Your Mother.) More than just a reliable workhorse, Lloyd also took some considerable creative risks, most famously by bringing his 1984 show Brothers to a fledgling Showtime after networks rejected it for its plot centering around a gay protagonist. In all, Lloyd was one of television’s most respected voices, a guy who could build strong stories and develop characters in surprising ways while still making room for gags. He died this week at the age of 75, leaving behind one of the strongest legacies in the business.
Though she never achieved the lasting impact of a guy like David Lloyd, as comedy writers go, Sultan Pepper still had an enviable career (not to mention a helluva name for a jokesmith). As the only woman in the writers’ room with Judd Apatow, Ben Stiller, and David Cross, Pepper sparred with one of the biggest boys’ clubs in the business on the short-lived but beloved The Ben Stiller Show, taking home a 1993 Emmy for her troubles. Like most people involved with that program, Pepper didn’t suddenly find herself on the fast track to success despite its critical acclaim or cult fanbase, but it was certainly a foot in the door. The 17-year career that followed found Pepper stretching out into all corners of the medium, moving on to syndicated chatfest The Stephanie Miller Show before writing for children’s fare like CatDog and Crashbox, producing reality and game shows like Blind Date, Shipmates, Street Smarts, and Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush, and then eventually getting back into sketch comedy with her two seasons as a writer on MADtv, where she received two WGA nominations. Sadly, that would prove to be the last of her many projects, as she died this week at the age of 47 of causes unknown.
The world of reality television has come under fire of late for an unfortunate string of contestant-related tragedies, and while their connection is currently being investigated purely as a precaution, the death this week of a participant on ABC’s Wipeout should only add to the controversy. Tom Sparks was a former TV producer for Jimmy Kimmel Live and an Idaho radio host—and who had both received his master’s degree and gotten married just within the last couple months—when he signed up to compete on the show, which requires people to run through a giant obstacle course and injure themselves in spectacular, slow-motion friendly ways. Sparks was only partway through the first portion of the course when he complained of knee pain. Producers insisted he go to the hospital and, after examination, it was determined that Sparks’ condition was much more serious than anyone had previously thought. He soon found himself undergoing a series of massive brain surgeries at Cedars Sinai; on Nov. 5, doctors decided there was too much damage to save him, and he died at the age of 33.
The official speculation is that Sparks may have been suffering from a pre-existing condition known as antiphospholipid antibody syndrome, which causes unnatural blood clotting, but the Los Angeles County coroner’s office is currently investigating all possibilities for what may have triggered his rapid decline. For their part, Wipeout producers Endemol claim that Sparks underwent the same physical exam given to all contestants, and it’s been acknowledged that his condition definitely would not have been spotted in such an exam without a specialized blood test. But while they’re likely to be cleared of any wrongdoing, for reality-television producers whose vetting practices have been under extra-intense scrutiny ever since that Megan Wants A Millionaire asshole murdered his ex-wife, it’s just more fuel for the fire. Even sadder is the fact that Sparks, by all accounts a nice guy whose whole life seemed to be ahead of him, was unwittingly caught up in this ever-growing litany of reality TV-related deaths.
Finally, in case you missed it, the world of indie rock lost one of its most valuable players this week when drummer Gerhardt "Jerry" Fuchs (!!!, The Juan Maclean, Maserati, Turing Machine) accidentally fell down a Brooklyn elevator shaft and died at the age of 34. Rather than repeat ourselves about what an amazing musician he was, how well-liked he seemed to be by pretty much everyone who ever met him, and what a tragedy is to lose him so suddenly and at such a young age, we’ll just point you to the write-up at our New York branch, and provide you with video evidence of the many reasons he’ll be sorely missed.
Have a super weekend!