When Comedians Attack

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(l. to r.): Marsaili McGrath / Getty; Byron Purvis / Sipa

Jon Lovitz (left); Andy Dick (right)

Did ya hear the one about Jon Lovitz banging Andy Dick's head into a bar last week? How about the one about Dave Chappelle being hospitalized for "exhaustion" over the weekend? Even by the forgiving behavioral standards of show business, an industry that treats DUIs like parking tickets, stand-up comics manage to stand out as problem performers. Lots of them are moody, prickly and perfectionistic; many struggle with depression and substance abuse. And, as evidenced by the March suicide of comic Richard Jeni, some comics never get loud enough laughs to bring them peace.

"Comedians have this genius brain," says Jamie Masada, who runs The Laugh Factory, the Hollywood comedy club that was the site of the Lovitz/Dick confrontation as well as some other recent bizarre moments in comedy, including Michael Richards unleashing racial epithets at black hecklers last November and Chappelle delivering a surprise marathon six-hour set in April. "But they are so sensitive to other people. They are so vulnerable to other people; 75% of the comedians I know, something is missing inside them. Something is not filled. They try to overcome it by going on the stage and making people laugh."

The Lovitz/Dick incident was the culmination of a nearly decade-long grudge between the former News Radio co-stars. Lovitz took over for his close friend Phil Hartman on the show after Hartman was murdered by his wife, Brynn, who then committed suicide, in 1998. Lovitz has said that, at the time, he held Dick responsible for the tragedy, because Dick, Lovitz claims, had reintroduced Brynn to cocaine at a party months before the murder, leading Brynn to end a decade of sobriety and start a downward spiral. "I was angry and I was blaming him for what happened," Lovitz said on Dennis Miller's radio show this week. For several years, not much happened between Lovitz and Dick, Lovitz said. Then a year ago, at Ago, a West Hollywood restaurant Lovitz co-owns, Dick showed up and "looked at me and said, 'I put the Phil Hartman hex on you — you're the next one to die,'" Lovitz said. When Dick appeared at the Laugh Factory last Wednesday, Lovitz's night to perform, Lovitz confronted him about the comment. "I just wanted him to say, 'Oh, I said that, I'm sorry,'" Lovitz said on the radio. Dick didn't. "I lost it and I grabbed him by the shirt and pushed him against the wall," Lovitz said. "And he's just smiling at me. I smashed his head into the back of the bar."

Neither Dick nor Lovitz returned calls for comment on this story, but Masada confirmed Lovitz's version of events. As much as the fight itself, the pleased reaction of many to Dick's thumping (gossip site Gawker's headline: "Andy Dick Gets the Beat-Down We've All Craved") reveals what a harsh business comedy really is. Dick, whose public displays of weirdness have included licking other celebrities' faces, is a comic other comics love to hate. "Andy doesn't really care for anybody except Andy," Masada says. "If he has to get a laugh at the expense of all the other comics, he doesn't care." In other words, in a profession full of narcissists, Dick is often the last one to step away from the mirror.

Clearly not all comics are troubled. Many, like Bob Newhart and Jay Leno, have enjoyed long marriages and relatively quiet lives. But plenty of others, like John Belushi and Chris Farley, died as the result of addictions. No one has studied the mental health of comics specifically — it's pretty hard to get celebrities to agree to answer a nosy mental health survey — but "there's a high rate of mood disorders among performers in general," says Andrew Leuchter, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California at Los Angeles who has treated comics. "This is a high stress kind of existence. Putting yourself on the line night after night, you can have tremendous mood swings depending on how well you think you're doing."

There's also the comic's lifestyle, a recipe for isolation and drug abuse. "Working comedians who do the circuit have to do a lot of travel," says Jenn Berman, a Beverly Hills, Calif. psychotherapist who treats performers. "That makes it hard to stay connected and have intimate relationships." Successful comics, meanwhile, may have plenty of the wrong kind of relationships. "The more money you have, the more handlers you have, the more people whose livelihood depends on pleasing you," Berman says. "Everyone is invested in keeping you happy rather than making you face your demons."

When comics do face their demons, some wonder if they can work without them, especially drugs and alcohol. "There's a tremendous fear that, 'If I give that up I won't be funny anymore, I won't be able to act anymore, I won't be able to write anymore,'" says Berman. In fact, performers are more apt to see their careers improve with therapy, says Leuchter. "They become much more pleasant to interact with and other professionals find them much easier to deal with." Did ya hear the one about the easy-going, well adapted comedian? Didn't think so. He's busy working.