Last night in Beverly Hills, Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, and their Wayne’s World director Penelope Spheeris reunited for a screening of that 1992 classic, in what has been reported far and wide as a public “burying of the hatchet.” Great comedy doesn’t always come from harmony; Myers and Spheeris reportedly clashed over her directorial and editing choices (as a result, he demanded she not return for the sequel), while tension was high between Myers and Carvey on set, since Carvey — the bigger star on Saturday Night Live — was playing a decidedly supporting role. Their rift is rumored to have widened in the years after their Wayne’s World collaboration (the bone of contention is whether Myers stole his Dr. Evil character from Carvey). But it was all smiles and laughs and good times at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater, and while their conflicts weren’t directly addressed, Spheeris recently shrugged off the feuds, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “We’re all getting too old to pissed.” True enough, but comedians have never exactly been known for their thick skin; here are a few of the most contentious feuds between funny people.
David Cross vs. Larry the Cable Guy
When Rolling Stone profiled “Larry the Cable Guy” (the stage name and persona of Dan Whitney), they went looking for an anti-Larry comic to provide a voice of dissent — and David Cross was more than happy to step in. Of Whitney’s act, Cross said, “It’s a lot of anti-gay, racist humor — which people like in America — all couched in ‘I’m telling it like it is.’ He’s in the right place at the right time for that gee-shucks, proud-to-be-a-redneck, I’m-just-a-straight-shooter-multimillionaire-in-cutoff-flannel-selling-ring-tones act. That’s where we are as a nation now. We’re in a state of vague American values and anti-intellectual pride.”
Whitney spent an entire chapter in his book (titled, shockingly enough, GIT-R-DONE) responding to Cross and the “P.C. left.” Of the “anti-intellectual pride” remark, Whitney wrote, “America’s in a state of boredom from watchin’ humorless comedians act like they’re better than everyone else. America’s sick of payin’ good money for a comedy show that only earns one laugh every 12 minutes because the comedian onstage is too busy demonstratin’ how much smarter he is than his audience.” (Note the down-homey dropped “g”s in there. Just Larry the Cable Guy Dan Whitney, keepin’ it real!) Whitney also took pains to note that he was mostly responding to Cross because he “screwed with my fans,” so “it was time for me to say something.”
After the book’s release, Cross responded in an open letter on his website (reprinted in his book I Drink for a Reason). It’s a beautiful takedown, most notable for how Cross uses his own Southern background against his Nebraska-born nemesis. “I do know your audience,” Cross wrote, “and they suck. And they’re simple… Since I was a kid I’ve always been a little oversensitive to the glorification and rewarding of the dumb.” Game, set, and match.
Joan Rivers vs. Chelsea Handler
Rivers has been working in comedy longer than any other woman in the business — and most men (Bill Cosby and Don Rickles are about the only active comics who’ve been in the game as long). As such, she gets much respect from her obvious comedic heirs — Kathy Griffin and Sarah Silverman, for example, show up to sing her praises in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. But Chelsea Handler apparently doesn’t share their reverence. “Joan Rivers? What the fuck do I care about Joan Rivers?” she said on The Howard Stern Show in January 2012, explaining how she’d been publicly slammed (sorta, kinda?) by Rivers at an event. Rivers, not new at this, showed up on the Stern show the very next day. “Number one, the girl made it on her back, fucking the president of the network,” she told Stern. “Number two, she’s fine, she’s ordinary, she’s not a genius. She’s an ordinary girl, and she was fucking somebody high up in the industry, and they gave her a break, and she’s doing okay… but don’t you come after me, you whore.” Ouch.
Bill Cosby vs. Eddie Murphy
Eddie Murphy was on top of the world in 1987, when he released his hit concert performance film Eddie Murphy Raw. As usual, his flawless impressions were a highlight of the set — particularly his withering imitation of Bill Cosby, which he used while telling the story of an angry phone call from the Cos. In the bit, Dr. Huxtable phoned the young comic specifically to warn him away from using profanity onstage (which, for the 1987 model of Murphy, would be akin to telling early-‘60s era Bob Dylan to steer clear of his harmonica). Cosby was, at the time, the biggest star on television, but the Murphy bit painted his comic forefather as an out-of-touch old man, mouthing gibberish (“filth flarn filth”) and nonsense. And the story’s button was a follow-up call to Richard Pryor (“Tell Bill I said have a Coke and a smile and shut the fuck up”) indicating he wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
But Cos has pushed back about the incident in recent years. In a 2007 interview, Cosby (who has also voiced his distaste for Murphy’s performance in the film adaptation of Cosby’s breakthrough series I Spy) called Murphy “a very nasty, nasty liar. Period. It wasn’t necessary. It was between us.” He also claimed the Pryor element was fiction: “Richard called and said, ‘Hey Bill, the thing that Eddie is saying, I didn’t say that.’ And I said, ‘I didn’t think you did.’” In a 2010 interview, he had more to add: “The call to him was not about cursing. I’ve heard people curse. I mean, Richard Pryor is my friend. So what am I gonna tell him about the cursing?” The issue, Cosby claims, was not about profanity but arrogance; he’d played a venue shortly after the younger comic and heard stories that Murphy had yelled at a spectator about how much money he made. “People are gonna look at you and they’re gonna say, okay, I don’t like this guy ‘cause he’s got money and he’s making fun of me,” Cosby said. “This is not smart… (but) he just did not appreciate my telling him that it was wrong.”
Chevy Chase vs. Bill Murray
Chase was the immediate breakout star of Saturday Night Live’s first season — and since he’d only been hired as a writer, he wasn’t locked in to the multi-year contracts of his fellow performers. So after the first season, he split to make movies. Bill Murray was brought on to replace him, but the cast and crew were bitter that Chase had abandoned the show, and that bitterness was very much in the air when Chase returned to guest host late in the second season. In the show’s excellent oral history Live From New York, Chase blames John Belushi, who he said had “been spreading some pretty apocryphal stories about me out of his jealousy or anger or whatever to Billy Murray… and I’m sure Billy wanted to take me down, you know.” It came to a head backstage, with what Chase called “a preliminary fistfight that never really came to fruition but came close. And it happened just before I went on the air.” Murray explained his position: “That was because I was the new guy, and it was sort of like it was my job to do that. It would have been too petty for someone else to do it.”
Their altercation became the stuff of SNL legend, and the tension between them can still be sensed in Caddyshack four years later — where they only share one, mostly improvised scene. They both have let bygones be bygones, but in Live From New York, Murray has this to say about the incident: “When you become famous, you’ve got like a year or two where you act like a real asshole. You can’t help yourself. It happens to everybody. You’ve got like two years to pull it together — or it’s permanent.” Murray left it at that, but based on Chase’s subsequent tifts, it sounds like he might fall into the “permanent” camp.
Norm MacDonald vs. Chris Kattan
Saturday Night Live regulars have a long history of discord, and it’s hard to blame them; you can only imagine the kind of pet peeves and irritations that can become apparent while spending as much time together as that ensemble does. But few SNL rifts have been as public (and nasty) as that of Norm MacDonald and Chris Kattan, whose stints on the show overlapped by two seasons — MacDonald was on from 1993-1998, while Kattan was there from 1996-2003. The trouble started when MacDonald was interviewed by Rolling Stone, where his comments on Kattan ranged from slightly homophobic (“I don’t know, but to me he seems gay… He claims he’s not, but I’ve never seen, like, a guy who’s not gay seem so gay”) to refreshingly accurate (“I don’t find him funny. What can I say? Never made me laugh”). RS asked Kattan to respond, and he did: “If Norm says I’m gay, then put in that I say he’s an asshole.” Reports from within 30 Rock confirmed that, indeed, the two did not get along backstage, so MacDonald’s dismissal from the show in 1998 was presumably a thrill to Kattan. And when MacDonald returned to host the show the following year, Kattan was entirely absent from the episode. An SNL rep told The New York Observer that a sketch with both men was killed after the dress rehearsal (which happens often), but Kattan took a shot at his former co-star in the very next show. In a Mango sketch, he opened a letter, squinting at its signatory. “Norm McDonald,” he read. “Who is that?”
Jon Lovitz vs. Andy Dick
When Phil Hartman was killed by his wife Brynn in a 1998 murder/suicide, he was co-starring on NewsRadio with Andy Dick. Hartman’s former SNL castmate Jon Lovitz came in to (not in so many words) take his place on the sitcom, but with some tension; Lovitz apparently blamed Dick for his friend’s death, since Dick had reintroduced recovering addict Brynn to cocaine at a party a few months earlier. “I was angry and I was blaming him for what happened,” he would later say, and they got along poorly during Lovitz’s year on the show (its last).
In 2006, it got ugly. Lovitz claims Dick showed up at Lovitz’s restaurant, “looked at me and said, ‘I put the “Phil Hartman hex” on you — you’re the next one to die.’ I said, ‘What did you say?’ and he repeated it. I wanted to punch his face in, but I don’t hit women.” A year later, the two ran into each other again at the Laugh Factory. “I just wanted him to say, ‘Oh, I said that, I’m sorry,'” Lovitz told Dennis Miller in a radio interview, and when Dick didn’t, “I lost it and I grabbed him by the shirt and pushed him against the wall.” The incident hit the gossip pages, and the pair haven’t spoken since.
Louis C.K. vs. Dane Cook
In 2006, Dane Cook was in the midst of an explosion — starring roles in movies, sold-out tours, bestselling albums. But at the same time, detractors on the Internet were calling him a thief. YouTube videos and chat boards were rife with accusations that three bits from Cook’s 2005 album Retaliation were awfully similar to bits on Louie’s 2001 Live in Houston album. Louie wasn’t among those voicing the claims, but he was stewing about them; in a 2010 Movieline interview, he recalled, “When I first heard it, it pissed me off for a very unfair reason, which is I just didn’t like the dude. He just bummed me out aesthetically. He had bumped me at a lot of clubs.” But ultimately, “I think it’s possible he might have seen these bits and absorbed them, and not known that he took them from me. I worry about that myself sometimes. It’s hard to know where your thoughts come from, especially when you have a thirst for material because you need it professionally. He has an enormous need for material because he gets a lot of opportunities. That tends to happen. Nobody’s perfect. Hopefully I don’t do it.” Cook, meanwhile, had appeared on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast and refuted the charges. “I didn’t steal anything from Louis C.K.,” he told Maron. “How can I really convey to people so that they understand? I’ve never stolen anything in my life. I’m not a thief.” Louie finally put the controversy to bed as only he could: by having Cook appear on an episode of Louie as himself, and having the conversation in front of everyone. (He later took a similar tack with his on-again, off-again friend Marc Maron.)
Joe Rogan vs. Carlos Mencia
Cook’s not the only popular comedian to deal with accusations of plagiarism. Robin Williams is often accused of thievery, but the most frequent target is Mind of Mencia star Carlos Mencia. Joe Rogan (who had also accused Cook of lifting one of his bits) took to his blog in 2005 to accuse Mencia of stealing jokes from several comics. Two years later, he confronted Mencia on stage and put the video of that confrontation on YouTube, where it went viral. Rogan was banned from the venue; he also said he left his management agency when they demanded he apologized to Mencia (who was also a client). What’s more, he told Chicago Now that Louis C.K. and Nick Swardson followed him out the door in protest. Mencia spent years pushing back against his rep as a joke thief, trying to appear contrite on WTF (though Maron found more comics to push back) and saying of Rogan, “I never had beef with him, he had beef with me. I never, nor will I, put another person down to feel better about myself. I will live and die by what I do, not what anyone else thinks about me.”
Bill Hicks vs. Denis Leary/ Louis C.K. vs. Denis Leary
Stealing a few jokes or bits is one thing. But what about swiping an entire persona? As young up and comers on the comedy scene, Hicks and Leary were friends. But when Leary’s breakthrough special and album No Cure for Cancer appeared, friends and fellow comics noted that Leary’s style and mannerisms seemed an awful lot like those of Hicks. In a 1993 interview, Hicks joked, “I have a scoop for you. I stole his act. I camouflaged it with punchlines, and to really throw people off, I did it before he did.” The next year, Hicks was dead of cancer, but the charge has haunted Leary since; at a 2003 Comedy Central roast, Lenny Clarke said Hicks had left a carton of cigarettes backstage for Leary with a note reading, “Wish I had gotten these to you sooner.” (The joke didn’t make air.) Hicks and friends weren’t the only ones with an axe to grind; on a 2008 episode of Opie and Anthony, Louis C.K. called Leary a “fucking talentless cunt” (jokingly! Kind of!) who “stole a bit from me years ago.” The bit in question was his “Asshole” song, which Louie claimed was swiped from his signature, closing bit. Two months later, Leary came on Opie and Anthony and commented on both controversies, joking that anything people disliked in his new book was written by Louie or Hicks, but maintaining that he hadn’t stolen the “Asshole” song.
Sam Kinison vs. Andrew Dice Clay
Around about 1990, the two biggest names in stand-up comedy were Sam Kinison and Andrew “Dice” Clay. Both were known for being controversial onstage and partiers off, but there was a difference, certainly; Kinison used vulgarity and profanity to make his points, while Clay’s material was all about shock value. Whatever the differences, the pair — who had been friends on the LA comedy club scene — engaged in an ugly and public feud. Kinison frequently skewered him on The Howard Stern Show; Clay responded in print interviews. “Sam has a black heart,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I’m a character on-stage. I’m something different off-stage. Sam is just a horrible person. When his career first took off, it was fine. But when I started making it, he couldn’t take it. He actually said he hopes I die of stomach cancer from the inside out, like Bette Davis.” Kinison died in 1992, before they could put the feud to rest.