Within minutes after the news of Gary Coleman’s death broke, the Intertubes rattled with one unfunny joke after another. It made me briefly happy that I’ve never become famous. Otherwise, random strangers might think that me dying at a criminally young age from head trauma was hilarious.
Of course, Gary Coleman wasn’t a walking punchline simply because he was once famous. There’s a lot of ex-stars who fit this bill–MC Hammer springs to mind. But the cruel, twisted anti-fame Coleman suffered from was a special kind, the kind that can only be inflicted on that most reviled form of ex-fame: child stardom. Not even debutards like Nicole Richie or the Kardashians–who have contributed not one single positive thing to this earth–are mocked the way that former child stars are once they hit puberty.
Child stars are chewed up and spit out on both ends–by a fickle public, and by weird, sociopathic stage parents who drive them to succeed long before they can make decisions for themselves. Thanks to decades of unsavory examples, people expect the worst of former child stars, and even if they never go down the primrose path, they will be hounded by paparazzi and curiosity seekers who can’t believe that the Macauly Culkins of the world dared to grow up.
Coleman’s living purgatory was exacerbated by a congenital kidney ailment that stunted his growth. At least some child stars have a theoretical chance to move beyond their past. Gary Coleman was forced to look like like a child long after anyone had any use for his schtick.
He also had the misfortune of acting on a show that had two of the more fantastic ex-child star meltdowns in history. Dana Plato left Diff’rent Strokes to rob video stores, act in porn, and OD on prescription painkillers. Todd Bridges became a drug addict and dealer with repeated run-ins with the law.
Gary Coleman got into some physical altercations with strangers, but much of that was provoked by people who wanted to fuck with him (granted, he also had some domestic disputes, and was charged as the aggressor in at least one of them). But his post-sitcom life was considered more sordid than sad because he caught the shrapnel of his ex-costars’ explosions. Bridges and Plato blew up, and Coleman was collateral damage.
Anything bad that happened to him was labeled another sick chapter in the “hilariously” awful Diff’rent Strokes saga. Like how he had to sue his parents because they mismanaged his assets and left him broke. That horrible circumstance was put on the same level, in the public’s mind, as Todd Bridges slinging crack, even though Bridges was a drug-dealing creep and Coleman was victimized by his mother and father.
Gary Coleman is one of the most egregious examples of what I call The Vanilla Ice Syndrome. Vanilla Ice’s debut album sold 11 million copies, but almost overnight he turned into a pop culture whipping boy. The savageness directed at Vanilla Ice was in direct proportion to how honestly popular he once was. Once people decided they were done with him, and realized he kinda sucked, they had to mock him to compensate for once liking him.
The Vanilla Ice Syndrome is especially vicious when the ex-star in question was beloved by children and/or teenyboppers. At that stage, most kids don’t really have much taste at all except liking what’s popular. Violently rejecting something you liked when you were 12 is a way of showing you’ve grown up. In other words, I fear for Miley Cyrus’ future.
In the late 70s/early 80s, Gary Coleman was one of the hugest stars in America. He was one of the most beloved and recognizable people in the country. Then, after eight seasons on the air, his act grew stale. But it wasn’t good enough for people to just not watch Diff’rent Strokes anymore. They had to shit all over the guy because they once loved what he did. It was a product of the collective embarrassment over making someone famous for saying “watchu talkin bout Willis”. He had to pay for the rest of us feeling so retroactively dumb.
So when he died, a lot of people couldn’t resist the temptation to make lame cracks, most of them using that catchphrase. I know this is a hard concept to grasp in the Internet Age, but not everything is a springboard for your savage wit. It’s okay to let something pass without making a snotty remark about it. It’s okay to not spit out the absolute first thing that pops in your head when you hear about someone’s death.
People made jokes after Dennis Hopper died, but at least Dennis Hopper lived a long life and was able to enjoy a second act of his career. Gary Coleman died at age 42, never got to live a non-shitty life after his heyday, and had troubles that were mostly not self-inflicted. No other details of his life make that even remotely funny. And if you think it is funny, pray no one’s laughing if you get hit by a bus tomorrow.