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Deaths and Sex Allegations Rock the Comedy World

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NEW YORK (AP) - For comedians, there was very little to laugh about in 2014.

Three pioneering comic legends died - David Brenner, Joan Rivers and Robin Williams - and Bill Cosby went from America's dad to an alleged serial sexual predator.

"It's unfortunate when you lose anybody. To lose three and to have these allegations with Cosby, it's a tough year," said Christopher Mazzilli, co-owner of the Gotham Comedy Club.

The year began with exciting late-night transitions for Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers, but soon started on a litany of loss, beginning with the death in March of the lanky, toothy-grinned Brenner, whose brand of observational comedy paved the way for Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reiser.

Then Williams, who inspired and supported so many comedians with a legacy that included "Mork and Mindy" on TV and films like "Mrs. Doubtfire" and "Dead Poets Society," committed suicide in August.

By fall, Rivers, whose brassy style was picked up by Sarah Silverman, Chelsea Handler and Kathy Griffin, had also died. Others lost this year include stand-up comedian John Pinette and "SNL" veteran Jan Hooks. In New York magazine, Chris Rock called 2014 "a weird year for comedy" and many agree.

"It's been a brutal year for losing funny people," said Kelly Carlin, daughter of comedic-legend George Carlin and a performer in her own right. "It feels like comedy is teaching us what it feels like to walk through loss this year."

Paul Provenza, a veteran stand-up, TV host and director of the film "The Aristocrats," said the losses of Brenner, Williams and Rivers hit hard because they each invented unique styles of joke-telling.

"They created new languages in comedy," he said. "They basically created these pathways and these styles of comedy and made them the vernacular."

This year also saw the re-flaring of accusations - and quick denials - of child molestation allegations against Woody Allen. They cast a shadow over his film "Magic in the Moonlight" and his Broadway musical "Bullets Over Broadway."

The world of humor was also knocked off-balance by the renewed allegations against Cosby by more than 15 women claiming decades-old sexual assaults. He has denied some of the allegations, but his career has suffered.

"I feel like we've lost Bill Cosby," said Carlin. "I feel like there's some sort of erasure happening on the Mount Rushmore of comedy right now, with his face being sandblasted away in some ways."

Provenza said he's deeply saddened by the allegations against Cosby and horrified by the accusations, but tells people who ask about it to always trust the art, not the artist.

"I just hope that through all of this - whatever the realities are and however this plays out - I hope that people still can trust the art because the man was an absolute genius in stand-up," Provenza said.

Eddie Izzard, the British actor and comedian who is filming Sony PlayStation Network's original series "Powers," said the Cosby allegations reminded him of accusations that have rocked England about TV personalities there linked to abuses against young girls.

Of Cosby, Izzard said: "If it's true, then, 'Oh my God.' And if it's not true, then, 'Oh my God.' I don't know where you go with either of those," he said. "There's negativity happening this year but comedians are going out and doing really interesting stuff all around the world."

Provenza said the sad news in 2014 from the comedy world is a reminder that while comedians might be funny, they're also just people, with all the anger, weirdness and sadness that entails.

"It's all very human. We're all in the same place, whether you're a pipefitter or a school teacher or a doctor or a lawyer or a comedian, the human condition is the human condition," he said. "And nobody escapes that."

Despite the heavy losses, comedians said there's still plenty of exciting comedy on TV, online and at stand-up shows, from shows like "Inside Amy Schumer" to "Key & Peele" to sketch groups like Friends of the People to web sites like Funny or Die and Marc Maron's podcasts.

Mazzilli, whose club has helped launch the careers of Dave Chapelle and Colin Quinn, points to the Internet as becoming comedy's fuel, giving once-unknowns like Jeff Dunham the ability to go viral.

"I thought it was high-tech when we had faxes and I could fax somebody the information," he said. "Now people can reach - with a couple of words and pushing a button - a million people, two million people. Immediately."

Thanks to the Internet and social media, Provenza, who has been doing stand-up since the late 1970s, said he believes we're now in a new golden age: "In all those decades, I have never seen as exciting a time in comedy as there is now."

Carlin agreed, and celebrates the return of comedians playing a big role in national conversations. She points to such comics as Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, Patton Oswalt, John Oliver, Louis C.K, Chris Rock, Russell Brand, Lewis Black and Doug Stanhope.

"Comedians are once again the leading social commentators," she said.

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