Every year in early June, I pause to remember my old friend Ray Combs.
The former Family Feud host – the funniest person ever to come from Hamilton -- died on this day 25 years ago. He was only 40.
Tragically, it was by suicide. But I try to focus on all the fun and laughs Ray Combs gave us in his 18-year career, not the sad ending for his wife and six children.
Combs struck comedy gold on his Tonight Show debut on Oct. 23, 1986, when Johnny Carson's TV audience sang TV theme songs with him. He had first performed the routine four years earlier, at Sharonville's old Red Dog Saloon.
The 1974 Hamilton Garfield High School grad started dabbling in comedy in 1978, after serving two years as a Mormon missionary in Arizona (1975-77) and selling furniture in Indianapolis. He sought career guidance from Indianapolis native David Letterman, who helped him get established in Los Angeles when he moved there in 1982.
Combs was subbing for comedian Kevin Orr at the Red Dog in 1982 when he realized that he had exhausted all of his material during the first show. The audience stayed for the second show, and he needed something quick. He remembered seeing someone celebrating a birthday in the audience, so he encouraged everyone to sing "Happy Birthday."
Then he sang the first line to The Addams Family 1960's sitcom: "The house is a museum…" The audience joined in.
Next he sang, "Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip…" and soon everyone was singing the Gilligan's Island theme. Then they joined him singing themes to The Brady Bunch, Green Acres and Mr. Ed.
After moving to Los Angeles, the TV theme song bit was one of his go-to routines when he worked as a "warm-up" for studio audiences during tapings for Golden Girls, Sherman Hemsley's Amen and other sitcoms. The warm-up comedian keeps the studio audience engaged and entertained during tapings, which can run two or three hours due to retakes, rewrites, blown lines and set changes.
Carson, whose production company owned Amen, saw Combs at work and changed his life.
"He came to a run-through of a show which he owns, called Amen, and I was doing the warm-up. Consequently, that led to me getting on the Tonight Show," Combs said on the Wil Shriner Show in the May 1988 clip below.
Carson introduced him to Tonight Show viewers in 1986 by explaining that Combs was "a little bit different kind of a comedian" because he does studio warm-ups. "It's a tough job. And he's the best at it."
Combs' six-minute stand-up included TV references to The Flintstones and The Love Boat. He concluded his routine by saying, "My entire life I'd always had a dream that someday I'd be able to walk out on this show and make people laugh and tonight made that dream come true. Thanks you and good night."
Carson was so impressed that he waved Combs over to the seat next to his desk. From there, Combs did his TV theme sing-along bit. (A month after his Carson debut, Combs told me: "For a long time, I was embarrassed to tell other comedians that I could fill time by doing it. It's unique. It never fails.")
The Tonight Show changed his life.
In less than a year, he was pitched offers to host four games shows – the Family Feud revival for $800,000 a year; a reboot of Carson's 1950's Who Do You Trust; the new Win, Lose or Draw from Burt Reynolds company; and Scruples for NBC's Brandon Tartikoff and Columbia Pictures Television. He chose Family Feud, which he hosted from 1988 to 1994.
Six years making high six figures on CBS' daytime lineup and evening syndication versions gave him money to open Cincinnati comedy clubs, CaddyCombs on Second Street (1988-1990) and the Cincinnati Comedy Connection in Carew Tower (1991-95), and to provide for his wife and their six kids. He once owned two Jaguars. He had homes in Los Angeles and Hamilton. He bought investment property in Hamilton. Combs helped fundraise for Hamilton High School's Virgil Schwarm stadium.
Then his world fell apart in 1994.
Early that year, he was told that original Family Feud host Richard Dawson would replace him that fall to bolster ratings. In July 1994, he suffered temporary paralysis of his arms and legs in an auto accident on the Los Angeles Freeway. Doctors told him that he'd never walk again.
In 1995, he closed his Carew Tower comedy club. By October 1995, he started working on a new Family Channel show, Family Challenge. It wasn't easy. He continued to have problems moving his fingers and hands -- not a good thing for a game show host who holds a microphone and note cards. After Combs' death, Family Challenge executive producer Woody Fraser told me Combs was in constant pain since the accident.
In 1996, his marriage was ending to Debbie, his Hamilton childhood sweetheart. He moved into a nearby apartment. Combs defaulted on his two Hamilton homes, which were sold at a Butler County Sheriff's auction. His five-bedroom home in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale was facing a $467,675 foreclosure.
On June 2, Debbie's 40th birthday, he hung himself with a bed sheet at Glendale Adventist Medical Center while under suicide watch. Police said he was "despondent over a pending divorce."
When I went to Los Angeles the next month for the Television Critics Association's summer press tour, to preview fall TV shows, Debbie agreed to an interview, her first since Ray's death. We talked for several hours one evening. Then I stayed up all night transcribing the tape recording and writing a front-page story for the Enquirer called, "When The Laughter Stopped: Ray Combs' Widow Searches For Answers."
Debbie Combs told me she had $500,000 in debts, and asked if I knew anything about Ray's Hamilton properties. She was preparing to move her six children, ages 5-18, from their five-bedroom home into a two-bedroom rental. The family was getting meals from a food pantry.
"I don't have anything," she told me.
I'll never forget talking to an excited Combs in 1986 after his Tonight Show debut about watching young comics on Carson's show while growing up in Hamilton. "I'd stay up late watching Johnny Carson, dreaming that I'd be on his show," he told me.
When we met in L.A. after he signed with Family Feud , he insisted on paying for dinner.
"I've prepared my whole life for what is going to happen. It's my dream and I'm living it … It's amazing you can make this kind of money without throwing a football or risking breaking a leg. It's great to have the money to do whatever you want to do with your family for just being yourself and having fun," he told me.
And I'll never forget meeting with Debbie in L.A. after her husband's death to hear about the flip side to Ray's fame and fortune.
"I could see the trouble coming, but money wasn't an issue to Ray. He'd say, 'You don't have to worry about that' – which worried me," Debbie said.
She told me how his career -- and the medications after the 1994 car crash – changed the guy she met in first grade at Hamilton's old Van Buren Elementary School.
"His work was 'show business,' and it really took its toll. He started not being really himself because he always had to be what people expected. He had to be 'on.' "
When we last spoke, as Ray was preparing his Family Challenge comeback nine months before his death, he told me: "To fight my way back, and come back to do this show – I don't call it a miracle, but I do see things differently. Every day, I feel a little bit better. I can't complain. I've been very blessed."
Too bad he couldn't focus on his blessings as his dream turned into a nightmare.