As a result, the Comedy Works became a frequent stop for top comics like Jay Leno, Dennis Miller, Robin Williams, Sam Kinison and Louis Anderson. And they all respected the hell out of Don. "He was the real thing," says Anderson, who worked regularly with Don and played poker with him whenever he was in town.
Anderson was so impressed with Don that he tried several times to set up industry auditions in L.A., but Don declined every time. "Don wanted to be guided and shepherded and assured in," Anderson says. "He was a fragile genius, but, man, he was good. Such a craftsman. He tried to smarten my act up. He would give me suggestions, and I would say, 'Don, thanks for the advice, but I don't need that. My audience won't get it.' At the time, I was still trying to get on The Tonight Show. I didn't need the smartest laugh, I needed the biggest. I was there to entertain. But knowing that someone like Don was even taking stock of your act really mattered to you as a comic."
But most of the people who knew him could also tell that there was something a little dark about Don, a little off — a remarkable statement among standup comics, who, for the most part, are all a little dark and a little off.
He's described by fellow comics as being very intense. At a bar called Soapy Smith's, around the corner from the Comedy Works, where the comics would hang out and drink after shows, Don could go from being completely calm and cogent to screaming in someone's face about trivial, occasionally nonsensical, issues. He never seemed to sleep. At times he acted paranoid. Most of the comics dismissed it as coming with the territory, genius kissing insanity in the arts, no surprise there.
None of the other comics knew Don was battling bipolar disorder and psychosis, paranoia and delusions. They didn't know he was taking the mood stabilizer lithium or about a mental breakdown in high school after a bad trip.
But on August 12, 1986, Don's troubles were made all too clear.
How he lost his arms is a story that has been told and retold and mis-told a thousand times, often by Don himself. Some fell for his lie that it was an injury sustained in Vietnam. Others swear it was a drunken accident, that for his 32nd birthday he wanted to hop a train, and his wish went horribly awry.
Don's version of what really happened — or at least the one he told in magazine articles and in a documentary made by local filmmaker Robin Beeck in 2001 — was that about a week or so earlier, he had wrecked his car. Although Don wasn't hurt, the crash shook him up and left him with the paranoid conclusion that he was going to die and that he was going to kill someone else in the process. The delusions intensified over the next few days, and he became convinced that if he sacrificed his arms, he would be able to live. So after a card game with friends that night, Don walked down to the 15th Street viaduct, made his way to the tracks and laid his arms across them. Doctors were able to reattach one of his arms. The other would have to be replaced by a hook.
"He told us that he did it to save his life," says Brent Johnson, who first met Don years later when the comic took a yoga class with Johnson's wife, Denise, and later became his good friend. "We can think about that and say that's a psychotic who is not thinking clearly, and I don't think he would argue against that. But what strikes me is that in all the years since that incident, he didn't disown that part of himself. I think to him it sort of made sense all along. I never heard him say things like, 'What a stupid fucking thing I did,' or 'God, I wish I had never done this.' It was in his mind at the time he did it as his only option. It was the price he paid to stay alive."
After numerous painful surgeries and unimaginable psychological trauma, Don bounced back onto the comedy scene. In 1987, Westword again named him Best Comic, and the Comedy Works hosted a benefit for him at the Rainbow Music Hall, which drew Roseanne Barr, Louie Anderson, Robin Williams, Sam Kinison and Dennis Miller (whose HBO program Don would write for ten years later).