Raymond Neil Combs, Jr. (April 3, 1956 – June 2, 1996) was an American stand-up comedian, actor, and game show host.
Combs began his professional career in the late 1970s. His popularity on the stand-up circuit led to him being signed as the host of the revival of the game show Family Feud. The show aired on CBS from 1988-1993 and was in syndication from 1988–1994. From 1995 to 1996, Combs hosted another game show, Family Challenge.
Combs committed suicide by hanging himself at the Glendale Adventist Medical Center, where he was being held for observation, on June 2, 1996.
Combs was born in Hamilton, Ohio on April 3, 1956. He graduated in 1974 from Garfield High School, where he was an actor, senior class president, and Boys State delegate. He declined a nomination to the United States Military Academy and instead served as a Mormon missionary for two years in Arizona. He began performing comedy at Cincinnati's Red Dog Saloon, where he developed his best-known shtick of audience sing-alongs of sitcom theme songs. In 1979, Combs sent a letter to David Letterman, asking for advice; Letterman encouraged him to continue in comedy. In 1982, convinced that he was better than others he saw appear on The Tonight Show, Combs left his job as an Indianapolis furniture salesman, and moved with his family to Los Angeles. He did well in a competition with more than 200 other young comedians, and began doing audience warm-ups for sitcoms such as The Golden Girls and Amen. He became so popular, that other sitcoms changed their production schedules just so they could have him warm up their audiences. Johnny Carson heard the audience's laughter and then invited Combs to perform on The Tonight Show in October 1986; the audience gave him a standing ovation.
In 1985, he appeared on an episode of The Facts of Life as a background character. Around this time, he also guest starred on an episode of The Golden Girls. In 1987, he appeared as a celebrity panelist on the John Davidson version of Hollywood Squares, and had a small role in the comedy film Overboard starring Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn.
In 1988, game show producers Mark Goodson and Howard Felsher gave Combs a seven-year contract to host a new version of Family Feud. The program premiered on July 4, 1988 on CBS's daytime lineup, and a syndicated version was launched two months later, on September 19, 1988. According to Feud announcer Gene Wood, Combs also toured extensively around the United States to promote the show, and made guest appearances on Card Sharks as well as The Price Is Right to discuss the new version of Family Feud.
On June 29, 1992, CBS expanded the daytime show from 30 minutes to one hour. A new "Bullseye" round was added and the show was re-titled Family Feud Challenge. On September 14, 1992, the Bullseye round was integrated into the syndicated run, which remained 30 minutes in length but was renamed as The New Family Feud. Combs was one of the most seen MCs on television during the 1992–93 season, with an hour and a half of Family Feud airing five days a week.
Despite Combs' recent success, ratings for the show began to plummet. CBS canceled the daytime version in early 1993, with the final new episode airing March 26 (reruns aired through September 10), as many CBS affiliates had dropped the show entirely by that time. The syndicated version was also on the verge of cancellation (as many stations had also dropped that or moved it into overnight time slots). Jonathan Goodson, who had recently become chairman of Mark Goodson Productions after the death of his father, Mark Goodson in 1992, decided to vote Combs out of the show to may way for the original host, Richard Dawson, in the hopes of falling ratings (Dawson's return season initially drew good ratings, but was unable to sustain this strength long-term, and Family Feud's second incarnation ended after the 1994–95 season). By all accounts, Combs was hurt by his dismissal from the show.
His final episode of Family Feud was taped sometime in February 1994, and aired in first-run syndication on May 27 of that year. While that episode seemed like any other, during his final "Fast Money" bonus round, the five answers given by the second contestant each netted zero points. Combs joked, "You know, I've done this show for six years and this [is] the first time I had a person that actually got no points and I think it's a damn fine way to go out. Thought I was a loser until you walked up here, you made me feel like a man!" After the show ended, and with the credits rolling, Combs immediately left the scene without ever saying goodbye to anybody.
Combs also made an appearance for the World Wrestling Federation as a guest ring announcer at WrestleMania VIII, where he amused the capacity crowd at Indianapolis' Hoosier Dome by lashing into the team of the Nasty Boys, The Mountie, and Repo Man with various scathing insults before being ultimately chased out of the ring. He later served as a guest commentator alongside Vince McMahon and Bobby Heenan at Survivor Series 1993 in a match between the Hart Family against Shawn Michaels and his Knights.
In addition to these two appearances, there were various WWF/WBF celebrity editions of Family Feud; Heenan and Combs also struck up a friendship, which Heenan recounted in his autobiography, noting that he believed Combs felt demeaned by being a game show host.
Combs portrayed himself in episodes of In Living Color and 227 in Family Feud sketches and made an appearance on the TNN television series The Statler Brothers Show, where he did a stand-up comedy routine. In October 1993, a Family Feud video game featuring Combs's likeness was released for the Super NES.
After his release from Family Feud, Combs' life was on the verge of a serious decline. By July 1994, Combs suffered a serious injury in one of his spinal discs in a car accident, which left him partially paralyzed. He was treated for his injuries, but the pain meant to be almost constant. He had two comedy clubs in Cincinnati, but both went bankrupt and had to close. His residence in Hamilton, Ohio was seized due to foreclosure after he could not afford the mortgage for the home. In September 1995, Combs and Debbie, his wife of 18 years (with whom he had six children), separated. The couple reconciled, but later refiled for divorce.
Combs made several attempts to resurrect his television career, including filming a pilot for a talk show called The Ray Combs Show, but no TV station wanted to pick it up. He hosted a new game show called Family Challenge by early 1995, but it was short lived, and the season wrapped in less than a year.
Death and aftermath
By June of 1996, Combs' wife received a phone call from Ray, telling that he has been feeling really depressed. During the phone call, Combs was sounded to have been taking a drink with pills. Suspicious that her husband was attempting to take his own life on an overdose, Debbie immediately called 911, and the police took Combs to the hospital, where the latter was treated for an overdose. Debbie came to pick up her husband from the hospital to drive him back home, but Combs angrily demanded her to take him to their residence in Glendale, Arizona. A bizarre Combs exited his estranged wife's car and hitched a ride in another person's car to get to his wife's residence. Once he arrived at the house, he destroyed most of the inside of the house and banged his head against the walls multiple times that his head bled. Police arrived on scene and took Combs to the Glendale Medical Center, where he was admitted to the psychiatric ward for a 72 hour mental observation hold. About 14 hours into his admission, on June 2, 1996, just after 4:10 A.M., hospital personnel discovered Combs hanging with a bed sheet in a closet. They attempted to revive Combs but were unsuccessful, and the former Feud host was then pronounced dead. His death was ruled a suicide by hanging.
Five days later, on June 7, 1996, Combs' funeral took place at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Glendale. His remains were flown back to his hometown of Hamilton, Ohio, where he was interred at the Greenwood Cemetery.
Combs was in heavy dire straits by the time of his death; only after his suicide did his widow, Debbie, learn of his desperate financial difficulties. At the height of his career, he earned close to $1 million per year, but reportedly had trouble managing his money. In addition to his, two failed comedy clubs in Hamilton, Combs owed $100,000 in back taxes and $150,000 in loans and credit cards, and also had a $470,000 mortgage. The bank eventually foreclosed on the family's Glendale home, and Debbie had to sell some of her husband's autographed photos and celebrity caricatures. A benefit held at the Laugh Factory in Hollywood netted $10,000 for the family. Johnny Carson, who had given Combs his first break in show business, sent Debbie a check for $25,000, writing to her: "I hope this will ease the burden".
Combs also died on the same day as his originally predecessor/replacement Richard Dawson who passed away of esophageal cancer sixteen years later on June 2, 2012.