What's so funny about the dead porn star?

Steve Driver's tale of swords, tasers and sex inspires titters across the Web, but underneath, it's a tragedy

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published June 7, 2010 5:20PM (EDT)

Porn actor Stephen Hill, who was suspected of killing one colleague and injuring two others, died Saturday in a confrontation with police.
Porn actor Stephen Hill, who was suspected of killing one colleague and injuring two others, died Saturday in a confrontation with police.

On Saturday, a 34-year-old Los Angeles man died in a suicidal standoff with police after killing a colleague and seriously wounding two others a few days earlier. Are you laughing yet?

If the hilarity of the story is not yet immediately apparent, perhaps you haven't heard the rest of the details. The deceased was porn actor Stephen Hill, known professionally as Steve Driver, whose body of work included such films as "Tea Bagging Party" and "Palin: Erection 2008." His victim, a fellow adult performer, worked under the name Tom Dong. The two had worked together and were described as "the Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker of porn." The murder weapon was a prop samurai sword. And Hill either fell or leapt to his death Wile E. Coyote style, clutching a sword after being tasered at the summit of a cliff.

So if you find yourself tittering at some of the more baroque elements of the story by now, you're not alone. Time's opening line of its coverage of the case was "Porn stars! Samurai swords! Could this be the most sordid murder case ever?" And commenters across the Web couldn't resist the seemingly limitless possibilities for jokes about the case. On Gawker, posters wondered, "Why didn't he just commit hara-kiri? I mean, he had a samurai sword. You pick a theme, you stick with the theme," and observed that "He went down for the last time." The whole thing is like "Boogie Nights" -- only crazier!

Sex and death are two of the most preposterous things that can happen to a person, and when you put the two together in a single story, one that also includes swords, tasers and falling off a cliff, it's not so hard to see why some would be quick to seek the humor in it. And the ability to laugh at things that are otherwise sad and scary is one of the greatest coping devices we have -- just ask any cop or emergency room nurse or follower of the fake BP public relations Twitter account.

But what the story of Stephen Hill also illustrates is the degree to which we as spectators of the human condition are able to depersonalize a story based on our ability to relate to the participants in it. Considering it's all about the most basic of human desires and activities, there's not an industry much more dehumanizing than porn. Porn stars, with their double-entendre names and exaggerated, often surgically enhanced sexual apparatuses, aren't like everybody else, are they? We use them for our entertainment, the slaking of a thirst. Disposable, interchangeable fantasy figures. And, like washed-up, C-list celebrities or Darwin Award winners,  they are rarely afforded any more grace or dignity in death than they ever get in life.

That sword-wielding kook was also a man who'd been living and working at the studio that sparked his rampage, after he'd allegedly been kicked out. He was described by fellow adult industry insiders as "unstable." He was on probation on a concealed weapons charge and had a prior assault conviction. He was, from all evidence, an already deeply troubled man who'd just lost the last vestiges of stability in his strange life, whose tasering by the cops as he sat on the edge of a cliff certainly raises plenty of questions about the circumstances of his death.

None of that makes him less of a murderer; it just doesn't make him any more of a punch line either. His demise, replayed for all the world to watch on KTLA, came after five days of hiding and running and desperation. His victim wasn't just a guy known by the snicker-inducing moniker of Tom Dong. He was 30-year-old Herbert Wong, who police say was killed trying to save another of Hill's victims, and whose family chose to release his real name to the press. Because even guys who go by "Tom Dong" belong to somebody.

The impulse to laugh in the face of horror is part of what gets us through it, and frankly, when a story includes the cinematic credits "Cum Fart Tsunami 2," it's hard not to. But the absurdity of the circumstances doesn't mitigate the humanity of them. And though you might not be able to tell from all the LOLing out there, there's a difference between being willing to embrace the darkest humor of the darkest stories and simply, as one disgusted commenter on NYPost.com put it, snarking on a grave. And maybe the saddest thing about the deaths of Herbert Wong and Stephen Hill is how little sadness there seems to be about their story at all.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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