This Comedian Is Fighting Terminal Cancer to Make His First Stand-Up Special
How do you prepare for a comedy special knowing it might be your last?
There's an old comedy saying, commonly attributed to Carol Burnett, that humor equals tragedy plus time. Tig Notaro disproved the theory during a 30-minute set in 2012. Recorded just days after being diagnosed with breast cancer, Notaro delivered a show that Louis CK described as "masterful." If cancer was the elephant in the room that night, she continuously poked and prodded it for prime comedic meat. At one point, Notaro talked about how a technician wanted to know the secret behind her flat stomach during a mammogram. The comedienne obliged: "Oh, I'm dying!"
Thirty-two-year-old Quincy Jones, a Los Angeles-based comedian (no relation to the producer), will try to debunk that formula under similarly weighty circumstances. He was diagnosed with stage four mesothelioma last July and was given one year to live. Through the grim circumstance, Jones speaks with excitement and anticipation as he talks about what he describes as his legacy: a one-hour stand-up special.
After doing almost seven years of stand-up, Jones got the special funded by a Kickstarter started by his friend Nicole Blaine, who met him at a comedy show. The original goal was $4,985. The page tripled that goal in ten hours before finally reaching a total of $36,242.
But Jones knows a show brought together by kindness must be powered by skill. So in between chemotherapy and battling the consequent fatigue, Jones has been performing as many as four sets a night to perfect his routine. He isn't scheduled to shoot the special until April 3 in Santa Monica, California (his team is still figuring out how they're going to distribute it), but he's spending these weeks making sure the material he's staking his legacy on is at its best. Before doing one of his comedy marathons last Friday, he spoke candidly with me over the phone.
VICE: How have the past couple of days been going?
Quincy Jones: It's been a crazy whirlwind of love between me starting to literally train for this special—doing multiple sets a night. Four, five sets a night to make sure that I'm working out these jokes, and every day fine-tuning and tweaking material to make sure that it flows together piece-by-piece. Monday I had chemo, so I didn't do any [shows]. It's basically a day-by-day thing. I don't know how I'm gonna feel. Like, today, I just felt really nauseous. It fluctuates. It's easy sometimes to forget I even have cancer.
Is it different coming up with jokes with so much leaning on this special?
Now it's about reviewing, fine-tuning, and tweaking material, because I have over an hour and a half of stuff. Now it's, "OK. I'm not just saying jokes for an hour." It has to flow smoothly. Depending on how long the chemo controls my cancer, this is my introduction to the comedy masses. So I want to make sure it's something I'm proud of. People still watch Patrice's Elephant in the Room. People still watch Chris Rock's Bigger and Blacker. I'm not just happy to do an hour; I'm ready to do a great hour.
The Kickstarter beat the original goal by a huge margin. Did you expect that?
I didn't really pay attention. I was surprised, but I feel like I've been a good person to a lot of people. There's still a lot of good left in this world. Yeah, it's depressing, and there's a lot of darkness. But there's a lot of good. And this is one of those feel-good stories where it's like, "Man. We could make a Disney movie out of it or something like that." Like the local kid gets sick, and the town pulls together. We get to fund Timmy's surgery.
If you get told you're dying, you're thinking about: What have I done? Am I just Instagram posts? Am I just Facebook comments? What is my legacy? What am I leaving behind?
You're coming from a positive place, but it seems like a lot of comics work out some sort of darkness on stage. Do you feel any difference coming from your perspective?
I'm a positive person. I view the world in an usually positive light, but that doesn't mean every joke is going to be Care Bear, sunshine, and rainbows. It's gonna be real. You saw on the Kickstarter that I have a police-brutality joke. I have all types of jokes.
And it feels good, but I'm definitely not going into it thinking, "Aw, man. This is such a positive thing! I gotta have an hour's worth of cotton candy for everybody." I'm going to have real jokes, but it's not going to get depressing to where it's like, "And then I'm dying, right." I will acknowledge that everyone has come together for this, and I appreciate it, and I love everybody. But now, let's get to what we came here for.
After you got the diagnosis, when did you get to the point where you're thinking, "OK, I want to stick my legacy on this special?"
For me, I was at that age where I was like, "Dude, I ain't got no wife. I ain't got no kids." If you get told you're dying, you're thinking about: What have I done? Am I just Instagram posts? Am I just Facebook comments? What is my legacy? What am I leaving behind? That's when I was like, "Yo, I want to do a special." If it was a Make-a-Wish foundation, I'm already living out my dreams by doing comedy in one of the greatest scenes in the world. It's [about] what else can I really do, you know?
How do you feel like your material has changed in the past seven years?
I started out when I was older. Most people start out when they're younger now. A lot of the [newcomers] started when they were 18, 19. Some people do it when they're fresh out of college: 21, 22, or 23. I started when I was like 25, 26. So my material already honed to just more observational stuff.
They say finding your voice is like how you're offstage with your friends and translating that to who you are on stage. So if you're funny with the homies at a house party in Bed-Stuy, you take that to the stage. That's the difference between a good and a great comic. A great comic makes you go, "Damn, hours passed already?" Like, "Damn, I want more."
Who are your comedic influences?
Rory Scovel. Nate Bargatze. Bill Burr. Patrice O'Neal. Chris Rock. Tom Segura. The thing is that I love the art of performance so much that it's a literal joy for me. Even if I don't do someone's style of comedy and it's not funny to me, I respect it because I couldn't do [that style].
Did you get inspiration from Tig while you came up with the special?
Inspiration? No. Motivation? Yes. She was one who showed me that comedians are strong. We could do anything. We could fight. We could do this. It's temporary.
How did your family react to news of the Kickstarter's success?
My mom wasn't the biggest fan of the finality of my death. But what I took from it, it's more so about whether I have the energy to perform a great hour. If I'm not feeling up to it, what am I gonna do? Then we're not gonna do that special that day. I'd rather not do it than put out a mediocre hour just to be like, "Oh, I did it."
It's about going out with your best.
That's what I'm trying to do. I got into this to be a big dog. I've worked with Bill Burr. Chris Rock has seen my set. I performed at Judd Apatow's show. I met Sarah Silverman. I met all these people. As saddening as it is to have cancer and have my life limited somewhat, I'm not mad at the alternative that it's taken. I always tell everyone that more good than bad has come from this cancer by far. Even staring at mortality in the face, who knows when or if I would've ever had any opportunities like this before.
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