On May 3, 2017, Jason Weems was driving from his home in Maryland to a comedy club in Philly. The trip to his gig was off to a good start: he remembers the trip on Interstate 95 being surprisingly smooth. When he arrived, he got a parking spot right in front of the venue.
This was enough for him to feel a sense of "Yo, I'm winnin," the Baltimore comic told VICE. The previous month, Weems passed through the semifinals of a comedy competition, earning him a spot to compete at the American Black Film Festival in Miami. And that night in Philadelphia, during his set, the crowd seemed to be eating out of Weems's hand, and he described his work that night as a Thanos-type set.
Minutes later, he'd find himself outside the club. He'd wrapped his set early after feeling an oncoming asthma attack. He was on his hands and knees, struggling to breathe, and the attack left him without a pulse or heartbeat for five minutes. He'd later wake up in hospital, restrained to his bed (he'd whacked a nurse named Brenda when he briefly regained consciousness in the hospital) and stuck with a five-figure bill.
Shot at the Baltimore Center Stage Theater, Weems' new special Unknown reflects on this experience and more. Weems self-funded and self-produced the special, and used an all-Black supporting cast throughout: from the film crew, Six Point productions, to the DJ, who is also his son's pediatrician.
"It felt like a reverse funeral," Weems told VICE. With friends and family filling the theater, he described the energy in the room as one that he could stand on, if the stage were to disappear. "The way they say give people their flowers while they're here. It felt like that. All these people would've been at my funeral. Instead of me telling jokes, it would've been a casket. So it was like, 'Ok, we're gonna flip this, we're gonna have a good damn time, we're gonna laugh, and my son's pediatrician is gonna play the music.'"
VICE spoke to Weems about the experience of dying and coming back to life, his new sense of perspective, and turning his trauma into a comedy special.
VICE: This episode where you died and then came back to life in 2017—how long between that and this special coming together did you have to step away from work?
Jason Weems: The asthma attack—which killed me for five minutes—was in May of 2017. I didn't get back on stage for about a month, after that episode. Just because of the trauma of it all. I started concepting it when I was in the hospital bed.
I woke up in this Philly hospital sixteen hours [after the incident]—disoriented, not understanding what happened, not remembering what was quite real. The thing that tripped me out was, when I woke up the first time in the hospital, it was in the middle of a CT scan. There was three or four people at the edges of the bed. I didn't know what was happening. My human instinct kicked in, and I started to fight. I think I hit somebody.
Is this Brenda?
[laughs] Shout out to Brenda. The next time I woke up was in hand restraints. And it was this situation of, I can see my bracelet says "Unknown" on it, but in my mind, I'm Jason Weems. But I can't talk, because I got a tube down my throat and nobody's in the hospital room with me. It's one of these rooms where the curtain's half pulled—I can see people walking in the hallway, I can hear snippets of conversations, but I'm still heavily sedated. I'm going in and out of sleep. It was a real trippy, Get Out type of feeling [laughs].
I kept remembering waking up briefly and then going back out. And then one of the times, my wife was there. At which point, that brought me some level of comfort. I still couldn't speak, with the tubes, so I'm jotting little scribbles on paper, but I'm still in hand restraints, so even my hand motion was limited. And then the doctors finally come in, at which point they fill me in on what was going on. At this point I still thought it was an asthma attack. So then when they said it was death, it changed a lot of stuff.
This is something no one saw coming. Me, my family—this just became this new part of us. It was like, you know, [doing impression of his son] That's my dad. He's a comedian. He died. It became this part of us. Even at shows, post this happening, typically it would be, "How's it going, good to see you" with other comics—normal pleasantries. But now, that became something that was attached to me. Like, "Did you see a light? What did you see?" All of the death questions. I can understand it. How often do you talk to somebody who was gone?
Comedians especially—they're the people who take the most personal thing and throw it back at you, because they know you can be casual about talking about it.
Absolutely. And that's what it turned into. At first, I didn't know how to approach the material. I knew there was funny stuff. I knew I wanted to make something out of this. One, as a comic, you're always trying to find something that's unique, that differentiates you from the pack. Chris Rock—I've heard him say, during the OJ trial: Everyone has an OJ joke. You're trying to find that one angle into that OJ bit that no one has. So for me, dying, I don't see a lot of comics having bits about dying in Philly from an asthma attack.
Comedy is typically my safe space—where I get away from bills and stress and everything else. I'm typically nervous as shit all the way up until the show. I feel like I'm gonna throw up. But as soon as I grab the mic and get that first laugh, I feel like I'm in my living room. And when that attack happened, I felt violated. Like, This is my home, and you came in without permission. It was a place where I felt very in control, and an asthma attack took that away. Because you could be on top of the world, four minutes and thirty seconds in; and at five minutes, you may be on your knees. For no fuckin' reason.
What has the [comedy] scene been like around Baltimore [since quarantine started]? I've spoken to a lot of comedians who have the itch to perform, because this is the longest they've gone without performing before.
I haven't been on stage since Friday, March 13. I call it the 'Rona show because March 12 is when things started to shut down. I negotiated a really great deal that was really close to home; I like to be up in the morning to take my boys to school. So I was hoping they didn't cancel it because I was like, I need this little cash grab before the world ends. So I tell my wife and kids, "I'm going. Daddy's gonna go make some money, then we're going to board up the windows" [laughs]. It was an amazing night. It was like the night that I died, but I didn't die. I got to finish the set.
[In the special] you talk about having the perspective of "life goes on" for everyone else whether or not you're alive. Does that affect how you write now?
It's shifted everything, in the sense of thinking the light can go out so quickly. I try to make sure anything that I say on stage, or anywhere—I try to make that if this is the last thing I say, it's some good shit. I don't want my last tweet to be some bullshit [laughs].
It made me really learn to cut out the fat, even more so; it made me a better editor. I like those guys that can always take the air out of the room—when you're almost mad when you leave the comedy show because you laugh so much. And I've been at those types of shows: I've seen JB Smoove or Tommy Davidson, or Chapelle's shows. People have been so funny, you're laughed out. After a certain point, you're looking for the waitress, like, I just want to pay my check and leave. My body hurts. I got my lungs' worth. But it's a good feeling and that's what I'm always trying to get to. And I feel like I'm closer than ever. But it's weird because I can't do it [because of the pandemic.]
How does that experience of getting stuck with a bill for $61,000 change how you think about healthcare? It's terrible. I went into the experience already having bad experiences with healthcare systems, billing departments and stuff, having asthma growing up. My mom was a teacher and my father used to work for Hess Oil Company, retired military, so we weren't overflowing with money. Got some OK insurance, but there was times where I would go to the hospital when I was eight; they'd have me in the hospital for a day or two, do some tests and send me home, and we'd get a bill for 10 grand, $6,500, whatever. For a family that's working, that can break you.
I was always hyper-sensitive to that—even to my detriment sometimes. There was time I probably should've gone to the hospital, or to see a doctor, but I was so weary of that financial weight that was gonna come with it. I just thugged it out. I would cough and wheeze and drink tea and pray [laughs]—all that stuff, when I wasn't doing what I needed to. I wouldn't get prescriptions. This is a couple days ago, Ashwin: They quoted me— the pharmacy that I go to at Safeway—$450 for an inhaler. That's with insurance paying something.
I just walked away. I didn't even say bye—just walked down the baby aisle.
Has your special drummed up any additional business for your pediatrician? [laughs] I'm sure it has. If you see my special—that's literally my pediatrician. My son's pediatrician is a guy named Ashanti Woods. Same age as me, amazing brother, went to Howard University—shout out to Chadwick Boseman, he's another Howard alumni, rest in peace. Ashanti's just a good brother. He comes from a good family, he's got his head on straight, really cares about his people. Just a good human being.
When we had our son, we were looking for someone preferably Black, preferably male— somebody my boys could grow up with. We didn't want a old-ass doctor who was gonna die on his second visit [laughs]. Probably two to three years of him seeing our kid, I started seeing [Woods] putting little things on Facebook—"This party tonight," or something about DJ P.O.P. [Woods's stage name, which stands for Prince of Pediatrics.] I'm like, What the fuck is going on?
I'm telling my wife, I think this dude is having a crisis. I didn't have any idea that [DJing] was a passion of his. Our interactions were straight medical, laugh about the kids, hang out a little bit. But then I started hearing some of the stuff he was doing and I was like, Yo, this is good! And I'm always down to support my own.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
'Unknown' is streaming now on Amazon.