One might assume that if a comedian is not a household name, like Leno or Letterman or Seinfeld, then that comedian must not be very funny. One would be wrong.
On June 2nd a brilliant comedian named Jim Wiggins lost his battle to cancer, at age 73.
Jim Wiggins, "The Last Hippie in America," was born James Frederick Wiegand on October, 10 1941 in Chicago.
On his website www.lasthippie.com, Wiggins called himself a "war baby," and describes how he began performing as a child on the tops of bars in the saloons of his Chicago neighborhood. Wiggins called his act at that time "a singing dancing cowboy act," and said he earned "beer money" for his grandpa, who he called his "first agent."
By the early 1970s, Wiggins was performing standup in clubs around Chicago, along with fellow comics like Emo Philips, Judy Tenuta and Tom Dreesen.
After getting married and beginning his brood of five children, the Wiggins family moved to Hollywood during the mid-70s and Wiggins had his first big time success, appearing as a regular "sort of weird Andy Rooney" on a variety show hosted by pop star duo The Captain and Tennile and also appearing on The Mike Douglas Show. It was also during this time that Wiggins befriended the great George Carlin and wrote for him. He also wrote for David Letterman and Gong Show creator Chuck Barris.
And then, the plot thickened. Wiggins lost his wife and a son. He drowned his grief with drugs and booze. He admits there were a few years he cannot quite recall. But he never stopped performing. Wiggins was on the road constantly, working comedy clubs and gin mills that had comedy one night a week.
It was on just such a tour that I, as a young comic, worked with Jim Wiggins for a week, in the Midwest, around 1988. I was twenty three and he was a grizzled mid-forties. We drove together for the entire week as we went from one little town to the next. Listening to Jim talking about his life was mesmerizing. First of all, he had this rich, fatherly, baritone voice that positively reeked of wisdom. And secondly, he was exactly what he appeared to be; a sweet, mellow, wounded, loving soul.
And audiences absolutely adored him.
One night, at a club in Traverse City, Michigan, there was no emcee. The first comedian, being myself, was supposed to just walk up on stage and say "I'm the first comedian," and launch into my act, cold. Jim did not like this idea, so he walked up cold and introduced himself, did about ten minutes of material, killed, then brought me on.
I then did my little act and brought Jim back on and he did about another hour and fifteen minutes and they worshiped him like a pagan god.
One day, while we were driving to our next gig, Jim told me about his friendship with George Carlin. As I idolized Carlin, this revelation completely blew me away. Here we were going to do a gig in Wabash, or some such, and this guy is friends with George Carlin. It was more than I could properly digest.
Another day, on our drive, Jim challenged me to drop the script and just improvise on stage, for five minutes, during my set that night. I did, and after the show, Jim hugged me and said he was proud of me. I will never forget how good that made me feel.
Despite his setbacks, Jim Wiggins was not done with the big time just yet. In 2006, Jim appeared on the show Last Comic Standing, and judges on the show also booked The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and they booked Jim to appear.
At the age of sixty four, Jim Wiggins got the biggest break of his career when he performed on The Tonight Show. He crushed it, and got a standing ovation.
Jim Wiggins was a sweet, kind, gentle, wonderful man, and he loved nothing more than making people laugh.
I don't want to remember Jim Wiggins on Last Comic Standing or The Tonight Show; I want to remember him on stage in a smoky barroom, his velvet growl coming from the microphone, the crowd hanging on every word, loving him.