06/19/2012 02:15 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Silence = Death: The Education of a Comedian

The following is from an essay that appears in a new collection of LGBTQ writing about New York City, 'Love, Christopher Street: Reflections of New York City,' edited by Thomas Keith, with an introduction by Christopher Bram, and published by Vantage Point Books.

"Lou Gehrig's Disease? I don't even like baseball!"

My best friend and fellow stand-up Eddie Sarfaty claims that was my initial reaction when he accompanied me to Columbia-Presbyterian in 2007 to receive my you're-gonna-die-agnosis. I don't remember saying it, but I'm convinced one of the reasons I'm still alive is that good comedians naturally respond to Pain and Death as if they're hecklers trying to ruin our shows.

Many of my oldest and closest friends in New York are accomplished and brilliant stand-up comedians, but we've made each other laugh harder offstage than with anything we've ever said in our acts. The morning after my sister Carol committed suicide, comedian Judy Gold, another dear friend, called to see how I was doing. When I broke down crying uncontrollably, Judy matter-of-factly inquired, "Bob, don't you think you're overreacting? It's been almost 24 hours."

I didn't stop crying, but I did laugh. I've known Judy for 25 years, and our friendship has no boundaries. One time, Judy called about 47 times, badgering me not to be late picking her up at the airport. To get even, I stood among the limo drivers waiting at the gate holding up a sign that said: BITCH. And yes, it was in capital letters.

I ignored the stares and whispers about my sign until I finally heard Judy laughing while simultaneously telling me to go fuck myself. Judy accusing me of overreacting is the perfect example of my belief that comedy is not frivolous, but one of the most vital and serious aspects of being alive. Her making me laugh the morning after my sister's death was like lighting a candle in a coffin.

I've often been asked, "What stand-up comics influenced your work?" and I've always cited Woody Allen and Lily Tomlin, but once you start performing, your major influences are your friends who are also stand-up comics. Your influences get you to step out on a stage, but your friends help you develop into an artist who actually deserves to have a microphone.

Not that my initial influences weren't important. Lily Tomlin was instrumental in my realizing that I was gay. When I was thirteen, I read a letter about homosexuality in Dear Abby's advice column and thought that sounds like me. I had recently begun masturbating with the fervor that makes every teenage boy a willing victim of the most enjoyable Obsessive-compulsive disorder. While patting myself on the front, I always thought about my classmate Kirk Gunsallus's muscular arms, but decided to test my heterosexuality by thinking about a woman. But, which woman? By chance, there was a magazine article about Lily Tomlin in our house. I headed to the bathroom with magazine in hand. A half-hour later, my gayness was confirmed. If Lily Tomlin couldn't get me off, then no woman could.

Thirty years later I performed at an AIDS benefit in Palm Springs with Lily Tomlin. After the show, all the performers took a bow on stage and I felt a hand on my shoulder. A voice I recognized immediately said, "Bob, you're really funny!" After all that time, Lily Tomlin finally got me off.

In July of 1986, I made my Manhattan debut at a comedy club in SoHo called Comedy U. At the time, there were no out gay comics in New York, though I'd read in the Advocate about a handful in San Francisco. I was determined to be an out comic in New York since it was the right thing to do, both artistically -- a closeted artist is still an oxymoron to me -- and politically.

I came out onstage with four gay friends in the audience: Michael, Sean, B.J., and Bruce. Within two years, Sean would die of AIDS. Back then, my friends were all young, handsome, and thickly muscular. The unfunny emcee focused on my friends and actually remarked on how they weren't laughing at his often-homophobic jokes.

Bruce said loudly with his very deep voice, "When you say something funny, we'll laugh." The audience chuckled, and the emcee shut up. It reminded me of the moment I lost my fear of homophobic bullies.

In high school, I went to watch my friends play hockey. After the game, I was bantering in the locker room with my jock pals when someone I barely knew said loudly, "Smith, you are such a fag."

There was a hush, and every one stared at me. Pat Connolly, the porky, moon-faced "athlete" with the big gut, waited to see how I'd react. It surprised me that I didn't feel intimidated, just furious.

"Yeah, Connelly, well, there's a three-letter word that starts with an F that describes you, too." I puffed out my cheeks in case the lummox couldn't figure out what word I was talking about. The locker room erupted with laughter. Even the lummox laughed. I could see the joy, pride, and relief on my friends' faces that I hadn't backed down. Bill Silecky, the tall, handsome captain of the football team said, "I could see the wheels turning and knew you were thinking of something good."

It was the first time I realized that getting the last laugh could triumph over the first insult. And yes, fat jokes are wrong, but anyone who knows comedians quickly learns that professional boundaries are not the same as our personal boundaries. I would never refer to anyone as a bitch or fat onstage, but I stood in an airport with a sign saying, "BITCH" because my audience was Judy Gold, another comedian. It was wrong, but I didn't care since I knew Judy would laugh.

I became a regular performer at Comedy U., and in the summer of 1988 Jaffe Cohen was approached by Helene Kelly, the manager of the Duplex, about putting together a show for two weekends in September.

Jaffe wanted to do an all-guy bill with Danny Williams and me. We immediately agreed but needed a name for our show. Since personal ads were a big phenomenon then, one of us suggested parodying, Single Gay Male with Funny Gay Males.

Our first shows got a rave review in Back Stage -- getting an unsolicited review in New York was as rare then as it is now -- and the Duplex booked us for four weeks in November, then for all of February. Laurie Stone of the Village Voice did a full-page profile and review of our show, which resulted in us being booked every weekend for the next three years. We became a minor -- but real -- phenomenon in New York, attracting audiences that included gay celebrities such as Vito Russo, David Feinberg (he interviewed us at his apartment), Charles Ludlam and Quentin Crisp. Laurie had noticed something significant during our interview: "The guys effortlessly finish each other's sentences."

Our close friendship developed slowly. Danny cursed with a vehemence that I found poetic and shocking. One time, when we were discussing the "God Hates Fags" Reverend, Fred Phelps, Danny burst out, "With all his bad karma do you know what he's coming back as? He's coming back as a turd dropping from a fucking rat's ass. No. You know what? He's going to come back as a crab crawling on the balls of a cockroach! No, wait a minute. This is better. No, for his next one thousand incarnations that sick fuck will come back as a fucking dingleberry piece of shit, hanging from a crab's ass, while the crab is sucking on a rat's balls. That's what he's coming back as!"

(This is a verbatim quote as it's the one time I immediately wrote down one of Danny's rants in my writing journal.)

It soon became apparent the three of us shared an identical comic sensibility and also shared the same values. I fondly remember a party where a gay Republican defended George W. Bush in front of Danny, Jaffe, and me, days after the House Republicans voted to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Soon, the host came running out of the kitchen shouting, "No politics!" because the three of us were eviscerating him. It's the only time in my life when I've been proud to be a horrible guest.

As a boy, Danny revered Lucille Ball and I Love Lucy was his daily half-hour sanctuary from a brutal childhood. When Lucy was hospitalized in 1989, Danny shared his genuine concern with Jaffe and me, and talked about her so much at the law firm where he temped that on the day she died, his supervisor called and told him not to come in, while assuring him that he'd still be paid. I believe that was the first-and-only case of gay bereavement leave in history where, when your diva dies, you're given time off from work.

Danny especially loved tough, old gravelly-voiced Lucille Ball, and he regaled Jaffe and me with stories about her later years. Lucy gave seminars about her career around the country, and she could be brutal during the Q&As. One woman reportedly asked, "Miss Ball, could I come up onstage and give you a big hug?"

"Absolutely not! Next question."

Danny also recalled some young sitcom star was in the audience and kept interjecting her own performance anecdotes during Lucy's seminar. Finally Lucy snapped, "Look, I've seen your show, you're not that funny. Sit down! You might learn something."

These phrases became the first of many "Dannyisms" that became a private Funny Gay Male language. While we watched unfunny, aggressively annoying comics perform, Jaffe would whisper, "Sit down! You might learn something," and I'd crack up. When someone suggested doing something we were vehemently opposed to -- supporting Republicans, for instance -- we replaced "No" with "Absolutely not! Next question."

One night, a major talent manager had seen me kill. Afterward, he took me aside and said, "You're funny, but why do you have to do the gay stuff? Why can't you just be 'Bob Smith from Buffalo'?" I replied, "Because I'm not ashamed of being gay, but I am embarrassed about being from Buffalo." (That was a joke because I'm actually a booster of my hometown.) The manager added, "They're never going to have anyone gay on The Tonight Show."

I immediately knew he was an idiot. There was no proof then that I was ever going to succeed on a big level, but I had worked around New York for several years, and straight audiences liked my comedy. Of course, I didn't know then that I would become the first out gay stand-up on The Tonight Show in 1994.

After my move to Los Angeles in 1996, Eddie Sarfaty assumed my spot in Funny Gay Males with my blessing. Eddie's ten years younger than the rest of us, muscular and handsome, and I joked with Danny and Jaffe that people would see the Funny Gay Males poster and say, "The other two have aged horribly, but Bob looks great!"

In 2005, I decided to move back to New York. One of my proudest moments of being back here was after Proposition 8 passed in California. The vote to deny marriage equality was heavily backed by the Mormon Church. I was furious that the church founded by Joseph Smith, who married a 14-year-old girl when he was 38, and Brigham Young, who clearly liked to fuck'em young, since he married a 15-year-old when he was 42, had the gall to claim the marriage between two consenting gay or lesbian adults was immoral. Judy called me up and said a demonstration was going to be held in front of the Mormon Temple at 66th and Columbus. She really wanted to go since her two sons, Henry and Ben, were old enough to understand that this bigotry was directed against their family. Eddie and I made signs for Ben and Henry to carry. We all marched, and seven-year-old Ben carried the sign with my joke, "My 2 Moms Can Beat Up Your 14 Wives!"

The next day on The View, Whoopi Goldberg quoted my joke, and Salon magazine also mentioned it. Ben giggled as he marched, and I felt a sense of solidarity with Eddie and Judy, knowing we all understood that sometimes a breezy joke conceals furious contempt.

I had always thought I would perform stand-up for my entire life. When Funny Gay Males performed in Montreal at the Just For Laughs comedy festival, one of the headliners was Milton Berle. He was 83 and had followed him as we went through Canadian customs and overheard him cracking a joke about the cigar dangling from his lips. "It's a Lawrence Welk cigar," he said. "A piece of shit surrounded by a band."

I envisioned myself cracking jokes at his age.

Of course, the one benefit of having ALS is that whenever my comedian friends vent about their problems: unemployment, relationships, possible eviction from their apartments, I can always trump them by saying, "three to five years," which is the Google life span of people with ALS. Now when they discuss their problems, they always jokingly preface them with, "I know I don't have ALS, but... "

I am proud to have achieved the two biggest goals of all stand-ups: appearing on The Tonight Show and having my own HBO special. I also don't feel I've given up comedy since I still write novels and essays. But it takes so long to become a good stand-up that giving it up was deeply painful; it's even more agonizing when I watch comedians perform who aren't nearly as funny as I am. I'm also incredibly proud of Funny Gay Males. We had the guts to be out when everyone -- including many gay men and lesbians -- told us that it would ruin our careers.

We performed at the LGBT March in Washington in front of half a million people in 1993. I wrote a new joke for the event: "I think we should have a gay agenda. It would be limited to two things: Number One -- Full civil rights. Number Two -- We want our national anthem to have a 25 minute dance version." It got the biggest laugh and most thunderous applause of my career. I'm also proud that on Ellen DeGeneres's historic coming-out episode, someone on the show gave a nod to Funny Gay Males, by featuring the immediately recognizable purple-and-yellow cover of our book Growing Up Gay in a bookstore scene.

For the past six years, the Angel of Death has become my stalker, following me around from gig to gig, scaring my friends, showing up at my apartment to pester me.

"Mr. Smith, I'm a big fan and wondered if I could hug the life out of you?"

"Absolutely not! Next question."