Back in 1991, Bob Smith was the first openly gay comedian to appear on The Tonight Show
. He worked on MADtv
and Roseanne’s sketch show and wrote three books: Openly Bob, Way to Go
, and Selfish and Perverse
. In 2007, Bob was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS. “How do you think I felt?” he jokes. “I don’t even like baseball.”
Bob Smith can no longer articulate words, which is living death for a standup comedian. This has not stopped him from working. In fact, he’s written a second novel, Remembrance of Things I Forgot
, the story of a guy whose boyfriend invents a time machine that whisks him back to the mid-’80s, where he endeavours to both ruin a young George W Bush and save his own sister from suicide. It’s hilarious.
Bob was in town with Eddie Sarfaty, a friend who is also a standup comedian, for a book launch at the Flying Beaver Pubaret. Because Bob can’t speak, Eddie performed his act for him. “It would have been weird to dress Bob like a ventriloquist dummy to have me do the routine,” Eddie jokes.
Both Eddie and Bob have stories in a recent anthology about pets called I’m Not the Biggest Bitch in This Relationship
, and Eddie has published a hilarious collection of stories called Mental: Funny in the Head
. His story about adopting a horrible cat from a shelter would make David Sedaris jealous.
I worry about seeing Bob for the first time since his diagnosis. He always had a striking Kennedy pompadour and he’s all grey now, but other than that, he looks the same. I can mostly understand what he is grunting, but we also rely on mime and scribbled notes. Bob’s a real survivor. He was diagnosed with three years to live six years ago. “I should be dead,” he says, “but I still like to work. I want to do a one-man show called Hey, I’m Dying Up Here
Black humour is a big part of Bob’s comedic style, and he appreciates it in others as well. “When my sister Carol committed suicide,” he tells me, “I got a phone call the next day from [comedian] Judy Gold. She said, ‘Bob, it’s been 24 hours. Don’t you think you’re overreacting?’ Sometimes, comedy is like a candle in a dark room. It was hard using Carol’s death as a plot point. I considered writing an essay about it, but it was easier to write about in a novel. I think because I could pretend it happened to someone else.”
features a subplot in which Dick Cheney is chasing the protagonist. “It was amazing when I realized I could make Cheney do anything evil and readers would buy it. I’d stumbled upon the ultimate super-villain . . . despicable but kind of likable.” But if Bob actually did have access to a time machine, he says, he would “go back and try to save all the friends of mine who died of AIDS. I lived in New York in the ’80s and lost a lot of people I loved.”
Bob is currently working on another novel, set in ancient Greece and narrated by Sophocles. “This will be my gayest and lesbianist — is that a word? — novel yet. It’s about the theatre world, which really hasn’t changed much in 2,500 years.” As for Eddie, he just got married in New York. “I’d love to have the reception at a bathhouse,” he says. “But it might be awkward when guests discover that their rooms have expired,” quips Bob.
I can’t help but wonder about the whole notion of travelling back in time and meeting one’s younger self, a key plot point in Bob’s novel. Could any gay man survive such a concept? “No,” Bob replies. “We’d all turn into the most annoying nag-hags trying to avoid all the stupid stuff we all did.”
He’s right. Where would I begin?