Tribute to a Funny Gay Male
One of my heroes, writer, comic and activist Bob Smith passed away Jan. 20, after a dozen-year battle with ALS. He was only in his late 50s, but left an impressive legacy in print and on YouTube.
I first met Bob back in the late 80s in P-Town when he was performing stand-up with his pals Jaffee Cohen and Danny McWilliams at the Post Office Cabaret. They were billed as Funny Gay Males and it was a perfect description. Not only were they hilarious, but they were so very OUT, when it was not yet too cool to be so in public.
In fact, Bob was the first openly gay comedian to appear on The Tonight Show and the first openly gay comedian to have his own HBO half-hour comedy special. His two books of comic essays, Openly Bob (1997) and Way to Go Smith (1999) made me laugh out loud and gave me amazing lessons on crafting a humorous essay.
I saw Bob again around 2007 at the Lammy Awards in New York. He’d been diagnosed with ALS and his speech was affected. He introduced comic Kate Clinton that night and, smiling, apologized for slurring his words, promising the audience he was not, in fact, inebriated.
Later, at the after-party I had a delightful conversation with him and shared my admiration for his writing, for his brave early coming out as gay on stage and his recent bravery in coming out about his diagnosis. He repeated one of his funniest lines for me—upon hearing his diagnosis he said “Lou Gehrig’s Disease? I don’t even like baseball.”
The next time I saw Bob, it was here in Rehoboth. He could still speak, but it was very hard to understand him. For that reason, his dear friend, comic Eddie Sarfaty had put together a show called Two Comics, One Voice, where Sarfaty performed a 40-minute set of Bob’s material, then a 40 minute routine of his own.
We booked the show at CAMP Rehoboth in the summer of 2011 and the guys came to town and stayed with me and Bonnie. It was a great weekend, with sell-outs at the community center, lots of laughs, and plenty of time to dine and relax with the guys. Bob and I had two long conversations out on my deck, about comedy, about writing, about life. His speech was hard to understand initially, but his comments and advice were so sage it was worth any effort to understand. And he made me laugh. A lot. He signed copies of his books for me, grappling with the pen in both hands, carefully printing an inscription so it was legible. His motor skills had deteriorated and you could see the toll the disease was taking.
But not on his writing.
He’d just published the novel Remembrance of Things I Forgot, a belly-laugh funny and amazingly touching tale of time travel where he goes back and tries to prevent George W. Bush from being elected. Along the way he tries to prevent his sister’s suicide, too. I know, it sounds like a downer, but it’s insanely upbeat and wickedly funny. Dick Cheney is the villain. I loved it, and you should check it out.
The last time I saw Bob was quite a few years ago when Bonnie and I went to NYC to see Eddie Sarfaty perform and Bob was in the audience. We had a lot of smiles and a great big hug.
After that it was just on Facebook, and finally just reading about his travails posted by his partner Michael Zam and Eddie.
As he spent his last few years bedridden, in and out of the hospital, on a ventilator to assist his breathing, he continued to amaze. First of all, he outlived all the predictions about ALS life expectancy (“If you’re going to procrastinate, do it when you get a terminal diagnosis,” he once quipped), but more importantly, he continued to make his friends and family laugh. Every day.
He was able to spell out words, using his still-quick wit, letter by letter on a board, using one toe. Now that’s a pretty amazing way to have conversations and make people laugh.
Never mind that, he wrote an entire book of essays with one finger that still had some movement, on his iPad. The book is called Treehab and is hilarious, moving, and reflects his passion for people and nature. Another great Bob Smith read.
Some would say that Bob Smith is an ordinary name. With this particular Bob Smith there was nothing whatsoever ordinary.
Rest in peace my mentor, openly Bob.
Fay Jacobs is the author of As I Lay Frying—a Rehoboth Beach Memoir; Fried & True—Tales from Rehoboth Beach, For Frying Out Loud—Rehoboth Beach Diaries, and Time Fries—Aging Gracelessly in Rehoboth Beach.