Bob Smith

Trailblazing queer comic Bob Smith on Life with ALS

Richard Burnett
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Comedy legend Bob Smith is perhaps best-known for opening closet doors as the first out gay comic to appear on The Tonight Show. But today Smith is blazing a new trail as he confronts the degenerative affects of ALS, in his life and on the pages of his candid new memoir Treehab: Tales From My Natural, Wild Life.

treehabDiagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease) a decade ago, Smith has fought a good fight against the progressive neurodegenerative disease, which attacks the nerve cells responsible for controlling voluntary muscles, such as those in the arms, legs and face.
 
When he agreed to do our email interview, Smith answered my questions—with the help of his devoted life partner, screenwriter Michael Zam, and their great friend, comedian Eddie Sarfaty—by pointing out letters on a board with his feet.
 
“I don’t have the hereditary form of ALS, so that’s a huge relief for my family, knowing I haven’t passed the disease on to my children, Maddie and Xander,” says Smith. “ALS is tough and there’s a limit to what I can do to comfort them, but here, too, humour’s proved essential. Luckily, (comedian) Elvira (Kurt) and Chloe (Brushwood Rose), my kids’ moms, and my partner Michael are all funny and understand the power of comedy. A lot of my closest friends are comedians and writers as well and aren’t afraid to make fun of my illness and all the horrible/hilarious day-to-day aspects of it. And, even though I’m now spelling things out by pointing with my foot to letters on a board, I’m still cracking jokes and sharing laughs with people. I have no doubt that’s why I’ve survived so long.”
 
I first interviewed Smith in 1997 when I was part of the studio audience in Montreal for the taping of the ground-breaking LGBTQ television sketch-comedy show In Thru The Out Door which was far, far ahead of its time. In addition to Smith, cast members were Elvira Kurt, Jonathan Wilson, Lea Delaria, Robin Greenspan, Maggie Cassella, Suzanne Westenhoefer, Craig Francis and Jaffe Cohen (whose Best Actress script co-written with Michael Zam is the basis for the upcoming F/X miniseries Fued which stars Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon as Joan Crawford and Bette Davis). In Thru The Out Door was created by Montrealer Andy Nulman, who also co-founded the Just for Laughs comedy festival.
 
“When I started the project, Bob was my first hire,” says Nulman. “I did this not only because of Bob’s iconic stature in both the gay and comedy communities, but because I knew that as the show’s “straight producer” I would need someone calm, respected and even-handed to be my bridge to a world that I only could pretend to understand. Bob was like King Solomon at times, calming the waters with the rest of the cast when I made some sort of loopy, ignorant comment or mistake, and helping ease the radical show’s politics and subject matter—such as a gameshow for AIDS patients—to an assembled group of increasingly nervous American and Canadian TV execs. The guy was so even-keeled I would call him “Jesus.” Even when he was furious, he was calm. He talked with his eyes and his pace, not his words. Even now, when I watch the show, I’m amazed not just at his performance, but at how the others performed because of him. As they say in sports, he was one of those quiet leaders “in the room.” Would have never been able to pull the show off without him.”
 
Smith recalls In Thru The Out Door as a fun experience and that “the lesbian Honeymooners with Lea DeLaria as the Ralph Kramden character killed!”
 
Seven years later, in 2004, I interviewed Smith again when he performed at Maggie Cassella’s queer comedy festival We’re Funny That Way, which returns to Toronto in May 2017 and inspired Cassella’s upcoming We’re Funny That Way Queer Entertainment Channel. Smith told me a great story about the time comedy icon Joan Rivers welcomed him on her television talk show when he was breaking into showbiz.
 
“I still had a catering job and one day we catered a party at her house,” Smith told me. “I wore my glasses so no one would recognize me and when I walked out with a tray of hors d’oeuvres, guests asked me, ‘Weren’t you on Joan’s show?’ So Joan comes right over to me, grabs my arm and announces, ‘This man was on my show!’ She looks at me and says, ‘Isn’t this the most embarrassing moment of your life?’ Then she told me the same thing happened to her when she met Jack Lemmon. She’d been waiting on him when she started out.”
 
Like Rivers, Smith has also been very generous to up-and-coming comics: He not only performed at the inaugural We’re Funny That Way in 1997, but appeared in the festival’s 1998 documentary film.
 
“I don’t just love Bob Smith—I revere him for his courage,” says Cassella. “Bob has always been courageous and pioneering. From being at the forefront of the queer rights movement as an out queer comic to his amazingly prolific writing career to the sharing of his family stories to his unrelenting fight against ALS. He’s also one of the kindest colleagues I’ve ever met. In a business that is set up to pit people against each other Bob is a true and loyal friend.”
 
Adds Cassella, “Of course my favourite thing about Bob is that he always makes me laugh when I think I probably shouldn’t be laughing. And not just from the stage. The privilege of knowing Bob affords access to what I like to call his “other funny side.” Underneath that unassuming, wholesome, handsome bastard onstage is a dry, sharp-tonged, gay who can let it fly in a dark and beautiful way that literally bends me over. Yes, I heard that and I’ll proudly say it again: Bob Smith has bent me over too many times to count.” Smith stopped performing live stand-up in 2010.
 
“Making people laugh has been one of the greatest privileges in my life,” Smith says. “I know some people think humour isn’t as important as other things, but it’s a vital component of everything! It allows us to connect with each other, lessen our fears, lighten our work, and bear the unbearable. Doing stand-up, each successful joke generates a spark of intimacy between you and the audience. It nourishes you like nothing else. I kept performing as long as I could, until ALS stole my speech. It broke my heart when I had to stop. I’m so grateful to have my writing, to still be able to touch people with my humor. I love hearing that a book or essay of mine has made someone laugh. It’s been a gift to me in fighting my illness.”
 
Smith has written many books since his 1997 collection of comic essays, Openly Bob, won a Lambda Literary Award. His latest, Treehab, is candid and poignant and, Smith says, “the most personal book I’ve written. It’s all of the most meaningful things in my life in one volume—my love for my partner Michael, my family and friends, what I’ve learned through living with ALS, my career as a comedian, and the essential role of laughter in the world. It was urgently important for me to share my love of nature and hopefully inspire readers to go out and discover for themselves how amazing the natural world truly is. Once you’ve spent time in an unspoiled place and witness all its wonders, it’s a lot harder to stand by when it’s threatened. I hope Treehab serves as a call-to-arms to save our planet.”
 
The reviews and sales for Treehab have been awesome. When asked how that makes him feel, Smith cracks, “Relieved. ALS is expensive.”
 
One thing about Bob Smith, who is one of my personal heroes, he hasn’t lost his sense of humour. If anything, it has saved his life and today, at age 55, he is proud he blazed a trail as an out comic.
 
“For any comic, doing The Tonight Show is huge,” Smith recalls. “For me, it was a delicious way of proving people wrong. I was urged by different managers to drop the gay content of my act. They said it would prevent me from having a career. I knew other comedians who were gay but afraid to come out due to homophobia in the industry and in general. I’m proud that I was brave, and when I learn I’ve inspired someone else to be brave, I pat myself on the back.”
 
As for the future, Smith says, “I hope that my writing continues to make people laugh and that Treehab sparks them to stand up for the planet. I want my kids to grow up in a world where greed is the rare exception and not the accepted motivation for progress. Of course, I’d like a cure for ALS, preferably by next week.” 
 
Bob Smith’s new book Treehab is available at bookstores and online via the  University of Wisconsin Press website at uwpress.wisc.edu.  
 
Read Burnett’s national queer-issues column Three Dollar Bill online at www.bugsburnett.blogspot.com.
 

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