It was a warm Saturday in February. Something I was adjusting to since I just moved to Los Angeles. A couple of my friends were at Coffee + Food, a little cafe in Larchmont, for a daytime open mic. I showed up and did my time. When I finished my seven minutes, I was greeted by a man with gauged ears wearing a purple polo. He introduced himself as Quincy, and told me I was funny. I couldn’t believe how friendly this Quincy was. Comics are usually more interested in what they are going to say in the microphone than saying anything to a comedian they have never met. The Seattle native was the mayor of the mic. He interacted with everyone and was very engaging. Jones’ presence and encouragement assured me that I made the right decision in moving to LA to pursue comedy.
I had to leave the mic early that day, but I stayed around to watch him go up. He made a joke about white male privilege that made me laugh maybe a little too hard, and he also made one liners about having cancer. The cancer jokes were so casual and blunt that I assumed it was something curable or possibly just a bit (yes, comedians will go there especially at an open mic). Jones was in great spirits and getting some good laughs. I had no idea I was watching a dying man.
I added Jones on Facebook as soon I got home. Some days later, scrolling through my newsfeed, a post appeared about Kickstarter fund. Holy crap! This guy, the mayor, Mr. Nice Guy, Q- as some call him, is on his last leg! Quincy Jones has stage IV mesothelioma. This is the cancer that law firms advertise during daytime TV to bring about lawsuits against those using asbestos after the 1970s. The cancer has no cure, but it can be treated typically with chemotherapy.
If you haven’t seen the multiple Ellen appearances, the Conan appearance, major news articles like the LA Times and Huff Po or listened to the You Made It Weird podcast or the NPR spot, a Kickstarter campaign was launched February 20th by Nicole and Mickey Blaine, friends of the comedian. The Blaines wanted to give Jones his dying wish, an hour long comedy special, and they needed $4,985 to do it. This was a pretty meager goal compared to the $50,273 reached. The crusade helped gain the attention of comedy goddess Ellen who in return got the attention of HBO.
So here we are. Thursday, June 2nd 10pm EST, Quincy Jones’ story comes to fruition on HBO. The title of his special, Quincy Jones: Burning the Light, comes from a comedic colloquialism meaning a comedian going over his/her set time. This truly is a deep, meaningful title as we’re hoping Quincy runs well past his “set time” with cancer. The special opens with an introduction containing some background information what Jones is going through, and then transitions to him on stage, high fiving the audience. The excitement and energy that he brings with him has such a welcoming warmth. At the top of the set, he’s addresses the cancer, and everyone is laughing. He does not waste any time making the tragedy into humor. Jones is just a guy with cancer.
It sounds casual because he makes it that way. He gabs about food cravings from the chemo. It creates a demeanor that resembles actual friend. Every step through the special, he is conversing with the audience. At various times, he directly points at a person and asks him/her for their name. He sometimes incorporates the name into his next punchline. He cements real human contact. At one point, he asks a couple how long they have been together. When they reply with an answer that throws him off, he congratulates them on their love and follows with “but answer the question correctly next time.” A jab like that is priceless.
Nothing about his jokes seem forceful. A part of that is because they are honest observations. He cracks about Wes Anderson films lacking people of color. He does this without hostility, and it’s not necessary. The judgement is implied, and it’s funny. His jokes need no big wind ups. They flow out effortlessly. Jones told Ellen that he recently did a 1000 shows in one year. This is apparent. He has put in the work so when he is on stage it appears to be fun and easy.
His jokes are also personal and at times have a great twist. He talks about love being so hard that Nicholas Sparks can’t even do it. Who would have guessed Sparks was even on Quincy’s alternative, indie radar? When asking his ex why they broke up, and she points out “someone cheated,” implicating our hero. He does not skip a beat and immediately retorts with a simple, “True.” The basic acknowledgement triggered a great response. It wasn’t an apology or a long story to contextualize the situation.
The situation is Quincy Jones is a guy who has to deal with relationships, race as a black man, and social media likes. It just so happens he does have cancer, and that can be a funny punchline too. This is a special for anyone who is still finding their way in the world however much time they may have. Jones is full of life, and it’s hopeful. In what would seem to be the bleakest time of one’s life, his performance feels optimistic and playful, and we’re all laughing.
Be sure to watch Quincy Jones: Burning The Light Thursday June 2nd at 10pm on HBO.