Jay Leno Pays Tribute to the ‘Great Comic Mind’ of Bob Smith

Loved ones, friends, and fellow comics gathered to say farewell and pay tribute to groundbreaking comic Bob Smith, the first openly gay comic to appear on ‘The Tonight Show.’

Margaret Norton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty

In 1994, Bob Smith became the first openly gay comic to appear on The Tonight Show when it was presented by Jay Leno. Right at the end of a celebration of his life, held at Carolines comedy club in midtown Manhattan, we saw on a screen the routine he performed that night.

Smith looks extremely young, extremely handsome, and what is memorable is not just his warm humor, but the crisp way he delivered it. No mugging, no ingratiating, no side-eyes and winking, just excellent riffs about wondering why no one realized he was gay as a kid.

That chemistry set he was given? He used it to create a skincare line.

He was the only kid with a tree-house that had a breakfast nook.

In this and another slot he had on Craig Kilborn’s Late, Late Show, we saw him tell this excellent joke: “I come from a very conservative family, and it wasn’t easy telling my parents that I’m gay. I made my carefully worded announcement at Thanksgiving. I said, ‘Mom, would you please pass the gravy to a homosexual?’ She passed it to my father.”

Smith died aged 59 on January 20, of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), the progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.

As I wrote in my Daily Beast profile of Smith, published in October 2016, it was in May 2006 when Eddie Sarfaty, one of Smith’s closest friends and one of the organizers of the memorial service, noticed a muscle twitching in the back of Smith’s arm, an early symptom of ALS.

After he performed at a Human Rights Campaign event that autumn, his agent called to ask if he had been drunk on stage: he had slurred his words. Smith didn’t drink before performing. The slurring was because he had the bulbar variant of ALS that first preys upon the muscles of the tongue and throat.

Upon receiving the diagnosis in 2007 at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, Smith, ever the comic, thought, “Lou Gehrig’s Disease? I don’t even like baseball!”

Smith eventually stopped performing in 2010, after a gig at an East Village comedy club. “I hadn’t performed for several months and immediately noticed how difficult it was to pronounce my jokes, lines I’d done hundreds of times,” he writes in his last-published book, Treehab: Tales From My Natural, Wild Life. “Jokes that always killed were garnering looks of incomprehension. I apologized and repeated a few lines again…After the show, I apologized to the host, who graciously said there was nothing to apologize for. I was in a state of shock.”

The memorial gathering was three hours long, and in between people’s speeches, readings from his books and remembrances, our eyes flicked to the screens to see either Smith perform, or actors on MADtv perform his Antiques Roadshow skits, where a fruitily over-British expert was determined to find a way to lasciviously pronounce “whore” over whatever antique had been bought for his inspection.

Of course, people laughed at Smith’s memorial service, and they also cried, and sometimes they did both. The service was presented by two good friends of Smith, Judy Gold and Sarfaty. Sarfaty said ALS may have beaten Smith ultimately, but Smith had given it “a good ass-kicking.”

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Gold recalled meeting Smith in Provincetown, both of them bonding over the great lie of the muffins that were being baked, allegedly freshly, every morning by the owners of a small guest house. They were not.

Gold and Smith stayed friends throughout their lives, as did Sarfaty and Smith. Eddie was also one of Smith’s beloved “nature boys,” that included his partner Michael Zam, Michael Hart, and John Arnold—all of whom took to the stage, and all of whom Smith said were gay, but more accurately described as bisexual, because “we’ve each had a longer relationship with Mother Nature than any other guy.”

Smith had grown up in Buffalo, obsessed by the Classics, Oscar Wilde, and dinosaurs. As the service progressed, we learned of the moments that shaped him—his sister’s suicide, for example; even his time as a cater waiter. We heard of his love of Alaska (one of the main reasons to buy Treehab is to read of his descriptions of that place).

We heard from Elvira Kurt, who used Bob’s sperm to father two children, who were there, collecting money for the charities—ALS and not ALS-related—from people as they left.

Words caught in throats, and memories flooded back. It seemed improbable and unjust to all his loved ones that Smith had gone, even if over the last few years they had watched him lose his power of speech and then his mobility. (Full disclosure: I have known Smith and Zam since 2010, and watched the viciousness of ALS at close quarters. As Smith’s motor and speech skills declined, his writing and basic processing brain stayed the same. His friends and loved ones watched him effectively trapped by ALS, this brilliant funny man unable to share and vocalize his great wit and warmth.)

But Smith carried on writing, using whatever technical innovation there was to aid him. When I visited him in hospital, Smith raised a foot and spelled out his answers, as Zam held a see-through plastic board with the letters of the alphabet in small, clustered groups, with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ as two boxed options of their own.

I asked how it was, living for almost 10 years with ALS, and Smith’s foot spelt out “Harrowing.”

How did he consider his mortality? He spelt out, “Anxiety.”

How was being in hospital for him? Smith spelt out, “Hell.”

Seeing people—particularly Sarfaty and his husband Court Stroud, the writer Christopher Bram, and Zam—meant the most to him, he said.

What did Smith feel for Zam, I asked. His foot spelt out, “Love.”

Zam smiled gently at Smith at that moment: “Bob and Michael sitting in a tree,” he sung softly.

In the book, Smith wrote movingly about the joy of having Madeline and Xander, via sperm donation, with Kurt and Brushwood Rose.

“He loves it,” Zam told me of Smith being a dad. “It means a lot to him. I always say to him, ‘The greatest thing you ever did was jerking off in a cup.’”

Smith and Zam, co-creator of the multi award-nominated Feud: Bette and Joan and a lecturer, were as funny as each other. Zam’s tribute to his partner at the memorial was precisely spoken and moving.

They had just gotten together when Smith had received his ALS diagnosis, and although many of Zam’s friends think him pretty amazing for staying in that relationship, there was, Zam said, no choice. He loved Smith. Smith loved him. They were together. It was open relationship, Zam told the gathering. Neither one would want the other to be denied any kind of pleasure. Their love was the constant, and unbreakable.

They were good at being separate in the relationship; they both had their work to do, they both had good friends and Zam paid full tribute to all those who took care of Bob and kept his spirits as buoyed as possible as his illness progressed.

James Hannaham, John Bateman, Patrick Ryan, Chris Shirley, Michael Carroll, and Christopher Bram were all part of a writers’ group that met at Chelsea gay bar Barracuda and they all read from Smith’s books—Openly Bob, Way To Go Smith, Selfish and Perverse, Remembrance of Things I Forgot, and Treehab.

Stroud read from an essay Smith wrote about his love of dogs, or more precisely why dogs provide an example for us all. (The memorial included full tributes to Smith and Zam’s dogs, Bozzie, a lab rescue, and Toby, still alive and with the most pendulous ears in the world.)

There were songs, and more laughter, and more tears; a sense of disbelief that this beautiful and talented man was no longer here. But Smith’s spirit felt very close, very alive, as the memories and anecdotes swirled around the room.

And then, after the clip of him performing in Leno’s Tonight Show, the room went quiet, and the sound of a phone message filled the room. It was a message that Jay Leno had left Zam after Smith’s death.

He was just a great comic mind. We were all the benefit of some of it, but most of the world never got to hear any of it and that's the saddest part of what might have been, you know. And it really is

“Hey Michael, it’s Jay Leno. I just wanted to call and say I was so sorry I was to hear the news. You know, it’s really very, very sad.”

Leno quoted his favorite line of poetry by John Greenleaf Whittier: “For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.’”

Leno said: “I think of Bob when I read that. It’s really true. He was just a great comic mind. We were all the benefit of some of it, but most of the world never got to hear any of it and that's the saddest part of what might have been, you know. And it really is.

“I’m sorry for you and I’m sorry for the comedy community, and the rest of the world will miss out on… Well, I’m being selfish you know… there are just some great jokes. He had a great mind. It’s just sad his body couldn't keep up with it.”

“Alrighty my friend,” Leno said to Zam's machine, “I don't mean to drone on, I just want you to know. It’s been a long time. It doesn't mean it’s ‘out of sight out of mind.’”

It seemed clear at his memorial service that Bob Smith will never be far from many people’s minds.