Just short of a year ago, I wrote about the death of a beloved comedian who had come to call the Bay Area his home, but his passing impacted the entire globe. I was struck by the grief I experienced through the many who knew Robin Williams. It went deep because he was, by all accounts, an artist who gave of himself, perhaps too much so.
Today, my heart aches for another such artist, one who touched my life, just one is his vast galaxy. The Bay Area's art world has taken a major hit. Jimmy Gunn, actor and comedian and all sorts of other wonderful things, has left us. I don't know of another comic, actor, director, producer or friend who has nurtured so many others along not just in their careers, but their lives.
I met Jimmy decades ago when I worked for a comedy club. I don’t remember knowing him then, but Facebook came along and it was there we became friends. I have a soft spot for comedians, for so many reasons. They don’t only touch me with laughter, but I understand what drives them. I get it. I longed for all of my life to find that kind of bravery, standing on a stage and daring the world to take delight in their fallacies.
He wasn't a miserable comic. That's the perception, that the most brilliant comedy comes from pain. Jimmy didn't need to draw on such things; give him a paper bag and a stage, and he made us all fall hysterically in love. Next to Dr. Seuss himself, nobody gave Sam I Am more life than Jimmy Gunn.One day Jimmy and I sat down to lunch together, just the two of us. I didn’t know how rare that was, finding out later that he found such close encounters difficult, and found comfort in groups, in bringing random people together. He was constantly springing new people on me with no warning. We sat that day for hours that seemed like a minute.
He was also a drama teacher, and we talked about acting, about the magic of the theatre. There is a feeling that one gets when walking on a stage, if it is where we're meant to be. The scent of dense velvet, the sound of well-trodden wood. It's the feeling of home.
“So, let me get this straight – you’re saying you are not an actor or a comedian? Didn’t you used to do stand up way back when?”
“No, I never did.” I told him how my acting career had stalled very early on, because I’d been traumatized with stage fright.
“Lots of us go through that. It’s really quite natural.” he admonished me.
“You’re not understanding. It was terrifying.”“I do get it. But after you did a performance, or say, after that reading you just talked about where you read for the first time to a crowd… what happened?”
“They sat there staring at me.”“Knowing what I do about you, it’s because you moved them. Left them speechless. Right? Did they applaud? And didn’t you feel wonderful after? Didn’t you think ‘look, I did it’?”
“No.”He stared at me with that quizzical look of his, the machine in his head trying to comprehend what did not make sense to him. “What were you thinking?”
“I thought, what the fuck did I just do?”Jimmy never did understand that. As far as he knew, and believed, I was an actor, a comedian, a writer. I was someone who made the world feel.
“How would you know if I could move anyone?” I asked.“I read your posts. I see how others react.”
“You read my posts?”“All the time. And when you don’t post for a few days, I worry about you. Then, just when I think I need to check on you, you burst out with some long rant or some declaration of how you’re feeling, and I know that you’re okay for another day.”
That was it. Jimmy never liked to be questioned in his love for anyone, or of his faith in one’s abilities. We argued a lot about that over the next couple of years. “If I didn’t care, I simply wouldn’t respond. You are very far from that threshold, my dear.” He found it very troubling that I couldn’t embrace this.I have always been enmeshed in the comedy world in some little way for the last 25 years. Jimmy brought me in as if I were one of them and never let me think that I wasn’t. Through him, I got to be where I loved to be; backstage. I wasn’t just somebody in the audience. I was on their side of the curtain, and I belonged as much as anyone else.
I’m going to really miss that. Of the hundreds of comics I know, nobody else has ever given that to me.
“As I have said that after the age of 12, everything else has been a bonus existence and not something to be taken lightly. One thing that has always remained, and that is take nothing too seriously and treat all others with equal or greater respect as I expect to be treated. Pretty much plain and simple, and remarkably easy to achieve. I honestly and without question love everyone who has ever loved me. So with these parts writ down in this chronicle, giving perhaps small insight into my philosophies about death and love and life, then at least there should be no more words after this. At least I know these words are here.” - Jimmy Gunn (July 30th, 2015)
A life of what could easily keep anyone down, Jimmy shone like the North Star. He told me often that the greatest joy in his life after marrying his best friend was mentoring others. The thing is he was so insanely great at it. That’s going to be bigger than my loss or anyone else’s.
The collective loss of Jimmy Gunn.
I met Jimmy while doing comedy, but I am not a comedian. Comedian is a title that has to be earned by hundreds if not thousands of gigs in places nobody knows exist (and in reality probably shouldn’t). When I met Jimmy I was, and I still am, a “showcase comic” to use Jimmy’s own vernacular. This is a nether world between being an “open micer” and being someone at least capable of earning a living performing live comedy. I have the utmost respect for the profession, a profession I will never truly be a part of because I waited until way to late in life to start. I act, play in a Grateful Dead cover band and perform comedy when I can, but never leave the house more than once or twice a week. My day job and family are my priority, and I am OK with that.
I say all this because it makes the way Jimmy and I became friends all that more amazing. My loftiest goal in comedy was (and is) to become capable of hosting a professional comedy show, and to that end a couple years ago I participated in the yearly comedy competition at Rooster T Feathers. Grand prize includes a week of hosting work at the club. I was already friends with Jimmy on Facebook, having seen him perform and knowing we had a lot of friends in common. We had a couple of exchanges before that competition, but our friendship truly began when I went off the rails on Facebook after failing to advance past the preliminary round. I said that if my results in that competition, which I had participated in three times before with similar results, were not improving then I was going to quite comedy. What was the point? I wasn’t getting any better.
Jimmy first responded to my post and then began sending me private messages, trying to talk me off the ledge. This is one of the great things about the Bay Area comedy scene…in LA, the collective response would have been “yeah, you go girl…quit comedy…(I’ll take yer stage time)”. Not only did Jimmy take the time to talk to me via Facebook, he suggested we have lunch the next day and talk about comedy. That took me aback initially…who would take the time to have lunch with a whiny open micer to talk them into continuing comedy? What’s the catch? I decided to go, and if I showed up and he was wearing a hockey mask and holding a baseball bat I would know I had made a mistake.
There was no hockey mask, only BBQ and talk of comedy. It was fabulous…then after I mentioned my daughter Siena he got that look on his face, one that was at the same time quizzical and mischievous. I was about to find out that he had mistaken me for another generic white Dad comic named Robert Forsythe. During the next break in the conversation he said “I have to be honest with you…you are not who I thought you were, and I only like to hang out with funny people so this may be the last lunch we have together.” Fortunately for me he liked my act, and we became pretty fast friends. A few months later I was visiting him in the hospital during one of those times he went in suddenly…I honestly forget why. He had a gig that night closing out a show I was also scheduled to be on. As we sat in the hospital he got that mischievous look on his face again and said “I am going to post on Facebook that, despite being in the hospital, I am still doing the gig…and I’d like you to go there and do my act. “ I was dumbfounded and terrified…so I did it. What an honor to be trusted with his act, and what a total 100% Jimmy thing it was to do. It was glorious, and I really doubt I’ll ever do anything in comedy to top that.
If you are friends with Jimmy you probably know that there are dozens (if not hundreds) of stories like mine. Jimmy was selfless with his time, and like me did comedy for the pure joy of it. That’s probably why we got along so well, or at least part of it. At that lunch he helped me realize what I already knew: I was doing comedy because it was fun. That’s the point. It’s supposed to be fun. He truly enjoyed helping others on their creative journeys, and for his consultations appeared to only want your company in return. There was, and is, nothing special about me…but he made me feel special. There is a comedian in the Bay Area, a real comedian, name Conor Kellicutt who pointed out quite correctly that there is now a void in Bay Area comedy and theater that each member of those communities should strive to fill. As he so aptly said none of us can be Jimmy…but we can be more Jimmy. Regardless of what we do we can freely give of ourselves to help those that come after us. We can be less competitive and more inclusive. We can do things we have never done before, and do them with courage we didn’t know we had. We can be more Jimmy.
What I did right to make a friend like that I will probably never know. The other night I was looking through our texts to get his address for someone who wished to send flowers. I had to wait a day after hearing the news because I couldn’t bear it. Jimmy and his wife Myra have become friends of my entire family, and my daughter adores them. Present tense, for that shall continue. It was too hard. When I got up the courage to look through them I found an exchange we had when he invited us all over for dinner. I was explaining that my daughter Siena only likes butter on her pasta. Jimmy was going to make mac and cheese....and wrote this:
"Tell her I will make a very light cheese pasta, and if that doesn't jive with her taste buds I'll whip up a quick batch of buttered noodles...and tell her Happy 95th Birthday"
It’s really a shame that the pain right now is too great for me to continue reading our chat history. It will never be OK that Jimmy’s gone, just like after 30 plus years it’s not OK that my brother is gone and after nine years it’s still not OK that my Dad is gone. It will never be OK but it will be…better. There are a lot of people out there that did not get to know him like I did, and I know I will be on the road to better when I can take joy in reliving the words we shared, rather than becoming sad and bitter over those we will never get to share.
Until then I will try to #BeMoreJimmy.
RIP my dear friend, Jimmy Gunn