Comedians of and from San Francisco convened on Sunday night at the Punchline to remember Jimmy Gunn, who died earlier this month. Gunn was 50.
But who was Jimmy Gunn?
A young Andy Kaufman, sounding like a young Bobcat Goldthwait, forever young at heart, despite dealing with health problems for most of his life, from dialysis to liver cancer — Gunn took eight years off from comedy in his 30s after a kidney transplant — before coming back to remain a force within the San Francisco Bay Area’s comedy scene, touching stand-ups from the 1980s through today.
At Sunday’s Punch Line tribute to Jimmy Gunn — Among those who gathered for a post-show group photo: Destini Iron Bryant, Ronn Vigh, Ben Feldman, Jennifer K. Johnson, Heather Gold, Johan Miranda, Dash Kwiatkowski, Drew Platt, Jesse Fernandez, Jeff Zamaria, Grant Lyon, Mary Van Note, Grant Lyon, Chuck Searcy, Sal Calanni, Butch Escobar, Joe Tobin, Reggie Steele, Greg Edwards, Nato Green, Simon Timony, Ben Kolina, Matt Morales, Angelene Smith and Loren Kraut.
Lyon wrote afterward: “It was one of the best things I’ve ever been a part of. To see how many people he affected in a positive way was really special. My favorite part was watching video of him closing the show and bringing the house down for a final time. We all smeared our faces with frosting in honor of his mime bit. He was a great guy and deserved a great send off. I’m proud we accomplished that. Thanks Molly Schminke, Mary Van Note and everyone else for making it a special night.”
This Wednesday’s #BeMoreJimmy event at Rooster T. Feather’s asks: “In honor of his memory, we urge you all to be supportive of one another…go to each other’s shows, events, things, whatever they are! Be there and smile, say, “Hey, great job!” Tell people how awesome they are. And do it with a sense of play and fun! #BeMoreJimmy Happy Birthday, Jimmy! We sure miss you terribly!!” The lineup, which is scheduled to include Larry “Bubbles” Brown, Conor Kellicutt, Stephen Turner and more, will donate all of that night’s door proceeds to a Jim Gunn Memorial Fund supporting performing arts at Kehillah Jewish High School, where Gunn graduated from and later teached in his final decade.
Gunn went to Kehillah in Palo Alto despite not being raised Jewish. As he wrote in one of his Facebook Facts he shared in the year before his death: “FACT #49: I was not (although I have no idea what my by-blood father’s religion was) born Jewish. From a very early age though I felt I was Jewish. All my best friends since I was four years old were Jewish. At the age of fifteen – though I told no one – I decided that I was going to be Jewish. The next year I took care of a major hurdle in becoming one of the chosen. Five years later I met my Jewish bride-to-be. We had a Jewish wedding. I have lived as a reformed Jew ever since. If some asks if I am Jewish I say yes. Have I gone through the conversion process with the Rabbi and all? No. Do I feel a need to? No. There are those that would say I am not Jewish. I really could care less what those people think. I have chosen to be one of “the chosen” – and that is all that matters to me.”
Nato Green, writer on the former Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell on FX/FXX, said he had the same story most Bay Area comics had who knew or interacted with Gunn — which was how much other comedians mattered to him.
Green remembered a couple of years ago how Gunn had taken to taking the stage as “Sherman Westwood, who was a cocky LA comic come to take SF by storm by stealing Patton Oswalt jokes.” But that bit was borne out of love for Oswalt and other comedians. Gunn credited Greg Proops with coaxing him out of retirement in the early 2000s. And Gunn often passed the love forward to younger stand-ups.
“He was so enthusiastic about new comics,” Green said of Gunn. “He treated everyone as a peer. No ego or name-dropping. He got really excited when someone really found their voice.”
Here was Gunn, shirtless at 17 in the early 1980s, looking for his voice as he shared his love of “progressive comedy,” which certainly shows the influences of Kaufman on him already as he sits down to play Solitaire. “I myself? It’s interesting,” teenage Gunn tells the camera. “If you don’t laugh I shall sit here and continue to do progressive comedy.”
He went up at an open mic at the Improv while attending Loyola Marymount, but Gunn said it wasn’t until about age 24 when he got onstage on a Sunday night at the Holy City Zoo in 1988. “Basically what I realized was, first of all, I really enjoyed doing it really quickly,” he told StandUpSantaCruz.com. “But I also realized within about two weeks of doing open mics around and doing the Holy City Zoo constantly, was that just knock knock jokes were not going to be substantial enough to do something with. So that’s when I really decided that I could take the idea of the nervous awful comic way further by just doing all the cliches that I see comics do, and just fuck them over badly. When I started doing that, I started realizing that drunk adults really found that funny.”
In the mid-1990s, though, he had a kidney transplant and started working with children’s theater groups, directing and teaching kids; by 1996, he’d stopped doing live comedy himself.
“Then my wife and I were in Edinburgh in 2002. I ran into Greg Proops, literally on the street. I was standing at a stop light waiting for it to change and I looked to my right and he was standing there. So we went to lunch and we were talking about why I got out of comedy and he goes, “Why did you quit comedy again?” I told him all the business reasons and he goes “You quit for business reasons?” And all of a sudden this light bulb went off in my head and it was like, “Oh my God that’s right I used to do comedy because I LOVED doing comedy.”
So he un-retired. Back came the old bits with new force.
“That is a very old bit. Actually I would say roughly, 60% of my material is from the first year and a half to two years of doing comedy. Green Eggs and Ham was one of the first. It used to be just Green Eggs and Ham. The Spanish part was added when I got back into comedy. I was trying to find the book and I stumbled upon a shitload of versions of Green Eggs and Ham. I tempted to buy the Japanese version, but I couldn’t figure out how to make that funny. (Will) Durst said to me once a couple of years ago, I was bemoaning the fact that so much of my material is old and he said, ‘It’s not old, it’s classic.'”
At the end of his interview, Gunn reflected: “I’m not a comic I’m a clown for adults. Ya know, it’s like I don’t have any political humor, I don’t have any kind of like observational humor. I’m just doing goofy ass shit and if you laugh at it great. And yet I love hearing just the best and smartest political humor out there. I love that.”
From the San Francisco Bay Area Comedy Network on Aug. 9, 2015, Michael Way Wisely reflected on meeting and knowing Gunn since the late 1980s: “Anyone who knew Jimmy knows what I mean when I say it was easy to love Jimmy Gunn. He was generous always, funny, insightful, self effacing, kind and passionate.”
“My last contact with Jimmy was a text before he went for this surgery. We talked about comedy and upcoming shows of mine he said he would attend when he got well. We joked about his liver cancer like it was just another thing in his life that he was going to overcome and I fully expected him to. For years he talked about me giving stand up a shot and I made a promise that, if he made it through, I would finally sit down and put 5 minutes together and prove to him that it would be a bad idea. One of his last texts was that he would stay alive just to see me follow through with it. Now, he died before I could get up in front of a stand-up audience and do the same thing. I may have to do it as a tribute to a man that I am grateful to have known. Recently on a Facebook post I exchanged exchanged quips with some of his friends on a post about his cancer and we posited that he must have done terrible things in a former life to take all the hits he did in this one. Then I mused that actually, he took on all those problems so the rest of us didn’t have too. Like a Comic Jesus. I hope latter to shed tears of laughter in your honor Jimmy. Love to you and yours my friend. Thanks for making my life better!”
From Sean Keane: “I am sad about the passing of Jimmy Gunn, but the outpouring of support and wonderful Jimmy stories warms my heart. Everyone focuses on his kindness – which was present all the time – but I also loved it when Jimmy would needle other comics. It was so delightful, especially with his big heart, to have this impish guy sneak up next to you at the Punch and whisper a hilarious comment about another comic or a joke. Just because he was a great guy, let’s not forget he could also roast with the best. It often takes me a while to realize that I’m actually FRIENDS with comics I hang out with a lot, but Jimmy made that really easy, and he made it easy for everyone. You can take it for granted when someone displays such natural, easy kindness. It helped that Jimmy seemed to be absolutely doing comedy for the right reasons – he was never complaining about opportunities, or what other comics were doing – it was about the show. It was admirable and instructive, and again, something you take for granted. One thing that really amuses me, and I think it would amuse Jimmy too, is imagining someone who’d never seen Jimmy perform trying to figure out what his act was like, based purely on these stories. He was lip synching? And he was speaking Spanish? But why did he have frosting on his face? You had to be there. It was hilarious.”
From Mary Van Note: “It’s been hard to find the words to write about what Jimmy meant to me. Along with so many of my peers, he was such a role model to me. From when I first started comedy he showed me what it meant to break barriers and be funny on stage, to just this past year I found myself saying to friends, ‘I want to be the Jimmy Gunn of comedy.’ By that I meant, do stand-up because I love it, and be content with a life full of love and happiness and projects you were excited about. Being a successful comedian doesn’t have to be this narrow standard of Netflix specials, theater tours, Comedy Central tapings – it can be living a full life, making real human connections and making people laugh. I didn’t get to hug or say goodbye to Jimmy the last time I saw him (you just don’t ever think it will be the last time) but when I booked him for the showcase in an email he said, “Did I ever mention I LOVE YOU!!” And I wrote back, “I love you, too.” I’m grateful that I was able to tell him that. He was such a true friend to all of us. I know his spirit will live on in all of us that knew him. I know I’m going to try my best to be the Jimmy Gunn of comedy.”
From Conor Kellicut: “I met Jimmy Gunn 25 years ago at the Holy City Zoo. In a community full of self serving Assholes, myself included, Jimmy was a selfless Gem! He retired from comedy 35 times, but like a true comic he could not stay away! He always had a positive attitude despite just living was harder than any of us with all his hospital visits. This community has lost one of the truly greats. Jimmy brought something to the scene so rare, an open heart. He was there for anyone, headliners, features, open micers, we were all the same to Jimmy.
SO HERE IS WHAT WE NEED TO DO!
Be more Jimmy!
BE MORE JIMMY!
Be friendly in the green room, give advice to newbies, DON’T BE A FUCKING DICK and help others, help others, help others.
Gonna miss ya Jimmy and your laugh, fuck you really knew how to laugh, we really needed you and we are less with out you.”
Here was Gunn in 2010, performing Twas the Night Before Christmas with comedian Joe Klocek:
And making light of himself on 2012 Comedy Day in San Francisco:
Gunn leaves behind his wife, Myra Lessner, two godsons, and many friends, students and fans.