This week, the world lost a gentle soul. A true legend of the New York City comedy open mic scene.
I wasn’t 100% sure how to approach this. When you eulogize someone, the temptation is to be overly kind. Exaggerate his qualities. The good he did became staggering works of charity felt across the land. His creative output a river of genius.
But I was always pretty straight with Gary when he was alive, and I think that was part of why I got along so well with him, because I didn’t condescend, and I didn’t pretend.
So let me start by saying: Gary Marinoff was an oddball, an outsider, a fringe artist. So fringe, in fact, that it took a few days to get confirmation that he was, in fact, truly dead.
He lived to be 56, and those were some hard years. i’ve known him literally my entire adult life. I first met him at the open mic at Rebar in Chelsea, on the corner of 8th and 16th. He worked in the music section at Barnes & Noble in Chelsea, then, and lived with his mother, going out at night to hit mics.
All this is covered in the interview I conducted with him for the TYF! podcast, embedded below. When his mother died, he hit hard times. Gary supported himself doing extra gigs; he worked consistently as an extra on 30 Rock for five seasons, supporting himself during the summers when the show was off air doing odd jobs, other low-paid extra work.
There’s a temptation to look back at Gary’s output and call it great, to say that this was an Emily Dickinson situation, with a backlog of undiscovered great works sitting in a drawer waiting to be discovered. The truth is more complicated.
When Gary’s mother died, it seemed he was cut adrift, and not just financially, but spiritually. And it seemed as if he saw Tina Fey as the next mother figure who would save him. He was an extra on the first season of her Kimmy Schmidt show—in fact, during the interview he received repeated phone calls from a producer trying to track him down for a shoot the next day. He was convinced that this would be his big break. And if not then, it would be around the corner.
There were those who didn’t like Gary. He was odd. Because he lived in the shelters and on the streets and in shifty SROs, his hygiene wasn’t the best. And when I had him on my podcast, some people were surprised. But to me, he was the soul of New York City’s standup comedy scene. To me, he was the person whose story any fan of any art form needs to hear. He gave it all, he sacrificed everything, his finances, his body, his future, his health, because he had a dream that he could be not just a comedian. Whenever he outlined his career, it was always in terms of being the next Richard Pryor, the next voice and conscience and soul of a disenfranchised people. He sought immortality through greatness, not just of success but also of spirit.
The last time I saw Gary, I was on my way to the mall in my neighborhood in Queens to buy sneakers. I was walking down a street I never travel, and about twenty feet ahead I saw him, shuffling, bald, bowed. We walked and talked, and when we got to the mall entrance it began pouring, so we stepped inside and talked some more. He told me he lived in a room in a Chinese family’s home in Corona. He called it the nicest neighborhood he could want to live in, and I guess if you’re a small, stocky middle-aged Jewish man with a pronounced speech defect who had spent the last few years moving through the shelter system of New York and Hollywood, Florida, it would be.
But here’s the thing you might not catch about that, because what i said is incredibly sad. But that was the day that Gary taught me gratitude. He taught me dignity, and he taught me grace. Not just in a “There but for fortune” way. We who do comedy, who pursue the creative fields as a full-time job, tend to get angry about the short-term, about the gigs we didn’t get, the shows we didn’t get booked on. Gary had none of that. If he didn’t teach me the finer qualities of the human spirit, he certainly served as a reminder that they exist. Yes, he had his frustrations, and he had his down moments, but he never once stopped feeling gratitude for the small blessings he found every day in his life.
This was a man who had been given every right by this world to be bitter, to spit venom, to curse the heavens and stomp the ground until the shaking reached Hell. but instead he kept his eyes down and focused on the things he could focus on.
If Gary were reading this, I know he would want me to talk less about his character and more about his comedy. If you watch footage of his act, you’ll notice he lacks the things that most great comedians know innately; joke construction, comic timing, an ability to read an audience. But he made me laugh like hell, and many other audience members blindsided by his comedy style. If a comedian could be called a folk artist, Gary was a folk artist of the first caliber.
Gary wrote poetry. He self-published a chapbook. Gary wrote original rap, which he would perform a cappella at the drop of a hat. Gary did standup comedy, he did improv, he loved performing for an audience wherever he could find one. And whatever you may think of his performance—and not everyone was a fan—Gary had the soul of a first-rate artist. In that, he felt a compulsion to create and to share, purely for the reward that comes in the joy of creating and sharing.
And if his material was oddly filthy for someone who was determined to perform on the Tonight Show, then so be it. That was Gary’s dream.