A few months ago, I performed at a benefit to raise money for a scholarship. It was an incredibly fun show, with its own twists and turns. It was at the Santa Rosa Junior College. The inspiration for this scholarship was a man named Rick Edwards. I met Rick almost fifteen years ago at a gig in Santa Rosa. There was a restaurant that did comedy on Friday and Saturday nights - The Sweetriver. I was the host, and Rick was doing a guest set. I met him right before the show and didn’t exactly know what to expect. He was dressed head-to-toe in motorcycle-gang leather. His boots looked like they were issued by the Klingon high command. His hair was ZZ Top long, and he wore impossibly dark sunglasses. He was, to say the least, intimidating. I asked what he wanted me to say, and he said it didn’t matter, because he had a music cue. When the time came, I said the usual “he tours clubs and colleges” line. From the sound system blared, “Bad to the Bone.” The opening notes sounded more machine gun than guitar, and if you were standing under a speaker you went dizzy. I stood at the mic waiting for Rick. From out of the shadows he slowly walked toward the stage, never looking down or turning his head. His expression was fixed, and if you could have seen his eyes, you would have bet they were glaring. His walk was confident, relaxed and commanding. The crowd was still applauding but now he just stood behind the mic, with the music continuing to play - arms crossed, mouth a straight line, and those dark sunglasses hiding everything but the raw intimidation he was projecting. The music continued. The seconds ticked by and the crowd, mostly 20 something’s, shifted uncomfortably in their seats. The music suddenly stopped and just as it did, Rick took of his sun glasses and in a voice that sounded part Bee Gee’s, part Mickey Mouse and all helium, Rick said, “Hi everyone! It’s great to be here tonight!” The place erupted with laughter. Rick laughed to. It was a brilliant opening. Without a word he established a character and then played against it. He had instant credibility with the crowd.
That was the biggest laugh he got that night.
The rest of his act was about what to do in a prison yard riot, what not to do in a prison shower and how to keep larger more persuasive inmates out of your ass. The 20-something suburbanites sat slackjawed and horrified. Like most comics watching another comic not doing well, I started laughing for the sheer bizarreness of the show. When Rick’s seven minutes were up, I returned to the microphone and said something like, “Stay in school, kids.”
I’d see Rick pop up from time to time, at various gigs around the greater Bay Area. Mostly it was open mics; little road gigs that paid almost nothing. Every time I saw him, he told me how funny I was and asked me how I was doing. The man had served time in prison for possession of drugs and his sad, hound dog like eyes told a story about his past. Rick was never comfortable talking about it at that point in his life. More than anything, Rick gave off a unique feeling of being warm and a little crazy. I was never once afraid, being with Rick. I was just terrified he was going to ask me how his set was, after a show. All the leather and all the posturing was just that, an act. Rick was, for the time I knew him, a sweet, yet troubled soul. Then, he just stopped showing up. I have to admit, I didn’t even notice at first that he wasn’t around. I would ask other comics about him, and no one seemed to know.
Cut to this summer. I get a Facebook friend request from Rick Edwards. The message he sends along with it is overflowing with poorly spelled politeness. I respond and Rick tells me he wants me to perform on a gig at the Junior College he is going to. I say, sure and asked for the date. This starts months of going back and forth, and not getting a response - before getting responses that are strange but friendly. First it will be one date, then a week later, it’s another. On and on this goes, and when I’m starting to get agitated, he just goes silent. He has also told me the amount of money he wants me to perform for, and I write back a terse reply that colleges usually have a lot more money than this for performances. Then he asks for my phone number but doesn’t call. Eventually I get a Facebook message from someone else saying, “Hey, it’s Rick. Could you please call me at this number?” At this point, I am done. No gig could possibly go well with this much drama in the planning stage. Out of the blue, Rick calls me up and I get an explanation about everything; the strangely worded emails with lots of Buddhist well-wishing in them, the long periods of silence and the confusion over dates and money. He tells me, he was in the hospital, in a coma for ten days after coughing up blood. His liver is failing and with it, other organs. He is on so many prescriptions he hardly knows what’s what. In short, his doctors tell him he is dying. Those years I didn’t see Rick are also filled in. He was back in prison for another drug charge. He was addicted to just about everything and when he was released, had that moment of clarity recovering addicts talk about and decided to clean himself up. He started going to recovery meetings, and enrolled at a junior college. It wasn’t easy. Adjusting to life without bars can be difficult. Adjusting to life on life’s terms, even more so. Now, with the doctors telling him of his disease, something else happened to Rick. He wanted to leave behind one good thing. He knew he had made bad choices and polluted the life he had. Before he died, he just wanted to do good. The comedy show would raise money not for Rick, but for a scholarship to help other people in Rick’s situation.
Wow. OK, here is what I will do, Rick. Just nail down the date for me and I refuse to take any money for this.
At one point, Rick tells me his doctor asked him, “Did you ever smoke?”
“Of course!” Rick said.
“You could probably take that back up again if you wanted.”
You know it’s bad when a doctor tells you “Go for it, have a smoke!” It’s not going to be what kills you at this point.
The month before the gig, the date changed yet again. At one point, Rick’s liver was so full of toxins, they leaked into his body, requiring him to go on an all-liquid diet. He couldn’t eat anymore, anyway. I came in to do a cable access TV show, out of Sonoma. It would be the first time seeing Rick in person since hosting that show way back when. His pants kept falling, his eyes wandered around the room, and his mouth didn’t stop talking the entire time he was there. Like some kid with extreme ADD, the medications he was taking at the moment had him flying around; still, there was that underlying sweetness. The plan was for Rick to watch but eventually his off-camera antics couldn’t be ignored and the host asked him to come on. That’s when the show changed. Rick began talking a mile a second, looking in the wrong camera and not holding the mic so we couldn’t hear him. At first it was funny. Then the host started asking him questions. Rick would suddenly pause, and say the most eloquent self-truths - before launching back into riffs that made the rest of the panel uncomfortable. He would be making some gay prison sex joke about the co-host and then say, “I know I’ve made mistakes with my life, and I want to leave behind a good deed. I have 4 to 8 months to live.” Then, he would continue spouting nonsense and 1950’s TV show references. None of us knew exactly what to do. There is no protocol for any of this. A man just told us he would be dead by spring.
The night of the show came, and with it, still more drama. The school wasn’t entirely behind the show. Not because of Rick; they just didn’t want a comic to be dirty. We had to sign contracts. Like that’s going to stop a comic from saying something outrageous. After all, we were all working for free. What were they going to do, keep our checks? The day of the show a staff member called me and reminded me that I had signed a contract not to be blue, then he asked me the strangest question anyone has asked me as a comic, “Do you have any jokes that target a specific protected minority?”
I wasn’t even sure what he said at first. I think I was being asked, in the most PC speak ever, if I was a racist. Yes, as a San Francisco comic who’s appeared on Comedy Central and regularly works every gig there is around here, I’m doing it with racist material. Do you really think I’m going to go up there and do a joke like, “You know who I hate more than women? Blacks!”
The funny thing was, no one bothered to ask the opener this question. She’s self-admittedly dirty. Oh, and we find out in the first few jokes, a bi-sexual too. The guy who called me up came running over to me and gave me the evil eye. I shrugged my shoulders; not only was the crowd laughing, but it wasn’t my job to censor other comics on the show. He looked at me nervously and said, “I have to stop this.”
He disappeared into the sound room and cut her microphone. Welcome to college, 1984 style. Words are dangerous and people’s feelings might get hurt. Hey, I think her jokes were positive; they were celebrating that often-targeted, unprotected minority, bisexuals.
I ended up doing an hour, talking about the phone call (with the administrator in the room), and making my point that comedy should get the same treatment a play or a poet would receive; after all, we were here for Rick, and I don’t think I ever heard him tell a clean joke.
That was that.
Rick and his friends and I stayed in touch via Facebook, and the show went so well Rick wanted to do another one in the spring. There was even news that Rick’s liver had started functioning again.
Cut to Reno, last Sunday. It was the day after their world famous Santa Bar Crawl. 5,000 or so people dress up like Santa and go bar to bar in down town Reno, meeting under the arch at Midnight. It was as debauch-a-riffic as your imagination thinks it was. As I exited the elevator into the lobby of the Silver Legacy, I saw a man wearing Red Santa pants and hat. His boots were black and his beard was still tied on, but he now had a Metallica Tour T-shirt on and was snoring loudly in a chair holding his room key. A family was checking in. Their five year old daughter looked nervously at the incapacitated Santa and asked her mom in a concerned voice, “Will he be alright to still bring presents?”
That’s when my phone buzzed with a text. I looked down. Rick has passed away. Americans tend to describe such emotionally-jarring moments as something out of a movie. I felt this way too. All the lights and conversation that was buzzing around me just went blank for a second, as my chest throbbed from the hammer blow. I didn’t know Rick well, but in every email and conversation, he always asked me first how I was doing. He repeatly told me how proud he was of me, for sticking with comedy and making it onto TV. To all of these things I would always mumble something like ”Thanks, but it was only Comedy Central”, or “Thanks, but it’s no big deal.” It was to Rick. To him, I had achieved every one of the things any comic thinks about when they start. Among everything else, Rick put a lot of my complaints in perspective.
Rick was sweet, crazy, imperfect and charming, off-putting, coarse, loud and beautiful. With the time he had left, he didn’t complain. Instead, he set out to do some good. I was proud to help him in that mission.
Rick Edward's Scholarship Fund
c/o Santa Rosa Junior College
1501 Mendocino Ave
Santa Rosa, CA 95401