Farewell, Maestro

Maestro is a title of extreme respect given to a master musician.

Greg Giraldo was a maestro, a master of his craft. One of the things I treasure most about coming up through the New York City comedy scene is the opportunity to learn by watching the very best in NY’s clubs, an unconventional university scattered over the expanse of New York’s five boroughs. Classes are rarely scheduled, they often just pop up and if you’re lucky, you’re in the right place at the right time. Professors Attell, Rock, Chappelle, CK, Barry, Giraldo- maestros, one and all- hold court and we, the students, sit and learn. And from the very start, Professor Giraldo was one of my very favorites.

An exciting thing happens when one of these maestros takes the stage. The mundane rhythms of a comedy club are transformed. Comedians line the back of the room with childlike excitement in anticipation of something special. Even the waitstaff momentarily stops and becomes part of the audience. The fractured energies and scattered focus of the many are harnessed and fused into one energy- something inexplicably beautiful- in the hands of the maestros. When Greg Giraldo walked into a club, class was in session.
I remember countless nights when I was filled with giddy excitement at the sight of Greg’s arrival at a club. I’d take my place in the back and savor every moment of his performance. Greg possessed a very rare and special combination of gifts. He had a fierce intellect, a quick wit, a philosopher’s insight and a sweet, goofy innocence that was infectious. The best comedians distill their essence with ease and you could see all of Greg up on stage every time he took the mic from the stand.

His ideas would spill out with a fury that was intoxicating and overwhelming. His rhythm was rapid fire, smart, funny, surprising- brilliant. The kind of funny that makes you turn to the person next to you because you need to share the moment with another soul and affirm that it is real. Greg Giraldo raised the bar and often left you in disbelief, as the maestros do, sending you home with an assignment to get to work. Certain nights it seemed like he was channeling something from the heavens and sharing it with the fortunate humble assemblage.

After September 11th New York City, like the rest of the country and much of the world, was in shock and grieving the terrorist attacks. Comedy essentially shut down for several days and even when it started up again, many comedians- myself included- were floundering, wondering how to proceed. How could anything be funny? How could you dare attempt to broach that topic? Doing the same old jokes the same way felt so hollow and insignificant. Enter the maestro.

It was a week or so after September 11th and Greg walked into Gotham Comedy Club. I was thrilled because I was curious to see if he would address the attacks and how he would handle it. I hadn’t really seen anyone do it yet. Greg proceeded to launch head on into the topic with a daring and magical set that was both astoundingly funny and cathartic. I laughed so hard that I cried. I cried because maestro Giraldo had taught us all a lesson once again. Nothing stops life. Nothing is off limits. It is all fodder, it is all available to us to create something beautiful. There was something so reassuring in his cocksure presence on stage. It was like “Okay motherfuckers, here we go!”

I don’t remember much but I do remember a bit about seeing a bachelorette party with penises on their heads, post 9/11. The sight of these bachelorettes made him realize “The terrorists haven’t won. Life will go on!” Greg, with his performance, embodied that very lesson that night.

Another indelible impression that Greg made on me occurred on “Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn”. One night Denis Leary was among the guests on the panel, alongside Greg, a frequent panelist. Leary was his usual cocky, aggressive self. At one point Leary, blustery and condescending, made the mistake of going after Greg. The dynamic was fascinating; it was like the bully assuming he could take a shot at the young gun, who he took to obviously be beneath him. What happened next was classic. Greg undressed Leary with a barrage that was fast, brilliant and decisive. It was the perfect display of Greg’s brilliance, sending Leary to the deck before he even realized what hit him. Leary had a look of shock, it reminded me of a disoriented Mike Tyson on his knees searching for his mouthpiece after being knocked out by Buster Douglas.

The beauty of this moment for me was that Greg was never a bully. In my experience he was always humble, kind, sweet, gentle and inclusive, the opposite of a bully. But when a bully picked a fight, Greg had the tools to switch gears and say “Okay, motherfucker. Here we go.” And he did it in a way that was pure Giraldo- fast, surprising and brilliant- driven not by ego but by a desire to see justice. Perhaps this was the lawyer in him.

When one of your heroes becomes your friend, as Greg did over the years, it is such an exciting, rewarding experience. Greg had his demons, his struggles with addiction and it was sad to see my friend, one of my heroes, struggling so mightily. Certain nights you could sense him putting on a happy face but there was a raw pain apparent that allowed you to glimpse his inner conflict.
When I was a kid I was taught that drugs were bad and I naively assumed people who did drugs were bad people. Adulthood has repeatedly taught me otherwise. I don’t know why some people do drugs and other don’t. I don’t know why some people become addicted and others don’t. I do know that all kinds of people do all kinds of things, behave all kinds of ways, and it is not necessarily a character flaw. Often it is a disease, an illness that one must ultimately come to terms with and accept on one’s own- with the help of others. I know Greg had so many people in his life who loved and supported him throughout his battles with addiction. Sadly, this battle, this illness took Greg’s life in the end. This is what makes the illness of addiction so baffling and heartbreaking. Greg loved exploring the gray areas and what could be more inexplicably gray than a brilliant mind, a radiant spirit- so adept at dissecting life and humanity, yet unable to control his own behaviors?

I am saddened by the loss of my friend, my mentor, one of my strongest inspirations. I remember Greg Giraldo’s brilliance, his formidable mind and spirit. I cherish his contagious smile and his childlike, infectious joy. I take solace and inspiration from Greg’s own words, one of my favorite bits about letters from Civil War soldiers to their girlfriends back home:

“This morn finds me wrecked by the fiery pangs of your absence. I will bear your cherished memory with me as I battle the forces of tyranny and oppression.”

And so, Greg, we will. Thank you Greg Giraldo, sweet soul, dear friend.

Farewell, Maestro.