John Fox's Black Swan Song

May 31, 2012

Legendary stand-up comic John Fox has died of cancer at age 59. Fox was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer in October 2011 while working on what may be the last thing his fellow comedians would have expected—narrating a documentary about the financial crisis.

Fox’s entertainment career began in the 1970s and included stints as a writer for TV shows such as “Laverne and Shirley” and “Happy Days.”

In the 1980s, Fox mastered his stand-up act and became a favorite of Rodney Dangerfield, whose Las Vegas Tropicana show featured Fox as the opening act for eight years. In addition to appearing in two Dangerfield comedy specials, Fox made roughly 10 appearances on the “Tonight Show.” Over the decades, Fox was also a reliable personality on "The Bob and Tom Show," on which he appeared innumerably as a guest.

As Fox’s stand-up career continued in the 1990s and beyond, his reputation for wild road antics spread to the point of inspiring fellow comedian Pat Godwin to write a song, “The Legend of John Fox." In the song, Godwin knows his notorious counterpart only by the lurid array of detritus strewn across comedy club condos freshly vacated by Fox, much like Jack McGee's futile efforts to directly witness the Incredible Hulk in action.

Seemingly every comedian has a John Fox story.

“Foxy and I had adjacent motel rooms one gig,” actor Jeff Garlin recalled at Zanies Comedy Club in Chicago not long ago. “Sunday morning I hear Fox snoring, so I tip-toe out. Then someone yells ‘Garlin!’ and I turn around and there’s John Fox waving at me in the parking lot, completely naked.”

“I didn’t want to be rude and not say goodbye,” Fox said.

Fox’s career bridged entire eras. He met Buddy Hackett—who at one time was tapped to replace Moe Howard on “The Three Stooges”—in the green room of “The Merv Griffin Show,” where the two shared vodka before their respective appearances. Today, even cutting edge 20-something comedians like Lee Camp know all about John Fox.

At one time or another, Fox worked with George Lopez, Tim Allen, Andrew Dice Clay, Sam Kinison, Larry Reeb, Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Carrey, Jay Leno, Tommy Chong, Jeff Foxworthy, Dana Carvey, David Letterman, Robin Williams, and the late Bill Hicks.

Fox’s friendship with Hicks sheds poignant light on the hard road that is stand-up comedy. Despite polar opposite styles, the comedians would compare notes on their chosen craft.

Fox admired Hicks for sheer courage.

“He’d take material no one else would touch with a ten-foot pole and make a whole set out of it.” In turn, Fox said, Hicks really loved “my timing—best in the business.”

Fox’s act turned on jokes with punch lines that blindsided audiences with sudden twists that were often sexually graphic. Even Fox’s opening lines could be stunners.

“Two firemen are butt-fucking in a smoke-filled room!” Fox thundered at the start of many sets.

Unlike Hicks’ cerebral style, Fox did not rely on current events, preferring instead go-for-the-throat humor lacking any time frame.

“I’m like the Stones of comedy, man,” he said.

Fox was working a nearby venue shortly before Hicks died of cancer in 1994.

“I called him at his mom’s place to see if I could drop by, but Bill said he didn’t want anyone seeing him like that,” Fox said. “It’s a fucking tragedy that guy died so young, it really is.”

Fox, a lifelong Cubs fan—a living embodiment of the eternal optimist—made the most of it when tragedy struck closer to home, and doctors gave him anywhere two weeks to two months to live.

“I like my odds against the over,” Fox said in December 2011. Fox was no stranger to gambling and had a particular fondness for off-track wagering parlors.

Then, in February, weighing 135 pounds—fully 50 pounds below his stage weight in later years—Fox, confined to a hospice bed and true to his word, recorded a youtube video urging colleagues to avoid his own fate with periodic check-ups for cancer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hOYEPr3l05A

Today there is a fund set up in Fox’s name for exactly that purpose. The John Fox Memorial Fund is intended to meet a shamefully hidden need: unlike actors, comedians have no union-sponsored insurance plans to defray the costs of colonoscopies and pap smears, which continue to spiral out of control in an economy that’s been "recovering" for three years only inside of executive suites and TV studios.

The lack of affordable health insurance, always a problem, has been especially acute for comedians since 2007, when the economy started to buckle under the weight of souring mortgage-backed securities. Some of the earliest stress fractures of the crisis appeared on the live entertainment circuit, as consumers began slashing discretionary spending.

“Comedy clubs are either closing their doors or cutting their 4-day gigs down to 2-day gigs,” Fox recalled that year, which saw his income drop by about three-quarters. “Wednesdays and Thursdays are karaoke nights now.”

With less travel and more time on his hands, Fox turned increasingly to writing. In 2008, he resumed work on a rough manuscript of “Payday,” a courtroom drama he’d written years before. He worked for several months on a complete re-write of the script with John Titus, a lawyer who lived just down Fox’s sleepy one-way street in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood. “Payday” went nowhere in Hollywood.

“They’re like, ‘you’re a comedian and this ain’t a comedy,’” Fox said.

Two years later, the pair began writing a narrative that would eventually evolve into "Bailout," a hybrid-documentary about the roots of the very financial crisis that crippled the latter stages of Fox’s comedic career. Fox wears two hats--on screen and as narrator--in the film, which will be featured at the Philadelphia Independent Film Festival on June 20 and June 23.

"Fox told me Bailout is the single most important role of his career," said Director Sean Fahey.

In early screenings, Fox’s no-nonsense explanation of financial esoterica like credit default swaps has drawn unbridled praise from audience members and critics alike. “Bailout,” the strange swan song of a funny man, is slated for theatrical release this Fall.

“I ain’t just a pretty face,” Fox joked.

Today the world mourns in agreement.