Greg Giraldo's Last Laugh

By Joe Schrank 09/29/11

Fans of the cultish 44-year-old comic were stunned when he overdosed in a Jersey motel room a year ago today. But his close friends saw it coming. Comedians from Andy Dick to Colin Quinn remember the man behind the mask.

Comedian Greg Giraldo overdosed at 44, leaving behind a wife and three kids.

It's been said that the fundamental problem with alcoholics is our inability to form a true partnership with another human being. Feelings of isolation, disenfranchisement, and alienation are common among us. Rarely, if ever, do we truly tether ourselves to one another, perhaps because we’re too selfish, arrogant or fearful. For some alcoholics a true friendship—as opposed to a passing chapter—is as rare as a truly great fighter or a perfectly elegant fastball.

Greg Giraldo and I met through a mutual friend in 2004 and became instantly connected. He’d long been considered the comic’s comic—a favorite among peers who were far more famous and commanded much bigger audiences; he had amassed a dedicated cult following through his celebrity roasts on Comedy Central. We shared common experiences: blue-collar upbringings, Catholic school, similar tastes in music, and political beliefs that could be simultaneously described as reactionary and bleeding-heart liberal. We were both uncomfortable in the kind of Manhattan circles filled with smug strivers who felt entitled to city parking spaces that cost the same as a suburban mortgages. We preferred walk-ups, slices of pizza, disposable T-shirts and other pieces of working class bravado. More important than all this was the connection we felt through our alcoholism and mutual self-loathing.

There were twists in his brilliant mind that were not reachable. He wore his life like uncomfortably, like an itchy wool sweater.

Greg—a Harvard-educated son of immigrants and a stand-up comic who achieved international fame—believed to his last day that he was incapable and unworthy of any sort of achievement. We both felt overwhelmed and insecure in our roles as providers and fathers. While we going through simultaneous divorces, the two of us became roommates and were consumed by the fear that we’d end up living in my tiny West Village apartment forever. It became like a bizarre bipolar, alcoholic, version of The Odd Couple. We spent hours laughing, ranting about lawyers, refining his act and sharing our irritation over Oprah's lack of personal insight into her food addiction while she demeaned other addicts. This was when I witnessed Greg’s genius, through his comedy and his cultural observations.

There were days when Greg lost his ability to stay related to what was happening around him, as he played fake folk mass religious songs on his guitar in my living room. Back then, before my business took off, I had more flexibility and a distance from my alcoholism that Greg couldn’t seem to achieve, no matter how hard he tried. I was his traveling companion in modest motels in mid-sized Midwestern towns, where he performed in grimy clubs that were far beneath his potential. One of the saddest aspects of his demise was that he would let me do what he couldn’t: after his performances I would decline the drugs, hookers, and party invitations that were sent his way so that we could go back to the hotel to watch marathons of Flip that House. Hardly sex, drugs and rock and roll, but there was safety in the mundane boredom. Greg would always autograph the bible in his hotels with a simple message: "Best wishes, God.”

There were twists in his brilliant mind that were not reachable or understandable, least of all by him. He wore his life like an itchy wool sweater and never seemed like he was truly at ease. Between all the drinking and drugs, the sporadic periods of remission, clarity, and hope started to become less frequent and I would confront him, telling him he was getting weirder and that I was going to stop trying to rescue him (I never did). In the last six months of his life, whenever I saw his manager’s name flash on my phone, I’d think, “Today is the day; Greg is dead.” I’m still trying to get my head around the fact that the day I feared eventually arrived. When it happened, after an overdose on prescription pills, it was like losing a friend to a terminal cancer—jarring and shocking, but not surprising.

I don’t have any stern warning parables about loss of genius and unrealized potential. I don’t know what it was that tortured my friend. I don’t know why I am intoxicant-free and Greg is dead. I just know I miss him—the non-judgmental empathy, the jokes, the impromptu folk mass performances. 

The week of he died, he was supposed to introduce the singer Courtney Love to thousands of fans at the New York City Recovery Rally in New York's Randall's Island. Once again he complained that he was "no example" for a recovering crowd—a familiar retort. I responded with my usual lecture: “You’re not the only one who struggles with this disease. Advocacy doesn’t mean you have to be perfect. You don’t have to wear a bra to sell one.” His final text to me, a few hours before he dropped into a coma was, "I can’t do it, I’m sorry.” How true that was. Later that evening I received the dreaded call I’d anticipated for so long.

“Is he dead?” I asked his manager. "No, not yet," was the terse reply.

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