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.

After a ambulance rushed him away from his New Jersey motel, Greg spent three days in a coma at a local New Jersey hospital. He died there, at the age of 44. I guess in a way, he got what he wanted. He always aspired to be a modern version of Lenny Bruce, and his early demise helped make him a comedy legend. Last February, stars such as Jerry Seinfeld and Colin Quinn performed before thousands of Greg’s fans at a comedy performance to celebrate his life, and to take care of his wife and three kids. Sales of his CDs have exploded. Death made Giraldo a very famous man. But the saddest part is that although he always was an incredible talent—profane, profound and powerfully funny—he never really thought so himself.

The Fix asked some of Greg Giraldo's fellow comics and others who knew him for their thoughts, memories and tributes:

Colin Quinn

"Greg brought a refreshing intelligence to the comedy scene. You could tell he really thought through what he was joking about and gave the audience a fully-realized bit, because he'd been turning it over and over in his mind."

Jim Gaffigan

"I was asked by Entertainment Weekly last year to write a tribute to Greg. Here is what I submitted:

Greg Giraldo was the sanest person I encountered when I started stand up comedy. When I first met Greg he was a Harvard Law graduate working in a high-powered NYC law firm with the same crazy dream I had.  We immediately became good friends. Greg was so funny but his warmth, intelligence and likability made me immediately know he would master the art form. It's ironic that many only knew him as a judge on Last Comic Standing or from Comedy Central's Roasts. The real Greg was the opposite of judgmental. I knew him only as inclusive, humble and warm. Watching Greg do stand up I marveled at the marriage of true intellect and childlike playfulness from the soul of an accessible philosopher. I loved Greg. He was the last person on earth I thought would fall victim to addiction. Greg was so passionate about comedy and his boys. I can only imagine his anger at himself for leaving his wife and 3 children so abruptly.

Now, over a year later, I still feel amazingly strange when I realize that Greg is really gone. I sometimes thoughtlessly expect to run into him at a club or get a text from him saying, “What up Gurl?” This recent stretch of frosty  weather  in New York reminds me of Greg’s funeral and the bleak emptiness I felt the day he finally died. Greg did many things, and he did them well. He was a great friend, a dedicated father and a first-rate comedian. But in the end, he was yet another a  reminder that even the world's brightest, warmest and funniest people are not immune to to addiction and its ultimate price.

Jesse Joyce

"I still think about him at least once a day. What I miss most is not having an older brother. That’s what our relationship was. He was a guy who had already made all the mistakes in life, love and comedy that I was about to… I can’t even count the number of times this past year that I have had the knee-jerk reaction to 'run it by Greg'—to pick through his wisdom on the pitfalls of my new marriage, the confusion of negotiating a show idea, the decoding of LA meetings with network showbusiness types, or sharing in the pride of a mean-spirited roast joke.

I’ve had to confront things in my early thirties with the attitude, 'What Would Greg Do?' and quite a lot of the time I do the opposite. But by watching what he did better than anyone, AND by watching what he fucked up, I have learned how to be a more honest comedian, a pretty competent roaster, a genuine guy to younger comics, a better husband, and eternally grateful for my sobriety.

As a fan, what I share with the rest of the world is missing all the comedy gold in the past year. I know I’m not alone in wishing I could have heard his take on the killing of Bin Laden, the Chilean miners, the BP oil spill, Schwarzenegger’s illegitimate child with that house keeper who looks like a Guatemalan Mickey Rourke, and the roasting of Donald Trump and Charlie Sheen. But what I’ll always be grateful for is that for about 6 years I had the best older brother anyone could have."

Laurie Dhue

"It is hard to believe that we lost our friend one year ago. I can still so easily picture his face and hear his laugh; sometimes it feels surreal to think that he's really gone, that he will not come walking in the door showing off his new tattoo or leap onto the stage to perform. One of my favorite memories is accompanying Greg and Joe on Greg's comedy tour in the Phoenix area in '08. I have never laughed so hard or had so much fun. His 'If you see something, say something' bit is one of the all-time greats. Greg was a generous, brilliant, tortured soul. He could make you laugh out loud by simply looking at you or make you tear up by listening to his ongoing struggle with this cunning, baffling, powerful and PATIENT disease. I wish he'd been constitutionally capable of staying clean, but he simply couldn't do it. My heart is full of love for him...and for Mary Ann and those three beautiful boys."

Ted Alexandro

"It's funny how often Greg pops into my mind. His spirit and vitality still linger in all of the clubs and on all of the stages he performed. I learned so much from Greg that I'm sure it finds its way into my own expression from time to time—at least I hope it does. Greg, thank you for being my friend and such a good example in so very many ways. My love, respect and gratitude to you always, friend."

Kristen Johnston

"The Greg I knew was incredibly sweet and respectful. And troubled. After I met him, I saw a comedy tape of his and just couldn't believe how brilliantly sharp and clever he was. I hate this disease for killing him."

Andy Dick

"It was just a complete tragedy, it just sucks. People don’t have to die. I didn’t know him very well, but we did one show. It was with Shannon Elizabeth, called Live Nude Girls or Live Nude Comedy or something like that, it was at a casino. He was a super nice guy, really extremely nice, one of the nicest people—and one of the funniest. I definitely think he was underrated. In the world of comedy, he was known as being one of the funniest guys out there, and he’s definitely known as being the funniest guy on the roast every time—and that’s hard to do, you’re up there with the best of the best, and he was the best of the best. Everybody knew that. Right before he died, he just got a pilot—he was really about to burst, in a good way."

Tom Shillue:

"Greg was very easy to be around, very easy and enjoyable to spend time with. It was mostly brief meetings, as it is with comedians, before and after shows. He may be have been running in to do a spot and running out again after, but the time spent with him was always genuine and unhurried. And he asked questions. He was a family man and asked about my wife. We talked about anything but comedy."

Tom Papa:

"Greg was a strong, good force. Funny, smart, compassionate, brave. He filled everyone around him with his energy. And that energy will never fully burn out."

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix