On August 6, 2015, Quincy Jones was given his death sentence: stage 4 mesothelioma, a rare cancer in the lining of the lungs and abdomen that has no known cure. He was told he had less than a year to live. On June 2, 2016, the comedian's first hour long standup special, Burning the Light, premiered on HBO. To say the 33-year-old Seattle native has been through an physical, emotional, and career whirlwind over the past year would be an understatement of epic proportions.
Jones moved from Seattle to Los Angeles to purse comedy in 2012, grinding away (to the patently absurd tune of performing 1,000 sets in a single year) in the city's myriad of standup spots. He was honing his craft, but had yet to break though. While his career might've looked especially bleak after his mesothelioma diagnosis, that all changed when his comedian friend Nicole Blaine set up a Kickstarter in February to raise money to fund Jones's first standup special. The campaign became a viral success (raising over $50,000 despite its modest goal of $4,985), boosted by Jones appearing on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. DeGeneres made some calls and convinced HBO to air his standup special, and a mere two weeks later he was taping it (time is precious, after all). It has to be one of the most bizarre and mildly morbid big breaks in history. (While Tig Notaro's star rose with her now legendary post-cancer diagnosis standup set, she'd already established herself as one of the top standups in the industry and her breast cancer wasn't terminal.)
This Friday (September 23), Jones makes his triumphant homecoming with a headlining gig at the Neptune Theatre. Not bad for a dude defying a death sentence.
For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we chatted with Jones about his health, returning home, and attempting to process all that's happened in the past six months.
What was your initial reaction when your friends started the Kickstarter to funds for your special?
I was in chemo when it dropped. So I wasn’t fully aware of how quickly it took off. I am forever grateful for my friends, for Blaine, for doing that. I’m also grateful for my cousin Alexia Sharper for starting my GoFundMe that helped me [with my illness] in the beginning stages. I couldn’t have done it alone, and that’s why when everything thing took off, I tried to make sure to I always had everyone in mind. When you have that budget [to tape a special], I could have done it elsewhere, but I chose to do it in LA because that’s where it went viral, that’s where I live, and I felt the people who helped donate should be able to come see it, you know?
Were there any particularly surreal moments from the past year that you keep reflecting back on?
I mean it all happened so fast, man: the Kickstarter going viral, me doing all the comedy podcasts that I listened to while came up, getting on Ellen, and then getting on Ellen again in a week, the taping of the special two weeks after we announced it, just everything. I went to a mesothelioma conference, which helped put me in touch with a surgeon— Dr. Richard Alexander at University of Maryland Medical Center—who did the surgery on me in July, and that helped me live longer. Everything happened so fast that I still haven’t had time to reflect. Man, it has been a hell of a ride.
I’m in New York City right now. I’m looking at the Freedom Tower. It’s all crazy, you know? Comedy, hard work, and great friends have taken me to places and heights that—who knows when I would have reached? But I’m here now, and I’m blessed and humbled and honored that I’m able to do it.
What is your current state of your health?
I’m AWD. That means “alive with disease.” You know, there’s no cure for my type of cancer. They removed what they could see at the time being, but also at the end of the day, we that the fluid will start coming back. So for now, they took out my spleen, they took out my omentum, they took out my abdomen wall. And that definitely takes a toll on a person. But I was fortunate that the exposure got me contact with people who could prolong my life. I didn’t want to keep doing chemo, you know what I’m saying? So I’m grateful for it. Things are good. I’m tired. I’m definitely tired. [Laughs]
I feel like anyone with your breakneck schedule these past few months would be tired, even sans illness.
Keeping busy has always been my goal. Even now when I have a little break coming up I’m like I want to sell a show or I want to get back to writing. Cause time is precious. I’m just trying to maximize my time here. When you’re given a prognosis like the one I got, you really start to truly appreciate what’s important and what’s not.
While I know comedy offers escapism for an audience, do you also find a sort of escapism when you take the stage?
I found refuge in it. You know when I got out of the hospital last year after 45 days, the first thing I did was go to open mic. I was out for two hours and I went to open mic. That tells you where my head was at.
Growing up in Seattle, what was your initial introduction to standup comedy?
I grew up watching all the legends. I remember seeing Chris Rock’s Bigger and Blacker and hearing certain jokes from his album. I was like ah man, I gotta talk like that. I want to do something like that one day. And I just did it. One day I signed up for the open mic, and then that was that. I just got addicted and kept going.
When did you start going to open mics?
I first went up at 21. Then I started going full-time when I was like 25. I’m an observational comic. Starting at an older age, I sort of knew what I wanted to talk about. I wasn’t going through the awkward, coming of age phase as a comedian. I was an adult who was learning how to be funny on stage.
Now that you achieved that dream goal of putting out a standup special, what’s next on the horizon?
I want to continue writing, work on my new hour, maybe delve into acting, just do a bit of everything.
For me, [the Neptune show] sort of wraps up my whole whirlwind of a past 5–6 months. I’ve been on the road for almost the whole summer, and now this is like my last stop before I go back to LA and grind. It just feels good to go home to the place where you started and sort of cap off an amazing run. Few things ever come full circle, and I’m just excited for it.
What does it mean to you to come back to Seattle and play a venue like the Neptune?
Man, I’m so excited. You gotta understand, I went to Hamilton Middle School. Most of my friends have seen me perform in the back of a Thai food restaurant—Jai Thai—on Capitol Hill, and I’m coming home to do a theater. Talk about the growth. I’m unveiling new material from my new hour, and so I figure that my city where I’m from should be the first place to get it.
Well, I’m sure there’s plenty of recent life experience to draw on for new material.
Sept 23, Neptune Theatre, $19–$24