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Hook 'n' Laughter

A Colorado firefighter finds humor in uniform.

Colorado Springs firefighter Tim Casey once was called to a home where he found the brains of a recent suicide--a doctor who'd shot himself with a .44 handgun on his 44th birthday--sprayed across the ceiling. When Casey stopped underneath a light fixture, some of the dead doc's gray matter dripped onto his face.

Hours later Casey was spooning down a spaghetti lunch, joking about the similarities between brains and pasta. He placed a wet, stringy noodle on his forehead to prove his point, until a rookie firefighter lost his lunch.

For Casey, a onetime stand-up comic, the big fire that destroys everything is better than a false alarm, a good, messy overdose is better than a near-overdose, and the tragic can be comic. Making light of the darkness is one way firefighters deal with the stress of their jobs. But most of them don't take the joke as far as Casey, who two weeks ago performed a seriocomic monologue about his firefighting experiences before a modest crowd at the Cherry Creek Arts Festival.

Now he's eager to set Hollywood on fire and leave the hook-and-ladder set for good. While none of the two dozen screenplays he's drafted between shifts at the firehouse have sold, he's banking on a TV sitcom he developed called BFD--a Barney Miller-type show set in the Burbank Fire Department--as well as a small, dramatic film he's completing with a $4,000 grant from the Colorado Council on the Arts.

"Tell you the truth, if the TV show comes through next week, I'm ready to retire," he says--ideally, in time to boast a little at his twentieth high school reunion later this summer. But while Casey hopes to "talk it up" with his former classmates, he may omit mention of those very unfunny days when his job burned him out, his first marriage went up in smoke and he gave a considerable amount of thought to his own suicide.

Even as a boy growing up in Colorado Springs, Casey had a penchant for playing with fire. "When he was a kid, he could make an all-day event out of torturing ants," recalls his brother, Shawn. "He'd make a twelve-foot line of honey down the sidewalk, in little droplets, and then put a pool of lighter fluid at the end. He'd just wait in the grass until they got to the end of the honey, then light them up."

At nineteen, Casey signed on with the Broadmoor Fire Department, a little-used volunteer group that gave him plenty of time to read--Koontz and King, mostly--and to write drafts of two novels that wound up in a box in his closet and then disappeared. Six years later he joined the Colorado Springs Fire Department, where he has worked as a professional firefighter ever since.

In 1983 he began moonlighting as a writer for Colorado Springs Magazine, where his first assignment was to write a story about a newly opened comedy club. So he entered the club's "Funniest Person in Colorado" contest and actually won that night's round, beating nine others on the strength of an impromptu tirade that he no longer remembers.

He stayed in the competition for more than six months, and soon after began emceeing at the Comedy Corner, a gig he held for almost four years. He introduced and befriended then-up-and-coming comedians Tim Allen, Sinbad and Roseanne, all the while working on his own routine, which he likens to the profanity-laced wordplay of George Carlin.

Casey tape-recorded his performances, fine-tuning, fixing, changing. Over time the profanity began to tone down, and an urbane, angry-man shtick--Casey compares it to Dennis Miller--emerged. He was on the verge of hitting the college-tour circuit, he says, but his then-wife argued that firefighters made more money than most comics. Reluctantly, he hung up his mike. "Had I been a single man," Casey says, "I would have done it."

He continued to find humor in his work, though. There was the time an elderly woman called up complaining about gas fumes in her house, and it turned out that her husband's chronic flatulence was the source of the odor. "It was natural gas," Casey says, "but she didn't know that her old man was piping it in."

Or the time an overweight mother slipped out of the bath and landed wedged between the toilet bowl and the tub, looking like "raised dough, coming out everywhere." Initially modest in front of her two kids and the emergency crew, Mom relaxed as the excavation went on. When the firefighters finally decided to remove the toilet, Casey squeezed underneath to unfasten the bolts. By now, he recalls, Mom had relaxed too much, and she flashed the firefighters as Casey pressed the flesh to push her free.

Eventually, though, the stress of the job spilled into the rest of his life. Casey began "internalizing all I was seeing, suppressing a lot of human instinct," he says. "When you're charging into a burning building and everyone else is running away from it, there's a little voice that says, 'This isn't right.'"

One night he arrived at the scene of an accident and wound up performing CPR on a high school buddy, who died on him. That started the nightmares, replays of fires and wrecks he'd handled, with his family members subbing for the real victims he couldn't save.

His first marriage fell apart. The local watering hole became a second office. At a Fourth of July party several years ago, he put a loaded gun to his head and joked about ending it there. Except, he says now, he wasn't joking. He began studying the suicides he encountered on calls, wondering what would be the best way to go.

The dead doctor's choice of a .44--the continuation of a family tradition that had claimed two of the doc's relatives on their own 44th birthdays--was a "terrible method," Casey says. "Somebody's gotta clean that kind of stuff off. Come on, at least put a drop sheet out for when you fall on the bed...It ruins the bed, the comforter, it gets on the floor. That guy needed to do a bit of research."

Casey decided he preferred the carbon monoxide-in-the-garage bit, even though at the time he "didn't have a good garage. But it seemed a good way to go," he says. "Lean back, put on some tunes, a six-pack...less mess for the family."

Instead, Casey finally checked into counseling and got divorced. He married again in 1995; he and his new wife are expecting their first child in November. These days, when he's not on call at the fire station, he stays busy writing--lately he's been pitching teleplays to TV's Tales of the Crypt. And except for the occasional gig like Cherry Creek, he doesn't perform in public anymore, because "the addiction is too strong," he says.

But Tim Casey cannot resist the occasional crack. Looking around his split-level home with its view of Pikes Peak, he says with a small smile, "I have a good garage now...

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