For years, Quincy Jones was known in the independent comedy scene in Los Angeles for his welcome presence and laid-back observational humor. Like most fledgling comics, he hustled hard at local shows and open mics, longing for the opportunity to get a crack at the infinitely larger audience that a televised performance provides. Then he was diagnosed with terminal stage 4 mesothelioma at the tragically young age of 32; doctors estimated he would only live another year. Rather than despair, however, Jones redoubled his efforts as his friends mounted a Kickstarter campaign to fund the production of a one=hour special. The crowdfunding campaign went viral, earning $50,000 past the initial $5,000 goal and landing Jones a spot on Ellen; on-air lobbying by Ellen Degeneres helped get Burning the Light on HBO's vaunted airwaves. Charging ahead undeterred through chemotherapy treatments and surgeries, Jones continues to write jokes and achieve career milestones, all while remaining bravely optimistic. He'll be headlining at Comedy Works South July 28 through July 31, just a year short of receiving his diagnosis. In advance of his appearance, Westword caught up with Jones to discuss his debut at the prestigious Montreal Just for Laughs Festival, his quibbles with his special and maintaining hope.
Westword: So you're talking to us from Montreal. How has your experience at the festival been so far?
Quincy Jones: I am; I'm in beautiful Montreal! The Just for Laughs Festival has been great, I've met some amazing comics. It's an exciting opportunity to get to see the legends I grew up watching. It's all so exciting. I just talked to Louie Anderson.
Can you explain to our readers why getting booked on Just for Laughs is such a huge milestone for a comedian's career?
It's almost like an induction into the club, like "Hey, we recognize you." It's also international comedy. You're not just in your scene, in your Facebook group or wherever you've done comedy; being in Montreal means you've arrived on the international stage. You network with people you never would've met anywhere else, like "You're from where!? I'd love to come to do a show there!" And boom! You got it, just like that.
It's my first year doing it.
Congratulations. So your special, Burning the Light, premiered on HBO in June. How has the response been so far?
You know, it's been 90 percent good feedback, man. I can't complain. It was good, I was really happy with it. I know what I can improve on next time. I'd give myself a B rating on this special, you know?
A solid B isn't bad for the first time out of the gate.
First special, done under the time constraints we had? Not bad at all.
It seems like once you appeared on Ellen, the production came together pretty quickly. Do you have any quibbles when you watch it now, like tags you wish you could've added?
I wish that some jokes were finished so I could have put them in the special, you know? I wish that I had sort of stayed on a few topics a little longer. I feel like the hour is funny, and it's all good, but you still get picky and overcritical when you watch it. Overall, I'm pleased with it. I just look at those things like, "Well, okay. Maybe I can do this differently next time."
Have you kept working on jokes from the hour since then and seen them evolve and thought, "I wish I could get this new version out instead of June's version?"
No, I think I've been more focused on working on my new hour right now. I was forty minutes in, but after this festival, I think I realize that I might only be thirty minutes in. I cover a lot more topics and make it deeper.
Is that the material you're planning to do at these Comedy Works shows?
Yeah, you guys are getting the new stuff, mostly. And we're gonna have fun and hang out and explore Denver. I know it's a healthy city that has a lot of weed.
Is this weekend your first performance in Denver?
My first time doing a club in Denver, yeah. I did a little local small-time show there before.
There are a lot of them now.
I love Denver, man. You guys have a great scene, you're in an amazing city. I mean, the air's a little thin. But more important, you guys have put out some great products. The Grawlix? Kristin Rand? I'm a huge fan of hers. She's a close friend now that she's in L.A. I really have a special place in my heart for Denver. It reminds me a little bit of Seattle, except cleaner, if you will.
Can you explain the double meaning of the title Burning the Light to people who aren't necessarily familiar with standup jargon?
Honestly, when I did the special, I debated over talking about the cancer, you know? Because I didn't want that to define me. But the title, I feel like by now most people are aware of the double entendre: In the comedic aspect, "burning the light" means going over your time, ending the set when you decide. I like that, and that's what I'm going to end up doing. You know, the week after my Denver shows will be a year from the day since I got the prognosis that I would only live another year. So it's kind of exciting to be at this point right now.
How are you feeling now?
How am I feeling? I'll be honest with you: I just had a major surgery about two weeks ago, and they removed all the cancer they could see. Now, the problem with my cancer is that there's no cure, so it will come back eventually. For now, I'm feeling good, but I'm still sort of getting my lungs, my legs and my energy up again.
How long did going through treatment, like the surgery and the chemotherapy you had to do before, keep you off stage?
Well I'm not doing chemo anymore, but I was getting it every three weeks. I did eighteen sessions of chemotherapy — it's longer than most people do. And I had nine aggressive treatments and nine maintenance. So that would put me out. Once I was on the maintenance chemo, it would only put me out for two or three days, and for the next week I'd be a little vulnerable. But when I was doing the aggressive ones, it put me out for four or five days, almost a week.
That's rough. Does it help in a silver-linings sort of way that you can keep an even perspective on a lot of the bullshit that comedians worry about?
Definitely. My life is perspective. I'm focused now, I know what's important. Comedy's great, and I'm blessed to be able to do this and live this life. I assume you've got a degree, maybe it's in journalism or something like that, and now you get to realize that degree.
I don't have any kind of degree, but I appreciate the sentiment all the same.
You get to do what you love, which is write and cover the comedy beat. I'm doing what I love, life is good. I can't really complain. I know it's never gonna be perfect. Someone's always going to want more, you know? There's always going to be problems, and they're never gonna be what you expected. But if you just enjoy it and embrace it, then you don't have anything to worry about, man. When you realize that everybody has problems, everybody — like, Bill Gates has problems and not just tax problems, like real life-and-death problems like everyone else. It's interesting to remember that and keep it in mind when someone goes off on you or has a disrespectful attitude. This doesn't justify anything, but I don't know what their days were like.
You've remained defiantly hopeful throughout your entire ordeal; what helps you to stay afloat?
You know, the support of my peers, the fact that I've gotten so many e-mails from people reaching out to say they've been inspired by watching my story. It makes you realize that it's bigger than you — you're not just fighting for yourself, you're fighting for other people. You're fighting for all the people who weren't as successful in the face of fighting cancer, you know? It's a real humbling thing, actually. Most people would've let the fame or success go to their head, but I'm just grateful to be here.
I've heard survivors say that attitude and perspective can really help you cope.
Oh, yeah. To be mentally locked in? I was almost stubborn. I was adamant that there was no way I was gonna die by August 6, 2016. I knew I was going to fight this with everything I got: I was gonna do anything and everything. I will cut sugar, cut wheat, I will douche. I will do everything it takes.
How have your daily habits had to change so you could adapt?
Well after the surgery, everything's changed. I move a little slower now. I get tired a little more easily. I'm trying to relax as I adjust to life with these limitations, you know?
Are you frustrated by the fact that mesothelioma is somewhat preventable, as far as limiting people's exposure to asbestos goes?
Well, that's what they commonly link it to, but that's not always exclusively what people get it from, you know? It's sort of like lung cancer. They link it to smoking, but you can get lung cancer without ever smoking.
How has the special and the appearance on Ellen changed your profile?
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Well, I have management and representation now, so that's good. It's an amazingly new experience. Honestly, it feels great to have people in your corner helping you out instead of having to hustle and scrap to do it yourself. So shout-out to my agent, Danielle Esparza, and my managers, Lisa Shapiro and Olivia Doud.
Is there anything else you want to mention before we wrap up the interview?
I want to thank you for taking the time to interview me. And I'm excited to do Comedy Works! That's one of the best clubs; literally, everybody loves Comedy Works. And this my first weekend headlining a club! I've done one-nighters all over the country, but I've never done a full weekend. I've featured for a bunch of people, but I've never headlined all weekend at a club before. I'm really looking forward to doing it, and I'm glad that I could do it in Denver.
Quincy Jones is at Comedy Works South Thursday, July 28, through Sunday, July 31. For showtimes and tickets, go to the Comedy Works website.