Dec. 24, 1958 – Jan. 20, 2018
Buffalo-born humorist and author Bob Smith, the first openly gay comedian to appear on prominent national TV showcases in 1990s, died Saturday in New York City after a 12-year battle with amyltrophic lateral sclerosis. He was 59.
“I knew this was a big moment,” he said of his 1994 appearance on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” in an interview from his hospital bed last year with Tim Teeman of The Daily Beast.
“I was really nervous before I went out onto the stage. I didn’t know what to expect. I had played before primarily straight audiences before, but this was different. But once I got my first laugh, I knew things were going to be all right.”
Soon after, he became the first openly gay comedian to have a half-hour special on HBO.
He also appeared on “Politically Incorrect” and “The Late, Late Show” and wrote for “Roseanne,” “MADtv” and “The MTV Video Awards.” He also wrote for Comedy Central and covered the Gay Games for Howard Stern.
Mr. Smith was the author of several books. An essay collection, “Openly Bob,” won the Lambda Literary Award for humor in 1997. Another book of essays, “Way to Go, Smith!” was nominated for a Lambda Award in 1999. He published two novels, “Selfish and Perverse” in 2007 and “Remembrance of Things I Forgot” in 2011, which was voted an Amazon Best Book of the Year.
He contributed regularly to Out magazine and the Advocate. His writings also were included in the anthologies “America’s Best Contemporary Humorists,” “101 Damnations” and “When I Knew.”
Another essay collection, “Treehab: Tales From My Natural Wild Life,” was published in 2016. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Mr. Smith wrote it on an iPad with his one hand that wasn’t afflicted by ALS.
He began to notice effects of the disorder in 2006 when he unintentionally slurred his words during a performance and was asked if he was drunk.
When he received the diagnosis in 2007, he quipped, “Lou Gehrig’s Disease? I don’t even like baseball.”
He stopped performing in 2010.
The son of a state trooper, he was a descendant of Henry Smith, an early Canadian settler and namesake of the Henry of Pelham Winery in St. Catharines, Ont.
He was encouraged to become a comedian by an English teacher at Kenmore West High School, where he wrote skits for the class shows and graduated in 1976. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University at Buffalo and began doing stand-up at the old Tralfamadore Cafe.
“The first gay bar I ever went to was in Buffalo,” he told Buffalo News reporter Louise Continelli in 1995. “I remember walking in the door and I couldn’t see anything because they had a fog machine on the dance floor. I thought: ‘Great. The last thing we need in Buffalo is bad weather indoors, too.’”
Mr. Smith transferred to the comedy clubs in New York City’s Greenwich Village in the early 1980s and worked as a waiter until he teamed with gay comedians Danny McWilliams and Jaffe Cohen after they did stand-up together in Pride Week festivities in 1988.
They performed around the world, appearing at Australia’s Gay Pride Mardi Gras and in 1993 at the March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation. They also collaborated on a 1995 book, “Growing Up Gay: From Left Out to Coming Out.”
As guests on Joan Rivers’ syndicated daytime talk show, they were the first openly gay comedians to appear on national television. After concentrating on their solo careers in the late 1990s, they reunited for a tour in the early 2000s.
Mr. Smith and his partner, Michael Zam, co-creator of FX’s “Feud: Bette and Joan,” raised two children together in New York City.
In addition to his partner, survivors include his mother, Sue; two brothers, James and Gregory; a daughter, Madeline; and a son, Xander.
Zam said a memorial will be held at a comedy club at a time to be announced.