RIP John Witherspoon
The Death of a comic is a sad occasion, John Witherspoon is the latest to be called home. Today, many social media timelines are filled with quotes of “Bang-Bang,” the infamous, “you’ve got to coordinate” and other pearls of comedy gold brought to life by Witherspoon’s many characters. Mine for some reason is the underappreciated call of “Dar-by” from his character Loyld on “Black Jesus” and the legendary, “Hoe-cakes” from “Hollywood Shuffle” because after all, hoes gotta eat too.
John Witherspoon’s Stellar Resume
Witherspoon’s affinity for comedy began in the late 1960s, during that time he built a solid stand-up career and forged friendships with legends like Tim Reid (while he was working on WKRP in Cincinnati and The Richard Pryor Show), Robin Williams (also on The Richard Pryor Show), Jay Leno, and David Letterman. Witherspoon has appeared in a number of television shows and feature films including the Friday series, Hollywood Shuffle, Boondocks, I’m Gonna Get You Sucka, Boomerang, Vampire in Brooklyn, The Meteor Man and several others.
Genuine Human Being
As I scan the interwebs for Witherspoon related posts I think of the first and last time we spoke. Though the meetings were 18 years apart he was exactly the same both times, true to himself and his craft. Witherspoon, like most seasoned comics, never tried to make anyone laugh, he simply made it happen. The first time I met the Detroit native was at WJLB radio, in Detroit. Though it was 7:45 am, John had no qualms about finding the nearest liquor store, which I escorted him to.
John Witherspoon was Naturally Funny
We rode the elevator in silence until reaching the ground floor, “Well got-dayumity damn” he shuddered as jack frost whirled from an open door. He was dead serious but it was funny as hell. As-was the moment he remembered the stores’ proprietor, “Mo-na” he sang, surprising the middle-aged woman by remembering her name, “You’s shole is a pretty woman.” What really impressed me was our last meeting in Huntsville Alabama, on his 76th birthday, when he asked about Mona fifteen years after the fact, once again noting how pretty she was. Witherspoon was a genuine human, if he said something, he meant it.
Speaking of our last meeting, it was a bittersweet affair. John was performing 5 shows to light crowds in the dead of winter (albeit an Alabama winter), I couldn’t tell if he wanted to perform, or had to perform. The latter was worrisome. How can a man who’s given so much joy to others be forced to work in such a small town, at 76, on his birthday? Could anybody want to do that? I wanted to ask as we spoke but I was afraid of the answer, either was a heart-breaker. Did he need the money that bad, . . . or the laughs of an audience?
Comedians are the lifeblood of entertainment. Their stand-up routines humor hundreds of millions every year, as does their behind-the-scenes writing and on-camera performances. Yet, they’re some of the most marginalized, hardest working, people in the world. A singer can create one hit and live the rest of their lives touring the world and earning royalties (see Bobby McFerrin, Los Del Rio of “Macarena” or any old school artist collecting checks), an actor can earn enough money from one movie to retire (Keanu Reeves made 30 million for one Matrix movie), and most athletes retire by age 35, none of these things apply to comics.
Respect the Legends of comedy, all of them
Comics dedicate their lives to creating new content while living their lives on the road. They live to make others laugh without the promise of riches or retirement, rarely finding time to truly enjoy family or friends. Even some of the bigger stars are treated like expendable livestock by promoters, agents and clubs (not all, but most). Comedians are usually underpaid and overworked with little respect, and when they die the industry moves on as-if nothing happened. John Witherspoon died with dates on the calendar, as of 10:09 am October 30, most of those dates have been removed from calendars and websites. Some don’t even mention his death. No RIP’s, no tribute to his accomplishments. And this is a LEGEND we’re talking about. We can only imagine how the lesser-known heroes of comedy are treated.
Last year another comic who loved his craft and the laughter of complete strangers, died. Tarome “Cool-aide” Wright succumbed to cancer at age 47. While many gave the native Detroiter condolences on the web, few truly understand the grind and sacrifice comedians make to people they don’t know. I knew Cool-aide and watched his career progress from his very first dates at “Coco’s House of Comedy” to the many rooms he hosted and his travels with Lil Duval, he loved making people laugh. He loved to smile. We once crossed paths at a party completely unrelated to comedy, and he was still cracking jokes. He didn’t have a microphone, wasn’t offered any money, but he performed. That’s the life of a comic, jesters for strangers. Anytime, anyplace.
Comedy is a Labor of Love
Comedy is a labor of love that few understand. It’s about working day and night to find a perfect word, phrase or sound to make people laugh, then on to the next one. Whether 77 or 47 years old, comedians perform for the love of comedy and the people who enjoy it. Most couldn’t walk away if they tried, and believe me, many have tried to walk away. Need proof? Look no further than Eddie Murphy, with a net worth of $120 million dollars (which seems awfully low for his resume) Eddie is planning a new comedy tour. Does he need the money or hassle of touring from city-to-city? Probably not, but he’s doing it. He’s jumping back into the world of Stand-up comedy because he loves the game, and smiling faces, and we should rejoice.
Support Live Comedy
We should value the genius of comedians and comedic actors before they die. We should appreciate them while their living, and performing for our benefit. Let’s add them on social media and interact while they’re still alive. Those who appreciate a good laugh should support comed before it becomes a thing of the past, like good television or great books.
Comedy is the last bastion of creative thought, let’s support it. Show a comic how much they’ve enriched your life or turned a grey sky blue, buy a ticket, enjoy a show.
John Witherspoon is survived by his wife, Angela Robinson-Witherspoon, whom he married in 1988, their two children, Alexander Witherspoon and John David Witherspoon, and comedy.