despite a humble background, Barack Obama graduated from Columbia University. That was followed with a Harvard Law degree. Later still he worked, in part, as a lawyer before making a career change. The same can be said about one of his Harvard Law classmates. Like the President of the United States, Greg Giraldo, came from humble beginnings. While the leader of the free world actually grew up in different corners of it, Giraldo grew up on the corners of Queens, its single biggest melting pot.
Of course Greg Giraldo's road from Columbia, to Harvard, to the offices of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, to a career change did not lead to the White House or even a spot on any city council. But it did lead to a stage and a microphone, where, as he once said, he could be "dead on and have the most substantial social force in entertainment." On his stage Giraldo had liberties which no politician can ever enjoy. He had the freedom of complete honesty. Even so, as Giraldo often humbly pointed out, he was also "applying this craft in a fuckin' Chicken Wings Slinging Factory." Probably not the best ego boast for a former associate at one of the world's most distinguished and highest-paying law firms.
In truth, Greg, who rarely talked about his prestigious credentials probably did prefer the chicken shacks to life in a suit and tie. Especially at an office job that asked him to be a glorified clerk. Giraldo spent his entire life breezing through school, but once school was over, once his career began, he couldn't bring himself to do what was asked. He couldn't do the mindless work of preparing legal documents so that one set of millionaires could fuck over another. Anything, even sweeping the chicken shack, would be better.
And so he turned to comedy, where each gig (regardless of crowd size) was an opportunity to connect with a like-minded stranger. A hectic schedule which included a recent trip to Finland and Sweden showed that Giraldo was not above venturing outside the main tour stops to make those connections. Not that he didn't also receive his share of bigger showcases. The list included appearances on network TV, his own Comedy Central Special, and years earlier, back in the mid 1990s, even his own sitcom on ABC.
The sitcom, Common Law, came during a time when seemingly every stand up comic had their own show. But it came too early for Greg who, with only three years of stand up experience, was not ready to be the next Jerry or Roseanne. Despite a strong promotional push from the network, the show, about a liberal, hispanic lawyer in a stuffy, mostly white firm, was cancelled after just four laugh-free episodes.
It would take nearly ten more years at mastering his art before Greg would be truly ready. Not that being ready for second chances has much to do with getting them. Despite arguably being the funniest comic of this decade, in the age of Reality TV, he was never offered another sitcom. He never became a household name like the comedians of previous decades. He never became Jeff Foxworthy or Ray Romano despite eventually becoming edgier, more diverse, and obviously more intelligent than either of those hacks.
In fact, by the early 2000s, after those early lumps, he became as sharp a comedian as Obama was a local politician. Giraldo, however, never had that one shining moment to propel him forward. For Obama it came at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. It was there, as an unknown to most, that the first time candidate for Senator from Illinois got his chance to light up a room. It was there where Obama's meteoric rise to US Senator, Rock Star, Presidential candidate and the White House, morphed.
For Giraldo there was no meteoric rise. Only the tragic demise, inside a Central Jersey hotel room, came quickly.
Like most comedians, Giraldo was addicted to the sound of laughter that he could generate. Unfortunately, he was also addicted to drugs and alcohol. Life on the road, constantly chasing after laughs, and looking for another big break didn't help his situation. Despite being married and having three kids, Giraldo could not break free of his demons. After an incident in 2005 when he was detained at an airport for being "too drunk to sit on a plane" Giraldo sought help.
Ironically the price of sobriety and perhaps his own anger over it probably helped his career. An angrier tone was seen in his work, beginning with his gig as host of his own Comedy Central Standup show in late 2005. That was followed by the 2006 Insomniac Tour with Dave Attell and Dane Cook which only added to Giraldo's newly found dark edge. Although critics credited Giraldo with stealing the Insomniac show, it was Cook who left the tour with movie deals and multiple hosting duties on Saturday Night Live. Even so, Giraldo added to his "angry guy" image with his first full album, Good Day to Cross Over, later that same year. Again, despite praise from the critics, it did not lead to movies or network television. It did however bump him, over Jeffrey Ross, to lead star status, at the Comedy Central Roasts. That in turn led to more frequent spots on shows like Conan O'Brien and Howard Stern. Like Cook, or the '90s stand-ups, Giraldo was slowly breaking into the mainstream. But while spots as a judge on NBC's Last Comic Standing, finally allowed for a return to network television, his marriage to his wife Marry-Ann fell apart. The two were separated in 2008 and legally divorced in early 2010.
Between that time Giraldo, went back to partying. He also released his second full album, Midlife Vices, in late 2009. Although being named "Album of the Year" by Punchline Magazine, other critics felt it wasn't as bitting as Giraldo's earlier, recent work. Perhaps, not being married and sober had taken some of the comic's edge. Perhaps, roles on NBC as well as Comedy Central's Lewis Black's Root of All Evil had softened the Jackson Heights native.
This proved to not be the case as Giraldo saved some of his best work for the 2010 Roast of David Hasselhoff. In fact, an earlier spot on Jerry Seinfeld's, The Marriage Ref (despite its low ratings and even lower reviews) had finally put the former lawyer in position to truly break out into the mainstream. Nearing his 45th birthday, Giraldo was just on the cusp of enjoying the success that contemporaries like the centered and hard working, Jon Stewart, had already known for 15 years. And then it all ended.
Giraldo went down to New Brunswick, New Jersey for a weekend set at the Stress Factory on Friday, September 24th. Drinking heavily on stage and afterwards with many of his college-aged fans, Giraldo did not show up for a run through the following day. Club owners phoned him at his Hyatt Hotel room and when those calls went unreturned the police were called. He was found in his room unconscious and not breathing after accidentally overdosing on prescription painkillers. Although police and EMS were able to restore his heartbeat, he spent the next five days in a coma. Lack of oxygen to the brain made any chance for recovery impossible.
Without choice, his family pulled him from life support on the afternoon of September 29th. He passed away without the media coverage given to lesser talents like Bill Hicks and far less coverage than fat, sloppy, buffoons like Sam Kinison and Chris Farley each received. Ironically, fat, sloppy, stupid, loud, obnoxious Americans were often the butt of Giraldo's jokes. One of his favorite bits involved our obsession with overeating. Here's what Giraldo, in his frenzied, fast-paced, scratchy voice said recently at Montreal's Just for Laughs Festival while describing America:
We're a lucky, spoiled and glutenous country. I was at a restaurant recently and the waitress said "Hey, did you leave any room for dessert? Did you leave any room for dessert?"
Did you leave any room for dessert! How glutenous a concept is that?
"Did you leave any room? Is there more space in your fat, extended, inflated, body cavity for more? Any chance we can put more in there? Is there any room-any space-any chance-any possibility at all we can shove more in your fat head? Is there any room? We have dudes with plungers that can come out and cram food down your bloated esophagus. Is there any room for dessert? How about some Death by Chocolate? Can I interest anyone in some Death by Chocolate?"
Death by Chocolate? Death by Chocolate! How spoiled do you hafta be as a culture to trivialize death like that!?!
Giraldo did more than poke fun at Americans. He made fun of everyone. He could call out racists one minute, then joke about something being "a bigger lie than the Holocaust" the next. From the complexities of the Big Bang theory to the joys of Bada Bing type strippers, his material was virtually endless. In one set he could jump from esoteric jokes about homeless singers on the N train to general hypocrisies of the various worldwide religions.
His ability to tackle any subject and do it in excruciating funny crudeness made him a star of the Comedy Central Roasts. The back-and-forth format put the former lawyer and working class New Yorker at a distinct advantage over mental midgets like Larry the Cable Guy. Still, he couldn't touch the red neck's popularity.
Then again, maybe he would have one day. In the long run, the Jerry Seinfelds always beat out the Tim Allens. The Chris Rocks always beat out the Chris Tuckers. The Barack Obamas always beat out the Sarah Palins and Harvard Law usually beats out everything. Would 2011 finally have been Greg Giraldo's breakout year? Tragically, that question will never be answered.*