This past Sunday was the kind of day when people say, “If anyone has any bad news they want to drop, today’s the day to do it.” Between Wrestlemania, the “Game of Thrones” premiere, the “Silicon Valley” premiere, the hype of the impending NCAA Tournament Title game and Mickey Rooney’s death, nothing else stood a chance.
I suppose there’s a bit of irony in the fact that the announcement comedian John Pinette has died came right in the midst of all of this. Some die-hard fans noticed and other folks who recognized him as “That Guy” made mention, but otherwise, it was just another bit of daily, cultural ephemera on our Twitterfeeds.
Pinette, who died at the age of 50, was a stand-up comedian of an era when his peers either became stars or disappeared from memory. Pinette instead maintained a kind-of middle-ground stasis. He never seemed to stop working but he also never had that big break either. He never got a hit sitcom or a scene-stealing role in a big budget movie. His biggest film role was in a flop and his most notable TV appearance was as “that guy in the Seinfeld finale.” That’s how most people probably knew him,
I knew John Pinette as one of the cornerstones of comedic youth. Long before Jon Stewart or South Park or Chappelle’s Show or even Craig Kilborn, Comedy Central was a programming wasteland built on stand-up comedy. As far as I remember, the channel consisted of three types of programs. A Daily Show forerunner called “Short Attention Span Theater,” reruns of Candid Camera and stand-up highlight shows. The channel was littered with that last one. They were all called something different and featured different clubs but the end result was the same…highlights from a rotating selection of stand-up comedians.
John Pinette was one of them. There were many others, like Brian Regan, Pablo Francisco, Greg Giraldo…the list goes on and on. Pinette stood out, for obvious reasons, if not just for comedy. His act was, and though I hadn’t seen him perform in years I imagine still was, that of a sad, fat clown who was in on the joke. He would regale you with classic bits like Chinese Buffet, and while there was a part of you that wanted to cringe, he made sure that you didn’t. He held your hand as he walked you through fat jokes and took them further in a way that only a person like him could.
Stand-up comedians are a bit like the professional wrestlers of the comedy world. They walk a tightrope and reach heights that normal comedians rarely reach but their personal lives are often more miserable than they ever lead on. I always had an idea Pinette fit that model perfectly. There was no way he could go through life happy, right? That’s why he tells so many jokes about being fat, right? I assumed that, off the stage, he was dark and bitter and angry.
Years later, while working in publicity for Lionsgate, I had the chance to work on the theatrical release for the film, “The Punisher.” The comic book movie starred John Travolta, Thomas Jane, Roy Scheider, Ben Foster and Rebecca Romijn. But the castmember I was most excited to meet was the guy billed eighth overall…John Pinette.
In the film, which I have to admit was a gigantic piece of garbage, he played one-half of a comic relief duo. He did a fine job with what he had to work with. I didn’t know if this was an attempt to kickstart an acting career or not but I was excited that Pinette was making moves in his career, like so many of his peers.
I went back-and-forth with his manager a lot on the phone in preparation for the movie premiere. I wanted to make sure he was well taken care of because, compared to the stars of the film, no one else in the studio really cared. The day of the premiere, I honestly got nervous as I saw him arrive. I’d been at this for a while now and my starstruck-o-meter was tough to get moving. It really only ticked upward when I was in the presence of someone whose work I personally respected from my youth. Pinette made the cut.
I worried that when I met him that his act would fade. That the clown make-up would run and he’d be just another bitter comedian/actor burned-out by Hollywood and years on the road without the kind of success I’m sure he envisioned for himself. His manager introduced me and I went in to tell him what a big fan I was, not sure who this guy would really be.
And he was, easily, one of the five nicest people I have ever met in my life. He was smiling so big that I thought his face was going to split in half. He was excited. He was thanking me as if I’m the one who put in all the work. He was exactly the kind of jubilant, cherubic man I always hoped he would be.
Like I said earlier, his movie career didn’t pan out quite as well as one might have hoped. His stand-up career, however, never faltered. He would always pop up in my periphery at some point, doing a stand-up show in the city I lived in or being mentioned in a story about comedians. Most of the time, it looked like he was still doing the same kind of humor, which I appreciated but also kinda bummed me out. His reputation likely preceded him and I assume he was beholden to his greatest hits. I wondered if I would still find him funny. I wondered who his audience was.
I wondered if going to a John Pinette show in 2014 was a bit like going to a Lynyrd Skynyrd show in 2014. You’ll put up with the new stuff for only so long but they better play Freebird soon. I hope it wasn’t. I hope he was enjoying himself.
No one has updated Pinette’s website yet, which means his upcoming schedule is still there, waiting for him to complete it. His Twitterfeed is a series of mentions about upcoming events as well. He was booked straight through June. Of course he was. He was a working comedian through and through. A tried and true commodity. Literally until the end.
R.I.P., John Pinette. You made me laugh when I was young and I look back on those many hours spent watching your bits over and over with fondness. I know I always will.