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A last laugh for a friend

Times Staff Writer

Comedian Marilyn Martinez may not have been widely known to the general public, but in the world of stand-up comedy she was a popular and influential figure. So when she died on Nov. 3 at age 52 of colon cancer, fellow comedians from unknown rookies to famous veterans felt the impact.

Last week, comedians including Andrew “Dice” Clay, Gabriel Iglesias (Comedy Central), Luenell Campbell (“Borat”), Joey Medina (“Original Latin Kings of Comedy”) and Willie Barcena gathered at the Comedy Store in West Hollywood to take part in a comedic tradition: the eulogy show.

One of the first speakers of the night was Joey Diaz (Payaso Comedy Slam), who handled one last piece of business for Martinez. Diaz delivered an expletive-filled tirade to Jeff Valdez, the co-founder of the network SiTV. Valdez showed up for the event even though in recent years he was a major critic of Martinez’s explicit and unashamed style of comedy.

“You had somebody picking a fight and it was applauded because Marilyn was family,” said comedian Martin Moreno. “Usually you try to hide what makes you different, but here everybody embraces it.”

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As it quickly became apparent, the kind of eulogy that was being done for Martinez would have been considered blasphemous in a church, a point that was memorably brought home when comedian and actress Ludo Vika took the stage. She spoke vibrantly in her Dominican accent, remembering the good times she spent with her friend. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary for a eulogy speech until she reached her final words.

Vika pointed to the picture of Martinez on the stage and said, “make a memory,” in honor of Martinez’s catchphrase. She then made a memory of her own by removing the belt in her trench coat, exposing her bare body and flashing everyone in the audience. Vika eventually dove backstage before returning five minutes later, fully clothed, to a standing ovation.

In private, comedians deal with grief in their own way. But in public, comics do what comes naturally: They gather at a comedy club to tell jokes and stories for the newly departed.

“As dysfunctional as our family is, we really know that our job is to be the ones who heal people with laughter,” said Sandra Valls, who appeared this year on Showtime in “Latin Divas of Comedy” with Martinez. “When it’s one of our own who is down, it’s just natural for us to come together and heal each other.”

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“Most people don’t necessarily ignore the realities of life, but they hide it from themselves to get themselves believing that the worst parts of their life don’t really exist,” said comedian Rick Ramos, who appeared last month on Showtime in “Payaso Comedy Slam.” “For us, there’s always that need to find humor and make sense out of it.”

Not all comedians participate in eulogy shows, choosing to pay respect in other ways. Comedian Paul Rodriguez, for example, paid his respects to Martinez at the services held at the St. Francis of Assisi church in Los Angeles earlier in the day of the eulogy show.

“I usually don’t go to eulogy shows because grief is such a private thing,” said Barcena. “The only other one I went to was for Freddy Soto, and I probably won’t go to another one after this, but she was one of the more real persons out there, and that had nothing to do with being a comic.”

Emergence of a tradition

Often a comedy club will donate the room for a eulogy show. The show is generally open to the public, but those in attendance tend to be comedians and family members of the deceased, who also often speak on stage. Comedians are unsure when this tradition started, but veteran actor and comedian Danny Mora was present for Freddie Prinze’s eulogy show in January 1977.

“In my experience at the Comedy Store, Freddie Prinze was our first,” says Mora, a talent coordinator in the early days of the Comedy Store. “Should there be an untimely death of a comic, you have to go where the comics go and listen to what they say. It’s not always about mourning. It’s a celebration, and it gets pretty raw. It makes the Friars Club look like amateur night.”

Comedian Dante (“Last Comic Standing”), who attended Martinez’s show, also was present for Sam Kinison’s eulogy in April 1992, and he detailed the event in the 2006 book, “I Killed.”

He describes Carl LaBove, Kinison’s opening act, being helped off stage in a teary mess before returning to the mike with a smile and announcing, “By the way, I’ll be at Igby’s all week. Two shows Friday, three Saturday.”

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“I think comedians deal with everything with humor,” Medina said the night of Martinez’s eulogy. “The darker and heavier that something is, the more humor we throw at it. We just can’t help but to curse and let loose.”

When Martinez’s contemporaries became aware of her cancer diagnosis in March, they also were aware she didn’t have health insurance, so they stepped to the mike for some benefit shows.

Cheech Marin hosted a show at the Comedy Store this spring. The Ice House in Pasadena held a show in April in which Carlos Mencia, Rodriguez, Iglesias, Alex Reymundo and Medina all appeared. Altogether, more than $22,000 has been raised to help pay for Martinez’s medical expenses, with $200,000 more in expenses remaining, according to Martinez’s manager, Scott Montoya.

“We’re all like a family. There are a lot of petty grievances between us, but when push comes to shove, we all want to be a part of the solution, and not the problem,” said Mencia, who had Martinez open for him at several shows this year. “The sad thing is that moments like this bring our community together.”

joshua.sandoval@latimes.com


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