Terminally ill comedian Quincy Jones stands up to his cancer in HBO special
Quincy Jones is battling the Big C with his own big C — comedy.
The 32-year-old comedian, who shares his name with the renowned music producer (but is not related), was diagnosed in 2015 with a rare form of cancer — mesothelioma. Doctors told him about a month later he had less than a year to live.
Shaken by that brutal conclusion, Jones pondered what he wanted to accomplish in his last days on Earth, eventually focusing on a goal that had nothing to do with traveling the world or risky activities such as skydiving.
He wanted to film a comedy special for television.
“All the great writers die, and we want more of their work. It’s the same with comedians,” said Jones. “I don’t have kids, I don’t have a dog. All I have is student-loan debt. I don’t have real evidence that I was here, and that’s a scary feeling. I wanted something visual that could live online and showcase my skill set, because I feel comedy has saved my life.”
Jones realizes that wish Thursday with HBO’s “Quincy Jones: Burning the Light,” filmed in April at the Teragram Ballroom in downtown Los Angeles before a supportive crowd that learned of Jones’ plight through a Kickstarter campaign which went viral, prompting Ellen DeGeneres to host Jones twice on her talk show.
In a short intro to the special, Jones says in a voice-over: “What do you do as a dying man when you’re already living your dream?” He displays a seasoned, comfortable stage presence honed from years playing clubs all over the country. (He once logged 1,000 performances in one year, sometimes doing three sets a night).
Jones wastes little time in addressing — and joking about — his illness during the hour-long special: “The expectations are high and I feel pressure to die,” he quips about fulfilling his ambition. He speculates on the reaction to outliving his prognosis: “I can’t be the Magic Johnson of cancer.” He also confesses to the audience: “I’ve got chemotherapy tomorrow. But tonight, I’m going to live like a king.”
His friend and fellow comic Nicole Blaine, who produced the special with her husband Mickey Blaine after launching the Kickstarter campaign that eventually raised $65,000, said witnessing her friend’s attitude during the last several months has been “remarkable.”
“It’s been amazing to watch one person’s dream come true during what is possibly the saddest part of his life,” Blaine said. “He was always going to fight this, but now he’s more hopeful. There’s something different happening with him that is grounding him. I can’t relate to what he’s going through, but it’s a powerful experience.”
Earlier this month, Jones discussed his bittersweet journey and its impact on his health — both physically and mentally.
“I’ve been so busy I haven’t had a chance to fully process it,” said Jones of the HBO special as he hurriedly downed a hearty late-afternoon meal of eggs, cheese and sausage outside a Highland Park cafe. “Everyone keeps telling me what a big deal this is. I’m just enjoying the ride. I love the fact that I’m doing what I love.”
His accomplishment has also bolstered his determination to prove that reports of his upcoming death have been greatly exaggerated.
“When the doctor told me that I would die, I heard what they said but I felt, ‘This is not how this chapter of my life ends,’ ” he said between bites. “Every emotion was exposed — I was a raw nerve but I thought, ‘What am I going to do now? Because feeling this way isn’t going to help me at all.’ I didn’t see death as an outcome.”
Jones, who has large rings in his earlobes and numerous inspirational tattoos (“Time heals all wounds,” “This too shall pass”) on his arms and torso, spoke quietly. A bandaged cotton swab on his hand was left over from his chemotherapy session the day before. He did not seem particularly weak — just a bit fatigued from a daylong series of interviews, including an appearance on comedian Marc Maron’s podcast.
He maintained that the special was definitely not an act of charity or pity by HBO, and that he had paid his dues.
Said Jones: “I had the material. I had done the work. I felt like I was good.”
Nina Rosenstein, executive vice president of programming for HBO, said that the premium-cable network was thrilled to be broadcasting the special. “Quincy delivered a solid hour,” she said. “He really disarms the audience, and making fun of his condition makes them more comfortable.”
Making people laugh has always been his refuge, dating back to his devastation seven years ago while recovering from a bad breakup: “I had a nice routine with this chick. She ended it on Thanksgiving.” He chuckled: “No dramatic effect there! That was just real life. Could not have written that much better.
“I cried, drank and did comedy every night. Doing comedy really helped, gave me a chance to express myself. You can’t always talk to your parents or your friends, but comedy is always there. Sometimes it can be the destination and sometimes it can be the conduit to where you’re trying to get to.”
He adopted the name of Quincy Jones one night at a club when he didn’t want his real name — Quami Wallen — to appear on the lineup in case a former girlfriend showed up.
His life was turned upside down in 2014 when his body rebelled — his belly started extending and it was clear something was horribly wrong.
“I was tired, pregnant-looking and I felt full all the time,” Jones recalled. “I had to to get my stomach drained once or twice a month — four to seven liters of fluid would come out.”
When six months later a biopsy determined that he had cancer, “I was more relieved than anything else.” And when he learned in 2016 that there was no cure, he remembered thinking, “‘That sucks, what do I do now?’ Then I had to get on a crash course — not only about the healthcare system but how to survive.”
Though chemotherapy took a heavy toll on his body and he had more than his share of bad days, Jones was determined to fight through his difficulties.
Said Jones: “I felt I had to do what I had to do to survive. Then more people began looking toward me — I realized that I wasn’t just fighting for myself but for other people. It was bigger than me.”
Jones is already looking forward to shooting another special — he feels he can do better with more planning.
And even though the centerpiece of the show is Jones’ comedy, the real highlight of the special comes at the end of the performance when he is overcome with joy as the audience rewards him with a standing ovation. At that moment, a man who has been given a death sentence seems to truly come alive.
‘Quincy Jones: Burning the Light’
When: 10 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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