Today is the publication day of TREEHAB: TALES FROM MY NATURAL WILD LIFE by comedian and writer Bob Smith. Christopher Bram interviewed Bob Smith for the Lambda Literary Review, and we excerpt a portion of that interview here. Go to the Lambda site to read the full interview
BOB SMITH: ON RELIGION, LIFE WITH ALS, HIS LOVE OF NATURE, AND HIS NEW BOOK TREEHAB
by Christopher Bram September 20, 2016 Lambda Literary Review
In the wider world of pop culture, Bob Smith is known as a stand-up comic. He was the first openly gay stand-up to appear on the Tonight Show. This was followed by many other appearances, including a special on HBO. He toured the country for several years in the groundbreaking comedy trio Funny Gay Males, performing with his buddies Jaffe Cohen and Danny McWilliams. His smart, wry, low-key comedy monologues, which you can see on YouTube, are unique in tone and full of memorable lines. Years before I met him, I often quoted (with attribution) such Smith bits as: “My high school had a Head Start program for homosexuals. It was called Drama Club.”
But in the smaller world of book readers, Smith is known as a writer. And he’s a wonderful writer. This should be no surprise. Good writing is full of the same attention to detail, originality, and surprise that powers the best stand-up comedy.
Smith’s newest book, Treehab: Tales from My Natural Wild Life, is another collection of essays but with a wider, richer range than his first books. It’s a glorious achievement, one that has already earned high praise from Kirkus, Stephen McCauley and Armistead Maupin. This is The Portable Bob Smith. There’s a lot of Smith to carry, but the book carries it with ease. We hear about his love of nature, of rocks and minerals, and Alaska. He tells stories of his career as a stand-up, as well as what it’s like to be the sperm-donor dad of two children. He talks about his dog Bozzie and his four best friends, the men he calls his “Nature Boys,” which includes his life partner Michael Zam. And he discusses his experience with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a neuro-degenerative disease that affects the motor neurons. It can work quickly or slowly. Stephen Hawking has lived with it for years. Luckily for Bob its progress has been slow. He was diagnosed with ALS twelve years ago and has been able to keep working. The first thing he lost was his ability to speak. In the early stages he assured his stand-up audiences that his slurred speech didn’t mean he was drunk, only that he had a neurological disorder. When Bob could no longer perform, he concentrated on his writing.
I recently spoke with Bob about his new book. He’s temporarily lost the use of his hands and can no longer type. He now spells out words with his feet, pointing at letters on a Lucite board. But Bob expresses himself better with his feet than most people do with a fully functioning set of fingers. Also present was Bob’s best friend, Eddie Sarfaty, a brilliant stand-up comic and fine writer in his own right, author of Mental: Funny in the Head. Eddie is now working on his own novel.
Eddie knows Bob well enough that he can often finish his answers once Bob begins them, but not always. We sometimes put words into Bob’s mouth in what follows, but he always agreed with what we attributed to him.
Do you have a favorite essay [in the book]?
Eddie: Because boys and nature are his two favorite things.
It’s a wonderful portrait of your best friends, four gay men who are bound together by their love of wildlife and the great outdoors. You are full of love, Bob. You love so many things: birds, books, friends, your partner Michael, your two children, Maddie and Xander, Alaska, of course, and Henry David Thoreau. But you also have the healthy gift of anger. Who are some of the people and things that make you furious?
The Koch Brothers. Donald Trump. Climate change deniers. People who don’t believe in evolution. The Koch Brothers. (Again!) Soy milk. The NRA. Unfunny comedians.
Do you want to name a few unfunny comics?
(He smiles and shakes his head.)
Who are your heroes?
Thoreau. Mary Leakey. Verner Wilson [a Yupik storyteller and environmental activist from Alaska]. Lily Tomlin. W. C. Fields. Maude Lechner [the daughter of friends, who shaved her head to raise money for ALS when she was eleven].
Who are your favorite writers? You’re the man who turned me on to P. G. Wodehouse, for which I am eternally grateful. Who else do you love?
Evelyn Waugh. Dawn Powell. Charles Dickens. Stephen McCauley. Armistead Maupin. Jane Austen. Ronald Firbank. Tolkien.
That’s right. You’ve been a huge fan of Lord of the Rings from an early age.
(Bob nods eagerly.)
You have not been able to talk for five years now, but you can still type. Did this make writing harder for you?
No. Good writing is always difficult.
Did your words become more concentrated when you couldn’t say them aloud but had to save them for the written page?
Yes. I think my writing became better.
I think so too.
Eddie: I agree.
This is a stupid question, but how badly do you miss the laughter of a stand-up comedy audience? Is there an equivalent for a book writer?
(Bob sadly shakes his head.)
Eddie: But you get letters from your readers. Often for books years after you wrote them.
But it’s too bad I can’t do stand-up anymore. Because ALS is hilarious.
Go to the Lambda site to read the full interview.