Quigley R. Gomez, The Idiot Savant of Stand-Up: An Oral History

(Originally appeared in Vice Magazine, April 1 2010)

On Wednesday February 3, 2010, Quigley R. Gomez, former stand-up comedian, briefly renown among cult comedy fans (and the subject of two songs by 90s Cleveland-based alt rockers The Bottlerockets), was found dead in his parent’s modest ranch-style house in Hagerstown, Maryland, roughly forty-five miles outside of Washington, D.C. The comedian, not yet to reach his 43rd birthday, died peacefully in his sleep. The cause of death, from what was reported in the following afternoon edition of The Hagerstown Gazette, and later confirmed by the Frederick County Coroner’s Office, was cardiac arrest related to a previously existing medical condition.

From 1984 through 1992, Quigley, an autistic or idiot savant, captivated the nation and then the world with his amazing ability, self-taught, to mimic or “become” any comedian to have ever performed. It’s been estimated that, at the peak of his powers, more than 2,000 comedians existed within Quigley’s comedic database, to be called up on command.

Audiences, although at first skeptical, quickly came to recognize this young man’s amazing, innate talent.

Critics, however, were not as kind. Joe Blum, reporting in The Washington Post a few days after Quigley’s October 24, 1992, retirement, wrote: “… I can feel nothing but a general sense of bewilderment. How has this man, with no prior comedic experience, achieved such a high degree of popularity in so little time? What is the main reason for his success, limited though it may be? There is nothing new to be learned from his routines, nothing new to set him apart from any other young comedian, who stands before a brick wall with a microphone in his hand and a multi-hued sweater tied just so around his waist. A puzzlement, if nothing else…. ”

What follows is an oral history based on Quigley, his life, and his too brief stand-up comedy career.

Bernice (“Bea”) Gomez, Mother: Twenty years ago or so this Christmas—Stanley and I had just gone to bed after washing the dishes, and it couldn’t have been more than a few minutes later when I heard some strange noises coming from the first floor. “You’ve left the radio on,” I told my husband, but he just shook his head and went back to sleep.

I made my way into down the stairs, and there, in the corner of the room, was Quigley. The noises weren’t coming from the radio, they were coming from Quigley. Quigley had become Bill Cosby! The voice, the mannerisms! Everything was perfect! Where had he learned such a thing? Not from us, we were never that funny. It came from watching television. He had just picked it up like it was nothing. That was the beginning of how it started.

Kathryn Hill, Cousin: It’s a strange phenomenon when you think about it. This is a kid who never really excelled at anything in his life, who just sat and stared off into space all day, every day. And here he comes at the age of seventeen, shocking us all by mimicking every comedian he had ever heard on the radio and watched on television. That’s a lot of comedians for such a young kid to know! We were all incredibly proud of him. Even if we sometimes did pity the poor lamb.

Dr. Richard Ballard, Family Physician: Quigley is a rarity, there’s no denying that fact. I would say that the kid is one in a million. Or perhaps one in a billion.

Most of his type never excel at any sort of talent, let alone at stand-up comedy. There’s been a handful, if I remember correctly, who were really great on the piano or who had memorized the weather-patterns for the past two hundred years. But to my recollection, and it’s limited, only Quigley has been able to mimic—perhaps more accurately than anyone else alive—the speech cadences of Paul Lynde on Hollywood Squares.

Quigley was an oddity. I say that out of respect.

Gabriel Sontag, Agent: It never should have happened. I was driving to Pittsburgh and never even thought about stopping in Hagerstown [Maryland]. I saw a sign for a local community talent show. I’m always on the lookout for fresh talent. I mean, where were the Rolling Stones discovered? Playing at Wembley [Stadium] before 65,000 screaming fans?

What a sight Quigley made up on that stage! With his cheap suit and those suede loafers, he looked absolutely terrible! The kid made me laugh by just standing up there. It’s something that I can’t explain. I could just feel it. And I knew that he would go far.

Quigley didn’t win the talent show that night, in case you were wondering. The kid who burped in morse-code won first prize, a gift certificate to the local movie theater. I hired that kid as well. Why take a chance?

J.G. Vermes, Author of Stand Up and Be Laughed At: The beginning years weren’t easy for Quigley. Once he found his agent, things only got a little easier, but not by much. Gone were the performances at the talent shows and the fraternities, no more opening for Jelly the Clown at birthday parties. And no more living out of the trunk of his mother’s ’71 [Buick] Electra.

Next came the comedy-club circuit which is a bitch for anybody, let alone for a young man who doesn’t really understand what the hell is going on. One night stands all over the states, from New York to California. He traveled like a pro, taking only his sack of props and his videotapes of comedians. A rough time, a very rough time. But Quigley was luckier than most. At least he made it out of this quagmire, most never really do.

Jacky Chandler, Previous Owner of Chuckles Chain: Quigley was a true talent, but he had his troubles. Improvisation was always quite difficult for him. And he never really could handle the crowds, either. Most comedians try to work the audiences into their corner. Not Quigley. He would come out, do his forty-five minutes, not one minute more, and then walk off the stage. I must say, though, that the audiences always treated him very kindly. Maybe they felt sorry for him. They laughed when they had to laugh and they clapped when they had to clap. The kid was lucky in that sense.

But listen, don’t think that I talk down on the bastard just because he left me in the dust. Everybody does it! What are you gonna do? Business is business and I’d be the first to admit it. I’d fuck myself if I had the talent.

Tony Penelope, Comedian: The funniest story I ever heard about Quigley’s early years had to do with the waitress who wanted to sleep with him. Quigley really had no interest in anything but comedy, but women absolutely loved the guy! Loved him! He was capable of going out with practically anyone without so much as breaking a splash of sweat. The rest of us comedians were pulling our hair out! What the hell did this guy have that we didn’t?

So this beautiful waitress watches Quigley perform and goes absolutely crazy … chomping at the bit to get herself a piece of this kid who does every comedian that she’s ever wanted to do herself. She grabs him after his eleven o’clock show and takes him into the back room. Fifteen minutes later they both emerge, with her crying and him stony-faced. All he had to do was remain calm and everything would have turned out all right! But he panicked and he panicked hard. He became Marty Feldman in [the 1976 comedy farce] Sex with a Smile. A major malfunction ….

I’m glad he finally made it, though. He was well liked by even us comedians, and that’s no easy task. Believe me. We hate everybody. Most of all ourselves.

Gabriel Sontag, Agent: The big break came when Quigley was performing at a Car and Auction Show down in New Orleans. He’s up there as Henny Youngman, scratching at his plastic fiddle, ripping out bad liner after bad liner, when in comes a talent scout for Carson. I once saw the guy in the back of a club, so I recognized him instantly. I mean, when somebody this powerful comes up to you, you’d better just be ready.

“I like what I see,” said the fellow. “But he needs to smooth out a few rough spots. Here’s my card. Give me a call when you think he’s ready.”

Christ! Here I am thinking that the kid is going to go bonkers when he hears about this, but he didn’t so much as say a word. Only much later that night did he manage a tiny smile. I’m still not sure whether he really knew what was going on, but perhaps he did understand. Perhaps he’s smarter than anyone really thinks. Who the hell would ever know anyhow?

Marlow Bryan, Former Talent Scout, The Tonight Show, Starring Johnny Carson: I’m down in New Orleans when I happen to come across the kid at a Bourbon Street comedy show. Of all things! I liked what I saw, but I knew that he wasn’t quite ready for Carson. He was a little rough, sloppy, but something was definitely there. He really had the crowd going, first with his Youngman, then with his Lord Buckley and all of the other greats. The kid is like a sponge, absorbing every comedian that’s ever been on the tube! I told Carson about it and he went crazy. I gave him an update every few months, right up until the night that Quigley finally appeared on the show.

Stanley Gomez, Father: So it was back to the clubs and the conventions and all the rest of it. To be honest with you, I wanted him to stop. I asked his former boss at Chick-fil-A if the busboy position was still open, and he said that it was. But Quigley would have none of it. I must give credit to where credit is due.

Looking back, I understand that my son must have seen something in himself that no one else could see. He must have known how successful he would ultimately become. He’s a tough character my boy. A tough son of a bitch and I loved him more than he ever knew. Or understood.

J.G. Vermes, Author of Stand Up and Be Laughed At: Time passes and Quigley continues to hone and perfect everyone else’s material. He’s watching hundreds of videotapes and kinescopes, studying all of the greats who came before Sid Caesar, before Red Skelton, before Belle Barth, going back to even before television was invented! He’s studying audiotapes of the comedians who appeared on the radio, these Catskills and Vaudeville comedians who had been forgotten about for years and years! And he’s growing sharper and becoming funnier, and it is at this point that he performs on a local show down in Tennessee.

The producer had read about Quigley in some magazine and liked what he saw. So Quigley goes on the air, live, and everything is going well. He’s killing the host with his jokes and his memorized improvisations. And everything is going wonderfully and everything is going smoothly, and then disaster strikes.

Disaster! It couldn’t have been worse if someone had written it that way. And I eventually did just that.

Gabriel Sontag, Agent: The kid was frenzied. That’s all there is to it. I think he was just frenzied.

I asked him later why he decided to become a performance artist, and he just stared at me with his big green eyes. He still had the chocolate sauce [on his face] and the apple sauce between his legs. And he never did explain to me why.

Bent Diamond, Technician, A.M. Knoxville: The kid was making me sick. I had to do something. When I finally ran into the studio, he was hopping around on one foot with some nasty bits of food and such all over him.

When the cops finally came, they just stood there and laughed. They thought that it was the funniest thing in the entire world. Taking pictures and asking Quigley for a nibble. I would have laughed, too, but the show was live.

Stanley Gomez, Father: A few weeks after that show, we finally got the call to appear on Carson. It was a good thing, too. Quigley really needed a psychological lift. Actually I needed it more than he did, but let’s pretend otherwise.

Gabriel Sontag, Agent: On Carson, the kid killed. There’s just no getting around it. He had it all planned out. He would start off with Rodney Dangerfield, and then go into Dick Gregory, and then onto Steven Wright, Joan Rivers, Dick Cavett, Woody Allen, and finally finishing with George Carlin, Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams. And so by the time that he actually hit the stage, he had it so planned out and so well memorized that it went off without a hitch. And the audience ate it up!

Carson called him over and they started to chat. The panel-session went horribly, but it was later edited-out and replaced with an extended commercial for Highway to Heaven. And no one was the wiser, least of all Quigley.

Marlow Bryan, Former Talent Scout, The Tonight Show, Starring Johnny Carson:
I was impressed with what the kid had to offer. For a first timer, he performed incredibly well. There was no sense of panic in his eyes, that look of fright that you’ll so often find in young comedians. He looked like he had been at it for years and years. And I suppose that indirectly he had been.

Terrance E. Dee, Author, Quigley: A Life in Laughter and Echoes: His career really took off from that point. Carson springs a lot of comedians to success, and Quigley was no exception. He started playing the venues that he never would have been booked into just a few weeks previously. He attracted a hard-core following. And somewhere in Kansas, I think, a fan club quickly formed in his honor. These were good times for Quigley and he made the most [of it]. He was a workaholic, performing three hundred nights a year from coast to coast. Every show was a smash, a resounding success. And then Quigley performed at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

And that was really the beginning of the end. Goodbye, Quigley.

Sandman Sims (retired), Apollo Theater, Harlem, New York:
Performing at the Apollo is a tough thing. Never been easy. Never will be easy. I’ve seen the best of them bomb. I’ve seen a young Billie Holiday get booed off the stage in tears. Little Stevie Wonder always did good, but his was a special case. Peg-Leg Bates once brought down the house with that special tap-dancing of his, but he came back a few months later and stunk it up bad. What can you do? This is a tough audience. A damn tough audience!

As for that retarded kid, he started off just fine. Told a little joke about sex, I remember, and the crowd responded loud. But things turned sour when he became Richard Pryor. A little white boy talking about “nigger-this” and “nigger-that”! How dumb are you gonna be? You just gotta know better!

The crowd hissed like crazy. I then came out to sweep him off the stage and I got a standing ovation. That was a nice feeling. I felt bad for the kid but I would do it again in a second. The kid was a fool.

J.G. Vermes, Author, Stand Up and Be Laughed At: So the Apollo show went very poorly. But let me tell you something: the second Carson appearance was a hell of a lot worse! That was a true disaster! Will anyone ever forget that show? Probably not.

But will anyone remember Quigley to begin with?

Tony Penelope, Comedian: The incident on the second Carson show was a true classic. A couple of us comedians were gathered around the TV when it happened and we all went absolutely crazy. What balls the kid had!

Marlow Bryan, Former Talent Scout, The Tonight Show, Starring Johnny Carson: Quigley ended the set by becoming Jackie Mason and the crowd was really there for him. I could see Carson motioning for Quigley to walk over to the desk, and Quigley sort of just smiling. I can also remember Quigley pointing and waving his hand. Now, to be honest with you, I don’t recall Quigley giving Johnny the finger, but it could be that I just missed it entirely.

Johnny swears that it’s true. To see his face after the show, you would have thought that he had just been punched in the stomach.

Doug Sarkin, Family Friend: I happened to be in the audience that night. I was in California on business and was lucky enough to get a seat.

Quigley didn’t do it. I think the poor fellow was just confused by all of the noise and applause. But, my goodness, you should have heard the crowd gasp after Mr. Carson began to curse! Those words! And here I am thinking that he was such a nice man! After all those years, what a misconception!

Lawrence Kerston, Humor Critic: Quigley later claimed that the middle finger was just a Yiddish expression for “I love you,” but he wasn’t really fooling anyone. Least of all his Catholic friends and family.

Stanley Gomez, Father: Quigley went through a tough time after that episode. He handled it well, but the glint and sparkle in his eyes diminished for good. Everyone seemed to turn on my poor son after that show and we did our best to keep his spirits high. They were never that low, but we did our best anyhow.

Gabriel Sontag, Agent:So we had that bad Carson episode and we were trying to build back his reputation to what it once had been. And we were doing pretty well, traveling from town to town, playing anywhere that would pay a decent wage, and then the bomb struck. And then it was all over for good.

Quigley never did regain his career.

Jacky Chandler, Former Owner, Chuckles Chain: I remember when it happened: Quigley being hauled into court by the F.C.C. to face indecent exposure charges. There’s a law, I suppose, that prevents performers from stripping down naked and smearing their fake vaginas with apple sauce on live television.

If you ask me, it was a bum rap. But what the hell! The kid never thanked me for helping him out and he probably deserved what he got anyway, the bastard.

J.G. Vermes, Author, Stand Up and Be Laughed At: The sad truth of it all is that Quigley was never funny after the trial. This is a simple fact. He would just sit up on various stages and read his court transcripts. The transcripts weren’t actually his, they were Lenny Bruce’s. But the audiences wouldn’t know this and they would jeer and hiss anyway.

This lasted for about three months. By the end of this period, Quigley was performing in the seediest dives and strip-houses across the country. And he was still getting booed! The audiences hated him! They would come out to see the strippers, and here’s this autistic-type sitting on a stool, reading notes from a yellow legal-pad! And pretending to be cranked out on heroin! And pretending to be upset at “The System.”

No one was buying it.

Bernice Gomez, Mother: I tried to convince Quigley to return home, but he was having none of it. I would call day after day, night after night, trying to explain that this was all nonsense and that he should really think about coming back to his family.

When he finally agreed, we were all simply ecstatic. Home was where Quigley belonged and he definitely understood this, I think.

Lawrence Kerston, Humor Critic: In fifteen or twenty years, mark my words, you’re going to have a whole new generation of comedians who were inspired by Quigley. There were those songs by the band [The Bottlerockets]. He pleased everybody and made just about everybody laugh. He was an abnormality. You’re never going to witness another Quigley in our lifetime.

And perhaps for that we should be grateful.

Gabriel Sontag, Agent: There’s no doubt in my mind that if Quigley would have kept it going, he could have become the greatest comedian ever. This country begs for something new and when they finally find it, they never let go. Quigley was that something new. Quigley was that something special.

But the family insisted, so what could I do? They were quick and efficient, and by the time they had kidnapped the poor son of a bitch, I was none the wiser. A hell of a way to end a career, but there’s always others.

Tony Penelope, Comedian: I visited Quigley a few years before he died. All he did is sit in his basement and pretend to be a star in his own imaginary sitcom. All day, every day, when not at the Chick-fil-A. This might sound pathetic, but I was sort of jealous.

[Laughs] At least the kid has his own show.

Quigley R., as Freddie Prinze, At the Cafe Keyen/Berkeley, California, Circa 1987: In the end it comes down to this: Thank you and goodnight. You’ve been a fantastic audience. I’d love to take you back to the barrio with me, and if it weren’t for the fact that you would all be killed, I probably would.

On second thought. . . .