John Pinette was one funny son of a bitch.
I first became aware of him the same way many of his fans did – after hearing his Chinese buffet routine, in which he and his buddies (big people all) run afoul of the temperamental proprietor of the restaurant and get thrown out (“You go now! You here four hour!”).
The routine was classic for a number of reasons. First, it was funny as hell. Second, it showcased Pinette’s skill at dialect humor. And finally, it depicted a situation that all overweight people understand innately but seldom talk about – the silent shame we feel at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Through comic exaggeration, John gave voice to that secret fear we have of being called out and humiliated for letting ourselves go in public.
John was a big man and we knew he understood the challenges that come with that. He made it the overarching theme of his stand-up comedy. But he never pigeonholed himself as a “fat joke” comic. His material was funny enough to appeal to everyone. It’s just that some of us could identify with him on a more personal level and appreciated him that much more for it.
And when John undertook the daunting task of losing weight and eating healthier, not only did it provide him a rich vein of new material, but it broadened his appeal even more. Everyone could relate to the struggle. He approached it with a mixture of self-deprecation and rage.
No one could rage like John. No one was funnier raging than John. And we were with him all the way, fully sharing his frustration at the indignities associated with exercise and dieting. It was cathartic, and it was real. We knew because we watched him slim down, losing almost two hundred pounds in the space of a few years. John was walking the walk.
I saw him perform live three times, and the last was when I attended the taping of his Comedy Central special “Still Hungry” at Chicago’s Vic Theatre in 2011. (Sadly, you won’t see me on the DVD – we were at the first performance and the broadcast version was almost entirely assembled from the second show.) All three times, I needed a few days to recover from the ordeal, my face and chest sore from laughter. I’ve never seen anyone or anything that made me laugh as hard.
I got worried about him back on January 9 when he posted on Facebook that he was clearing his schedule for the next three and a half months.
“Now, I know some of you are concerned that the Amish Mafia has finally gotten to me after making fun of them on stage this year, and others think it was the little tubby guy from American Pickers. But seriously, after losing a bunch of weight and having several small surgical procedures, I’m physically spent. I didn’t give myself enough time to heal this past fall and it has caught up to me, but I’m on the mend and I promise to hit the stage as soon as humanly possible so I can once again have the honor of making you guys, my friends and fans laugh like you’ve never laughed before. That’s my promise!”
But by mid-March, he was back onstage in southern California, just a few days before his fiftieth birthday, and had tour dates posted out through the end of June. I and many of his fans breathed a sigh of relief.
He died yesterday, April 5, in a hotel room in Pittsburgh. His personal physician said no autopsy was necessary; John was suffering from liver and heart disease, and his death had been from natural causes.
This is speculation on my part, but I can’t think of any other explanation why he would divert out East between shows in California.
John was a native of Boston. He was going home. He knew.
He was exactly 38 days older than me. I turn fifty next month. And if I wasn’t already on the verge of a midlife crisis, this ought to do the trick.
John didn’t leave behind a lot of recorded material – just two CDs and three DVDs. He lived on the road, doing standup for twenty-eight years.
I’m grateful I got to see him. I suspect he’ll hang around in my head for a long time.
I go now.