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Quincy Jones Opens Up About Life After His Ellen DeGeneres-Endorsed HBO Comedy Special and Staying Positive Despite Terminal Cancer

by Emily Krauser 2:20 PM PDT, June 17, 2016
Photo: Janet Van Ham

A conversation with comedian Quincy Jones is like sitting down with an old friend. More than a few "dudes," "mans," and excited "rights," pepper his sentences, and he speaks freely, like he's known you forever. Few topics are off-limits, including mesothelioma, the terminal cancer he was diagnosed with in 2015.

Full disclosure: I have a number of friends in common with Jones (42, to be precise -- he checked on Facebook), as I run a storytelling show that has introduced me to the alt-comedy scene in Los Angeles, and I've seen him perform around the city. We also have one major similarity: both of us were diagnosed with cancer as young adults. I've been in remission since 2013, while Jones was diagnosed with cancer on July 3. One month later, doctors told him he had one year to live.

A few months ago, many of our mutual Facebook connections pushed hard across social media platforms for Jones to fulfill his dream of taping a one-hour comedy special. That incredible support helped him get noticed by Ellen DeGeneres, who in turn reached out to HBO so the network would air his special.

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Despite his grim prognosis, living is exactly what Jones has been doing. The Seattle native has stayed unfathomably positive, which has resulted in not only that special, Burning the Light, which premiered on June 2, but an admirable work ethic and mental state. While Jones will talk about his cancer offstage, he refuses to let his diagnosis define him.

"Never let anyone tell you that you're obligated by anyone to do anything," he said towards the end of our phone call. "I'm a black male in America. I know about limitations. But I'll tell you this: The fact that I chose to outright reject what that doctor told me on Aug. 6 and dig deep and find the strength within to live longer, that has played a major part."

When I spoke with Jones, who was performing in Portland, Oregon, at the time, the 32-year-old stand-up was candid about what it took to put his HBO special together (in just two weeks!), the support he's received from DeGeneres and other big-name comics, and plans for his next one-hour taping. Take that, cancer!

Why did you name your special Burning the Light?
Burning the Light stems from the comedic [stage] term -- it was about me going past my time. Hearing you have a year left to live, in any capacity, it'll jar you; it'll shake you to your core. You'll look at life differently. You'll feel differently. It'll bring out a wide range of emotions that you didn't even know you could feel, because we always take life for granted. When I heard that, I was like, "That's impossible. That's not the way my story ends." I'll do whatever it takes to fight, and that's why I chose to name it Burning the Light. I plan to live well past a year, and I'm doing everything I can to live better.

How do you feel now that it's premiered?
I'm looking forward to the next special! I feel like that special was a really great intro to my style of comedy, and it showed what I can do when put under a time crunch.

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What surprised you the most about taping the one-hour?
I learned a lot about the film-making and special-making process -- it definitely made me look at all the specials that come out a little differently. But also, your life can change in the blink of an eye. There's a lot of s**tiness going on in this world, but if you're really positive and work hard, good stuff will happen to you. I learned to stay focused on my journey, and I realized that not every person’s journey is the same. I saw people who started after me get wildly successful and people who started at the same time take off as full-time comics a year in. If I had allowed myself to get caught up in what they were doing, I wouldn't have been able to focus on what I was doing. All I did was work hard and be funny. I focused on getting onstage and being 100.

I think the 1,000 sets that I did in 2013 prepared me to be ready for this. I thought I was going to blow up in 2013! I thought that was going to be my year. I set goals, and I didn't get any of them. The next year, I got a few. In 2015, I was dealing with cancer, but 2015 was also me being like, "OK, 2016? Let's say I make it past Aug. 6, I'm going to do something. I'm going to put something out." And look where I'm at! I have an HBO special. It's a really good special. I stand by it. I mean, as comics, we're never happy. We're wildly insecure. But at this point, I'm happy.

You've had so much support, not only within the L.A. comedy scene, but also from big names like Tig Notaro, Pete Holmes, and George Wallace. How did it feel to see so many comedians rally behind you?
It was unreal, but it showcased that comedy is the best club to be a part of. It showed we are like a family -- we all pull together when one of our family members get sick. You never know how much of an impact you have until you need something and people really come forth and support. To have George Wallace and Tig Notaro and Pete Holmes and Marc Maron and Bill Burr and Judd Apatow and everybody share my story was amazing to me. I felt really humbled, really honored, really loved. It made me feel like if nothing else, a special will definitely get recorded and supported. The support that I had from L.A. comedy -- the support that I had even from New York comics, from Atlanta, from Boston -- really showcased that we can pull together for something bigger than this.

Once I got told I had cancer, it was scary. I feel like the reason why I had such a big pouring out of love and affection was because I remain positive. It'd be easy for me to fall into a dark, despairing hole, but I chose to stay positive and focused on my goal. When you die, whatever you do, that's what they’re going to say you are when you’re dead. I want them to say comedian Quincy Jones. That was a big deal to me, and that's why I really wanted to put out a special.

Have you heard from Ellen again?
I've heard from some of the producers. They loved [the special]. They came and watched it. When I was on her show, Ellen came back and hung out with me in the green room. We were talking about her HBO special back in the day and her TV show. She's a really cool, down-to-earth person. You would think fame would get to her, but it hasn't. She's really nice, and I'm grateful for her reaching out and actually paying attention to my story. My cousin Alexia had written into Ellen like twice, and I think that paired with the Kickstarter going viral was what got me on Ellen. It made me realize how big the show is! It was amazing to me how many comics I know and have worked with who shared my story. That shows you how quick the power of change can be -- it can be swift.

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It shows the power of your personality, because not everyone would get that kind of response. It felt like every mutual Facebook friend we have shared your Kickstarter and Ellen appearance.
Here's the thing: I'm one of the first comics that people meet when they come to L.A. It just worked out that way. I'm usually at [an open] mic and I'm usually friendly, because I remember what it was like when I first started doing comedy. It's intimidating. It's like high school. I try to show love to everyone and let them know they're not alone, that they're appreciated, valued, cared for, loved. How many legends have we seen become depressed? They may not have felt the love. I just try to be a good person in a s**tty world.

I've felt uncomfortable at a lot of open mics, so the idea that someone actually wants to help and be supportive is a big deal.
I feel like there are so many judgmental pricks in comedy. They're trying to be the next Louis C.K., trying to make some dark s**t funny, and they think their jokes are funnier than yours. At the end of the day, we're all in the same room trying to figure out how to make our jokes funny, so why not drop the pretentiousness, lower our expectations a little bit, and realize that everyone’s trying to work? Why would you try to make someone else's job more difficult?

So how are you feeling these days?
I'll tell you the truth about having cancer: I feel tired. Even before chemo, sometimes I'll feel fine and I’ll be like, "I'll go ahead and take the stairs instead of the elevator. It's only three flights, right?" I hit that first level, and I'm like, "Oh, Jesus, who invented stairs? Why on Earth am I doing this?" But you have to keep pushing yourself and challenging yourself to grow stronger. There are times when I'm with my significant other, and she'll have to come and hold my hand to get up the stairs. But I don't show it; I just try to focus on being funny.

If you haven't been through chemotherapy, it's hard to understand just how much it takes out of you.
I got chemo on a Saturday and didn't wake up until Tuesday -- that's how much that nuclear bomb set off. The main goal was to eat, even though I didn't have an appetite. I tried to make sure I pushed myself to the limits, walking a little farther each day. It took me a month out of the hospital to walk around the block without getting winded. I had a good support system, but you're wary of it. It's weird that you feel ashamed and embarrassed sometimes, but I don't like asking people for help. Most of the time I dismiss it like, "It's OK. Everything's fine!" But it’s not, and I realized it's OK to ask for help. We all need help. But I was blessed. I'm from Seattle. My people are from Seattle -- my mom, my immediate family. So for me to stay in L.A., I had faith in the L.A. comedy scene and my L.A. family to step up to the plate.

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I'm from New Jersey, and I stayed in L.A. when I was sick as well. Not because I don't like being back home, but I felt like I had to or I was giving in to cancer.
It's sort of you cutting your safety net and deciding I'm going to fight this where I'm at. I'm going to stand my ground, do what I need to. I think the mental conditioning is super important. I feel like I was dying more inside the hospital than outside of it. I was in the hospital for 45 days last year. I really wanted to get the hell out of there. When I got out on Sept. 1, that was when I started the process of getting better. Now, 10 months later, here we are. My life has changed. My career trajectory has changed. I’m the only guy who recorded an HBO special before they did late night!

Your comedy is very observational. The special aside, you don't talk about cancer in your day-to-day stand-up. Are you going to burn your older material now or keep doing some of it at live shows?
The material that I have -- let's say 10 minutes of it was the cancer material -- I don't talk about that [normally], so that burns that. The show I'm working on now, my next special, is going to be a major stepping stone to the next part of my career, hopefully. With everything happening in the world and having more time to prepare and work it out, I think the next one is going to be deeper. It's going to be smoother and more my style comedy.

I only talked about cancer in the special because it was that night. We all knew the reason why I was there, so I felt like it would've been a disservice to not talk about the elephant in the room. People were buying tickets because they saw me on Ellen, they saw my story, so I sort of felt the need to talk about it. But I don't talk about cancer in my set because I don't let it define me. You saw with Tig, she sort of became the cancer comic. I'm a comic who has cancer. I don't want to be labeled. I don’t even want to acknowledge it enough to really have it be a defining factor. When people come see me perform, I don't want it to be a crutch. It's not me. I'm more of a Rory Scovel-style comic -- loose, off-the-cuff. Yes, it sucks that I have cancer, but that's not all I am. I'm a really funny comic who just happened to get a s**tty hand dealt, and I'm just trying to make the best out of that s**tty hand.

Quincy Jones: Burning the Light is currently available on HBO.

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