A Sad Week for Comedy – R.I.P. Ken Ober & Kevin Knox

If you’ve spent any time in the comedy world, you know that it’s small. Hang around long enough, and eventually you’ll run into everyone. The comedy world lost two well-respected veterans this week – Ken Ober, former host of MTV’s “Remote Control,” and longtime Boston comic Kevin Knox. I didn’t know either one of them well, but brief interactions can give you a pretty good idea of what people are like, and I was fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of both.

I worked with Ken briefly on a chaotic project several years back that turned into something of a nightmare for me. When it came time, after several weeks, to end the association, Ken was in the unfortunate position of being the triggerman, a role he was clearly uncomfortable with. He was straightforward but gracious, and given the stressful and brief nature of the thing, I didn’t get to know him as well as I would have liked. But what was really telling was what happened after. Several months later, I ran into him in a bar in the Lower East Side, and he approached me with the sort of effusive greeting usually reserved for old friends. As it was quite some time ago I’m not 100% on this, but I believe there was even a hug involved. His reaction, especially given the awkwardness of our parting from the project, caught me off-guard, and not in a bad way. It’s that sort of genuine warmth in a situation that could have easily gone differently that really tells you something about a person.

I never got to meet Kevin Knox, but I interviewed him over the phone a few years ago for a story I wrote for Radar Magazine on joke stealing in comedy (second item down). I had been told that he was suffering from cancer, and therefore might be hard to reach, but the subject turned out to be one that Kevin really wanted to talk about. He was eager to share his experiences, including a story about a certain comic he helped banish from the Boston comedy scene for one too many blatant infractions. Talking to Kevin, it was obvious that he was sharp and rough-edged in an old school, take-no-shit sort of way that’s hard to find these days, a man who was incredibly proud of his chosen profession, and for whom the concept of respect was still paramount. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation.

Kevin Knox: I’ve been doing comedy a long time. There’s a lot of ways people can write similar stuff – something topical happens, and within days, fifty guys have got a new joke on it. There’s coincidences. But this kid, he was a serial thief. He had a great ability to deliver onstage, but he couldn’t write. So he shouldn’t be a comedian, because he doesn’t have the ability to do his own thing. But he decided it would be easier if he stole stuff. The first day I watched his act on stage, he was an 18-year-old kid, but his act sounded like he was talking from the perspective of a 40-year-old.

[Kevin then told me about how he and his friends learned for a fact that this kid’s act was stolen from a local comic; about how the jokes of other local comics started finding their way into the act as well; and finally, how he then caught the kid red-handed, doing one of HIS jokes while he was in the club.]

Kevin: So as he walks out of the club, I grab him. “What are you doing?” And he says, “I swear to god, I wasn’t stealing. Some guy heckled me, and I just went off on your thing. I was gonna tell everyone at the end.” I said, “listen, I don’t know you. Don’t ever do my joke, ever. There’ll be consequences. I’ll make you disappear off the comedy scene in Boston.” So a couple of months later, I’m back in town from Vegas, and [a few friends] are in a really bad mood. I go, “what’s wrong?” Their heads are down, they’re really depressed. And they told me he was doing some of my jokes. I said, “well, that’s it.” It ended that night. We threw him right out of town – kicked him in the ass and sent him out of town.

Me: What happened?

Kevin: First of all, he denied that he did it, that he stole everybody’s act. I said, “listen, I understand you were doing my jokes,” and he said, “no, that’s a lie. Whoever told you that is a fucking liar.” Long story short, it was clear that he had stolen it, and that he was gonna continue doing it. Did you see that episode of “The Sopranos” where they had that intervention for Christopher? I gave him a little of that. I made sure he physically understood, as well as mentally understood, that this was not to be done here in Boston.

Me: You’re saying he got smacked around a little bit?

Kevin: You say smacked. I say informed. He was informed of what would happen. I had the same thing years ago in the Mid-West. I’d never been out there before. I was in Cincinnati doing a show, and I ended up with this young kid on my show. He seems like a nice kid, and a year later I’m in Chicago, and the same kid shows up, “hey, good to see you,” and gets on stage and does one of my jokes word for word. When he walked off stage, I just dropped him. He said, “what was that for?” I said, “you did my joke. Now I’m gonna go on stage and do the same joke you just did, but I’m gonna do it better ‘cause it’s mine.” And I did the same joke. You don’t steal. Don’t take someone’s chance for fame away. That’s why with this [first] kid, I snapped. I’m not gonna let…this kid takes our acts onto the big screen, and he’s gonna become a big star on my dime? That’s not gonna happen. I’m not gonna allow that. He laid low for a year, went to L.A. But people know what’s going on, and it’s kept him a little bit in the background. The bottom line was, the kid was a punk and a thief, and he got what he deserved. I made him leave Boston – pushed him right out of the state. I called every comedy club and said, “it’s simple. Use [me or him]. It’s up to you. If you use him, I’ll never work there, and I’ll work in a club right down the street from yours.” He disappeared within a few days.

R.I.P., Ken and Kevin. You’ll be missed.