By Michael Juliani
I was waiting by the car when I heard the thud of boot heels coming down the stairs. One of the building’s other tenants was standing ahead of me and could see into the stairwell. He smirked, looked at me and said, “Here he comes.”
Rick was dressed in a bright, green jacket and faded jeans with patches sewn into the thighs and groin. He was smoking a Pall Mall with the filter ripped off. When we shook hands, he asked me if I could tell he’d been made in a French lollipop factory (the jacket was a hint).
For the next nine hours — 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. — I followed Rick around Hollywood. His coffees went cold in every cup holder in the car. I watched three of his stand-up sets that night, leaving him at the Comedy Store at 3 a.m. “I don’t know how to say goodbye,” he said. “So…fuck you?”
Though we’d just met, Rick had been introducing me to people all night as “Michael, a beautiful friend of mine.” We hugged and I got in my car and pulled out of the Comedy Store’s parking lot. Rick was having a cigarette on the back steps, staring intently into space, surrounded by laughing comedians.
Rick Shapiro’s story starts in a middleclass Jewish home in New Jersey, where Rick said his father regularly abused him. When Rick was 12, his teacher called his parents in for a meeting to tell them that Rick was writing plays during class. His parents wanted him to become a doctor. While the teacher glowed about him, Rick said his father “gave me that look that meant he was going to smack me as soon as we got home.”
“I realized when he was choking me one time,” Rick said, “’Oh, ok, so none of what you say means anything. It’s all wrong.”
Rick ran away to New York City as a teenager and got addicted to heroin. To feed himself and his habit, he became a prostitute as part of a hustling operation done by the mob. When he couldn’t get an erection for male customers, his pimp locked him in a room with one of his henchmen, who raped him.
Rick was also going to acting classes, performing with his back turned to the rest of the class because he was afraid. A friend he met there convinced him to go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.. “In AA they tell you, ‘Go where it’s warm,’” Rick said. “The meetings weren’t enough for me, so I went into a comedy club and I thought the people there were really nice. I thought, Warm. A guy came up and tapped me on the shoulder like a pal. I thought, Warm. The guy said, ‘Why don’t you go on stage?’ I went on stage and I killed. A girl said I was a ‘breath of fresh air.’ I thought, Warm. That was how I wanted life to be.”
In September 2007, a cab that Rick was in smashed into another car and then his cab was rear-ended. He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. His head hit three times: the center glass divider, the top of the cab and finally it was kicked back and hit the back seat. This was at 4:50 a.m. He refused to go to the hospital. By that night, Rick finally felt so dazed that he said to his future wife Tracy, “I think I had a stroke” and he was taken to the emergency room. For the next three months, he did nothing but sleep. His memory had been cleaned out. He would forget what a fork was. He spoke to lamps. He would ask about people as if they weren’t standing in front of him.
Tracy DeMarzo met Rick in person for the first time four months before his car accident. She had seen him late one night on TV, doing a full-frontal nude scene on HBO’s “Lucky Louie,” Louis CK’s doomed first try at a TV show. Working then as a Production Manager, Tracy had a bad cocaine habit. She made a fleeting claim about the naked man she saw on TV: “I’m going to marry him.”
They got in touch on MySpace, and they planned to meet up in Boca Raton, Florida, where Rick was doing some stand-up sets. “It was supposed to be a one-night thing,” Tracy said.
In Boca Raton, someone had unwittingly booked Rick to perform for 300 senior citizens (oxygen tanks, nursing aides, etc). A ukulele player who sang about hemorrhoids opened for him. At the time, he was five-foot- ten, 110 pounds. He spent his nights doing stand-up, putting on plays, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, maybe getting a meal in between. wearing the size-two jeans he stole from a woman, along with his trucker hat and leather jacket, Rick opened his set with this joke: “You ever have that moment when you wake up in the morning and look in the mirror and realize, ‘Oh, I’m the guy who’s supposed to kill George Bush.’”
All the seniors wheeled themselves out the door, with Rick berating them as they left: “Can you move any faster, I’m watching my career spiral downhill in slow motion!” The promoter tried to refuse Rick his pay. And although Tracy had never seen him perform before, and in light of the transgressed scene she’d just watched, she stepped in and chewed the promoter out until Rick got paid. She fired his manager and she and Rick started dating. He moved into her place, hauling all his belongings in three trash bags, stuffed mostly with scraps of paper covered in notes. When Rick moved out shortly afterwards, Tracy continued looking after his career.
The Boca Raton scene happened over Memorial Day weekend in 2007. He went to the Edinburgh Comedy Festival, one of his favorite gigs, in August. The audiences there always love him. He scored four- and five- star reviews. Tracy met him there for two weeks. Afterwards he went to Alaska on his own for a gig, and a short time after he got home, in September, he had his car accident.
Five years later, on the verge of a comeback — the release of a new comedy album, his first book and a new major film role — on April 13, 2012, his birthday, Rick had a heart attack during an ER visit, spurned on by an intense combination of prescribed drugs. In the years since the car accident, varying symptoms started to develop: depression, anxiety, restless leg syndrome. He had a different doctor for every ailment, and there were doctors willing to write prescriptions just to keep him working.
On April 13, after the heart attack, doctors took him off all medications overnight, and his body went into shock. Paralyzed, nerve endings shot, Rick spent the next 60 days in the hospital and then 30 days in a nursing home.
Rick was booked to do the Edinburgh Comedy Festival soon after leaving the nursing home. Despite his pain, exhaustion and robot-like movement, Rick and Tracy both knew it would kill him to miss the festival. His doctors supported his decision to go. Rick and Tracy flew to Edinburgh, where Rick did the festival to the best of his physical ability, but soon afterwards, he collapsed.
He continued to perform in L.A. once he got back, until it was clear he couldn’t manage it anymore. He was landing in emergency rooms every month. None of the doctors they went to see could pinpoint what was wrong with Rick, and none of them connected his condition with his 2007 car accident.
Then Tracy took Rick to a pain doctor, who told them, “I’m not smart enough to figure out what’s wrong with you. You need to go to the Mayo Clinic.”
“And God bless her for it,” Tracy said.
In a letter to the head of a department at the Mayo Clinic, Tracy pleaded, “For the sake of comedy, please help us.” Rick was in at the program a month later in April 2013. The first doctor they saw there took one look at Rick and said, “Parkinson’s. Let’s test for it.” A few days later the tests came back positive and the doctor started him on a pertinent medication, and a few days after that Rick could put his own shoes on again.
By May 9, 2013, Rick was on the “Opie & Anthony” radio show discussing his new diagnosis. “There will be no shame in our home,” Tracy said. “If he can get on stage and talk about sucking dick for heroin, then he can and will talk publicly about having this disease.”
In the last year, Rick has managed and maintained his symptoms through exercise, nutrition, sleep and medication. He is practically symptom- free. Throughout the entire discovery process he managed to book two commercials, a movie and was performing stand-up regularly.
In the summer of 2013, Rick and Tracy got married. She promised him that she would never try to make him normal. Rick said, “I just don’t want to become a guy that says, ‘That’s damn good meatloaf.’”
Rick has incorporated Parkinson’s into his comedy — it’s another thread for him to grab onto. When Kanye West’s song “On Sight” came out, with the lyric “Soon as I pull up and park the Benz / ␣e get this bitch shaking like Parkinson’s,” Rick made a YouTube video telling Kanye off: “Why don’t you get Parkinson’s so you can shake out all your fucking conformity.”
His new t-shirt is spread across my bed. It says: shaky is the new cool / if you ain’t shakin,’ you ain’t steppin’ up to shit / -Rick Shapiro / Parkinson’s Disease
It’s Friday night. Rick has four sets to do, starting at nine at the M Bar, a low-key lounge on Vine Street. Tracy dumps Rick’s notes out on the table of our booth. These are scraps that go back to arcane moments in time: diner place mats with the words “Hitler” and “dog” circled together in a Venn Diagram — wrinkled napkins and scrap paper dotted with lists and marginalia. At the table, Rick stares at his notes. He seems possessed by the sight of them, his eyes bugged out and his hands very slowly separating page by page. He circles and underlines words. ␣hen he takes the stage, he brings all this mess of notes with him clenched in his ␣st. He usually tells the crowd, “These aren’t notes, this is just shit I carry around with me,” and then drops it all on the floor and does the rest of his set.
Rick got up from the booth after his set, leaving his notes on the table around our finished pizza. The waiter came and started collecting the papers. Tracy had to step in: “Oh no, please leave that. That’s not trash.”
Walter Benjamin, the writer, once said, “All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one.” Rick Shapiro, more than dissolving and inventing new genres for his art, has always invented new genres for life.
Rick released his first book, “Unfiltered,” in 2013. It’s a compilation of scraps of prose, poetry, and screenplay. Even when Tracy threw Rick out of their apartment over and over again, she saved the bags of his notes, later typing everything up and organizing it. “Unfiltered” is a work that lives in between, and therefore outside of, the confinees of comedy or literature. Rick Shapiro is like Henry Miller if Henry Miller had to take one step further into the abyss and be funny while doing it.
Sadaf Fahim, a Ph.D student at the University of East Anglia in London, is writing her thesis on satire in American comedy and literature. Part of it focuses on Rick. “‘Unfiltered’ is the perfect title for that book,” she said. “So many people in academia would criticize it for what makes it so brilliant. We teach people to write how we want them to think. He rips it all to shreds and asks: Are you honest enough?”
Sadaf also said that when Rick is onstage, he’s not trying to entertain or to make people laugh — he’s trying to connect —“and that’s exactly what makes him so deeply funny.”
Rick’s refusal to compromise shines in a few stories I’ve heard:
He was once sitting in a casting office at Warner Brothers, waiting to audition for a part, staring at a cardboard cutout of the network’s cartoon frog. “I’m not working for a fucking frog,” he said, stuffing his script into a mail slot in the door and walking out.
He told me that he was once banned from the Bowery Poetry Club in New York for doing forty minutes when he was given ten.
This was all pre-Tracy and pre-Parkinson’s. Tracy usually keeps him from going over time limits these days. Under her direction, he’s landed spots in movies and shows like “Project X,” “The League” and “Two Broke Girls.”
His stand-up has only gotten better, deeper, less willing to conform to the structures that most comics stick to and perfect, especially this far into their careers. Rick’s sets are built around bits that he often discards for associations. Even lost in space on some surreal, lyrical train of thought, Rick finds the thread that makes the entire abstraction crescendo. Literally nothing could make his set more out of control than it already is. Someone could stagger onto the stage bleeding and it would fit his tempo. Listening to him, it’s like your head is being held underwater for longer than you think you can withstand, and then he pulls you out, back into the air.
Another night, I follow Rick and Tracy’s dog up the stairs to their apartment. The dog has a mohawk shaved down his spine, and at the door he flips around and jumps up on my knees. “A new friend! A new friend!” Tracy cheers. The apartment is one room with a mattress on the floor and the kitchen tucked behind half of a wall. Outside the front door, on the stairs, there’s a dish stuffed with cigarette butts. Tracy keeps the place nice — the bed is made, the sheets tucked and folded — but there are spots where Rick drops his deluge: mounds of clothes and books contorted together on an of␣ce chair. Tracy has synced her computer so her Facebook page dominates the TV screen. Rick is sitting on a futon couch, mumbling hello, and I think (like I do every time) that perhaps tonight he’s not up for it. I help him fit his arm into his jacket sleeve, and we head down to my car.
We go to a Denny’s at the corner of Sunset and Gower. It’s Saturday night: the street crawlers, the working class and the glitzy-drunk all fall into Denny’s for late-night food. The middle-aged Asian woman waiting tables actually sighs and thanks me for saying thank you to her when she takes our orders.
For decades, Rick has relied on three things: coffee, the newspaper and the stage. Before we went into Denny’s, Rick stopped at Starbucks, because Denny’s doesn’t offer espresso. The newspaper rack only had a disheveled USA Today. He tried to piece it together but it still looked like he’d picked it up off the street. When the barista rang him up for his quadruple espresso, Rick dropped a dollar and all the coins from his change into the tip jar.
During the four hours we sat at Denny’s talking, Rick used one of my pens to make notes on the front page of USA Today. I referenced the movie “Paris, Texas” and he wrote the title down. He spelled out my full name because he wanted to remember it later. He thought of lines and bits. They would come out of his mouth in character: a stern military voice and a neurotic Jewish grandmother voice, voices of oppression and repression. He’d get delighted and jot down a word or two as clues to pick the bit up again later. As he told me about his past, I told him that it sounded like he’d had no guidance until he met Tracy. “No guidance, that’s what it is,” he said, excited, and he wrote it down. At the end of the night, he tore the front page off and stuffed it in his pocket. Tracy later told me that he slept with it in his pocket for three nights. Most of the time he sleeps in the clothes he wears onstage. “There’s no downtime for him,” Tracy said.
Rick describes his anxiety like this: “Every voice becomes a flying demon or asteroids or like the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz, with their fangs hanging off my brain flesh.” He starts crying. “Like when I look in a club and see a big crowd…then I think, ‘But I did well in big clubs…’ And then I see that the third row is empty and that bothers me. I have to tell myself, ‘You’re the king, you’re the king,’ as I go onstage. Otherwise, I’ll hear my mother’s voice in my head telling me that I’m nothing, that I should’ve just been a middle-class Jew. Then I think of every girl I passed on at some empty open-mic in order to go onstage. Jokes appear like vines in my head. Lately I’ve been pushing some away, saying, ‘I like you, but I memorized you.’ All I had to do was my four jokes in four minutes and I would’ve had a good career.”
Driving around Hollywood between sets, we stopped at an Astroburger for hot dogs and coffee, and Rick started having a bit of an anxiety attack. He was trying to figure out his medications and his phone battery was dying. He plugged his phone into an outlet by the register, setting it on the seat of a highchair. His coffee came and he poured sugar into it. He mumbled continuously. I couldn’t tell if he was talking to himself or to me. His phone got enough juice that he could call Tracy to ask what pills he’d already taken and which ones he needed to take now. He let her know he’d left his credit card at one of the clubs. Before hanging up, he asked Tracy, “Trace, is my career okay?” “I’ll be alright in a minute,” he told me. We had eaten and were getting up to leave. The chatter around us was chaotic: tourists speaking German, couples laughing at each other, orders being yelled at behind the counter. Suddenly, Rick started shouting in his old, Jewish grandma voice. I watched his face as he went from frowning at himself to roaring and unruly. It was like the voice reeled out of him.
I forget what he shouted, but I remember how the room went dead. Some people looked on concerned like they wished they could help me with this man who clearly had some sort of a problem.
We moved for the door. Backing out of the room, Rick shouted, “Dracula was here and he is now departing!” Out on the quiet street, his voice got soft again. “Man,” he said. “That’s the only thing that makes me feel better.”