I need to share my John Pinette story.
Somewhere around 10-13 years ago, I was enjoying a night with friends at the Pour House in Chicago, one of my regular hangouts. We became good friends with Al, the owner, and often went to after-hours bars with him. He knew a lot of people. On this particular night we went to the Golden Dragon, a Chinese restaurant in Olde Town that was situated very near Zanie’s Comedy Club. We’d been there before and were always treated to incredible Far East delicacies, and great liquor. The owner of the Golden Dragon was a character in his own right. He was a smallish Asian man who clearly loved America. If memory serves, he wore a plaid cowboy shirt. Some would consider this the shirt of a Wicker Park hipster. And one might’ve considered him as such if he weren’t wearing it because he actually wanted to be a cowboy. Even better, however, was his belt buckle, which he loved to show off. It was a functioning single-shot pistol that snapped into place. I only have his word to go on that it was actually a working pistol, but according to Al, his word was good.
On this night as we walked into the restaurant, however, it was impossible to miss the enormous human frame that was John Pinette. I didn’t know his name at the time, but I absolutely recognized him immediately from the final Seinfeld episode. Plus, he happened to appear on the Tonight Show just days earlier. I never watched the Tonight Show, but I randomly caught his set the night he performed. He was hilarious. Most of his jokes revolved around his weight, but he did it with such ease that it almost seemed as though he was making fun of someone else. Someone not in the room. I became a fan instantly.
It was well after 2:00 am and the restaurant was closed and essentially empty. Other than the four people in our group, the only people in the place were Asian John Wayne, a couple cooks we couldn’t see, John Pinette and another individual with Pinette. The two sat across from one another at a long table. I vaguely remember Al later whispering to me that the other individual was the owner of Zanie’s. I can’t be sure, but after doing some research I believe that person might have been Rick Uchwat, the founder of the club. Uchwat is about as highly regarded as they come in the comedy world. This article shortly after his death three years ago illustrates as much.
As our group, led by Al, walked into the restaurant. Asian John Wayne saw us and immediately smiled and raised his arms as he walked quickly over to embrace Al. Any pretense of his forced cowboy swagger was lost in his enthusiasm to greet his friend, and he pranced gracefully through the tables to lead us the rest of the way inside. John Wayne recognized me as well from a past visit, but at this point I had already recognized John Pinette and was distracted, somewhat rudely, from greeting John Wayne myself. I wasted little time, having had plenty to drink myself at this point, I quickly spoke up. I remember it distinctly, in fact. Al and John Wayne were still exchanging how-do-you-do’s, and we were only about halfway inside the place, but I stood directly to his left, about 10 feet away.
I looked over at him and said, “Sir, I saw you on the Tonight Show the other night and you made me laugh out loud. Thanks for that.”
He looked right up at me with a twinkle in his eye. He smiled wide, those pudgy cheeks straining to points on either side of his mouth, and he responded with a truly sincere, “Thank you. Thank you. That’s sweet of you say.”
And with that we were quickly invited to join him and Uchwat (assuming that’s who that actually was that night) at their table. I took a seat to the right of Uchwat. John Pinette was sitting across from both of us. He was truly larger than life. At this point I don’t remember exactly what my other friends were doing. But I believe Al and John Wayne were chatting at the bar. I definitely remember that one of my friends had too much to drink and stealthily slinked his way to a booth and closed his eyes. And I think our fourth sat across from me, to John’s left.
John Wayne would shout some orders to the kitchen in Mandarin or whatnot, and for the next hour or so we were treated to platter after platter of delicious Far Eastern delights. I don’t remember what we talked about, but we were there for what had to be the better part of three hours. Without warning there suddenly appeared several bottles of Jägermeister. We each essentially had our own bottle and were instructed to pour ourselves shots at will. We did. Then several already rolled joints made their way onto the table and we were instructed to light up a fresh one at any time. We did.
I sat across from John Pinette for as long as I could that night. I laughed and I laughed and I drank and I drank and I passed joints to him and laughed some more and I took joints he passed to me and laughed and drank some more. Naturally, the amount we imbibed that night prevents me from clearly remembering the intricacies of our conversation, but the details of what we spoke about aren’t important. What I took away from that night was the way he welcomed us to his table with zero hesitation. Almost as though he’d been waiting for us. He talked to us all night like we were old friends. He asked us questions about ourselves, he told us stories about filming the final Seinfeld episode. We told him stories about little league or some such trifle and asked him about life on the road. But we never stopped laughing. I don’t remember a single joke he said that night, but I remember laughing almost non-stop.
The set that he performed on The Tonight Show was my introduction to him as a stand-up, but of course I knew him from the final Seinfeld episode. Since that time I’ve heard quite a bit of his comedy. I recognize that I’m biased based on this experience, but I might argue that he is one of the funniest comics of this era. As I mentioned, much of his comedy revolved around his weight, which was very significant, and sadly undoubtedly contributed to his early demise, but there’s no questioning the level of talent this man possessed. Not to mention that he was an amazing singer. To put it crudely, he was simply funny as shit. But moreso, in my mind, he’ll always be the warm and inviting gentleman who seemed genuinely interested in talking to us as much as we were interested in talking to him.
I thank you, John Pinette, for making me laugh when you were on Seinfeld. I thank you, John Pinette, for making me laugh when you were on The Tonight Show. I thank you for making me laugh when your bits find their way onto the comedy station I sometimes listen to as I try and fall asleep at night. But I especially thank you, John Pinette, for making me laugh like an insane man that night when I was lucky enough to sit across the table from you. The world just got a little less funny with your passing.