It was sort of like open mike night at a comedy club--except that sunlight was streaming through stained-glass windows and this was Forest Lawn, not the Laugh Factory.
And the funniest guy in the house was only there in spirit.
This was a requiem for a comic. Talk about a tough crowd--and talkative too. Most of the people there were recovering drug addicts, including some ex-cons. Twelve-steppers often talk out their demons. A few stand-up comics were there too, guys who worked the local clubs with "Stick."
That's what people called Christopher Sylbert back when he used a cane to limp on stage.
One friend after another stood up inside the white chapel to share their feelings about Chris Sylbert. When the man from Forest Lawn tried to cut it short, mourners simply refused.
Gerry Bednob, a comic, recalled their first encounter. Chris was on crutches and Bednob, an immigrant from India, was wearing the headdress for his "Turban Cowboy" shtick. Imagine a man with an Indian accent imitating a New Yawker.
Chris: "Who are you?"
Gerry: "I'm a comedian from Bangladesh."
Chris: "Boy. I thought I had problems."
Laughter filled the room, for this was the Chris they knew well. Chris Sylbert may not have been a big star, but to this crowd he was huge. Family and friends knew all about his trials, tribulations and triumphs.
They all knew he had multiple sclerosis. The disease was diagnosed when he was 28, and he died July 24 in his North Hollywood apartment at the age of 47.
They knew he had overcome addictions, first to heroin, then to methadone. ("Yeah, I experimented with drugs," Chris would say. "For about 25 years.")
They knew he'd done time behind bars for burglary, back when he was a slave to heroin.
They knew, most important, that he had not only turned his life around, but that he'd saved a few souls along the way. He had worked through the steps of Narcotics Anonymous and ever since had always been a true friend. The stand-up comic was a stand-up guy, even after he wasn't able to stand at all.
"I was 18 when Chris decided to sponsor me," Edward Jefferson told the mourners. "For 10 1/2 years it grew to be"--here he paused for several seconds, struggling with his emotions--"much more than that.
"He said, 'Kid, you call me . . . if you ever need a dad or a brother.'
"He was the best friend I ever knew. . . . Sometimes they say God takes those who are too good to be here. . . . It was a big part of him that gave me part of my life back."
All of them are reasons that Edward Jefferson's 2-year-old son is named Christopher.
Tina Plakinger had met Chris through Narcotics Anonymous-- "the program," as they call it. On this occasion she wore the white hat and veil she had worn at their wedding six years ago. They seemed the unlikeliest of couples: she a former bodybuilding champion, he a skinny comic with a cane.
The day Tina told me Chris had died, she reminisced about how Chris would sweet-talk her. "Sugar, you look better than new money," he would say. Or, "You're so fine you could bring a tear to a glass eye." Chris, who once sang in a doo-wop group, would serenade her--"Only You," "Sincerely," "I Only Have Eyes for You."
Other recovering addicts spoke, all recalling how Chris made them laugh. One routine consisted of inside jokes that only heroin fiends could appreciate. But everyone knew Chris was just plain funny.
Comic Sam Kwasman spoke of a 1994 performance that I happened to witness. It was the finals of the L.A. Cabaret's Funniest Person in the Valley Contest, and the judges included Milton Berle, Bill Dana and Pat McCormick.
Luck put Chris on stage last. By then he had graduated from cane to crutches to walker. The audience had no clue what was wrong with the man who grimaced as he dragged himself across stage. It was painful to watch. Then Chris leaned into the mike:
"Larry Parker got me $2.1 million!"
At one point I heard Uncle Miltie, leaning over to his companions, approvingly say, "Attitude. Attitude!"
Chris had attitude. He also had material, delivery, charm. He had true wit to go with true grit. His act was both polished and raw--raw in the sense that much of it couldn't be quoted here. One fanciful bit concerned a stint as a gigolo: "Dat broad was so big she was protected by Greenpeace." That night, Kwasman reminded the mourners, Chris Sylbert got a standing ovation from Berle and other stars. Chris soaked it all in, embracing the title of Funniest Person in the Valley as if it were an Academy Award.
There was a moment when it seemed that maybe the man from Forest Lawn had been right. A blond woman sitting in the front row rose and with angry tears suggested that she'd heard too many tributes. Her brother, she said, had done some rotten things that shouldn't be forgotten . . . like when their mother was dying and Chris stole her morphine.
There were only a few murmurs as she spoke her piece. A testimonial that at first seemed painfully inappropriate gradually took on an emotional eloquence--grief expressed for a brother she had loved even when he was a creep.
"Christopher," Tina said later, "would have been the first to admit everything she said."
And as the service ended, a group of Chris Sylbert's friends, recovering addicts, gathered around his sister, as if forming an impromptu support group.