Joe Yannetty knew it was coming. The 51-year-old comedian got the news in February that he had throat cancer, a diagnosis confirmed a month later after a biopsy. It runs in the family. “When I was 18 years old, my father died of cancer a week after his fifty-first birthday,” says Yannetty, communicating by e-mail to preserve his ragged voice. “Since then I had convinced myself that I would follow in his footsteps.”
The good news is that Yannetty, diagnosed with stage 4 squamous carcinoma, is expected to make a full recovery. The bad news is that his voice is shot, and the soonest he’ll be able to work again is in the fall. His medical expenses are mostly covered by insurance, but he’ll lose his main source of income for several months, which is why Yannetty’s friends in comedy are throwing benefits like Wednesday’s “A Night of Comedy for Joe Yannetty” at the Davis Square Theatre.
“The benefits that my friends in Boston and New Hampshire are running for me and the donations on my website have been the greatest help,” says Yannetty, a staple on the scene since 1983, when he got his start driving comedians to gigs. He has written for radio and he wrote and appeared in the 2001 movie “Suckers,” but he makes his living in stand-up. “I would have had zero money to live on. Zero. The outpouring of love and support is overwhelming. I have the greatest friends, in the greatest comedy community in the world.”
Jim McCue, who organized Wednesday’s benefit and will perform at it, says, “As a comedian, to not have your voice to use to make money” is devastating. “The bills keep coming in, but your ability to make money is gone.”
Yannetty has plenty of funny friends coming to help. Lenny Clarke and Barry Crimmins, who will drive from New York for the show, top the bill, and McCue says Steve Sweeney will be dropping in. That’s in addition to Tony V, Mike McDonald, Joey Carroll, Jack Lynch, Emily Singer, musical guest Davina Yannetty (Joe’s niece), and Yannetty’s close friend, Mike Koutrobis. Other names may still be added to the list.
Koutrobis has been driving Yannetty to his chemotherapy appointments, and Yannetty considers him his “knight in shining armor.” Koutrobis has been involved with other benefits for Yannetty, including one at Giggles, and says the outpouring is not surprising. “The comedy community jumps in pretty quick,” he says. “I know a lot of people have friends, but there’ve been a lot of comedians who have reached out and sent Joe donations that don’t even really know him. They just get it.”
“One of the funniest, nicest, sweetest, hard-working, dedicated, and kind people in comedy,” says Crimmins, describing Yannetty. “You could have picked any one of those attributes and I would have shown up.”
‘I would have had zero money to live on. Zero. . . . I have the greatest friends, in the greatest comedy community in the world.’
Crimmins has known Yannetty since the 1980s when Yannetty was starting out and Crimmins was more established. “Yannetty used to be my chauffeur,” says Crimmins. “He talks about how he’d arrived [as a comic] when he didn’t have to drive me around anymore.”
Bston comedians are often tapped to play benefits large and small, from One Fund to Little League fund-raisers. And they’ve often been called upon to help their own, supporting the late Kevin Knox and Bob Lazarus, who both died of cancer in 2009, each in his early 50s. They’ve lost other colleagues early: In 2008, Lynnfield native and “MADtv” producer Lauren Dombrowski died of cancer at 51, and local character comedian Bob Hagearty succumbed to the disease in May at 52. “If you have a sense of humor, it’s hard to find it with something like this,” says McCue. “Yet, you need it. You need some bright spot to focus on.”
The type of cancer Yannetty suffers from is more treatable than many others, and he’s confident of a full recovery. “There is no doubt whatsoever that they will kill this cancer, it will go away, and it will never come back,” he says. “What is kicking my ass right now is the cure, not the disease.”
Nausea related to the treatment makes it hard for Yannetty to travel, so he won’t be attending Wednesday’s show. “I have my rough days,” he says. “The chemo just lays me out for more than a week at a time. The radiation is exhausting too.” Koutrobis says despite some down moments, Yannetty’s sense of humor remains intact. “One minute he looks like, my God this thing is miserable, then he cracks a couple of jokes, makes the nurses laugh,” he says.
In a morbidly funny development, Yannetty found someone had already tried to console his brother David, thinking Yannetty had died. “My brother still won’t tell me who said that to him,” he says. “I was actually amused by it. You’re not really in show business until reports of your demise are greatly exaggerated.”