“I had to die to live.” Poignant words from stand-up comedian Jerry Albitre, who nearly died on stage just to perform one more time.
Jerry’s last name Albitre (pronounced AL-BEE-Tree) means town crier. “I’ve been a twisted town crier since I stepped on the stage at 17.”
Early in his career, Albitre lived in Bakersfield and commuted to Los Angeles. “I got on stage in open mics and performed at The Comedy Store with Jay London at 21. Then, I had a kid, had to grow up and get a job. I had trained with the best martial artists in the world including Ted Lucaylucay, Ken Shamrock, the Gracie and Machado families. To pay bills, I co-managed a martial arts school. I’ve been a martial artist for 40 years and I’m a fighter. I never doubted I’d fight my way back to comedy.”
Albitre’s earliest influences were Rodney Dangerfield and Uncle Miltie, but he couldn’t relate. “Freddy Prinze changed everything. He wasn’t a 50-year-old comic I didn’t understand. He was talking about dating, relationships and I understood his comedy. This led to the discovery of George Carlin and Richard Pryor. Carlin played with language and Pryor farmed his pain. I like to think I’m somewhere between the two.” Albitre’s comedy reflected his ethnicity. “I’m a mix of American Indian and Hispanic. The government gave us money for being for being American Indian and they took it away for being Hispanic. I was living a joke.”
“My stage was wherever I was at that place in life. Always telling jokes at home, by the water cooler at work and in public. I’d be friendly and make a joke, just to get a laugh. I never stopped telling jokes. Whatever pops into my mind, I make a comment and people laugh. My mind works differently because I’m dyslexic. I don’t understand linear thoughts. One-two-three doesn’t make sense to me. I pull ideas and process them differently. I think like a woman. I’m all over the place and I don’t make any sense. That’s probably why I love women,” Albitre chuckles. “It takes a moment to understand me. You have to think about the visual and how I flip language. Sometimes it takes a second to get it.”
In 2010, one of Albitre’s friends signed him up for a comedy contest in Bakersfield. “By applause, I came in second. The first comic brought thirty people to the show, I only brought eight, so his applause won. But they never asked him back for another show. Instead, they called me and rotated me into their lineup to be a regular. I started to really develop my material.”
In 2013, as Albitre’s comedy career was heating up, he was appearing in Bakersfield, Fresno and Los Angeles. The business of comedy is tough and only a handful of comics with top talent survive. But Albitre was a survivor different from his counterparts because his health problems were heating up, too.
“As my career was picking up, I felt like I was dying. I was short of breath. I thought I was just out of shape so I went to the gym. I was drained. I went to the doctor and discovered I tore two heart valves during my martial arts career. I was lucky to be alive, but I needed open heart surgery. Over the next few months, my surgery was cancelled six times. The doctors thought it would kill me because the risks were too high. They had to stop my heart during the surgery. Ultimately, the doctors said I had to die in order to live again,” Albitre explained. “Some people would kill to be on stage, but I proved I would die to be on stage. The comedy stage kept me alive. I was telling jokes all the way through and the stage was my savior. It gave me reason to stick around.”
Albitre was telling everyone it was his farewell tour. “I would say, ‘This is my last show before my heart surgery, before I die.’ With more health issues on and off the stage, I was hoping I wouldn’t die on stage. I had more than a dozen last shows, but like the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac, I wouldn’t go away. My Bakersfield shows continued to sell out. As my surgery was delayed from March to September, I performed. I was on stage at the Belly Room of The Comedy Store on September 5, which sold out. I performed to a packed room. I was getting big laughs, but I was literally dying on stage.”
His open heart surgery took place at UCLA Medical Center on September 17, 2014. Comics seem invincible, no one took his death seriously, especially when he was back on stage three days after being released from the hospital following his open heart surgery. “The stage was calling. I didn’t want this to beat me. I worked hard to get to this point. I’m still in this game. I wasn’t going to let death stop me. In fact, dying was the best thing that ever happened to me. There were a lot of things in my life that I wouldn’t have had the courage to change. Once you die, what’s going to scare you next? My death gave me courage to go on living,” Albitre admitted. “Today, everything is different. I’m healthy and alive. I’m losing weight. I’m divorced. I’m writing and refining every day. I’m working on a book and writing scripts. I’m living on a boat in Marina Del Rey. I got a cute new girlfriend. She taught me how to use a coffee press and how to fold my clothes. My new life is better. I used to work in Information Technology, so I consider this life an upgrade. This is 2.0. I got rid of all of the bugs and errors in the system. This is a faster, slicker, prettier version of my life. And the comedy is at its best. It’s stronger, better and this is where I belong. I didn’t feel that before. It wasn’t until I was dying on stage that I realized how much I’m in love with comedy.”
Albitre is even mentoring up-and-coming comics such as Olivia Romo. “He’s given me advice and encouraged me to build my set to 10 minutes, 30 minutes and an hour. He says he’s my mama bird and it’s time for mama bird to kick baby bird out of the nest,” Romo said.
Albitre is also focusing on good health. He’s lost 95 pounds so far by having three healthy main meals each day. He walks daily and takes regular bicycle rides during the week.
For Albitre, it feels as though he’s had nine lives. “The goal now is to take my comedy to the next level. I want to do comedy and I want to write.” Albitre added, “This is my last life and I promise you, it’s going to be big. In this case, size matters.”