Last weekend, you may have seen a number of comedians online paying their respects to Sean Rouse, the 43-year-old Houston-based comedian who died on June 29th after suffering a stroke and a heart attack. Despite his years in the business, Rouse’s name is likely unfamiliar to most, even self-professed comedy nerds. But that doesn’t mean he was any less good at what he did. In a moving eulogy published on Vulture, fellow stand-up and longtime friend, Doug Stanhope, recounted Rouse’s sniper-like precision as a stand-up and the chronic pain that plagued his life both on and off the stage.
Sean lived most of his life with his candle burning at both ends — one end torching through the downward spiral of crippling rheumatoid arthritis, the other ablaze with drugs and alcohol, both celebratory and medicinal, and those drugs, more often than not, were yours. And in spite of that, for over two decades he created some of the most unique, adorably morbid, and precisely crafted stand-up comedy I’ve ever watched.
He would build routines like a drama, using silence as the foundation, and cautiously chosen, succinct sentences as the framework before blowing the whole structure to pieces, blindsiding you with a punch line you never saw coming and then gleefully pounding out taglines like a child arsonist kicking up the embers of his own destruction.
Like Stanhope, Rouse was known for taking on subjects most stand-ups would consider taboo or, at the very least, too difficult to make funny. Jokes about natural disasters, death and dismemberment, his own molestation as a child, and, as Stanhope puts it, “fearless material about race while being possibly the whitest man alive” were all hallmarks of Rouse’s sets. He would either win audiences over with his boyish grin, or completely lose them. The regular occurrence of the latter is what lead him to be featured in Stanhope’s documentary The Unbookables. “Nobody told Sean Rouse what to do. Not in comedy, not in life,” Stanhope writes.
As mentioned above, Rouse also struggled with chronic pain and illness. Rheumatoid arthritis made it difficult for him to get out of bed most mornings, let alone walk on to a stage. When Stanhope first met him, Rouse had been falsely diagnosed with lupus as doctors struggled to figure out what was wrong with him. His penchant for drug and alcohol abuse likely relieved and contributed to his constant pain. But, as Stanhope writes, Rouse never painted himself as a victim of these lifelong struggles. “His demons were a slave to him. He owned them. And if he peed on your couch or puked in your car, he’d smile and tell you that it was your own fault for inviting him.”
You can read all of Stanhope’s touching, hilarious eulogy here.
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