The Gaudy and Gregarious Life of Gary Lising: What You Need to Know About This Comedic Icon
On May 31, 2019, one of the Philippines’ iconic comedians, Gary Lising, was found dead in his home in Pasig. He was 78 years old.
His son, Bugsy, rushed home when his father stopped responding to calls and texts. Lising’s brother, Pompeii, confirmed his death in a Facebook post a day later, thanking him for the laughs and love.
“I know your jokes will make God laugh. Rest in peace, my dear brother,” he wrote.
The comedian suffered a heart attack in 2009 and underwent several operations after. When the news of his death spread online, tributes poured in from fans, as well as colleagues in the industry.
A natural-born comedian
Lising grew up in Baguio. His dad was a dentist and there were no other comedians in his family. Despite this, Lising seemed to be a natural comedian. It was also in Baguio where he met lifelong friend and soon-to-be comedian colleague, Noel Trinidad.
“He would hang out with us on campus. While walking and crossing a pond, he would just roll on the grass and make us laugh. That’s why we used to call him an alien,” Trinidad said in an interview with Inquirer.
He moved to Manila in 1961, the same year he started college at the Ateneo de Manila University, where he took up Economics. In Ateneo, he met more like-minded people, including Jun Urbano, who would later become known as “Mr. Shooli,” a Mongolian character in comedic skits.
It was with Urbano, son of legendary film actor and director Manuel Conde, that Lising started hosting Campus Concerts, a live comedy show.
Lising, in an interview with Inquirer in 2013, recalled his first public performance: “I was just watching on the sidelines when Jun pushed me onto the stage. He asked me to lip-synch to a song, Giuseppe Verdi’s “La donna e mobile” from the opera Rigoletto. The audience was dying of laughter. That started it.”
Campus Concerts became so popular that its proceeds were enough to cover Lising's tuition. After college, despite his budding career in entertainment, Lising decided to try his luck in sales—as a book salesman in Manila with Grolier’s Encyclopedia.
His monthly quota was 10 sets of encyclopedia. Lising was able to sell 70 sets in just one day. His technique? He opened his yearbook and started selling to his schoolmates.
“I sold so many books that the president of Grolier’s thought I was a super salesman. As a reward, they sent me to New York for training. After a few months, I resigned,” Lising recalled in the same interview.
This wasn’t, however, the end of Lising’s stay in America as his career in comedy had only just begun.
The American Dream
Lising decided to extend his stay in New York and one day he found an advertisement in The New York Times. The ad stated an opening for a comedy writer for The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. It was Jerry Lewis, another legendary comedian, who was conducting the interview.
He passed the audition with a joke that catered to the American humor. It was about how Jesus got his name when the three kings found him in the manger. Lising said that when the third king was about to present his offering, he accidentally tripped and blurted, “Oh, Jesus Christ!” To which Mary said, “Hey Joseph that sounds better than Irving.”
Lewis and the other producers present in the audition loved the joke and Lising stayed on as a member of the writing pool for seven years. Every day, they were given newspapers and they read the events and tried to make jokes about them. Johnny Carson then came in and chose the jokes he liked the best.
It was during this time in New York that Lising also met his wife, Laura Lopez, daughter of then ambassador to the United States and the United Nations, Salvador P. Lopez.
Salvador initially disapproved of the union but it was Lising’s sense of humor that won his father-in-law over. When Lising asked for Lopez’s hand in marriage, Salvador told him that he raised his children well without knowing what it is to be hungry.
“They studied in Paris, they speak French, German. Now you want to marry Laura. Do you think you can give her the kind of life that I have been giving her?” Salvador asked.
“Yes sir, I think so,” Lising replied.
“I plan to move in with you.”
It was at this point that Salvador, a stoic diplomat, stifled a laugh and eventually warmed up to Lising. Eventually, the pair got married in France. However, their marriage didn’t last long due to the couple’s frustration of not being able to have children. They divorced soon after.
Lising lived in the U.S. for another 17 years as a stand-up comedian entertaining Filipino communities. He also wrote jokes for the famous Bob Hope.
When he finally moved back to the Philippines, he became a manager of the band, Music Making Company. This is how he met singer Maris Paredes, who eventually became his wife. They soon had Bugsy, their son and Lising’s pride and joy.
However, their marriage didn’t last long either. Lising’s career, on the other hand, was progressing very well. He starred in several movie projects, including the iconic films M.O.N.A.Y, Utang Ng Ama, and Alyas Boy Tigas.
His most notable role, however, was on the hit TV series Champoy in the ‘80s with Subas Herrero, Noel Trinidad, and Tessie Tomas. From there and the decade that followed, Lising became a household name and a recognizable face in comedy shows.
With his earnings, he put up businesses, including a joke and sex toys shop in Robinson’s Galleria. This is not surprising, considering that he earned a reputation because of his dirty jokes and anecdotes. Once, during an interview with Mo Twister, he admitted to sleeping with a starlet for P10,000. In the same interview, he confessed to having sex on an airplane.
"With a stewardess?" asked Mo.
"No, with a steward!" Lising joked.
Political and social commentary
Some of his jokes may have been crass but some of them also provided insight into the country’s current events. Roasting politicians became part of his act and he has been credited with starting the so-called “Erap” jokes. The former President was a friend of the comedian's and Lising said he took no offense.
In an interview with Solar News, Lising recalled when he was tasked to introduce newly elected President Joseph Estrada, a guest at the Makati Rotary Club. The President asked the comedian not to make fun of him since he was then in a higher position.
“Ladies and gentleman, fellow Rotarians, we are very honored to have with us tonight, one of the greatest Presidents the Philippines ever had, President Joseph Estrada,” Lising said in his introduction, which started off really well.
“Here is a man who does not know the meaning of fear. Here is a man who does not know the meaning of corrupt. Here is a man who does not know the meaning of dishonesty. There are many words he does not know the meaning of,” he finished.
While he thinks that Filipino humor is a way for people to cope with their everyday struggles, Lising also said in the same interview it can be a way of educating the people about more important issues.
“I’m just educating the Filipino people about what’s happening e. They don’t know what’s happening, like Napoles, di ba? They’re saying she owns 28 houses. That’s wrong. She owns 30 houses. It includes the upper and lower house,” he quipped, pertaining to the Congress and Senate.
Lising did what he could for the country, too. He considered “Alay sa Kawal,” his project with the government to entertain troops in Mindanao, one of his proudest moments in the entertainment industry.
“Pinapasaya ko sila. Mahal na mahal ko mga sundalo kasi nandyan sila, they’re giving their lives for us,” he said.
Later years and legacy
In his later years, he wrote 17 books, including Confessions of a DOM (Delightful Old Man), Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask Your Children, and Golf, Era, and Other 4-Letter Words. These are compilations of his jokes and funny anecdotes throughout the years.
While the royalties from these bestselling books helped him financially when he didn’t get the same amount of projects, nothing prepared him for his stroke in 2009. In an interview with Rated K in 2013, he said that he lost his life savings, around P3 million.
Schoolmates and friends from the industry pitched in, including Robin Padilla, who gave him P100,000 to cover some of his medical expenses. The same friends defended him when rumors about how he lost his money due to a gambling habit started spreading around this time.
It was his son Bugsy who cared for him. In an interview with Wish Ko Lang in 2013, Bugsy said that he couldn’t bear the thought of leaving his father.
“At the end of the day, kahit may times na nagagalit ako, may times na nagagalit siya sa akin, I still owe my life to him. Mahal na mahal ko talaga daddy ko,” Bugsy said.
In this interview, the comedian also appealed to producers to offer him roles in shows. Even if his body slowed down, his mind was still sharp, he said. And true enough, he started getting roles for TV shows like Pepito Manaloto and movies such as A Beautiful Affair and was also invited to emcee corporate events.
Despite a renewed career, Lising’s health continued to deteriorate. He underwent several angioplasty procedures in the years that followed. He even underwent an eye cataract operation. This continued to drain Lising’s funds and the comedian was forced to cut corners. At one point, he called up an old classmate, Oscar Reyes, president of Meralco, just so they wouldn’t cut his electricity line.
“I’m rich in friends,” Lising said in an interview with PEP.ph in 2013.
One of his dreams was to impart his knowledge and techniques to a new generation of comedians, he said during the Solar News interview. He bemoaned the fact that, in the U.S., there are a lot of comedy schools but there are no formal training centers in the Philippines. He said that the University of the Philippines can set up such a school and his colleagues will be more than willing to teach.
“I've had a nice colorful life. Even if God takes me now, I'm ready for him,” he said in the same interview.
He also said that wanted to be remembered as a person who helped make Filipinos happy. “I just want to give joy to the Philippines.”