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Guest Essay: Gallows Humor, or What Happens When Your Best Guest Dies

This essay discusses a suicide, death, and loss. Please skip this if you’re not in a place to interact with these themes. If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

My phone rang well before sunrise on the morning of June 8. His manager wanted me to know, before the news broke worldwide, that Tony Bourdain had taken his own life, in a hotel room in France. I’d been his assistant for nine years; we had just begun writing our second book together, and he was the executive producer and a regular guest on Carbface for Radio, the podcast I co-host with Chris Thornton. Tony was my organizing principle; nearly every aspect of my professional life was oriented around him, and my affection for him was deep, true, and almost entirely unspoken, because he wasn’t a warm and fuzzy type, and neither am I.

The sun soon came up, horrible and bright, and the next few hours were a series of clichés, all the more sickening for their banal truth: nausea, denial, aimless wandering, anguished phone calls to colleagues, and a frantic mental search of what I knew to be true, in an attempt to make sense of the senseless.

**

Tony was the executive producer of Carbface for Radio, which in practice meant that he would record with us as often as his schedule allowed. He let us use his name on all of our materials, and he’d faithfully retweet our new episode announcements to his approximately 8 million followers. I kept his calendar for nearly a decade, and, knowing how demanding his schedule was, and how much he valued his limited free time, I wouldn’t have even asked him to listen to the thing, let alone get involved, but he’d overheard me talking about it to a colleague, and immediately and enthusiastically offered his services, mostly, I suspect, because he had long been a fan of Chris’ caustic and hilarious Twitter persona (@shitfoodblogger).

This was Christmas time, two years ago, and Tony and I had just co-authored, published and promoted a best-selling book (Appetites: A Cookbook, which you should definitely buy for your friends and loved ones), so he may have been feeling particularly generous toward me. I wasn’t going to question it. Tony made it clear that Chris and I were free to develop the show in any way we liked, to use any portion of his recorded segments however we saw fit.

“Chop it up and lay it over Ron Jeremy tracks, I do not care,” he said, and we ran with it. I believe there was something really freeing about the prospect of just coming in to the studio without a script to read, or a financial interest to be served. Carbface was looser and far more vulgar than the stuff he’d been putting out, of late.

Knowing that he believed in us, that he would unquestioningly lend his name to whatever we did, and most of all, that he was listening, and telling other people to listen — this gave us the confidence to push it forward, and, more critically, to carry on after his death. He was the discerning, dirty-minded audience we wanted to play to. We wanted to make him laugh.

We tried to make it really easy for him. Normally, we’d record in a borrowed space in midtown, but for him, we’d rent time in the studio where he recorded voiceover for Parts Unknown, which was like visiting a luxury hotel: deeply soundproofed, tastefully appointed, with lots of pens an array of fancy beverages and an Emmy-winning engineer handling everything, and us at liberty to just shoot the shit.

On mic, we made dick jokes, talked about face-ripper monkey and vegan buttholes, chef cosplay, pervasive sexual harassment in the restaurant industry, organ meats and breakfast cereal and tattoos, whether or not to have children, wedding buffets, leather aprons, and all the places we’d been, and hoped to go.

**

Just before CNN officially broke the news, I remembered to call Chris, who was minutes away from launching a new episode of Carbface, which would have included a segment with Tony in which he answered the question, “What do you smell like?” (answer: Marlboro Reds and fancy hotel body wash), threw shade at celebrities with willfully bad personal hygiene, and, for the semi-regular “Unfuck My Life, Anthony Bourdain” segment, advised a listener with fanciful creative ambitions and real-world money woes to try and make art without putting his family into financial peril.

“I did not quit my day job until I had a gig on TV also that was gonna clearly generate money for a while,” said Tony, and it should be noted that, at the time he is referring to, he had already published three books, one of them being the enormously successful Kitchen Confidential. “I held onto my day job as long as I possibly could; I took the leap knowing that I may well have to come back and cook brunch. There’s always brunch. That’s my safety net.”

Chris is securely ensconced in the corporate world; taking care of Tony was my day job. Carbface was, and remains, our unsponsored creative outlet. We recorded an episode three days after Tony’s death, with no music, no guest, and no real plan, other than to address what had happened, how we felt, and to establish that we would keep making the show — not “because Tony would have wanted us to,” though I’m sure that he would — but because we have a small but fiercely loyal listenership, because it’s a platform for us to shine a light on smart and funny people doing great things, and because we ourselves are funny, we are smart, and we have a bottomless well of dick jokes.

Laurie Woolever is a New Yoek-based writer and editor, and is the co-host of Carbface for radio, a humor podcast about food, with Chris Thornton. She is at work on two books about Anthony Bourdain, her former boss, with whom she co-authored Appetites: A Cookbook, in 2016.