Barry Crimmins

words to live near


So long, Obes Tuesday, November 17, 2009

So long Obes

Ken Ober 1957-2009

I am very fortunate to be able to say that Ken Ober and I were friends for about 30 years.

On the long-ago day he walked into the Ding Ho Comedy Club in Cambridge, Ma. to do a guest set to demonstrate his already advanced skills as a stand-up comic, Kenny embodied two words that applied to too few people (present company, especially) in the comedy racket: no problem.

As the player-manager of the Ding, I had to sort through dozens of acts and decide who'd be booked at the club. Ken's response to every booking he received was gracious and appreciative. He never bugged me for more than he got. Instead he went out and made himself all the more valuable with each appearance. His act was funny and smart, finished in more of a hushed satin than a shiny gloss. He was as hilarious off-stage as on and he made friends of absolutely everyone. Including me.

Although he was an expert needler, he knew exactly how not to be a pain in the ass. During a period when I was besieged by people wasting my time by beating around the bush looking for dates, Ken never squandered a moment of my too-busy days. This was just a small part of the reason I so enjoyed his inordinately good company. I don't recall how it started, but early on Ken and I began mockingly calling each other frattish nicknames. This was not out of respect for the ludicrous campus Greek traditions we had scuffed up against in college. No, it was disdain for the dildoic that made him "Obes" and me "Cribs." This gag, which had been fleshed out over eons of sarcasm and enough drinks to swell a rhino's liver, stuck for the duration of our friendship. It personalized  it and gave it a special status. While talking this summer we finally acknowledged that we had become what we had resisted since the days at the Ding: long lost frat brothers from the old Grabba Break house in Cambridge.

By then I knew something else: Ken Ober, with his quick smile/sly grin and even quicker wit, made all of his friends feel special. He had an unerring eye for just what was valuable in a person. This applied to both his private and public life. He took the time to get to know people and in the process smothered them in drawing salve that brought out the best in them. Was he perfect or saintly? Hell no! But he was the absolute finest of what is an otherwise trite term: a people person. Ken got along with just about everyone and he did so without being phony. Remarkable!

This sincere affability served Kenny as he became one of the first Boston comics of our era to venture to exotic locales to conquer the beast that is show business. In no time at all he was hosting Remote Control, a "game show" on MTV that shattered all precedents and put several people, including Ken, on square footing for their ascent up the escalator to the stars. After RC, Ken Ober went on to master radio in LA and more television with several stints hosting, acting and writing. Of course he made a few zillion more friends along the way.

When I would be on tour with various musical luminaries, Kenny would inevitably show up unannounced. Because he was a human backstage laminate at any venue, he almost never bothered me to put him on the guest list. No sooner would he arrive in my dressing room then it would become clear Ken was already pals with at least half the band and road crew with whom I'd been traveling. No matter how well I got along with a tour before Ken arrived, once he had come and blessed us with a visit, things always got better. I can't say for sure whether I ever introduced him to anyone he didn't already know.

Time passed and Ken and I would lose touch for large periods of it. But all it took for us to pick up where we'd left off was a "Cribs!" or "Obes!" on the other end of the phone.

I feel very fortunate that Ken decided to write me this year on our shared birthday (more glue for our friendship) to tell me how much he loved the old days at the Ding and how he often thinks of me. Because of this generosity, Obes and Cribs were reunited by phone. We remained in touch over what were to be the final weeks of his life. We discussed the good old days and the grim new ones (you try being over 50 in show biz as it's consolidated into humongous dull bulk by corporate masters determined to eliminate wasteful things like people who know what the fuck they're doing.) We'd then change the subject and talk baseball -- Red Sox/Yankees and even some Dodgers.

We also spoke a lot about dogs. In the recent past we'd both lost amazing hounds. Ken had lost Monty and I had lost Lloyd. We were relieved to find someone else who so deeply grieved a pooch. We'd both brought new dogs into our lives, not to fill the voids our loved ones left behind but to instead pay down the huge debt to the canine community we ran up from having had dogs who had fit so perfectly into our lives. Of course we both fell madly for our new friends even though (Ken's) Bear and (my) Lettie and Lu aren't Monty and Lloyd.

Yesterday, when the horrible news of Ken's death reached me, my first thought was of Bear. As tough as it is for humans to lose Ken, it has to be worse for his dog. I've been assured that Bear is in good hands but I feel so bad for him because as unbelievable as Ken's sudden death is to his family and legions of pals, it's got to be worse for a dog who was man's best friend to one of the best men ever. Poor Bear!

I can't imagine I'll ever get over Ken's ridiculously premature death (he was 52). Ask anyone who knew him (and believe me, there won't be anywhere near six degrees of separation between you and Ken) and they'll tell you that he was such a solid and unswerving friend that it seemed like he would always, always be there. Now that he isn't, those of us who were graced by his magnificent friendship know we cannot ever replace him. What we can do is begin to pay down the debt we owe to humanity for having had Ken Ober in our lives for as long as we did. So if you loved Kenny, track down an old friend today to see how they're doing or maybe stop and encourage that taken-for-granted intern on your staff. Take your dog for an extra long walk and let  her or him sneak up on the couch. Don't have a dog? Adopt one. Can't have a dog? Make a donation to a no-kill shelter near you.

Often it's difficult to find an appropriate way to honor a departed friend. This is not so with Ken Ober because to emulate him is to honor him. Quite appropriately, to do so is no problem.

updated: 9 years ago