Screengrab via HBO/YouTube

With ‘Burning the Light,’ Quincy Jones talks life, death, and everything in between

'Can you ever really process your dreams coming true?'


Audra Schroeder


Published Jun 3, 2016   Updated May 26, 2021, 4:22 pm CDT

It’s hard to muse about Quincy Jones’s story without thinking about time. In August 2015, the comedian was diagnosed with Stage IV mesothelioma and given a year to live. In February, a Kickstarter to fund his last-wish comedy special surpassed its goal. In March, he appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, where he was told he’d received his own HBO special. Quincy Jones: Burning the Light debuted Thursday night.

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What do you do when life is suddenly finite and you’re already doing what you love? That’s the question Jones poses at the beginning of the special. In a March interview with the Daily Dot, the 32-year-old said his diagnosis “changed my philosophy on life a lot, and how am I using my time and energy.” When we speak by phone three months later, Jones is still thinking about time.

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“You’re one minute late!” he answers before laughing. He’s about to catch a flight to the Bridgetown Comedy Festival, where he says he won’t really be talking about the terminal cancer that leads nearly every media post about him. This incredible string of life events has caused him to think about time a little differently.

“You develop a more Zen-like approach to things,” Jones says. “We’re all just trying to cope. Nobody knows what they’re doing. We’re all just trying to get by in a crazy world. So… you take off your judgmental comic hat. … I’ve always had this philosophy, which is just: work hard, be kind. Just be decent.”

The one-hour special touches on his diagnosis; he jokes about how people are going to be let down if he survives. “I feel pressure to die,” he laughs. “You blow past that goal, they expect a special and a casket. … You can’t be the Magic Johnson of cancer.”

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Elsewhere, Jones explores relationships (“I want to be in love. I think I’m ready,” he deadpans), how to curb police shooting black people (carry around small, cute dogs), superhero movies, and trying to diagnose himself on Web M.D. There are a few too many men are like/women are like jokes, but his final bit about “white Oprah” (DeGeneres) and his Internet fame, and the “stinger” sign-off tribute to Deadpool bring Burning the Light around. 

“We’re all just trying to cope. Nobody knows what they’re doing.”

Not every joke hits, but Jones is clearly comfortable on stage, having clocked a marathon 1,000 shows before his diagnosis. When the crowd gives him a standing ovation at the end, it’s hard not to get a little tight in the throat.

Asked about the process of crafting this set and whether he felt pressure, Jones pivots slightly.

“Can you ever really process your dreams coming true?” he laughs. “Beyond your wildest dreams or anything you ever thought would happen?”

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Jones recently shared on Facebook that he’s eligible for a surgery that could possibly debulk the cancer. It could also come back after the surgery. He went to a mesothelioma conference in Houston and spoke to surgeons about the procedure, so he “felt better about the situation after that.” With all the coverage of his story, mesothelioma, a cancer not often included in the larger discussion, has suddenly received more of a spotlight in the media.

Knowing that Jones is already living his dream of doing comedy gives Burning the Light—a reference to the light comedians get when it’s time for them to get off stage—more weight than most comedy specials. He attributes the attention people paid to the story to his positivity. It’s about taking time into account, and what you’re doing with it while you’re here. 

“I’m just a comic,” he says. “All I want to do is make sure there’s something left behind that says I was here.” 

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*First Published: Jun 3, 2016, 10:56 am CDT