By Tony Sauro
Mark Curry was in so much pain, his sense of humor seemed like the only antidote.
"I put a song ("Serpentine Fire") by Earth, Wind and Fire on my phone-answering machine," Curry said. "People didn't know what to think."
At one point, Curry, a comedian/actor best-known for his role in the ABC sitcom "Hanging With Mr. Cooper" (1992-97), thought about suicide. It was that bad.
His prognosis is that he'll be funnier than ever when he does his stand-up routine Friday night at Stockton Arena's comedy club.
"I'm fully recovered," Curry said in a phone conversation from Fort Worth, Texas. "It made me funnier and made me appreciate my craft. It made me commit that I would be so funny, I'd be the funniest person possible. No matter what. I damn near died.
Three years to the day after the April 17, 2006, incident occurred, Curry, 43, was recalling a near-death experience in which an aerosol can - it had fallen behind his clothes dryer - exploded while he was doing his laundry. The fire inflicted second-degree burns over 18 percent of the Oakland native's upper torso.
After three days in a medically induced coma, he confronted his fate despondently but was encouraged by family, friends and fellow comedians. He also read "Pryor Convictions," the late Richard Pryor's autobiography that recounts a similarly searing experience endured in 1980 when Pryor was injured severely in a fire while free-basing cocaine.
Like Pryor, "I had my skin scraped off from my burns," Curry said. "From the trauma, I lost so much weight. I didn't eat for a week. Nothing."
Pain and comedy always co-exist on a fine line.
"I talk about it, I definitely do," Curry said. "I bring the pain with it. That's the emotional part of the show. It's easy. I made a commitment to be funny, to be No. 1 against all odds.
"I'm getting together a book on how laughter helped me through difficult emotional problems. You do laugh to take the pain out of the situation. All the time, I was funny."
He's also assembling a new TV special, in which he'll do shows in 50 cities on 50 nights.
"It's the cities you don't normally play," Curry said, including Stockton on that list. "It's little markets."
Liberated by his near-death experience, he's turning up the heat.
"I'm talking a little about everything," Curry said. "If I was president, the things I would do. Male-female relations, drugs and society, steroids and Starbucks.
"I've got so much stuff: global warming, how the animals are taking over. You know, birds bringing planes down, lions jumping out of cages."
So, what would he do if he were president?
"All criminals gotta go to Iraq," Curry said, without laughing. "If you kill somebody, you go straight to Iraq. Good luck to you, son. Send the crack addicts, too. They'd be great lookouts. They'd never fall asleep at night."
Curry, born in Oakland, played basketball at St. Joseph's High School in Alameda - 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, he dropped to 195 during his recovery - until a "mean-guy" coach cut him in 10th grade.
"I didn't get beat up because I was the funny guy in the 'hood," Curry said.
He attended California State University, Hayward, and was working in a drug store, when, "bam, next thing you know
I'm doing comedy," said Curry, a pioneer of comedic diversity. "I was scared to do it. It was a deferred dream.
"White clubs wouldn't play us. I did the Oakland Coliseum before I got on any comedy show at the Punch Line (in San Francisco). I was opening for (Coliseum) rap shows. They'd always fight. They'd bring me out to calm it down."
He won't do that Friday. Curry said Stockton probably will be part of his 50 nights-50 cities project.
"It'll be great show, a knock-down show," he said. "The best they've ever seen. I don't mean to be arrogant, but I work hard at my craft. It's gonna be a really, really, really, really, really, really really good show."
Curry realizes the healing power of humor.
"I mean, you know where there's laughter there's hope," Curry said. "You've gotta laugh at this hurt. I was thinking about suicide and went into depression for damn near two years.
"No one can tell what you're going through. You have to be there for yourself. When I went out do stand-up again, I came out shooting fire."