Shock and sadness reverberated throughout the Philadelphia comedy scene and beyond last week, as people learned that Chris Cotton, a South Philly native known for organizing shows and standing up for his community, had died at 32 years old.
It was a hard hit for the local landscape. Cotton’s death on Dec. 11 followed the passing of two other Philadelphia comics, Denise “Chitta Chatta” Blackwell Witherspoon in late November, and Mike Brooks in August.
Cotton died from a pulmonary thromboembolism, according to a report from the Delaware County Medical Examiner’s Office. That’s the medical term for a blood clot that forms in the legs or other extremities, and moves to the lungs.
Most people who experience embolisms die suddenly, according to Dr. Sanul Corrielus, a Philadelphia cardiologist who works to educate and empower the African American community with preventative care. Those who survive often face lifelong chronic conditions as a result, he said.
Blood clots that travel to the lungs are more prominent in older patients, Corrielus told Billy Penn. He added, however, that “obesity is causing us to see it a lot more in younger folks, and particularly Black men.”
Cotton’s weight, which the autopsy report cited as a contributing factor to his death, is something he used often as stand-up material.
“I’m getting fat as hell, man,” Cotton once joked during a set at the renowned Gotham Comedy Club in NYC. “I know I’m getting fat ’cause I was outside just chilling and some dude was standing next to me giving directions on his phone and he used me as a landmark!”
Making the loss even more painful is the fact that the comedian’s wife of more than seven years, Ericalynn Cotton, is expecting the birth of their first child in February. The pair met in high school students at South Philly’s Edward Bok AVTS. He went on to study communications at Cheyney University, the oldest HBCU in the country.
As a comic, Cotton made regular appearances on Comedy Central and was co-host of the network’s series Every Damn Day. He enjoyed stage time at Gotham Comedy Club in NYC, which regularly hosts top names like Dave Chapelle, Chris Rock and Artie Lang. This summer, he released a self-published book called What My Dad Did: My Theory On Joke Writing, describing it as a guide that could be “referenced for most of your career as an artist of any capacity.”
News of Cotton’s untimely death was met with an outpouring of support, condolences and financial donations from the Philadelphia comedy scene and around the globe. A GoFundMe set up in his honor has raised more than $55,000.
We talked to a handful of folks from Cotton’s world, and have printed their stories and eulogies below.
Reflection services have been set for Dec. 21 from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. at Yesha Ministries Worship Center, 2301 Snyder Ave. The family is asking guests to wear red in Cotton’s honor.
Remembered for helping his fellow comedians
Cotton’s impact on the local circuit was reflected in the benefits that followed his death. Helium Club held a show that raised $250 from the audience. The Raven Lounge sold out of commemorative t-shirts. The Comedy Jawn, a weekly series at Saint Lazarus that Cotton co-produced, held a “crowning” in his honor.
Cotton was lauded by close friends and fellow comics Monroe Martin, Chloé Hilliard and Yamaneika Saunders. His memorial GoFundMe garnered donations from the likes of Amy Schumer and a host of other prominent personalities
He touched many people, his loved ones said — and was always encouraging them to follow their dreams. “I always observed Chris helping other comics and in this business that’s as important as anything else,” Sal Vulcano of truTV’s Impractical Jokers wrote via email. “You notice the good folks right away. Everyone noticed that in Chris.”
That sentiment was echoed by Michael Kaplan, owner of Comedy Works Bristol.
“There are a lot of people that owe a lot to Chris because he would recommend them for shows,” Kaplan said. “The Philadelphia comedy scene is not going to be the same without Chris.”
*Some of the following responses have been edited for flow and brevity.
Chamara ‘Boogie Rose’ Cotton
Cotton’s cousin and “twin”
“I don’t want to rob anyone of the experience of knowing Chris for themselves. I want them to Google, to YouTube, to Instagram, to Facebook, to ask his friends and family all that they could. [T[here is nothing I could say that would do him justice.
“He has left behind enough work and love in people that we will carry out his work…so that in some way they will “meet Chris” everywhere they go. Chris is quite literally and figuratively everywhere.
“He has blessed and touched and impacted so many lives, venues, places. We are all going to take what we learned from Chris and multiply that shit by 10 and do good work! This world is gonna get better by default. Knowing that helps me ease my heart and to tilt my crown back up! As it should for anyone impacted by his transition.”
Vernon Keith ‘KeithFromUpDaBlock’ Ruffin Jr.
Founder of Ruffin Vision Network LLC and Philadelphia Comedy College
“I would like to leave this message for his unborn child: One day when you’re older you may want to know the truth about who your father was. If I am not here to tell you, I want you to know that he was, is and forever will be one of the Greatest.”
Owner, Raven Lounge
“If you ever saw a comedy show here or ever heard about [Raven Lounge comedy] around the country, it was Chris who was always in some way responsible for it.
“With Chris and I, our show was never about money. It was about creating something of meaning to Philadelphia and giving people a voice. We always had so many plans and projects we would bounce off one another over the many years, so many we left undone… He was my sounding board, my friend, and dare I say, many times my voice of reason. There is no one who could take his place. There are so many amazing memories and stories. My thoughts and prayers go out to his wife Erica who is due with little baby Cotton in February.
“Erica, although we only met a few times over the years, everyone here could see how much he adored you. Many of you were there when Chris first snuck in to our bar and ultimately into our hearts.”
The Lucas Brothers
The Late Show with Jimmy Fallon, Netflix’s Lucas Brothers: On Drugs
“Chris was an exceptional comedian who welcomed us with open arms. When we first started our careers, we traveled to Philly, asking what are some of the best shows in town. All of the comics invariably said Raven’s Lounge, which is a show Chris helped create.
“When we arrived at the show, it was packed and the crowd was electric. Chris was one of the first performers we saw and he absolutely destroyed. His command of language and the stage blew us away. His style was very natural and it almost felt like he was having a conversation with you.
“After the show, we hung out with Chris and he was incredibly gregarious, giving us advice on how to navigate the comedic landscape. We stayed homies after that moment. We’ll miss his powerful laugh, his comedy, his intellect, and his ability to create spaces for new comics to find their voices.”
Owner, Comedy Works Bristol
“Chris was the kind of guy that when you met him, you just liked him. He had an infectious smile. He was never negative. He was always positive.
“He called me and introduced himself. He hounded me until I finally said come on up and you can do a guest set. He came up and did a guest set and he was very funny, very personal, had great stage presence.
“Chris used to call me more so about other people than himself. That’s the kind of guy he was, he was selfless. He would say, ‘I’ve got a comedian for you, you’re gonna love this comedian.’ And he’d give me a comedian.
“Chris came in contact with new and old comedians and he knew everybody. I talked to people yesterday that are just not the same because Chris is gone and that’s the emptiness. And I know that my club would not be the same if it wasn’t for Chris Cotton. People are gonna feel his loss for years to come. I know I will.”