Sean Rouse died on June 29, 2018, at the elderly age of 43 years old, leaving a large hole in the fabric of brilliant, brave, and sinister comedy, still wearing the thorny crown of “best comedian you’ve never heard of.”
Sean lived most of his life with his candle burning at both ends — one end torching through the downward spiral of crippling rheumatoid arthritis, the other ablaze with drugs and alcohol, both celebratory and medicinal, and those drugs, more often than not, were yours. And in spite of that, for over two decades he created some of the most unique, adorably morbid, and precisely crafted stand-up comedy I’ve ever watched.
He would build routines like a drama, using silence as the foundation, and cautiously chosen, succinct sentences as the framework before blowing the whole structure to pieces, blindsiding you with a punch line you never saw coming and then gleefully pounding out taglines like a child arsonist kicking up the embers of his own destruction.
While his body failed him, his criminally boyish face never aged and allowed him to thrive with subject matter that would make for another comedian’s public apology: the tsunami in Thailand, child molestation (his own) versus rape, executing the mentally retarded, and fearless material about race while being possibly the whitest man alive. All with a dangerously paced and drawled delivery that almost dared the audience to protest in the gaps. An agonizingly long pause could leave even me thinking he’d gone blank. And finally he’d look up with a grin.
“Hang on. There’s a catcher in my head and I’m waving him off.”
The room erupts.
Much will be made in comedy circles of Sean’s demons but they were exactly that: his demons. The demons were a slave to him. He owned them. And if he peed on your couch or puked in your car, he’d smile and tell you that it was your own fault for inviting him. You knew what you were getting into.
I met Rouse in 1997 at the Laff Stop, his home club in Houston, and was blown away by this kid, this evil child, this Damien Omen of the stage. At the time, he’d been misdiagnosed with the deadly disease of lupus. After that show, I tried to buy him a cocktail, which he declined, citing his condition.
“I can’t drink because of the lupus.”
“Fuck you, I have radio in the morning. Get a drink,” I said.
Without a beat, Sean quietly replied, “Yeah. Once I had lupus and radio in the same morning. Which sucks because not only do you have get up early, you still have to watch your body slowly deteriorate.”
To which we became fast friends, especially after the lupus was dismissed and he could drink with me. Not that Seanny should be remembered simply by his love of the drink. Sean was also an avid sports fan (degenerate gambler), a legendary problem-solver (living that long without health insurance), and an enthusiast of South American exports. You understand.
Rouse plowed on in a battle between his career and his health and predilections. He moved to L.A. and quickly landed a part in Men in Black II. Somewhere around then he had a gig in Beaumont, Texas, and woke up confused the next morning in the booth of a closed restaurant in a casino in Louisiana, not knowing how he got there or how to get back. He was invited on to join Dave Attell’s Insomniac tour and subsequently had painful joint-replacement surgery. He crushed it on Jim Norton’s Down and Dirty on HBO somewhere around his divorce and the slow, broken move back to Texas.
None of his television credits compared to seeing him live or even behind the scenes. While filming the NBC show Last Comic Standing, comedian Matt Kirshen shared this anecdote on Twitter:
Nobody told Sean Rouse what to do. Not in comedy, not in life.
Except for possibly his Irish mother, whom he adored, Cine Rouse. He leaves her along with his beloved son, Cade, and a brother, Gene.
He also leaves a sea of comedians and audiences, all wanting more, a comedy rule: Always leave them wanting more.
Most hysterically, he leaves several bookies in the greater Houston area, stuck and holding the marker. Timing is everything and the house doesn’t always win.
Sean Rouse died after quietly suffering a stroke and then slow-burning that stroke into a heart attack as a closer. Pulling the plug was the tag. Nobody saw any of it coming.