Monday’s local headlines announced that the body of 29-year-old Columbia dental student Jiwon Lee was found Saturday in the Hudson River. Most outlets reported that she was last seen at her apartment the evening of April 1, served as president of the university’s American Student Dental Association, and that a history of depression led to at least one prior suicide attempt. Some mentioned that her cell phone was traced to the George Washington Bridge, she taught math to middle-schoolers through AmeriCorps and had performed as a stand-up comedian. Missing from all was her love for and respect within the New York comedy community.
Jiwon Lee made me laugh every time I saw her. She was a sweet girl and nice to be around. She had a spark in her. I am so sad we lost her.
— Amy Schumer (@amyschumer) May 5, 2014
“Jiwon was great,” says Judah Friedlander. “A young comic who was funny and always improving. Very generous.”
Lee offered a rare well of support and encouragement in a fiercely competitive, fractious industry. Recalling her empathy, intelligence, determination, fearlessness and modesty, peers also praise her undeniable talent. Her 5′ 2″ frame and effortless sense of style juxtaposed strikingly with a dry, blunt delivery and affinity for the off-color. Even after Lee focused on her education in recent years, she maintained close ties with comedians, all of whom continued regarding her as one of their own.
“She would riff on the way the rest of the world reacted to her as an Asian girl teaching up in Harlem, doing stand-up comedy in these dive bars in the Village, moving in spheres where she represented a minority,” says Sara Benincasa. “She was a woman of color in an overwhelmingly white alternative comedy scene and she had some pretty funny shit to say about that.
“She really knew how to focus on people when she spoke to them so that they felt they were truly being heard. I was sad when she stepped away from stand-up comedy, even though I understood–it’s a tough life and it doesn’t offer much in the way of healthy influences, not to mention an income to sustain any kind of comfortable existence in New York City.”
I used to take the N train home w/ Jiwon Lee after our shows at Rififi and we’d mock all of the comics with Asian fetishes. She was great.
— Joe Mande (@JoeMande) May 5, 2014
In 2007, Lee co-founded NYC’s annual 50 First Jokes show with Claudia Cogan and John O’Donnell. “When things got tense or lead to a stalemate,” says Cogan, “she knew how to settle that, either with her perfect diplomacy or a really funny observation. It was hard to stay upset when you are working with someone like that. You would get back to laughing and being friends really quickly thanks to her.
“Jiwon was everyone’s cheerleader. There is competitiveness and envy swirling in the air in comedy and Jiwon never contributed to that. She was totally the opposite: always happy for when one of those rare golden moments came along in your career. A huge supporter. She gave great encouragement. She was the only person who could sell me on myself. She was someone who always took the time to let you know you were important.”
Lee appeared with Pete Holmes and Matt McCarthy in a video for Pete Holmes Show forerunner Front Page Films in 2008 and in The Onion as a photographic model accompanying the article “Asian Teen Has Sweaty Middle-Aged-Man Fetish” the following year. Her television credits included NBC’s Standup for Diversity, Comedy Central’s Root of All Evil, AMC’s Date Night, and ESPN Classic’s Cheap Seats.
Jiwon Lee was funny & nice & smart. You usually get two of those together, but rarely all three. She’d hate this tweet. She was great.
— Mike Drucker (@MikeDrucker) May 5, 2014
Stripped Stories co-host Giulia Rozzi recalls Lee’s narrative concerning an old roommate as one of her all-time favorites. “She is the kind of friend that if she says she will be somewhere, she will be there,” says Rozzi. “She kept her word. Whenever we hung out we’d have awesome conversations where we both were just so interested in what the other was saying, she asked questions and really cared about the answers. I loved it when her reaction was ‘Oh my God, really?!’ in her adorable and hilarious deadpan tone.”
On May 18 at Littlefield, the Chicks and Giggles 10th anniversary show will pay tribute to their lost comrade, sharing memories, stand-up clips and photos. Following the show, says co-founder Carolyn Castiglia, an informal memorial invites anyone wishing to speak about Lee to do so.
“She would’ve been a really funny dentist, mom, wife, you name it,” says Benincasa. “She would’ve brought that humor to whatever she did. Jiwon didn’t fit any kind of a mold and that’s why she stood out. She sparkled.
“So many of us in the comedy community have struggled with mental illness. It is incredibly tragic to me that Jiwon may have fallen prey to such pain,” Benincasa continues. “I just hope there are people who hear her story and are moved to reach out for help. Jiwon would have helped people who needed it. A lack of empathy was never her problem.”