Sometime in the morning on Nov. 11, Tristan Devin ended his life in the alley behind People’s Republic of Koffee, the Capitol Hill café he owned and operated. The news of the 32-year-old comedian’s death was a shock. To some members of Seattle’s tight-knit comedy community, it seemed like a joke.
“At first, I thought it was a morbid Internet prank,” said friend Adam Firestone two days later at a hastily assembled memorial at the café. “I thought he would be at the shop when I went there.”
The café filled to capacity for the memorial. Tables were carried outside to make room for stunned mourners. Comics, improv players, friends from Devin’s stints on Alaskan fishing boats, café regulars and residents of the nearby apartment buildings all came to remember the life of a very active member of the community.
Devin was a talented performer and a quiet leader. He produced and performed in shows for Bumbershoot, the Seattle Festival of Improv Theater, SketchFest Seattle, the Vancouver Comedy Festival and the Seattle International Film Festival. He produced the People’s Republic of Komedy’s flagship showcase, Laff Hole, at Chop Suey. He hosted weekly all-ages open mics at his café, providing scores of young comics with an entrée into the world of stand-up.
Devin stood out as a stable and benevolent presence. Surrounded by fledgling talent and fragile egos, he made the café a welcoming, all-inclusive hub for comedians. Onstage, he excelled at creating characters that were absurdly, tragically flawed, invoking compassion for the most broken souls in a way that, in heartbreaking retrospect, suggested a deep personal familiarity with suffering.
At the memorial, friends grasped for the reasons behind his unexpected suicide. Kevin Hyder, co-founder of the People’s Republic franchise and Devin’s friend of 14 years, recalled witnessing his fellow comedian’s struggles with depression in the past. “He packed up his bags and disappeared for two and a half years,” Hyder said. “It was a breakdown that was so drastic and severe that it took two years to come out of it and rebuild.”
Working summer stints on Alaskan fishing boats and solitary graveyard shifts at local bakeries, Devin gradually reemerged. When Hyder burned out on the café and the comedy collective, Devin assumed responsibility, pouring his enthusiasm into booking Laff Hole and renovating the café. Hyder had never seen him so engaged with the world.
“‘I know that things look kind of overwhelming right now, but it’s not as big as it may seem,’” Hyder recalled his friend saying. “‘I just wanted you to know that I’m the happiest I’ve ever been, and for the first time I feel like I’m doing what I really want to do.’”
At the memorial service, many of Devin’s friends were amazed at the volume of creative output he had amassed. He performed and toured with numerous sketch and improv troupes, wrote and staged original plays, edited a literary humor magazine, studied theater criticism at Stanford, and produced a sketch podcast, a blog and hundreds of original comedy events.
“It’s not about trajectory,” Hyder said, summing up his friend’s selfless approach to comedy. “It’s not about who you’re climbing over or whether your star is rising. It’s just about putting together good work.”