“I think what I bring to stand-up comedy,” he said in “We’re Funny That Way,” a 1998 documentary, “is a point of view of a gay man that isn’t the victim, isn’t the butt of the joke; I’m making the joke.”
He told one of his favorites on “The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn” in 2000.
“I come from a very conservative family,” he said, “and it wasn’t easy telling my parents that I’m gay. I made my carefully worded announcement at Thanksgiving. I said, ‘Mom, would you please pass the gravy to a homosexual?’ She passed it to my father.”
The comedian Judy Gold, a longtime friend, recalled Mr. Smith telling that same joke years earlier, and what it meant.
“Bob came out onstage as a proud gay man in straight comedy clubs in the mid-’80s at the height of the AIDS crisis by telling an unthreatening and hilarious joke,” she said by email. “There were so many of us who were terrified to be truthful about who we were at that time because it would end our careers, and here was this tall, handsome man who resembled Jimmy Stewart fearlessly delivering brilliant material with dignity and confidence.
“He talked about his sexuality like it was no big deal, and in turn, it became no big deal.”
Robert Smith was born on Dec. 24, 1958, in Buffalo. He had a joke about his birth date: “People with December birthdays now know from years of experience what the three wise men said when they delivered their gifts — ‘These are for both your birthday and Christmas.’ ”
His father, Thomas, was a state trooper, and his mother, the former Sue Corey, was a homemaker. He frequently mined his youth for material for his stand-up routines and his books, as he did in “Openly Bob,” a 1997 volume of essays that included one on sex education.
“While talking about sex with your parents is difficult for straight teenagers, it’s even more trying for gay teenagers,” he wrote. “It takes considerable maturity, when your parents are attempting to tell you the facts of life, to interrupt and inform them of the facts of your life.”
Mr. Smith graduated from the University at Buffalo with a degree in English. He made his Manhattan stand-up debut at Comedy U. Grand, a club in SoHo, in July 1986, a time when being openly gay was fraught with risks, especially in the world of comedy, where heterosexual men dominated and gay-bashing was still good for laughs.
“I was determined to be an out comic in New York,” Mr. Smith wrote in “Love, Christopher Street: Reflections of New York City,” a 2013 book of essays by more than two dozen writers, “since it was the right thing to do, both artistically — a closeted artist is still an oxymoron to me — and politically.”
In 1988 he, Jaffe Cohen and Danny McWilliams formed Funny Gay Males, each man performing his own material in an evening-length show. The act caught on, playing at places like the Ballroom and Town Hall in New York and touring as well.
“It was a show that anyone could enjoy,” Paul Delean wrote in The Gazette of Montreal, describing the men’s 1991 performance at the Just for Laughs comedy festival there, “and very different from much of the mainstream comedy heard in the previous 10 days. There was less profanity, for one thing. More humility, less aggression. Not a single joke demeaning to women or racial minorities.”
In July 1994, Mr. Smith was featured in a first-season episode of “HBO Comedy Half-Hour,” a series that also gave installments to Chris Rock, D. L. Hughley, Margaret Cho and others that year. The day before his episode aired, he made his groundbreaking appearance on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.”
In a 1996 interview with USA Today, Mr. Smith recalled being confident and well rehearsed for that appearance, until he realized that Mr. Leno’s lead guest was Garth Brooks, the country music star.
“I remember looking out at the audience and seeing half the crowd had cowboy hats on,” he said. “I just said to myself, ‘I hope the gay rodeo’s in town.’ ”
Mr. Leno said in a telephone interview that Mr. Smith need not have worried; he had the audience laughing from the start. That Mr. Smith was apparently the first openly gay comic on the show was not something anyone realized until afterward, Mr. Leno said.
“We just thought he was a really funny comedian,” he said.
“He didn’t play the stereotypes,” Mr. Leno added. “He was a proud gay person. I think prior to that a lot of gay comedians played to a gay audience. Whereas he just played to an audience.”
Mr. Smith’s stand-up career was cut short by his disease. In May 2006, a friend noticed that a muscle in his arm was twitching, a symptom. Mr. Smith said he stopped performing in 2010 after finding during an appearance in the East Village that he could not deliver his jokes properly because his speech was deteriorating.
“I feel sad for all the people who never got a chance to see how funny he was,” Mr. Leno said.
Mr. Smith’s books also included the novels “Selfish and Perverse” (2007) and “Remembrance of Things I Forgot” (2011), as well as the collection “Way to Go, Smith!” (1999).
In addition to Mr. Zam, Mr. Smith is survived by his mother and his brothers, Gregory and James. Mr. Smith, acting as the sperm donor for a lesbian couple, Elvira Kurt and Chloë Brushwood Rose, was also the biological father of their two children, Madeline and Xander. In “Treehab,” he told that story, with gentle humor, of course.
“Lesbians can afford to be ruthlessly discriminating when picking their sperm donor,” he wrote. “In fact, if all women were as selective as lesbians, we’d have evolved into a race of gods by now.”
An earlier version of this obituary misstated the surname of one of the founders of Funny Gay Males. He is Danny McWilliams, not Williams.