Jewish Journal


September 24, 2008

Robert Schimmel: Cancer, through a lens comedic

West Hollywood Book Fair


Robert Schimmel

Robert Schimmel

In June 2000, Robert Schimmel -- whose ribald routines earned him a spot on Comedy Central's list of 100 greatest comics -- was pondering his mortality after undergoing a cancer biopsy: "Is there a God? What about Jesus . . . I didn't believe in him on earth so is he gonna be pissed at me now?" the 58-year-old recounts in "Cancer on $5 a Day: How Humor Got Me Through the Toughest Journey of My Life."

In the memoir -- which he'll discuss at the West Hollywood Book Fair on Sept. 28 -- Schimmel mixes harrowing stories about his chemotherapy with hilarious anecdotes about his illness and treatment. He riffs about the salesman who tried to sell him a pubic hair toupee (it's called a "merkin"); lusting after various nurses; having to ask his mother, the Holocaust survivor, to buy rolling papers for his medical marijuana; and imagining his funeral ("I probably should've gotten close with some rabbi so I don't get the generic eulogy," he said. "I hate those. You know he never knew the dead guy.")

Even before his diagnosis of Stage III non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Schimmel's experiences had the makings of an inspirational book. He suffered a heart attack in his 40s and the death of one of his six children (also to cancer) in 1992, but he returned to the stage and, by 2000, had produced an HBO special, best-selling CDs, and a sitcom, "Schimmel," slated to debut on the Fox network.
While in rehearsals for the pilot, however, the comedian experienced severe chills and night sweats; a biopsy revealed he had an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. His response to the doctor was immediate: "Just my luck. I get the one not named after the guy."

"My instinct was to go for the laugh," Schimmel said recently, looking fit eight years into his remission. He realized that even though he had just been told he had cancer, he hadn't been told he was going to die. To prove it, he was going to do the one thing that showed he was very much alive, which was to make people laugh.

His audience consisted of fellow patients in the chemotherapy room at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix -- "the toughest room I ever worked," he said. "But remembering what Norman Cousins said about the healing power of humor ... [made] me want to be part of their recovery. I want to help them to feel good, even for a short time.... For in the moment that they laughed, in that one moment, they weren't sick, and they weren't afraid."

Schimmel traces his own survivor's spirit to his parents, Betty and Otto Schimmel, who survived Mauthausen and Auschwitz, respectively. During the most grueling part of chemo -- when he briefly considered suicide -- the comic was fortified by Otto Schimmel's words about how he had traversed a Nazi death march. The prisoner had remembered a Nazi's admonition: "If you want to live, keep moving."

Doctors first warned Schimmel that he might be prone to cancer when he was 13, and they performed surgery on an undescended testicle. Nevertheless, Robert proved to be a class clown with a predilection for trouble. When he failed his German final exam in high school, he declared that the teacher was anti-Semitic: "My father went apes--- and threatened to sue the district," the comic said. "He even got a Jewish German teacher to re-administer my final exam, but I got a worse grade from her than I did the original teacher."

Schimmel went on to work as a stereo salesman in Phoenix, never envisioning a career as a comic, nor even attending a comedy club until he visited his sister in Los Angeles and she signed him up for an open mic night at The Improv -- without telling him -- 20 years ago, when he was in his early 30s. The club's owner chanced to pull Schimmel's name out of a hat and heckled him until he ventured onstage. Schimmel riffed; the audience laughed; and the owner offered him future gigs.

"So I quit my job, put the Phoenix house up for sale and my [then-wife] and I loaded our belongings on a U-Haul to drive to Los Angeles," he said. "I got off the Hollywood Freeway to show her where I was going to be working -- and it turned out the club had burned down the night before."

Schimmel stayed in Los Angeles, supporting himself as a salesman and working open mic shows until he could support his family as a comedian.

When his 3-year-old son, Derek, was diagnosed with cancer in the 1980s, Schimmel found solace in the Book of Job: "The story talks about whether one can have faith when s--- happens, and I always had faith," he said. "I think the real you comes out when you hit bottom. That's when you find out who you really are."

Later, between Schimmel's own chemotherapy treatments, he incorporated his illness into his nightclub act, complete with a slide show of his deterioration. ("That's me when they told me what the co-pay was," he quips about one skeletal-looking picture.) Club owners warned him that audiences wouldn't appreciate the dark subject matter, but viewers roared with laughter, rewarding him with standing ovations and rushing to hug him after each show.

Later, the slide show incorporated photos of the now-healthy comic; his wife, Melissa; and his children (there is one of the late Derek as well). Schimmel just taped a Showtime special, and he performs numerous standup shows a year but still spends a good deal of time speaking to (and joking with) cancer patients.
"How can I say 'no' when people reach out to me? If there is a reason I survived, that's it."

For more information about Schimmel's book and standup dates, visit www.robertschimmel.com.

West Hollywood Book Fair

On Sept. 28, with the advent of fall, comes the seventh annual West Hollywood Book Fair at West Hollywood Park, across the street from the Pacific Design Center. One of the largest events of its kind in Southern California, this year the fair boasts more than 400 authors at more than 100 events, running the gamut from politics to comics, mystery to memoir. They will include science fiction writer extraordinaire Ray Bradbury ("Fahrenheit 451"); Herbert Gold, whose 28th book, "Still Alive!" proves he is still an elder statesman of the Beat Generation; Rabbi David Wolpe ("Why Faith Matters"); and comedian Robert Schimmel ("Cancer on $5 a Day"). Attendance is expected to exceed 25,000.

Attractions include panel discussions, such as "Chicks and Chumps: How Female Crime Writers Handle Their Men"; "Latinos in Lotusland" (moderated by Daniel Olivas, a Jew by choice who has written for The Journal); and "The Second Novel Nightmare" (Janet Fitch, for example, will describe the struggle to write "Paint It Black" -- set in 1980 punk rock Los Angeles -- after her debut novel, "White Oleander," became an Oprah pick and a movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer).
The West Hollywood Book Fair runs 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 28 in West Hollywood Park, 647 N. San Vicente Blvd., with free parking available across the street at the Pacific Design Center (enter from San Vicente). A free shuttle also will be available from Plummer Park, located at 7377 Santa Monica Blvd. For more information, visit www.westhollywoodbookfair.org.

-- N.P.

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