The comedian, writer, thinker and mensch Larry Miller has a beautiful tribute to Robert Schimmel on his blog today. Schimmel was a regular Howard Stern guest. As funny as his stand up was, there was something in the interactions between him and Howard that unleashed an even funnier, even darker side. In some deep ways, those two understod one another.
....Here’s something you won’t read in any of the papers, and it’s really the whole point of this clog.
Robert’s parent were both Holocaust survivors. His father was marched out of their concentration camp with thousands of others as the Americans were advancing in the winter of ‘45, in order to… Oh, who knows what those horrible folks were even thinking at that point. They marched the prisoners, in no coats, until they died or dropped. And when they dropped, trying to catch a breath, they walked over and shot them — as calm as a glass of tea. Robert’s father dropped, along with his best friend, and a guard walked over and killed him. Otto, the father, was next to him, and he was the one shot, weakly holding up a hand and whispering, “No. Please.”
Then the guard turned to Otto and… Shot him? No. He screamed, “If you want to live, get up and keep going.” And somehow Otto did.
And a few years later, Robert was making people laugh in Las Vegas.
Here’s the thing, though. One night, Otto told Robery after a show, “You were good. You know, I always wanted to be a comic, but, well…” Can you imagine? Is life weird enough?
And here’s the deepest part: Otto never forgot that moment in the snow on that march. And one day Robert said to him something I still find extraordinary. Did you catch it? It was what the guard said.
If you put it in different hands, at a different moment, with a different feeling, Robert said, it’s actually the greatest, deepest, simplest advice in history:
“If you want to live, get up and keep going.”
Robert Schimmel certainly learned that lesson. Get up and keep going. He never gave up. He was a terrific comic, but maybe that was his greatest gift: Get up and keep going.
Not a bad lesson for all of us to learn. With all the things in his life, I told him once, even Job turned to God and said, “Gee, now I don’t feel so bad anymore.”
Have a great Labor Day weekend. And then, get up and keep going.
(P.S. If you feel like it, that new show of mine is available for free by subscribing to iTunes: “This Week With Larry Miller.)
REMEMBER: IF YOU WALKED OUT OF BED TODAY, AND NO ONE YOU LOVE GOT SICK AND DIED, AND NO ONE SHOT YOU WHEN YOU GOT TIRED… FOLKS, TURN ON A GAME AND CRACK A BEER, BECAUSE YOU ARE WALKING IN TALL COTTON.
Rest in peace, Bob 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.”