Robert Schimmel, CANCER ON $5 A DAY, author, standup comedian: Mr. Media Interview, Part 1
Anyway, I gave up that dream early. It’s a tough, humiliating life, not for me.
Now, Robert Schimmel, on the other hand, is one of the best stand-up comedians of his generation. He, like Richard Belzer before him, is the guy other comedians watch and measure themselves against. He is naturally funny and naturally crude, rude, and not recommended for listeners under the age of 18.
That’s my way of saying if you’re too young to drink or if you’re easily offended, tune out now. The button-down mind of Bob Newhart this definitely is not.
These days, Schimmel is still out doing his job making people laugh, but there is a twist. In 2000, when his career was reaching new heights, he was diagnosed with Stage III non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, cancer. Not good. But he underwent aggressive therapy and routed the disease, even discovering a new source of material for his act in process. And he’s written a book, Cancer on $5 a Day: Chemo Not Included, How Humor Got Me Through the Toughest Journey of My Life.
You can also LISTEN to this interview by clicking the BlogTalkRadio.com audio player below!
BOB ANDELMAN/Mr. MEDIA: Robert, I’m kind of curious. You’ve written your first book. What was it like to see your material in such a permanent format? You’ve done CDs, and, subject matter aside for the moment, it’s Robert Schimmel’s voice on paper. What was that like for you?
ROBERT SCHIMMEL: It was hard. I never had any intention of writing a book before because I have friends that are comedians that have books out and basically what their book is is it’s like their stand-up act that’s been transcribed and put into a book. And I never wanted to do anything like that because I know that there are some jokes that you can tell live on stage, and maybe it’s your delivery or your timing, your personality where all those things play into the way the joke works, and you look at it on a piece of paper, and it’s not the same thing.
I used to write for “In Living Color.” There were sketches that you’d write that you knew were funny, but other people read them on a sheet of paper, and they go, “Naah, we’ve got to punch it up a little bit,” and it was perfect the way it was the first time.
I had somebody help me write this book. I’m not gonna deny that because I respect writers, and they usually don’t get any credit for when they help somebody else, but I have a picture of the guy in the inside flap of the book. His name is Alan Eisenstock, and the reason why I chose to have him help me was twofold. One, he interviewed me in 2000 when I was on top of the world career-wise for a Father’s Day issue of Variety magazine, and as we spoke, it wound up us getting kind of close, and he found out that I’d lost a son in 1992, and I found out that he lost a son. So when they offered me the book this year, I wanted to find someone that could help me because I knew that I wanted to have somebody else that shared that same experience as I did because they could help me express myself and maybe in some words that might not be in my vocabulary or a way to say it that I don’t. I also wanted someone that didn’t go through cancer the way I did because I wanted them not to be in my shoes for that because then he could be a good judge.
I can talk about what I went through and some of the procedures and tests and all these other things, and to me, it’s like I might as well be reading a menu to you, but I talk to other people, and a lot of people get overwhelmed and they’re like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, don’t tell me anymore!” So I needed someone to say, “You know what? You’re getting too heavy here, and you kind of said this in this other thing.” He helped guide me into putting it in order and making sure that the book was still light-hearted. That’s why I chose the title, Cancer on $5 a Day: Chemo Not Included, because I wanted people to know right up front that I’m not Deepak Chopra or Dr. Phil and that I am a comedian. This is about cancer, but there are light-hearted moments in it.
The only other choice I had for a title…They wanted something like My Unplanned Journey, which that’s not me, but the other title was When Bad Things Happen to Seemingly Good People, but I like Cancer on $5 a Day. I think that that grabs you, and you look at it, and I’m very proud of it. I really am.
First of all, it’s dedicated to my son, and I’d been waiting ever since that happened to find something that I can dedicate to him and leave that mark even after I’m not here anymore. And if people read this or someone reads it, and I know that people have heard my story before cause I talk about it on stage, if it gives somebody hope or inspiration or go wow, he’s seven years out from what he had, and I just started treatment now, I can do it, then what I went through wasn’t for nothing.
I get to do what I love doing the most, which is make people laugh and entertain them and maybe touch them in a way that can help change their lives for the better, and I do believe that laughter is very healing, not only for the people laughing but for the people on the receiving end of the laughter, too.
ANDELMAN: I have to say, as a guy who makes his living co-authoring books, that it was very nice, not only to hear just a minute ago you give Alan Eisenstock credit for helping you with this, but he actually wrote the introduction to the book, which was very touching in and of itself. It’s very unusual that way.
SCHIMMEL: Yeah. I know he’s written other books for a couple other comedians he’s worked with where he told me that those guys never mention his name, that he’s gone to book signings with them where they don’t even acknowledge he’s in the room, and I just can’t do that. Maybe it’s because of what I went through versus somebody else where they’re just a comic, and they have a book out for something. I admire what he did, and I respect him, and he deserves the credit for what he did. I can’t lie and tell people that I did it all by myself cause it’s not true, and I just wouldn’t do it. And I mention him on the radio. I did now. Every interview I do, I bring his name up. I don’t see what’s wrong with it, and I can understand why writers would want to strike, and when they don’t get the credit that’s due to them because this guy basically had to go back into his own feelings about losing his child.
We sat together for days and days and days. Every week, we got together like 3, 4 days a week at Taverna Tony, this Greek restaurant that’s in Malibu, and it’s like halfway between where he lives and I live. There were days that we were laughing. There were days when we were crying where we just had to stop, and we said we couldn’t do anymore that day because he started talking about things about his son, I would talk about mine, and then that was just it. And we knew that we weren’t going to get anything done that was going to be able to get on paper that day.
So for him to do that, to me, that’s not just sitting down and writing a book with someone or transcribing or re-writing. He emotionally took that roller-coaster ride with me, and it’s a tough ride to take. It really is.
There are people that don’t make it. I want to be realistic also, but life is still beautiful no matter what. My life is as precious as his was, and I have other children, and I just didn’t want them to feel like second-class citizens to him. What would they have to do? Get really sick before they get the attention he got? And I did find humor in it. When you’re in the hospital and you lose all your hair and everything, and your doctor comes in and says, “Would you be interested in a wig?” And he has like an 8 x 10 like a binder, a notebook with different headshots with wigs on them. I said to the guy, “Do you have one for my crotch?” And the guy says, “As a matter of fact, we do,” and he showed me pictures. I almost fell out of the bed. And he said, “Robert, they’re virtually undetectable,” and I’m thinking, Undetectable? I don’t have one eyelash, and then I’m gonna have a shrub between my legs, and that’s not gonna be detectable?
ANDELMAN: Now wait a minute. Did you actually buy one, though?
SCHIMMEL: Of course I did.
ANDELMAN: That’s what I thought, yeah.
SCHIMMEL: Of course I did, and it looked so stupid. It looked like a hair donut. It was like a Krispy Kreme donut that somebody dropped on a barbershop floor, and my wife wouldn’t even play ring toss with me.
ANDELMAN: Now, did you buy a wig for your head, though, for the top of your head?
ANDELMAN: No, but you bought one for your crotch?
SCHIMMEL: Yeah, well, because I was losing my hair already before chemotherapy, and I was thinking if I walked out of the hospital with a full head of hair, people would go, “What, are you kidding?” That was already gone way before chemotherapy.
SCHIMMEL: I do believe that attitude has a lot to do with overcoming obstacles in your life. When I first got diagnosed, my doctor came in the room, and I thought I had the flu. I was working in Las Vegas at the Lance Burton Theater at the Monte Carlo. It was June 2 and 3, 2000, coming back from the from shopping with my dad, and I’m freezing, and I say, “We gotta stop. I gotta get a sweatshirt or something. I’m shivering.” And he said, “Bob, it’s like 112 degrees out.” And I go back to my room. Like an hour before the show, I’m getting the chills and sweats, and I go into a hot shower that was so hot my dad couldn’t believe that I was standing in there, and I still had goosebumps, and my teeth were chattering.
I thought it was the flu. And I felt tired, I was losing weight, I go to the doctor, they find a little lump, they go and do a biopsy, and even after what I went through with my son, cancer was the furthest thing from my mind. I would think that that’s not gonna happen two times in my immediate family. And when they told me, the guy came in, I was with my mom and dad and my wife, and he had a legal pad, and he drew down the center a line. On one side, he wrote “Hodgkins Disease.” On the other side, he wrote “non-Hodgkins.” Then he wrote “aggressive, indolent, Stage I, Stage II, Stage III, Stage IV,” and all this stuff, and he said, “Robert, I wish I could tell you that you had Hodgkins Disease, but you have non-Hodgkins.” And I said, “You know what? That’s just my luck. I got the one that’s not named after the guy.” And he laughed, and he said, “You know what? You’re gonna be okay.” And I said, “I am?” And he said, “Yeah, cause your head’s in the right place.”
And I’m not saying I wasn’t scared because I was.
It got to a point right before the last treatment where it’s like you’re thinking, If this didn’t work, I don’t know what would happen to me mentally. Only so many things can happen to you before you just start laughing because that’s the only thing left to do is laugh. It really is.
My parents are Holocaust survivors. My dad’s parents and his sister and brother were shot in front of him and killed, and he’s the sole survivor of his family and went to Auschwitz. My dad has the greatest sense of humor I’ve ever heard. He never is negative. As a matter of fact, when Derek got diagnosed, he said, “Robert, don’t look up at God and ask why. Derek didn’t do anything wrong. It has nothing to do with that.” He said, “Life doesn’t always go the way you plan it, and the toughest thing for some people is to surrender to the fact that there are things in life that you just have no control over.”
I’m a very lucky guy. I have, including Derek, six children. There wasn’t any time in my life where I could afford to have a substance abuse problem, and I don’t drink, but I have gone with a couple of friends to some AA meetings, and I gotta tell you something. The Serenity Prayer, that’s not a bullshit story. If you live by that, I think that you’d be in good shape because I think a lot of people get hung up where you don’t know the difference between things that you can change and that you can’t. I did everything I could for my son. My wife did, my parents did, the doctors did. The rest of it is in somebody else’s hands. For me to know why, honestly, if an angel came down right now while we are talking and said, “You know what? I heard you talking about your son, and I know you still miss him and you love him, and I’m gonna tell you why he died,” it wouldn’t make any difference. It really wouldn’t.
I just read something the other day, by the way, in front of a dry cleaners in Burbank. They have a marquee at the dry cleaners, and they always have these little quotes up there. And this one said, “Life’s not about surviving the storm, it’s learning to dance in the rain.” That really hit me because that’s really what it is, and to me, when I’m on stage and I make people laugh, I feel like I’m in complete control of everything. It’s probably the only place that I feel in control completely. The minute you step off stage anything can happen, but what’s gonna happen when you’re up there? What - that I bomb and I die? Well, every comic’s died on stage, and one of the first things you learn is there’s life after death. You get to come back to die again. There’s a lot of dying before you start getting funny.
ANDELMAN: Now, Robert, I have to interrupt you there because one of the things that I marked in the book was that you say, “I’m not ready to die period. To begin with, I cannot imagine a future without me in it.”
Look, I miss my son. I know one day that I’ll be with him, but it’s not time for me to be with him, and I can’t feel bad about it. Did I? Yes. Probably the worst feeling that I had, worse than getting diagnosed with cancer, honestly, was on December 12, 2000 after I finished all my treatment, and I got my first MRI and my CAT Scan, and they said that I was clear and that, starting that day, I can consider myself in remission. And I started suffering from survivor’s guilt because I felt really weird that, “Why did I make it and my son didn’t?”
I talked to my father about it, and my father told me he went through the same thing after the war, that after he met my mom, he said, “Why me? Why did I get to meet the love of my life and have three children and get to see my grandchildren being born, and my mother, father, sister, and brother didn’t?” Well, it’s not for him to know why. There’s no way it could not be funny. When you go to the doctor and he says that you have open sores in your mouth and down your throat cause that’s what happens with chemotherapy, that to avoid any kind of oral/ anal contact, and I’m thinking: Do I look like an ass eater to you? First you tell me I have cancer and now I can’t kiss anybody’s ass? When’s the punishment gonna stop? What did he think I was gonna be doing that? I could barely eat Jell-O.
You’re not supposed to have sex when you’re on chemotherapy because all the chemotherapy in you comes out in all your bodily fluids. So actually they told me that if I had a bathroom that I could use that my wife and daughters didn’t use, that would be the way to do it because guys sometimes pee on the seat, and a girl sits on it, and any that gets on them or in them, that could be dangerous.
And he said, “You could take care of yourself.” Well, it is really hard to lay in bed and pray to God and say, “Please let me get through this,” and then be jerking off in the same bed looking up at the same ceiling. It’s impossible. It just really is. And I prayed, and I had a really hard time doing it, and I’ll tell you why. I think I’m more spiritual than religious. I’m laying in bed asking God to get me through this, and it felt like I had a friend that I hadn’t talked to in 10 years, and out of the blue, I’m calling him and asking him to lend me a thousand dollars. I don’t pray all the time, and then here I am asking for the biggest thing you could ask for, which is not to die, but I prayed to everybody. I prayed to Buddha, I prayed to Jesus, if there had been a G.I. Joe in the room, I would’ve been praying to him, anything and anything to get me through it.
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© 2008 by Bob Andelman. All rights reserved.