Veteran comedian Robert Schimmel knows a lot about loss. But it’s because of that, he now knows exactly how to live. In his new memoir, Cancer on Five Dollars a Day, the cringe-worthy comic (one of Comedy Central’s Top 100 stand-ups of all time), lets us tag along on a very personal, painful and yes, hilarious journey.
As one of the most respected working stand-up comedians of our time, Robert Schimmel, has, for more than 20 years, made thousands of comedy fans laugh and has influenced a huge crop of up-and-coming comics, as he’s constantly likened to Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and Richard Pryor. But since beating the non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma he was diagnosed with in 2000, his comedy has done a lot more than create laughs.
Without losing an ounce of the cringe-worthy comedy he’s become so endeared for — this is a guy who has joked about banging his daughter’s boyfriend — he’s become a sort of psychological savior for those who have gone through similar life-threatening challenges, regularly joking onstage about his experience with cancer. Now after his shows, it’s not uncommon for audience members to hug Schimmel, tell them their stories or even cry in front of him.
With his newly released book, Cancer on Five Dollars a Day (Chemo Not Included): How Humor Got Me Through the Toughest Journey of My Life, the 57-year-old comic is poised to reach many more in need of a highly alternative look at how to confront the possibility of death.
Cancer on Five Dollars a Day is as thoughtful as it is raw; and, it’s consistently funny throughout. No doubt, though, you need an open mind to truly benefit from Schimmel’s words. Which makes sense: Opening his mind is much of what got Schimmel through his cancer.
Punchline Magazine recently chatted with Schimmel — he’ll be headlining Carolines in New York City from Feb. 28-March 2 — about his book, his current take on comedy and much more.
For years now, in your stand-up you’ve talked a lot about your falling ill with cancer. Was it any more difficult recounting those experiences when you were writing the book?
Yeah, because the book went into a lot of detail. There are some things in the book that just can’t be made fun of, things that aren’t for comedy-club consumption. When I’m on stage, I want to sound as positive as possible.
In the beginning, my agents thought I shouldn’t talk about my cancer on stage. They said no one’s going to want to hear it. And then I closed a show at the Monte Carlo in Vegas one night with a slide show where I showed photos of myself during my treatment. My agents were like, “Oh God, don’t do that; don’t close the show with the cancer stuff. You’re going to show yourself sick, and people aren’t going to want to hear that. They’re there to have a good time.”
You force the audience to come eye to eye with their own mortality and no one wants to think about that. But I had like almost everybody come up to me after the show, hugging me, telling me I seemed so human on stage. Everyone knows someone who’s going through it or went through it or who’s lost someone to cancer. Even people who’ve lost someone want to know there’s someone out there that made it. But I’m sure there are some people that aren’t really happy for me.
So how did you get through writing such a detailed account?
The guy who helped me write the book [Alan Eisenstock], he lost a kid. And that’s why I chose him. He interviewed me for Variety, for the Father’s Day issue. He knew that I had lost a kid [ed. note: Schimmel’s son, Derek, died at age 11 from cancer] and he told me that he did. We really connected, and when I got offered this book deal, I talked to him about helping me because I figured he would be someone that could help me express myself in a way I can’t because I was too close to the situation.
He was someone else who’s just was close to it, but not directly related to my son, Derek.
We were meeting for lunch at Taverna Tony in Malibu like three or four times a week. Some days we would sit there laughing and some days we’d cry. Your mind is an amazing thing; it could make you push things back where it’s not in the forefront of your thinking all the time and when you’re forced to think about events and what it was really like, some of those things are pretty tough to deal with. In the book, I didn’t want to make the experience seem less than what it was. but I also don’t know how much the people reading it can take.
You talk a lot about Derek in your book, about how he kind of inspired you to handle your cancer positively.
Derek never complained about anything. He always did whatever he could to make other kids laugh in the hospital. I think he got that from me. His mom was like his hospice nurse, and I was comic relief 24 hours a day. He had a colostomy bag that he really didn’t like. He got it when he was like nine-and-a-half. It’s not a good age to get it; you’re just starting to notice girls a little bit. So I put the colostomy bag on me once when I was in the hospital with him and went into the bathroom. I came out and it was filled with Coca Cola. There’s a drain at the bottom.
I came out, and I said, “Oh man, my bag is full. And I opened my shirt up and he saw it. and he started screaming. I emptied the spigot into a cup and I started doing shots of Coca Cola from the colostomy bag. Derek was pushing the nurse call button saying, “You gotta see my dad, you gotta see my dad!” For me, it was like at that moment, whatever he was going through, that really didn’t exist for him or for me. That time was ours. And cancer didn’t own that.
And in an odd way, Howard Stern kind of helped you through Derek’s death.
When I did Stern the first time, the first thing he brought up was Derek. I was sitting on the couch and he said, “You have a dead kid; wow, that’s really something.” And I said, “Yeah, the Make a Wish Foundation came to our house and said they want to make a wish come true a few weeks before he passed away, and I said his wish was to watch Dolly Parton blow me.”
Stern almost fell out of the chair and Gary [Dell’Abate] came up to me during the break and said, “You could be on the show for the rest of your life.” And I said, “Why?” He said, “Because I can’t believe you said that.” I said, “Well, what was I supposed to say? You want me to start crying on the show?”
What kind of reaction do you think your fans will have to the book?
For me, it’s about making a difference for somebody else. And if someone reads the book, and they give it to a friend who’s going through it and says, “Seven years ago this guy had what you had, and he’s telling jokes about it onstage and he’s got two kids since,” then that person gets that extra drive to get through the next couple of treatments and what I went through wasn’t for nothing. All I can do is thank the publisher because they helped me make a difference in someone’s life. What more can I ask for?
I’m not going to make any money off this. It’s not like I’m going to come out with a series of disease books. I’ve had a heart attack; I’ve had some other things. Every time I get sick, my manager says, “Well, here comes another 15 minutes of stand-up.” But that’s they only thing you can do — joke about it. When you have to face things like this, I think laughing is very disarming.
Yeah, itÃ’s obvious that humor has helped you through the most trying times in your life. In the book and in your actions, it seems you really do believe the mind can have a tremendous effect on one’s physical health. Do you think had it not been for your psychological state during your illness, the physical outcome would have been different?
I was stage 3 when I got diagnosed. Stage 4 is when it’s in your brain and in your bone already. Stage 5 is like a development deal with the Fox network. I think that at the point I was at, you could say, “I’m dead.” My oncologist said you have to be very careful with how you give a prognosis. If you tell some people that if the treatment doesn’t work, you have about five months to live, in that person’s subconscious, there’s like a countdown alarm. And when that time comes swinging around, you’re real sick.
And I do believe that people can be hypochondriacs, and they could make themselves sick. But I think it works the other way, too. You’re mind has to be open. I think it’s in us to heal a lot of things on our own — if we allow ourselves.
What was the most difficult thing about talking about your cancer for the first time onstage?
In the beginning I was feeling survivor’s guilt. I’m onstage talking about it, and I just got this gut instinct that someone in the audience is saying, “Good for you, but my sister didn’t make it.” But that’s all in my head. No one’s coming over and saying that. I’m putting myself in that position because I lost a son to cancer.
I went to see a comedian I sort of look up to and admire in Las Vegas. He was talking about cancer but not about his experience with it. He was making fun of people that had it. I had to leave the showroom. I walked into the parking lot to get fresh air; I was having an anxiety attack. That was when my son was sick and I was thinking, Boy, I came in here to get away from it all and you’re just pushing it right in my face.
I realized at the moment how helpless of a situation I was in at home. I couldn’t do anything about it. I feel like I’m in control of my life when I’m onstage. I’m the boss. I never let cancer take control. My doctor told me cancer is a part of your life but it doesn’t have to rule your life and it doesn’t.