It was sad to learn of the death September 3 of comedian Robert Schimmel, 60, after a car accident. This is an interview I did with him in 2002, a conversation that I found very moving.
Death Takes a Holiday
Robert Schimmel, a “comedian’s comedian,” talks about sex, success and surviving cancer.
By Pamela Zoslov
Think of it as a cosmic joke— God having a bit of fun. A guy’s at the cusp of a brilliant career, and he finds out he has less than a year to live. It happened to Robert Schimmel, the comedian. And, this being God’s joke, the timing was perfect. It was 2000, and Schimmel was living every standup comic’s dream. He had toiled for two decades on the yuk-club circuit, won numerous comedy awards, had his own HBO special. He wasn’t yet a household name, but he was generating buzz as a “comedian’s comedian,” a smart, no-holds-barred performer whose straight talk about sex, relationships and matters scatological endeared him to Conan O’Brien and Howard Stern, who made him a frequent (and brilliant) guest on their shows. Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno and Jimmie Walker are fans, and Jerry Lewis, asked to name his favorite comedian, said “Robert Schimmel.”
So what happens? Schimmel gets within millimeters of comedy’s brass ring: his own TV series. Fox wants to star Schimmel in a sitcom, and they shoot a pilot. It gets picked up for 13 episodes. And then he gets the diagnosis: non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a deadly cancer of the lymphatic system. The kind of cancer that killed Jacqueline Onassis. He has a year, at best. “Everything had to go on hold,” Schimmel says on the phone from L.A. — the sitcom, his tour. He endures a series of chemotherapy treatments, and now cautiously celebrates 17 months of remission. In the hospital, needle I his arm, he had a lot of time to think about life, death and comedy. “I found humor in what I was going through,” he recalls. “It’s hard to take if you don’t find humor. If you really think about what it is you’re going through and how terrifying and hopeless it could be, it would be hard to recover from. So I never dwell on the negative.”
If he wanted to dwell on the negative, Schimmel has a hell of lot of material. His life has been a litany of death, disease and disaster, enough to give Job (a guy who never got his own sitcom) a run for his shekels. Born in the Bronx 52 years ago, Schimmel is the son of Holocaust survivors. His 11-year-old son, Derek, died of cancer. At 48, Schimmel had a heart attack. His wife suffered a nervous collapse, and the couple separated after 23 years.
Even his comedy debut was marked by disaster. In 1981, he was selling stereos in Scottsdale, Arizona, when he went to L.A. and killed at open-mike night at the Improv. The club gave him an open invitation to perform anytime, so he quit his job and moved his family to L.A. He drove up to the club and found it bordered up and smoldering from a fire the night before.
But Schimmel figured if his parents could survive concentration camps, he could learn not to be bitter. After his diagnosis, Schimmel says, “I had a decision to make. I could feel sorry for myself, say that life sucks — I have good reason to say that life sucks. But life doesn’t suck. As shitty as it can be sometimes, life is still worth living. In a way, being raised by Holocaust survivors influenced his comedy. “I’m the butt of all my jokes, which makes me the victim — which is what they were. I learned a long time ago that you get a bigger laugh when you’re making fun of yourself.”
He certainly has no patience with those who blame God. “Every time something happens, the insurance companies say ‘It’s an act of God,’ he muses. He gets the blame. When I go to the Pearly Gates, I want to be standing behind an insurance agent, and I want to hear God say to him, ‘Wait a minute: didn’t you blame me for that fire in Malibu in 1993?”
Like Lenny Bruce, Schimmel exposes what he considers to be the truth about men — that they’re all perverts who will have sex with anyone or anything, and who foolishly expect their women to perform like porn queens. Their fixation on physical perfection strikes Schimmel as absurd. “You’re always looking for something you’re never going to find. Nothing is perfect. Well, there is something perfect: real love is perfect. Then none of those things — sex, size, performance — none of it means anything.”
He is also realistic about success. Having your own sitcom is supposed to be every comedian’s dream, but it doesn’t mean that much to Schimmel now. “You do a sitcom, you’re there for 12, 13 hours a day, five days a week. You could be a household name, like Ray Romano or Jerry Seinfeld, but you can get stuck in a rut. It means a lot to me to be live in front of an audience, because I’m happy to be alive. A lot of those sitcom guys, you never see them live. Being super-big doesn’t mean that much to me.” If financial success did mean a lot to Schimmel, he says, he wouldn’t have chosen to do such risqué comedy. “I think I’ve done okay for somebody that isn’t really mainstream, but this is me, and that’s what I love doing. I only want to do stuff onstage that’s me. I don’t want to go out there and recite.”
What does mean a lot to Schimmel is helping other people with cancer. Listening to comedy and music helped Schimmel get through chemotherapy, so he is asking fans to bring new or used comedy and music CDs or audio books to the Improv, which he will donate, along with CD players, to local cancer treatment centers.
Comedians always complain about life on the road —Steve Martin once said it was like rock and roll without the chicks — but Schimmel relishes it. “I just finished 14 weeks on the road. I live for it. I can’t imagine not doing it, like I can’t imagine not breathing. I used to dream about it, so I still get goose bumps when I hear the emcee announce my name.
“Knowing you can make people forget about their problems for a little while — no matter if you’re a middle-aged, balding, pudgy Jewish guy that people wouldn’t give a second look at walking down the street. For that one hour, you’re Matt Damon and Brad Pitt.”
But don’t women always say they like a guy with a sense of humor? “Women say it’s number one,” he replies thoughtfully. “Guys usually think the dick is number one, and the sense of humor is number two.”