Robert Schimmel, Laughing Through A Cancer Fight

Comedy Central named him one of its 100 best comics, but life hasn't been all laughs for Robert Schimmel. He lost a son to leukemia; he married and split three times — from the same woman.

Still, it was his sense of humor that kept him sane when cancer killed his sitcom deal — and threatened to kill him.

This interview was originally broadcast on March 12, 2008.

Excerpt: 'Cancer on $5 a Day'

Book Cover: 'Cancer on $5 a Day'
Courtesy of Da Capo Lifelong Books

Getting the News

I am in Los Angeles. I am separated from Vicki and living with Melissa. More about her in a bit. As soon as my TV pilot is finished and I get everything straightened out, I'll settle in L.A. for good, with Melissa.

Vicki and I have had a checkered relationship. We got married, then got the marriage annulled, then got remarried, got divorced, then remarried, then on the way to divorce for the absolute final time, no turning back, no bullshit, our son Derek got sick. We stayed together for him, for our other kids, fought the good fight, lost, then drifted apart, not uncommon when a couple loses a child. Now, unfortunately but inevitably, it's over, the final divorce. Bottom line, we tried. But it wasn't meant to be.

And now Melissa. Finding her, falling in love with her, realizing that I belong with her, being more certain of that than of anything in my life. And then, wham, there's a light shining on me, as if the spotlight finds me for the first time. I'm asked to do a sitcom. Me? You kidding? I'm fifty, bald, and Jewish. Not exactly the demographic advertisers are trying to reel in. Who cares? It's my time. After twenty years of stand-up, America has embraced me and my raw, take-no-prisoners, balls-out comedy. I'm gonna be famous. Bizarre.

I go into rehearsal for the pilot. The hours are grueling, the work is intense. I feel fatigued and dazed, and then right before we're set to shoot the show, I start getting chills, two, three times a night. I've got the shakes so bad that I pile on extra blankets. When I wake up, the bed is soaked, totally drenched, as if a pipe has burst beneath the sheets. Melissa is worried, begs me to see a doctor. I don't know any doctors in L.A. I call my manager, who makes an appointment for me with his doctor. I go in for a checkup, and the doc schedules me for a CAT scan. The scan comes back clean.

"You're run down," the doctor says. "We might want to do more tests. You could have Epstein-Barr or mono. That'd be my guess."

Even though there's nothing on the scan, something eats at me. I don't know why, but I feel like there's something else, something that the scan didn't see.

About a week after we shoot the pilot, I'm playing the Monte Carlo in Vegas. My parents are staying with me. It's early June and by noon the temperature is hitting 110, but no problem, it's a dry heat. One afternoon, my dad and I decide to take a stroll through the forum shops. Suddenly, I'm freezing. My entire body starts to shiver. My lips quiver and my teeth begin to chatter.

"Robert, you're shaking."

"I'm freezing. I'm gonna go into the Gap and buy a sweatshirt. I'm really cold."

"Have you seen a doctor?"

"Yeah. I saw that guy in L.A."

"You have to get a second opinion. Today."

I call the doctor who removed my gall bladder a few years ago. He sets me up the next day with a doctor at Mayo in Scottsdale. The doctor wears a permanent frown as he goes over me like he's buying a used car. Finally he says, "How long have you had this lump?"

"Lump? Where?"

"Right here." He lifts my left arm and rubs a tiny bump in my armpit, half the size of a pea.

"I didn't know I had that."

The doctor puckers his lips. For a second it looks like he's gonna kiss me. Then he whistles out a thin stream of air.

"Feels funny," he says. "I want to do a biopsy."

And that's how I ended up here at the Mayo Clinic, my parents sitting bedside, nobody saying much. All of us waiting for the news.

Actually, there's another curve ball. When I woke up in the recovery room, after some of the anesthetic wore off, I felt pain shooting up under my right arm. Sure enough, my right arm was bandaged, not my left, the one with the pebble-sized lump. When I was being wheeled into my room, I said to the orderly, "You guys did the wrong arm."

I could see him studying my chart. His eyes clouded over. "Let me get the doctor."

I don't know how long I waited for the doctor. I was in a morphine-induced cloud. When I managed to blink my eyes open and focus, the doc was standing over me.

"We didn't do the wrong arm," he said, continuing the conversation I'd begun with the orderly. "We found another lump under your right arm."

"How big?"

With his thumb and forefinger, the doctor made a circle the size of a quarter.

"Jesus."

"Yeah," he said.

"Is it—?"

"Waiting for the results," he said.

Excerpted from Cancer on $5 a Day* (*Chemo Not Included): How Humor Got Me Through the Toughest Journey of My Life, by Robert Schimmel (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2008). All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from Da Capo Lifelong Books.

For Comedian, Humor Eases 'Toughest Journey'

Comedian Robert Schimmel

Comedian Robert Schimmel suffered cancer but found strength in humor. Courtesy of Da Capo Lifelong Books hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Da Capo Lifelong Books

Related NPR Stories

The circumstances of comedian Robert Schimmel's life are grim: He lost his son to leukemia, married and divorced the same woman three times, and battled cancer.

But throughout it all, Schimmel managed to find strength in humor. His recent memoir is Cancer on $5 a Day: How Humor Got Me Through the Toughest Journey of My Life.

Schimmel was named one of Comedy Central's 100 Greatest Comics, has had his own stand up specials on HBO and Showtime, and has appeared regularly on Howard Stern and Conan O'Brien.

Books Featured In This Story

Cancer on Five Dollars a Day (Chemo Not Included)
Cancer on Five Dollars a Day (Chemo Not Included)

How Humor Got Me Through the Toughest Journey of My Life

by Robert Schimmel and Alan Eisenstock

Paperback, 195 pages | purchase

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How Humor Got Me Through the Toughest Journey of My Life
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