Fresh Air Remembers Comedian Robert Schimmel The 60-year-old comedian, who often joked about his own life in his raunchy stand-up routines, died Friday from injuries suffered in a car accident. Fresh Air remembers Schimmel with highlights from a 2008 interview in which he discusses his memoir Cancer On $5 A Day.
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Fresh Air Remembers Comedian Robert Schimmel

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Fresh Air Remembers Comedian Robert Schimmel

Fresh Air Remembers Comedian Robert Schimmel

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TERRY GROSS, host:

Comedian Robert Schimmel, who was known for his self-depreciating, sexually explicit stand-up act, and for his frequent appearances on Howard Stern's radio show, died last Friday after injuries he sustained in a car accident. His son and his daughter, who was driving, survived the crash. Robert Schimmel was 60 years old.

Schimmel's comedy was dark and raunchy and often based on the minutiae of everyday life. But his straight-shooting stand-up act also touched on life-changing events, like losing a son to leukemia and marrying and divorcing his first wife three times. Cancer became part of his stand-up after he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The illness killed his sitcom deal and then threatened to kill him. At the time of his death, he still had serious health issues and was waiting for a liver transplant.

I spoke with Schimmel in 2008, after he had been in remission for seven years and had written a memoir called "Cancer on $5 a Day: How Humor Got Me Through the Toughest Journey of My Life."

GROSS: Robert Schimmel, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'm guessing it's easier to find the laughs in cancer several years after going into remission?

Mr. ROBERT SCHIMMEL (Comedian): I found it right away, as soon as I - the day I got diagnosed. I was in the oncologist's office with my parents and my wife, and he said there's Hodgkin's disease and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and you have non-Hodgkin's. And I said, you know, that's just my luck; I got the one that's not named after the guy. And he laughed and he said, you're going to be okay. And I said, how do you know? And he said, because your attitude is just, you know - you're who you are, and you're finding humor in it, you know. And he said and that's a healthy thing.

GROSS: So, when you were diagnosed, one of the things the doctor told you was that during chemotherapy it might really help to smoke marijuana.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yes.

GROSS: Were you already into smoking pot? Was this good news? The doctor was...

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Well, I...

GROSS: ...was telling you, hey, you know...

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Well, I had done it earlier in my life, but I was 50 years old and not Rodney Dangerfield, so I wasn't doing it then. But my mother and father were there in the doctor's office, and when he said if you're open-minded, you might consider marijuana because it helps with the nausea and the appetite. And it definitely does. I mean, I tried Marinol, which is medicinal marijuana -it's synthetic THC, which is pills that they give you. And - because the flipside of that is getting Compazine and Zofran shots and all these things that are a lot worse and more toxic than marijuana would be, but to hear a doctor at Mayo Clinic tell me that it's okay to smoke pot in front of my parents was almost worth the diagnosis.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Because, you know, it was like, wow, where were you 25 years ago? That's when I really needed you. And my mom called me once and said, I'm coming to visit, is there anything I can bring you? And I said, could you stop at the 7-Eleven and get me some rolling papers?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHIMMEL: And my mom's 70 years old, Hungarian, she was in Auschwitz during the war, and she calls me from the 7-Eleven and goes, Bob, they have like 20 different kinds. I don't know which one to get. I said, there's a white pack with a guy on the front. And she said, the anti-Semitic-looking guy?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHIMMEL: And I said, the Zig Zag guy's anti-Semitic? And she came over, and you know, I thought it would be really cool to be smoking a joint in front of my parents. It wasn't what I thought it was going to be. I realized that they were accepting it because of my condition, and it wouldn't have been that way if I had not been sick. And so, anything I did like that confirmed to them that I was in pain or feeling nauseous. And I had to sneak it because I have children, and I had a nine-year-old daughter. And I don't wanted to be father that says do what I say, and don't do what I do.

And I made a pipe out of a piece of a cardboard tube from a coat hanger. And I fell asleep, and my daughter found it. And when I woke up, she asked me what it was, and I told her I was trying to make, like, a kind of a whistle or a flute. And she didn't say anything to me. When I was done with chemotherapy, I had a record deal with Warner Brothers, and they gave me tickets to see John Fogerty, who was performing live in Phoenix. And I took her on a date with me to see John Fogerty. And as soon as we walked into the place, she said, hey, Dad, it smells like your whistle in here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHIMMEL: And I knew I was busted right then and that she was just playing dumb when she found it.

GROSS: You know, of course, with the chemo you lost your hair, which you expected, but you probably hadn't been thinking so much about losing your pubic hair, which, of course, you lost, too. And you made an interesting discovery, which other people who've had cancer might already know, which is they have wigs for your pubic hair - to replace your pubic hair.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yes.

GROSS: They even have a name. What are they called?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: It's called a merkin. It's m-e-r-k-i-n. They've been around, actually, since the late 1800s. You know, the guy showed me a ring binder with head shots of wigs - real wigs. And, you know, I was losing my hair anyway before chemotherapy. And so, just jokingly I said to the guy, you got one for, you know, south of the border? And the guy said, as a matter of fact, we do. And I was shocked. And he was showing me pictures of them, and they basically -it looked like a doughnut that somebody dropped on a barbershop floor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHIMMEL: And they had different models. There wasn't just one. There's like the executive, the adventurer, salt and pepper, the surfer. And it was really the craziest thing that I ever bought in my life. And...

GROSS: You bought it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Of course, I did.

GROSS: As a prop?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: You know, guys are...

GROSS: As a prop or to actually wear?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: No.

GROSS: Wait, which?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: I was pretty insecure, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You really wore it.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yes. I tried it. You know, I looked at myself naked, and, you know, a 50-year-old man that's bald down there - it's not a, really a good look. It looked like a small, plucked bird fell in my lap and broke its neck during the fall.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHIMMEL: And guys are insecure enough about, you know, size and everything else. So, when you don't have hair down there - it didn't work with me.

GROSS: We're listening back to a 2008 interview with comedian Robert Schimmel. He died Friday of injuries sustained in a car crash. We'll hear more of that interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're remembering comic, Robert Schimmel, who died Friday of injuries sustained in a car accident. We're listening back to an interview we recorded in 2008 after the publication of his memoir about being treated for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He had been in remission for seven years when we spoke.

GROSS: During the period that you had cancer, you tried a bunch of alternative therapies and relaxation techniques. Which of all of those seemed most out of character for you?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: The crystals. My wife took me to this place and got crystals. And you know, told me that my chakra was off or - I don't know what that, you know - at that point, you're trying anything. And so, I had a purple crystal that I was supposed to put between my eyes on my forehead and lay there and then hold a different stone in one hand and one on my belly button and one on the other hand and meditate. And at the same time, I was getting reflexology and acupuncture and Reiki and meditating, so I don't know which worked, which didn't work, but as far as far out, probably the crystals.

The other things were - I could tell the effect immediately. I could feel it. And if it was my imagination, as long as to me it was working, that's all that really made any difference.

GROSS: Well, I completely understand. There's one point where you're describing one of the alternative therapies, and you say - and you describe how much of the musician Yanni you'd been listening to.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yeah.

GROSS: And I'm thinking, oh, no, Yanni. And then you say, if I beat this thing, it's because the cancer cells couldn't stand Yanni anymore.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yeah, yeah. That the cancer cells are like you know what? We've had enough of this. Let's get out of here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHIMMEL: And you know what? I wound up meeting John Tesh, and I told him that.

GROSS: Oh, no.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: And I didn't know that, like, him and Yanni are like rivals, you know? Because they both play that new age music.

GROSS: Oh, yeah, because John Tesh had that whole new age thing going on, yeah.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yeah. And so, he thought it was hysterical that I was making fun of Yanni's music like that and - because they're very competitive with each other. He told me that they play volleyball together and that Yanni's, like, really hell-bent on beating John Tesh constantly.

GROSS: Who knew?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHIMMEL: They don't seem like that type.

GROSS: No.

When you were told that the chemo had done its job, and you were, for a short or long term, going to be in remission - you didn't know yet if it was going to be long term or not - and you felt that gratitude, was there somebody you had to thank? I mean, your doctors, of course, your family, of course, but like -did you have a, like, religion? Did you have, like, a god to thank or was it -you know?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yes. I think I am more spiritual than actually hardcore religious. But I prayed to everybody and I didn't discount the fact that maybe Jesus is the one, maybe Buddha is the one and I prayed to everybody and promised to celebrate everything when I got out. But the other people that I have to thank, besides who were with me and God, are the people that are in clinical trials that volunteer for that. And, you know, if you're in a clinical trial for a new cancer drug and there are a thousand people in the trial, 500 people really get the drug, and the other 500 get a placebo.

You don't get - it's not that you don't get anything, you get what's standard treatment for that - for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, but you don't get the extra thing that they're testing. They never tell you whether you got it or you didn't. You never know if you did. You're a number. You're not even a name on those tests.

And there are people who volunteer for that, and their whole mindset is, I might not make it, but maybe they'll learn something with me and that'll help somebody else in the future. Well, I'm getting to have this conversation with you right now because I was in somebody else's future. So, every morning when I wake up, I thank people that I can't even connect a name or a face to.

GROSS: You describe in your acknowledgments - you know, one of the people you thank is Howard Stern, who called you in the hospital, but part of the reason why he called you, apparently, is that he had a death pool?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: On the air.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: And so, was he betting you were going to die before New Year's, was that it?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Well, that's - they were placing odds - it's something that they used to do every year. And so, he called me. And I was alive, and I had no idea. And I was in Mayo Clinic, and he said, how you doing? And I said...

GROSS: He was calling you live on the radio?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yeah.

GROSS: Uh-huh, okay.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: So - and he goes, how you doing? And I said, you know, I'm pretty sick. And he said, you think you're going to make it to New Year's Eve? And I said, why?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHIMMEL: And he said, because Robin has Anthony Quinn picked, and I have -it's between you and Anthony Quinn. And I said, pick Anthony Quinn, because I'm still going to be here. And then Anthony Quinn died, like, out of nowhere, and I felt really bad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHIMMEL: I mean, he wasn't even sick, Anthony Quinn. So, they just picked that name out of nowhere, and it wound up happening.

GROSS: So when Howard Stern called you live in the hospital because they had a death pool and they wanted to know if you were going to make it to New Year's, did that seem funny to you at the time?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yeah, because I know Howard, and the first time I met him, I hadn't listened to his show a lot. And Warner Brothers got me on there because that's what I had my record deal with. And when I sat down on the couch, the first thing Howard said is, you lost a son, didn't you? And there was no pre-interview, I mean - and he just wings it, and I'm sitting there thinking, oh, God. I mean, what am I supposed to say? And he said, that must have been, you know, really tough to go through something like that and still be a comedian. And I told him that the Make-A-Wish Foundation came to our house and they wanted to make a wish come true for my son, and I told them that his wish was to watch me have sex with Dolly Parton...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHIMMEL: And the Make-A-Wish people were pretty stunned. And Derek, though, thought it was funny. My son almost fell out of his bed, and the lady -you know, I told this on the air and Howard was screaming. You know what? You could be on for the rest of your life because I actually had a comeback to something like that, and it wasn't something negative. And that's the way I choose to look at it.

You know, I can be miserable. I mean, I have the ultimate trump card. I have -I lost a child. I can fail at anything and use him for an excuse, and instead it forces me to do the opposite. And I will not exploit what he went through to elicit any kind of response from an audience. I will talk about him if I'm doing a charity event for cancer, otherwise he's not really a part of my stand-up act.

GROSS: Well, Robert Schimmel, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us. I really appreciate it a lot and, you know, be well and good luck. Thank you very much.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Thanks.

GROSS: Robert Schimmel, recorded in 2008. He died Friday of injuries sustained in a car accident. He was 60.

You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

I'm Terry Gross.

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