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. Still, it was his sense of humor that kept him sane when cancer killed his sitcom deal — and threatened to kill him.
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Robert Schimmel, Laughing Through A Cancer Fight

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Robert Schimmel, Laughing Through A Cancer Fight

Robert Schimmel, Laughing Through A Cancer Fight

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DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, filling in for Terry Gross. Our guest, comic Robert Schimmel, is known for his bawdy CDs and comedy specials, his appearances on "The Howard Stern Show" and for drawing material from the most difficult and intimate moments in his personal life, including his own battle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. His memoir, "Cancer on $5 a Day (Chemo not Included): How Humor Got Me Through the Toughest Journey of My Life," has just come out in paperback. Schimmel's cancer is still in remission. He just marked the eighth anniversary of remission last month. And he has a new Showtime special called "Life Since Then." Terry spoke to Robert Schimmel last March, when "Cancer on $5 a Day" had just been published.

(Soundbite of NPR's Fresh Air, March 12, 2008)

TERRY GROSS: Robert Schimmel, welcome to Fresh Air and congratulations on remission. I'm guessing it's easier to find the laughs in cancer several years after going into remission?

Mr. ROBERT SCHIMMEL (Comic; Author, "Cancer on $5 a Day"): 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-Hodgskin'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 OK. 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, that's a healthy thing. And I think that it's - I think I've become more in touch with myself and with the people that I meet because of what I talk about years later. But the comedy that I wrote - that I do, I wrote while I was going through it.

GROSS: Did you feel obliged ever to be the funny guy with your doctors because you're a professional comic, and maybe they had expectations (Laughing) that you were going to keep them amused as they gave you bad news?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: I wanted to make them laugh because I've had that urge in me ever since I can remember. My parents told me when I was five years old, I used to mimic Jackie Gleason and watch Ernie Kovaks and all these comics - I'm 58 years old - and never missed Ed Sullivan when a comedian was on. And I found that laughter - my parents are both Holocaust survivors - and that laughter's very disarming. And you know, it's not easy for doctors either, to come in and give you bad news. It's not easy for your friends and your loved ones to come in and visit you in the hospital, and they don't know what to say. And I think that if you make light of it, you let them off the hook emotionally, and it's a lot easier for them to be themselves around you. And doctors and nurses are a lot - they're a lot better around you if you're joking around, instead of complaining.

GROSS: There's never a good time to get cancer, but you got your diagnosis at a really strange time. You and your wife were getting a divorce, you were living with your girlfriend, and you were working on a TV pilot. OK, so the TV pilot goes on hold, or it's kaput - whichever - but in the meantime, you decided not to continue living with your girlfriend but to move in with the wife from whom you had separated, so that you could be near your children, and so that she could take care - like, what was (Laughing) going through your mind? It seems like such...

Mr. SCHIMMEL: You're not the first one (Laughing) that asked that.

GROSS: (Laughing) A difficult choice to make. Yes, right.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Well, my wife and I were - my ex and I were married three times to each other. And we got married - she was 18 years old, and I was in my 20s. And we had some problems. And in retrospect, I...

GROSS: Wait a minute - you married and divorced three times?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yeah. The same person.

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yeah. So, we wound up back and forth. And then, I had a son that had cancer, Derek, who passed away in 1992. So, we had already filed for divorce then. And when he got diagnosed, we decided that we would not split up, and we would stay together and help him get through this battle. And they gave him about eight months, and he survived eight years past that. So, he passed away in '92. We split up in 2000.

And I was living with my girlfriend, who's now my wife, and I got diagnosed. And I didn't - I thought it was the flu. I was feeling run down; I was getting night sweats and chills and losing weight and went to the doctor. And when they told me that I might only have six months, I wanted to be with my children. And even though I love my present wife, and I was in love with her then, I didn't want to put her - it sounds crazy, but I loved her so much that I didn't want to ruin her life and, like, throw her - I already went through this once with my son. I didn't want her to have to wind up being my caretaker. And if I only had six months to live, I wanted my children to know who I was.

So, I broke up with my girlfriend. I didn't tell her that I had cancer. I just said that, you know what? Find somebody else; you're too young for me. And I have children, and I should really be with them. And find somebody else to go out with, which, by the way, she had no problem doing. Women, you know - they listen to you. When you say, find another guy, they got no problem doing that. And...

GROSS: Wait, let me stop you here. So, you didn't want to move in with your girlfriend because you thought, you know, you thought this what she signed up for. So, you move back in with your ex-wife. It's not what she signed up for either. I mean, suddenly...

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Right, now...

GROSS: I don't know whether you were - you were leaving her, I assume. And so, now that you're really sick, you're moving back in.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yeah. Well, I wanted to be with my kids. And honestly, my ex did such an unbelievable job with my son, Derek. And I felt that if there was anyone I was going to have a chance with surviving through it, it was going to be with her and not with Melissa, who's my wife now, because Vicki already had eight years of experience in dealing with that. And…

GROSS: She was OK with this - with you moving back in?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yeah. And I think that she was hoping that maybe things could work out. But she knew that there was a strong possibility that it wasn't and went to every treatment with me. And I promised her that I wouldn't call Melissa and that it was definitely over between us. And I didn't talk to Melissa for - until I had my last chemotherapy. It was right before my last treatment. And I really missed her every day, and I just couldn't call. I didn't want to break that promise to Vicki.

And I called her up, and she said, how are you feeling? And I thought she heard me - you know, I do Howard Stern and all these other stations, and they were calling me when I was in the hospital. So, I figured she already knew, somehow. And I said, I got one more chemo to go. And she said, you have cancer and started crying on the phone and said that she missed me. And I said that I missed her and that I really felt like I was on this earth to meet her. And she told me she'd started seeing somebody else and that she actually consummated the relationship the night before I called, which is - that's the way my timing is.

So, I snuck out of the hospital and went to L.A. to surprise her and see her, because I was at Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona. And I went over to her apartment. It was raining out. I rented a car; I had no hair, no eyebrows, no eyelashes, wearing a baseball hat. And I'm looking up at her window - she lived on the second floor - and she was making out with this guy in the window. And she had given me this book - a worst case scenario book - for my birthday present and inside wrote, dear Robert, I love you, and there's never going to be anybody else in my life but you. So, I became a real jerk and tore that page out of the book and drove back to her place and put it under her windshield wiper.

And my cell phone rang about 20 minutes later, and it was her. And she said, you're in town. And I said, how do you know? And she said, because the guy I'm seeing went to borrow my car to go get us something to eat and came back upstairs with this - with the page that you left on my car and said, what's this? And she told him that that meant it was over between her and him and said that she would wait for me to be finished with treatment. And I went back to Melissa after. And I know it doesn't sound good. It makes me look like a real creep. And…

GROSS: Well, look, this is none of my business, but since you've put it on the table (Lauging)...

Mr. SCHIMMEL: No. Well, you know what? I want to be totally honest. I mean, I really do.

GROSS: Yeah, how does your wife feel? How does your wife feel - your now ex-wife - that after she, like, took care of you, she saw you through a cancer, she nursed you, and then you kind of left again.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Well, because…

GROSS: Not kind of. You left again.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yeah. Well, because I - it was - our relationship was no good. It was dysfunctional, and we definitely needed a therapist or a marriage counselor, which I - we didn't do then. We should've, and I even tell her to this day, you know what? I wish we would've done that, and we probably wouldn't have had the problems that we had. But on top of all the problems that we had prior to Derek, losing a child is a really big marriage-buster. There's a really high divorce rate in couples that lose children. And - because you're a constant reminder of the child, and sometimes there's a secret blame about who didn't do what and whose fault it is or, you know - it's just really hard. And I actually am closer with her now than I was when we were married. And - because we have other children, so we have to have a relationship together.

GROSS: Mm hmm. Yeah.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: She has a guy that she's in love with. And I think that things changed and she - when I had my son, Sam, with Melissa. Because they told me I could never have children again and that I would be sterile. And that was on June 5th, 2000, and I had a son on June 5th, 2003. So, I think that Vicki got upset, and that bothered her because we had a trend of getting together, breaking up, reconciling, getting pregnant, having a kid, breaking up, reconciling, divorcing, visitation, getting pregnant, having a kid get sick, stay together, break up. But there was always the get back together. And I think that me having my son with Melissa was like the last nail in the coffin that I wasn't going to come back, because now I already have a kid with somebody else. Then - and Sam was totally not planned. I mean, I was not supposed to have children.

GROSS: Right. Well, if you're just joining us, my guest is comic Robert Schimmel. He has a new memoir called "Cancer on $5 a Day" that's a memoir of the time that he was getting treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, which pretty well did him in but, you know, he's in remission now. 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? (Laughing) You know, that 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 OK 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: 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? So - 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. It - they really - 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, that just - anything I did it like that confirmed to them that I was in pain or feeling nauseous. And I didn't want it - and I didn't - I had to sneak it because I had children, and I had a nine-year-old daughter. And I don't wanted to be father that says do what do 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 - something that I could, you know, use, like, once and then just throw it away. 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.

DAVIES: Comic Robert Schimmel speaking last year with Terry Gross. More after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with comedian Robert Schimmel, recorded last March. Schimmel has a new Showtime special, and his memoir, "Cancer on $5 a Day," is now out in paperback.

(Soundbite of NPR's Fresh Air, March 12, 2008)

TERRY 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 (Laughing) that 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. And, 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. It 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. It was - you know what? You can't really have sex when you're on chemotherapy because all the drugs are in you, and so, anything that comes out of you - saliva or anything else - all have toxins in them. And so, you're not really supposed to. But you know, I looked at myself naked, and, you know, a 50-year-old man that's bald down there - it's not really a good look. It looked like a small, plucked bird fellow 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: 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 then hold a difference 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 (Laughing) 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.

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.

DAVIES: Comedian Robert Schimmel speaking with Terry Gross last March. We'll hear more of their interview in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of ad)

(Soundbite of Fresh Air preview)

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross. We're listening to Terry's interview with comic Robert Schimmel, recorded last year when his memoir "Cancer on $5 a Day" was published. It's now out in paperback. Schimmel's cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, has been in remission for eight years, and he has a new Showtime special called "Life Since Then."

(Soundbite of NPR's Fresh Air, March 12, 2008)

GROSS: Near the end of your treatment, when you are down, you are just like totally out. I mean, your immune system is shot, you are at your weakest and sickest and lightest in weight. I mean, you - there was nothing left of you. You told your father - you had one more treatment left, one more of chemo treatment - and you told your father that you just couldn't go on. And you asked him, basically, to help you die, you asked him to either, you know, pull the plug on the IV or open up the window so that you could jump.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yeah.

GROSS: How serious were you about that? Were you just, like, expressing how depressed you were or did you…

Mr. SCHIMMEL: No.

GROSS: Really want him to do that?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: I was really serious. I had been positive the whole time. I would make people laugh everyday in the infusion center. I would - I'd be the guy bringing donuts everyday for the nurses when I was going in for my treatments and my scans and all those things, and everybody knew me at Mayo. And my white blood cell count drops to 0.5 and I basically had no immune system left. I was in isolation. I couldn't have flowers in room. I couldn't have fresh fruit in my room. I was in a room that had no windows sills or no ledges. There was no place where any dust could settle.

GROSS: This is to protect you from any possible…

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Any infection.

GROSS: Bacteria…

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yeah.

GROSS: Or virus.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yeah, because I had no immune system left.

GROSS: Mm hmm.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: And I wasn't even allowed to eat real food. I was IV fed, and they wouldn't even give me ice chips to chew because, if the ice machine had any bacteria in it, that could do you in. And they actually told my parents that day that if I woke up the next morning, they would be surprised, because I was definitely at the end of my rope right there. And they give you neupogen shots and epogen shots to boost your white and red blood cells. And what happens is it forces your bone marrow to produce blood cells at an accelerated rate to make up for them - you losing them from the treatment. And it feels like your bones are breaking from the inside out, and it - I just felt really bad.

And he came in and said, you know, how are you doing? And I said, really bad, Dad, and I said, if you really love me, you'll help me unhook the IV and get me to the window, and I want to jump. And he said, how could you say something like that? And I said, because if I'm going to die, then I want to do it my way. And if I jump out the window, then I take the cancer with me, and it dies the minute I hit the sidewalk. And he said, I'll be back in a minute, and he walked out and came back in with my son Jacob, who was two years old then, and Aliyah, my daughter, who was nine years old then, and said, tell them what you just told me. And I couldn't.

And I was looking at my father, and I was thinking, here's a guy who watched his mom and dad and sister and brother - they were all killed in front of him, and he wound up going to a concentration camp. And he knew what it was like to grow up without a mother and father, and he didn't want that for my children. And I knew it was - what it was like to lose a child, and I didn't want my dad to have to go through something like that. And he saved my life.

GROSS: If this next question's too personal, you just tell me, OK? Your son, Derek, died of cancer when he was 11. He was diagnosed when he was three. Did you - do you feel like you learned about facing illness and death from watching your son deal with it?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yeah. The advantage that children have is that - at three years old, when he got diagnosed with cancer, he had no sense of mortality. He didn't - he didn't even know, you know - he had no idea that there was a death, and, you know, you don't come back tomorrow. And they're a lot more resilient, and Derek never complained about anything. And he always did things to make other kids laugh or feel comfortable with the treatments and the procedures they were going through. And he would walk around and visit other kids and tell them, hey, look, I got this IV that goes into my heart, and I got this here.

And he was the first to tell jokes about it. And I was really afraid - I had this unusual fear of death until that - I went through that with Derek, and it went away. And I am convinced that Derek and I are connected from another time, another place and that he chose that path, to go through what he went through, because he knew that I had to watch him go through that for me to be able to do what I was going to have to do later on in my life.

GROSS: When you were told that the chemo had done its job, and you were, for 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 am - I think I'm more spiritual than actually hardcore religious. I don't think that you can be - really be a good, religious Jew and be a comedian and work on Friday night, because that's the Sabbath.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Good point.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: I mean, well, it's the truth.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHIMMEL: I mean you can't be an Orthodox Jew and work Vegas on the weekend. It's just - they won't book you if you say, I don't work on Friday nights. But 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 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.

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. And I do it when I get laughs on stage, in my head I'm saying thank you, at night when I go to bed, I say thank you. I know it's a tough fight, and I owe it to other people that are fighting this fight to know that it's worth the fight.

DAVIES: Comic Robert Schimmel. More after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with comedian Robert Schimmel, recorded last March.

GROSS: You were starting a pilot when you were diagnosed with cancer - a TV pilot that was supposed to be…

Mr. SCHIMMEL: It was picked up.

GROSS: It was picked up? OK. So…

Mr. SCHIMMEL: It was picked up for 13 episodes. It was going to premiere after the Simpson's. It was created by Mike Scully, who was running the Simpson's. And I got diagnosed eight days later.

GROSS: So, where are you with that pilot?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Oh, gone.

GROSS: Is it ever going to happen? Gone.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: No. But my - it was based on my life at that time, and my life at that time isn't my life now. I was on the Simpson's while I was getting chemotherapy. Mike Scully called me once and said, you want to be on the Simpson's? And I said, I'm in the hospital, and I'm not allowed to even get on an airplane because I can't be exosed to other people. And he FedExed me a digital tape recorder and a script and called me the next day and directed me on the phone while I talked into the tape deck and sent the thing back to him, and I was on the Simpson's while I was in the hospital.

GROSS: That's great. What was your part?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: I played an inmate that was in prison when the wife was teaching an art class in there. And it was me and Michael Keaton, we were both prisoners in this jail.

GROSS: That's great. And you probably felt like a prisoner, too.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: I felt like - you know, I'll tell you what it feels like. It's like Robert Schimmel, the person, whoever's in my head - that part doesn't have cancer, and it's like, I'm trapped in a body that's betraying me. You can't go to - you can't switch to another body.

GROSS: Right, so you have to make piece with it.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yeah. But I learned a lot. I learned a lot of things. I got a…

GROSS: So…

Mr. SCHIMMEL: I have to - I have to tell you this. I really do.

GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Because I really mean it and I can't do this on any other show, because most of the shows I do - they want to hear joke, joke, joke, joke, joke. If I could go back to June 5th, 2000 right now and have the doctor say it was nothing, and it was fatty tissue or whatever - but in exchange for that, I don't have the life with Melissa that I have now, I don't have my two sons, Sam and Max, that I have with her, I don't have the relationship with my other children and the other people in my life that I do now, nor know the things that I know about life since then - I would not take that deal.

GROSS: Mm hmm.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: I really wouldn't, because I think that I'm a better person after what I went through. I spend as much time as I can with my children, and the hardest thing for me is, when they told me that I was in remission, I had survivor's guilt. Instead of me jumping up and down and saying, yes, I beat it, the first thing I thought is, how come I made it and Derek didn't?

GROSS: Yeah. 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.

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?

GROSS: So, he was just calling you live on the radio?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yeah.

GROSS: Uh-huh, OK.

MR. SCHIMMEL: So - and he goes, how you doing? And I said, you know, pretty sick. And he said, do 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, (Laughing) 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 (Laughing) 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. And he said, you know what? You could be on for the rest of your life because I actually had to 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 standup 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.

DAVIS: Comic Robert Schimmel speaking with Terry Gross last March. He has a new Showtime special called "Life Since Then" and his memoir, "Cancer On $5 a Day," is now out in paperback.

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