What could possibly be funny about the events of the recent tsunami? 9/11? Cancer? Understandably nothing except the latter, according to long-time comic Robert Schimmel, slated at the Funny Bone this Friday and Saturday. Schimmel, with 20 years of entertaining audiences on stage and screen under his 55-year-old belt, is a cancer survivor in remission since 2001. On his Web site at www.robertschmimmel.com, "Anything and everything can be funny when looked at with enough honesty." Speaking frankly with Schimmel, however, proved he thankfully has some limits in his stand-up routine.
"How a comic mind sees things is different ... It would be a bad night to be a comedian across from the Vatican right now, but it's funny how one radio station says he's dead, another DJ tells me he's not. So the question is, how long can pass before it's fair game to make fun of the pope?" Schimmel says. "Everyone knows that his day will eventually come. But the tsunami is different than the pope's death. To me there's no humor in that."
But Schimmel does find humor in cancer and it is funny. "I asked one of my doctors after I lost my hair through chemo if I can get a wig for my crotch. And he said, 'Yeah, it's called a Merkin'. For me, the way my comedy works is I'm pretty self-deprecating," Schimmel explains. Comedians are known to regard few things as sacred; tact goes out the window if a joke could be their next laugh. But none are as aware of their faux pas as the entertainers themselves, who ironically tend to be fairly serious characters-perhaps because of this self-deprecation or self-consciousness. Schimmel is no lightly-spoken moronic exception. He seems like a solid person, not surprisingly given what he's been through in life.
"I lost a son to cancer in '92. Once I was in Vegas watching a comedian I really admire. But in the middle of his routine, he made fun of people with cancer. For me, all it made me think of was my son and how helpless I felt," says Schimmel. He realized soon after "there's no joke, no laugh you're going to get from the audience for someone else's pain. I'm not going to trade for that."
Schimmel justifies the inclusion of cancer jokes in his act because he suffered from the disease himself, and his four years in remission remains a beacon of hope for all. "The difference is I'm talking about myself. I don't think it's funny as much as I look at it as an unusual gift I would not wish on my worst enemy, if I had enemies," he says. "If you listen to people talk, they always say the word 'cancer' in a different tone. My doctors said to embrace it instead of run from it, so I talk about it and visit a lot of cancer centers on the road."
You'd think when you interview a comedian, you should be laughing instead of verging on tears. And though Schimmel undoubtedly provokes many chuckles, his life history is equal parts tragedy. "I did a benefit in Ontario for a kid's bone marrow transplant, and three days before the show he died. I still went and did the show. It was jam-packed with parents, friends, kids that went to his school," Schimmel says. His generosity had become a habit by then. For his young friend who also passed away, Schimmel did a Starlight foundation concert with John Mayer and got Howie Mandell on the phone just to say hi. "Shane was a really special kid. He wondered why I did all that and I said, 'because someone did it for me.' I told Shane when he grew up he could buy me dinner in exchange. Later his mother told me the night before he died, he asked what kind of food Robert likes."
On a lighter note, everyone seems to find the battle of the sexes funny from Schimmel's vantage point. "I talk about what it's like to be a guy, a husband, a father, a survivor. And I don't hold back. There are a lot of women who thank me afterwards for saying what most guys won't. And then the guys ask, 'Man, why'd you have to admit that?' I'll say something and watch a girl looking at her guy like 'I knew it!'"
The truth can be funny and Schimmel's bare-bones style makes that apparent. "If you want to know how to get something positive out of tragedy I say 'don't wait,' because life is precious and you never know," he says. It's a message worthy of his otherwise very funny act, as this accomplished HBO comic, former Living Color staff writer, and frequent guest on Late Night with Conan O'Brian and The Howard Stern Show is not exactly depressing. He's just not into bullshit.