My interview with the late comedian: Comic Robert Schimmel’s show must go on [classic article]

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What is the difference between talking to the funniest friend you know and most celebrity comedians? Most of the time, you get the feeling that the celebrity has clothed himself with a persona from which he never escapes, or that his answers are careful scripted by either himself or his handlers. Not so with Robert Schimmel. Having been in remission for 23 months with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, he gives himself permission to have real opinions, be introspective and to name names. But make no mistake about it: he is a driven man, driven by his cancer and driven by a hunger to command the stage by making you laugh.

Schimmel was a staff writer for “In Living Color” and regularly appears on such shows as “The Howard Stern Show,” “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and “Hollywood Squares.” He even made a cameo appearance on “The Simpsons.” His film credits include “Scary Movie 2,” “A Low Down Dirty Shame” and “Blankman.” Schimmel has also put out several CDs, one of which is “If You Buy This CD, I Can Get This Car.”

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Schimmel, in his early 40s and a Bronx native, is the child of Holocaust survivors who lost all of their relatives. The lessons he learned from them about going on with life helped him to survive the horrific experience of watching his 11-year-old son die from a different form of cancer. At every location he performs, he visits hospitals, infusion centers and other care centers to donate items such as CDs and tapes to the patients. His Web site has a form to donate to the cause.

Bankrate: What new projects do you have?

Robert Schimmel: I’m starting a one-man show based on my journal that I kept when I was undergoing chemotherapy.

Bankrate: How are you feeling these days?

Schimmel: I feel great!

Bankrate: Do you have any special expenses other than medicine?

Schimmel: I don’t eat any junk. That’s it.

Bankrate: In show business, you’re dealing with people who judge the surface and expect you to be at the top of your game. Actors do all kinds of things to fake that. But you are being open about your cancer. How did you come to that decision?

Schimmel: Because, first of all, I won’t be ashamed. I was at a spot where I had everything a comic could want. Fox had even developed a show for me — two weeks after that, I found out that I had cancer. They couldn’t hold the show that long. I’m obligated to other cancer patients, to people who had cancer and did not survive and people yet to be diagnosed. Maybe some of these people can see me and tell people they know who have cancer, “If he survived, you can too!” I’m obligated to people I’ve yet to meet, who are undergoing experimental treatments. People like Lance Armstrong and Christopher Reeve, I have the utmost respect for them. They can’t be cured unless everyone like them can be cured, and they know it. To be quiet about it, you’re not helping anybody; I feel you’re holding back important information.

Bankrate: When you have money, are you in a better position, medical care-wise?

Schimmel: No. The same medicine is given to you, whether you are on welfare or at Cedar Sinai or Sloane Kettering. Yeah, at Cedar Sinai, you can choose between the steak and lobster. You can be like Elizabeth Taylor and have a whole suite to yourself. But the cancer, that’s not my golden calf. I lost my son to it. And I could not buy one more minute with him. Jackie Onassis and King Hussein, look at their money! And they had the same cancer I did. God does not accept cash.

Bankrate: How long did it take you to be able to work at comedy full time?

Schimmel: About five, six years.

Bankrate: Have you ever done other kinds of work?

Schimmel: I sold stereo and video equipment; I was a waiter, stuff like that. It’s funny, if you get a bad waitress in Cleveland, she’s just a bad waitress. If you get a bad waitress in L.A., she’s really an actress. Which is not really smart because either way, you are living off the tips, so you should be a good waitress!

Bankrate: You are very hands-on with your charity work. Do you have people who work for you in that regard?

Schimmel: No. I don’t need anybody else to help. All it takes is me.

Bankrate: You buy Discmen for cancer patients. How much do you spend on that?

Schimmel: I don’t keep a tally of it. That number means nothing to me. I believe that true charity is nameless. It’s just that my name helps them publicize it more. I’m not doing it for me. Listen, I started buying the Discmen because I did not want there to be a margin of failure. At the hospitals, when people donate CDs and tapes for the patients, I didn’t want there to be a board who waited around, figuring out how to use them. I thought, “There’s a way to overcome that!” I bought batteries for the same reason.

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Comic Robert Schimmel’s show must go on

Bankrate: With your touring and gigs, you are very busy, yet your life depends on your taking time to relax. How do you do it?

Schimmel: You have got to take time to relax. Today, I got a bagel. The girl at the counter said, “I’m having a bad day.” I said, “You’re projecting! You have the kind of day you will yourself to have.” Everyone has the same 24 hours. It’s not like Donald Trump has 25 hours and that’s the secret to his success. No, Donald Trump has 24 hours, and the guy asking for spare change has 24 hours. It’s where your head is at. When I was in the hospital, I promised myself that I would live where I could walk on the beach. So, I rented a place in Santa Monica. I don’t take my cell phone; I need that.

Bankrate: What do you think about doctors giving prognoses? Did it drive you crazy, either with your son or with yourself?

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Schimmel: Yes, and now I don’t believe in them. I don’t believe in people getting prognoses of time, how much they have left to live. It’s based on studies of 1,000, maybe 2,000 people. Did they eat what I eat? Drink what I drink? What about their culture, their ethnic background, where they lived? What were their ages? Did they have the same stresses? Time, it drives you crazy. They told me that my son, when he was 3, had 6 months to live. We went crazy, trying to pack a whole lifetime of living into those months. He ended up living for 8 years. But it was like a ticking time clock.

Bankrate: They say, “The show must go on.” You probably have gone on stage hundreds of times either sick or sad. What advice do you have for people who have to be at their best under “less than” circumstances?

Schimmel: The show must go on. It has to. Because I live for going onstage. In a crazy world, I do have control of that little real estate on stage. I’m God there! For the time they’re laughing, you own them. When I step off, I don’t know what will happen. I escape, just like the audience escapes! A comedian needs the laughs!

Bankrate: Do you find that your sense of humor has changed over the years?

Schimmel: I think I’m more open and honest.

Bankrate: Do you manage your own money?

Schimmel: I have a CPA. I’m on the road so much, I couldn’t do it myself.

Bankrate: What investments do you have?

Schimmel: None. I own a house in Scottsdale, and I rent my place on the beach. I know a lot of people who invested in the market and they’re in big trouble. I have a friend who lost his life savings in Allegheny Power. I’ll gamble on stage, that’s it. I wouldn’t gamble with stocks. You have to determine what success means to you. For some people, it’s a Porsche and a house in the Hollywood Hills. I don’t have a status symbol. If I did, I’d rather use it to help other people. If I couldn’t get the headliner gigs, I’d make people laugh in the street. What if you bought that new Tiffany diamond, the Lucinda? It’s $35,000. There’s a phony demand. What if tomorrow, nobody wanted diamonds? You’d have a piece of glass. When I was in isolation, during chemo, I couldn’t have flowers, fruit or visitors. What would I have done with a status symbol then? There was no parking space for a Porsche in isolation. And, I have learned, REALLY rich people don’t live like that. It’s only the people who want you to think they are rich who live like that.

Bankrate: Did you ever think about going into production with other comics, like Carl Reiner did?

Schimmel: I haven’t really thought about it. If I start thinking that way, planning years in advance, I can’t focus on today. I’ve read the “Power of Now.”

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