While in transit, I caught part of Tavis Smiley’s radio show. His guest was a comedian that I didn’t know. Two things about that interview immediately struck me. Tavis didn’t stop laughing the entire time. And, cancer was definitely an unusual choice of material for comedy. But, the more I listened, the more compelling Robert Schimmel became. He has taken a taboo and shone a bright light into its every nook and cranny. Not only has cancer become the soul of his routines; he wrote a book about it: Cancer on five dollars a day (chemo not included): how humor got me through the toughest journey of my life. Schimmel and cancer are clearly on intimate terms with one another.
Later that day, I was at the Skokie Public Library where the son of a friend was performing in a Steinway Young Artists Concert. (He was fantastic, by the way.) While there, I scooped up a copy of Schimmel’s book. I’ve found Cancer on five dollars a day incredibly interesting and very, very funny. Over the last few days, I’ve gotten to know this guy pretty well. At the moment, I’m reluctant to put the book down and let go of that connection.
Although I was unfamiliar with him until last weekend, Robert Schimmel is quite well-known. When he got sick in 2000, he had just won Stand-Up Comic of the Year, had a HBO hit special, and Fox had picked up a sitcom with Schimmel as the main character. An out-of-the-blue diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma turned Schimmel’s world upside down. In a stark example of the Schimmel Touch, the proposed series got canned and, instead of basking in his new fame, Schimmel found himself fighting for his life.
Schimmel is a very funny guy but his raunchy material is not for the faint hearted. Be forewarned: absolutely nothing is out of bounds. Pre-lymphoma, he apparently talked a lot about sex. So, when he suddenly began talking about his illness, he likewise pulled no punches. Stripped bare by Schimmel, cancer is revealed in all its terrible glory. This new perspective is a bit jarring; but, after the initial adjustment, it’s refreshing.
The big C is today’s 800-pound gorilla in the room. Few of us have remained untouched by this disease, one way or another. And while three out of every four of us will not die of cancer, most of us nevertheless fear it’s out there, lurking somewhere in our future. We superstitiously keep silent about it as if that will somehow make us immune.
It took someone who was already pushing the boundaries of good taste to take on this disease that won’t go away even though we refuse to talk about it. Skeptics were sure his choice of material would bomb, but the absolute opposite has been true. Schimmel has struck a chord, deep within the national psyche. This is what Schimmel’s approach is like: it’s as if he stands on stage in his hospital gown, letting it all hang out, metaphorically speaking – all that anguish, fear, pain, and vulnerability – exposed for everyone to see. His performances are received with standing ovations. And afterwards, dozens of people stand in line for hours, without complaint, just to have a word with him. At these times, he is completely present, in no hurry to move along. He connects with these perfect strangers in a profound way. They may have nothing else in common, yet cancer has inextricably bound them together. They speak the same language. Schimmel’s sharing his story validates theirs. They need him to talk about what happened to him. With his help, at least for a while, they are no longer alone or overwhelmed.
You might ask why anyone would want to read about a terrifying disease. But, while this is not what I’d call a light read, it is anything but grim. It’s the story of an extraordinary man who is painfully honest about himself, his illness, and how it changed him. It’s the archetypal human drama; the hero and the telling are beautiful but raw.
In the final chapter, Schimmel sums up these “profound life lessons”:
Keep your sense of humor, no matter what.
Create a purpose, a focus, and never take your eyes off it.
Figure out what’s important to you. What’s really important.
Be open. Try anything. You never know.
Love. You need love. Tons of it. A shitload of love.
Sometimes you need to be selfish.
You need support. You’re in this alone, but you can’t fight it alone.
The most precious thing you have is time. Don’t waste it.
You’re only human.
And, finally, once again – laugh. (pp. 185-6)
I highly recommend Schimmel’s book. You’ll get to know him and learn something, all while laughing your head off.
I have often read of the stress-reducing power of laughter. I know it works for me. Laughter Clubs for that very purpose have sprouted up around the world. Schimmel ratchets that concept up a notch. Issues that are covered up don’t go away; out of sight, they fester and grow. By freeing cancer from its mystique, we may liberate ourselves of its awful, paralyzing power.
When he appeared on stage after chemotherapy, he was a completely hairless, shrunken shadow of his former self. But, Schimmel has had the last laugh – he is very much alive, happily married, and mindful of the great gift he has been given. Humor is a tool that Schimmel has wielded with a vengeance, to great effect. First, he used it to get himself through his ordeal. Now, through his comedy routine and his writing, he extends himself to countless others, locked in the same deadly contest. Schimmel is proof that people can survive cancer. It was unable to vanquish him; both his body and his spirit, not to mention his sense of humor, are still going strong.