Some years ago, Robert Schimmel was a bawdy comedian making it big. But just as his network sitcom was about to debut, he was diagnosed with cancer. Schimmel was no stranger to pain—he'd already lost an 11-year-old son to the disease. So he battled cancer with his trademark raunchiness. (To Schimmel, any libidinal fallout from chemo would have been the ultimate outrage.) In March of 2008, he published Cancer on $5 a Day* (*Chemo Not Included) and brought his act—which sometimes includes a PowerPoint presentation about his lowest moments—to comedy clubs around the country.
Do you remember the first joke you made that showed you could be funny?
My sister signed me up on amateur night. I got up and I said, "I'm not a comedian, but everybody has some kind of sexual fantasy or fetish, and mine is humiliation and self-degradation, so whatever you do please do not laugh at me." And they started laughing. And I said, "You're ruining the whole thing." And then I got offered a job.
How did you deal with the diagnosis of cancer?
The doctors said that there is Hodgkin's disease and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and that I had the latter. I said, "Just my luck, I get the one not named after the guy." They laughed and then said, "You're going to be okay, because you've got the right attitude."
Did you find humor during the most challenging moments?
When I was getting chemo, my nurse gave me a concoction nicknamed Red Death, and I asked her why she was wearing rubber gloves. She said, "I can't get this on my skin." I said, "You can't get this on your skin, but you're shooting it right in my vein?"
It seems that your sex drive was as powerful as your joke drive—even during the darkest episodes of your treatment.
I've been in the hospital literally throwing up, and a nurse walks by and I'm thinking, "Wow, you can shave a few days off my life if I can see a button pop on her blouse."
Has cancer changed your comedy?
It's made me feel more open about talking about real life.
What about your personality?
I appreciate life more and I think I've become more compassionate. I learned compassion from what I went through with my son. Before cancer, everything was about my career. Now my time with my kids is my time with them. And time is the greatest gift you can ever give—because once you give it, you can't take it back.
You sound philosophical.
I'm lucky; I got tapped on the shoulder. It said, "Life isn't forever, pal—so what are you going to do with the rest of the time you have?" If I could go back and have them tell me that it was not cancer, but in exchange I wouldn't have the wife I have now, I wouldn't have the two sons I have now, and I wouldn't know the things I've learned about life, I would not trade it. I would not take that deal.