Robert Schimmel: Cancer, through a lens comedic

In June 2000, Robert Schimmel — whose ribald routines earned him a spot on Comedy Central’s list of 100 greatest comics — was pondering his mortality after undergoing a cancer biopsy: “Is there a God? What about Jesus . . . I didn’t believe in him on earth so is he gonna be pissed at me now?” the 58-year-old recounts in “Cancer on $5 a Day: How Humor Got Me Through the Toughest Journey of My Life.”

In the memoir — which he’ll discuss at the West Hollywood Book Fair on Sept. 28 — Schimmel mixes harrowing stories about his chemotherapy with hilarious anecdotes about his illness and treatment. He riffs about the salesman who tried to sell him a pubic hair toupee (it’s called a “merkin”); lusting after various nurses; having to ask his mother, the Holocaust survivor, to buy rolling papers for his medical marijuana; and imagining his funeral (“I probably should’ve gotten close with some rabbi so I don’t get the generic eulogy,” he said. “I hate those. You know he never knew the dead guy.”)

Even before his diagnosis of Stage III non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Schimmel’s experiences had the makings of an inspirational book. He suffered a heart attack in his 40s and the death of one of his six children (also to cancer) in 1992, but he returned to the stage and, by 2000, had produced an HBO special, best-selling CDs, and a sitcom, “Schimmel,” slated to debut on the Fox network.
While in rehearsals for the pilot, however, the comedian experienced severe chills and night sweats; a biopsy revealed he had an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. His response to the doctor was immediate: “Just my luck. I get the one not named after the guy.”

“My instinct was to go for the laugh,” Schimmel said recently, looking fit eight years into his remission. He realized that even though he had just been told he had cancer, he hadn’t been told he was going to die. To prove it, he was going to do the one thing that showed he was very much alive, which was to make people laugh.

His audience consisted of fellow patients in the chemotherapy room at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix — “the toughest room I ever worked,” he said. “But remembering what Norman Cousins said about the healing power of humor … [made] me want to be part of their recovery. I want to help them to feel good, even for a short time…. For in the moment that they laughed, in that one moment, they weren’t sick, and they weren’t afraid.”

Schimmel traces his own survivor’s spirit to his parents, Betty and Otto Schimmel, who survived Mauthausen and Auschwitz, respectively. During the most grueling part of chemo — when he briefly considered suicide — the comic was fortified by Otto Schimmel’s words about how he had traversed a Nazi death march. The prisoner had remembered a Nazi’s admonition: “If you want to live, keep moving.”

Doctors first warned Schimmel that he might be prone to cancer when he was 13, and they performed surgery on an undescended testicle. Nevertheless, Robert proved to be a class clown with a predilection for trouble. When he failed his German final exam in high school, he declared that the teacher was anti-Semitic: “My father went apes— and threatened to sue the district,” the comic said. “He even got a Jewish German teacher to re-administer my final exam, but I got a worse grade from her than I did the original teacher.”

Schimmel went on to work as a stereo salesman in Phoenix, never envisioning a career as a comic, nor even attending a comedy club until he visited his sister in Los Angeles and she signed him up for an open mic night at The Improv — without telling him — 20 years ago, when he was in his early 30s. The club’s owner chanced to pull Schimmel’s name out of a hat and heckled him until he ventured onstage. Schimmel riffed; the audience laughed; and the owner offered him future gigs.

“So I quit my job, put the Phoenix house up for sale and my [then-wife] and I loaded our belongings on a U-Haul to drive to Los Angeles,” he said. “I got off the Hollywood Freeway to show her where I was going to be working — and it turned out the club had burned down the night before.”

Schimmel stayed in Los Angeles, supporting himself as a salesman and working open mic shows until he could support his family as a comedian.

When his 3-year-old son, Derek, was diagnosed with cancer in the 1980s, Schimmel found solace in the Book of Job: “The story talks about whether one can have faith when s— happens, and I always had faith,” he said. “I think the real you comes out when you hit bottom. That’s when you find out who you really are.”

Later, between Schimmel’s own chemotherapy treatments, he incorporated his illness into his nightclub act, complete with a slide show of his deterioration. (“That’s me when they told me what the co-pay was,” he quips about one skeletal-looking picture.) Club owners warned him that audiences wouldn’t appreciate the dark subject matter, but viewers roared with laughter, rewarding him with standing ovations and rushing to hug him after each show.

Later, the slide show incorporated photos of the now-healthy comic; his wife, Melissa; and his children (there is one of the late Derek as well). Schimmel just taped a Showtime special, and he performs numerous standup shows a year but still spends a good deal of time speaking to (and joking with) cancer patients.
“How can I say ‘no’ when people reach out to me? If there is a reason I survived, that’s it.”

For more information about Schimmel’s book and standup dates,

West Hollywood Book Fair

On Sept. 28, with the advent of fall, comes the seventh annual West Hollywood Book Fair at West Hollywood Park, across the street from the Pacific Design Center. One of the largest events of its kind in Southern California, this year the fair boasts more than 400 authors at more than 100 events, running the gamut from politics to comics, mystery to memoir. They will include science fiction writer extraordinaire Ray Bradbury (“Fahrenheit 451”); Herbert Gold, whose 28th book, “Still Alive!” proves he is still an elder statesman of the Beat Generation; Rabbi David Wolpe (“Why Faith Matters”); and comedian Robert Schimmel (“Cancer on $5 a Day”). Attendance is expected to exceed 25,000.

Attractions include panel discussions, such as “Chicks and Chumps: How Female Crime Writers Handle Their Men”; “Latinos in Lotusland” (moderated by Daniel Olivas, a Jew by choice who has written for The Journal); and “The Second Novel Nightmare” (Janet Fitch, for example, will describe the struggle to write “Paint It Black” — set in 1980 punk rock Los Angeles — after her debut novel, “White Oleander,” became an Oprah pick and a movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer).
The West Hollywood Book Fair runs 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 28 in West Hollywood Park, 647 N. San Vicente Blvd., with free parking available across the street at the Pacific Design Center (enter from San Vicente). A free shuttle also will be available from Plummer Park, located at 7377 Santa Monica Blvd. For more information, visit

— N.P.

Did You Hear the One About Haman?

“Purim is bizarre,” said comedian Joel Chasnoff. Or at least the customs are a little weird. Consider the way Jews celebrate the demise of Haman, the bad guy: “We eat him,” Chasnoff said. “Actually we eat a pastry that’s named after his ears, and the natural implication is that the filling inside is some sort of fruity earwax.”

The “eew”-factor led to a sketch, “Haman on the Couch,” that graces Chasnoff’s CD, “Hanukah Guilt: The Comedy of Joel Chasnoff.” In the sketch, an agoraphobic Haman visits a psychiatrist because he’s been suffering paranoid delusions, notably the fear that throngs of children will chase him down to lick poppy seeds out of his ears.

The religiously specific bit is what one might expect of Chasnoff, who, at 30, has already carved out a niche with humor based on loving spoofs of Jewish life.

“He speaks from a very positive Jewish perspective and also a deeply Jewish perspective,” said Jeff Rubin, communications director of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life in Washington, D.C.

While comics such as Chris Rock and Margaret Cho riff on their respective minority cultures, Chasnoff does the same about growing up a religious Jew. Influenced by observational comics such as Seinfeld, his observations are of attending a Chicago-area day school, his Conservative bar mitzvah, visiting Israel and, of course, the holidays.

One of his favorites, as a kid, was Purim, when Chasnoff and his classmates wore elaborate costumes to school. In the fourth grade, he recalls, he went as pop star Michael Jackson, which now seems kind of scary, but then was almost de rigeur.

“I was this 3-foot Jewish kid wearing glitter and a glove and trying unsuccessfully to moonwalk,” he recalled. “It was great.”

Purim was the perfect holiday for Chasnoff, the class clown, who found eliciting yuks to be “a way of getting attention.”

“I was always short,” said the comic, who is still slight in stature. “I remember when I was 4 or 5, I even had nightmares about being a dwarf or a midget. So being funny wasn’t exactly compensation, but it was a way of standing out. Plus it felt good to make people laugh.”

Chasnoff found himself dressing up, yet again, for the University of Pennsylvania’s Mask and Wig comedy troupe, whose all-male actors performed in drag.

“I wore pantyhose, high heels and tight-fitting dresses,” he said. “I was a skinny guy, so I had a pretty good bod.”

He was more than pretty good when he did his first standup show at Hillel, his junior year, armed with observations he’d jotted in a notebook. Soon thereafter, he visited a friend at the University of Michigan and convinced that Hillel to let him perform for $1 a person. Chasnoff began making a name for himself on the Hillel circuit, but opted to put his career on hold after graduating from Penn in 1996. He had long-dreamed of serving in the Israeli army: “It was the ultimate commitment to the country, and I knew I’d regret it forever if I didn’t go,” he said.

His one-year stint proved to be a positive Jewish — and comedic — experience. It inspired bits about the most common Israeli word, “Ehhhhhhhh,” and about the security guards who questioned him at the airport: “Did you pack your bags while you were by yourself, with no help from your parents, your grandparents … or Hamas?”

When he returned to the United States, the Israeli riffs became part of his act, along with bits about American Jewish life. For example, Chasnoff joked about Lieberman winning the presidency, “which would be great because then we could finally get rid of that stupid Easter egg hunt on the White House lawn and replace it with a national search for the Afikomen.”

He says his act is stereotype-free: “I’ve made a conscious decision that my comedy will be based on positive, genuine experiences,” he said. “It really bothers me when Jewish comics who don’t really have any Jewish identity make fun of Judaism. It’s just so detrimental. How many jokes can you tell about Jews being uptight with money?”

Chasnoff, who now performs within and without the Jewish community, feels his ethnic bits have been more successful than the generic observations he riffs on while performing in mainstream clubs.

“But right now a lot of my Jewish stuff is only understood by Jews, and I’m kind of sorry about that,” he said. “I’m searching for ways to bring Judaism into my act in a way that can be understood by everyone.”

One solution has been talking about his wife and 2-year-old twin daughters, which has allowed him “to be personal without just relying on my Judaism.”

But Chasnoff’s heritage — and Jewish pride — will always remain part of his act. Consider “The Purim Song” on his CD, which playfully disses the stereotype of Jews taking over the world.

“I make it clear we haven’t,” he said. “Because if we had, New Year’s Eve would be in September.”

For information about Chasnoff or to purchase his $15CD, visit .

Rabbi for the ‘Summer’

When comic Kevin Pollak did standup at his bar mitzvah, the rabbi was his straight man.

So he laid on the shtick to play Rabbi Jacobsen in Pete Jones’ melodramatic film, "Stolen Summer," which opens today in Los Angeles. The comedy-drama follows a Catholic kid bent on converting the rabbi’s son. But Pollak didn’t need to study Torah to prepare for his role. "I’m an old pro," he says. "My first act was lip-syncing Bill Cosby’s ‘Noah and the Lord’ bit when I was 10."

By age 18, Pollak was performing hilarious "Columbo" impressions while moving just one eye. Fifteen years later, he broke into movies after Barry Levinson cast him as Izzy the appliance dealer in his semiautobiographical 1990 film, "Avalon." Pollak, too, found the movie semiautobiographical because he also had a Russian-immigrant grandfather and an appliance-salesman dad who moved the family to the ‘burbs.

The 44-year-old actor went on to play the lieutenant dissed by an anti-Semitic Jack Nicholson in "A Few Good Men" and a Jewish president of the United States in 1999’s "Deterrence." His toughest Jewish role to date: Rabbi Jacobsen in "Stolen Summer."

Six weeks before the spring 2001 shoot, Pollak — whose character’s son has leukemia — lost his father to cancer. "I wasn’t sure I could do the movie," confides the actor, who had to take breaks while filming the most heartbreaking scenes. "But then I felt the connection was monumental because I’d gone through what the character needed to go through, which helped me to grieve and to bring a deeper resonance to the role."

Off camera, the comedian in Pollak emerged as he dodged crew members from HBO’s "Project Greenlight," a series about the making of "Summer." "They were like the CIA," he says. "The only place we could get a little privacy was the bathroom, which is why there’s a segment of the documentary where all you hear are toilets flushing."