In the late 1990‘s, when the web was still a novelty, long before YouTube, there was a website, khaha.com. It’s defunct now. It played continuous streaming comedy, mostly standup bits from every comedian you’ve ever heard of and quite a few you’ve never heard of. Doing some mindless task I’d sit and revel in the jokes. One voice stood out. Did he just say what I think he said? This is the filthiest thing I’ve ever heard. And then I started laughing. And I started listening for the sharp-tongued sarcasm of Robert Schimmel, whose birthday is today.
Unlike other X-rated comedians Schimmel often made himself the butt of the joke–sometimes literally. He told a joke about a woman suggesting he try anal beads. He balked at first but then thought, who’s gonna know? Beat. “So I’m in the emergency room…”
He also sometimes went too far. As he told an audience he’d been banned from a late night talk show after telling a joke about the time his dentist said, “You’re gonna feel a little prick in your mouth…”
And he wasn’t always dirty either. He applied that same intense wit to everyday situations, like his daughter’s pet rabbit.
I got her a rabbit like Easter time and about three days later it’s actin’ real sick and it’s just layin’ around and my wife goes, Gee, maybe we should take him to the vet. I said, Yeah, why don’t you just let me take him for a drive? I’m not gonna take a five dollar rabbit to the vet.
Beat. “So we’re at the vet…”
It didn’t surprise me that Schimmel was recognized as a major new talent. He got an HBO special and a sitcom deal.
And then came cancer. Specifically non-Hodgkins lymphoma. In his book Cancer On $5 A Day* (*chemo not included) he describes getting the diagnosis.
“Just my luck,” I say. “I get the one not named after the guy.”
He has a show that night. He then goes on,
I realize instinctively that even though I’ve been told I have cancer, I haven’t been told that I’m going to die. And to prove it, I’m going to do the one and only thing that shows that I am very much alive.
I am going to make the audience laugh.
The original title of his book, by the way, was I Licked The Big C. When he was in remission he went on a late night talk show. He opened with, “I licked the big C!” When the audience’s cheers and applause died down he added, “And I beat cancer!”
The joke wasn’t just cut by the producers. They stopped taping and took him backstage for a little chat.
When I got my own cancer diagnosis I thought of Schimmel. His doctor told him, “If you can keep your sense of humor you’re going to be okay.” I’d read his book years earlier and I didn’t just remember the jokes. I also remembered how honest he was about the trauma of chemotherapy, and a conversation he had at his lowest point with his father. His parents survived the Holocaust, and the conversation saved his life.
I have mixed feelings about sharing this because even though Schimmel beat cancer, even though he went on to make jokes about how he celebrated remission by swimming with dolphins and was told not to stick anything in the blowhole–”What’d I spend fifty bucks on then?”–he died in September 2010 following a car wreck.
But four years later I knew if I could keep my sense of humor I could lick the big C.
Hail and farewell Robert Schimmel. And happy birthday.