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For Comedian, Humor Eases 'Toughest Journey'

Comedian Robert Schimmel has suffered tragedies, including the death of his child and his own battle with cancer. But throughout it all, Schimmel managed to find strength in humor. His recent memoir is Cancer on $5 a Day.

44:34

Other segments from the episode on March 12, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 12, 2008: interview with Robert Schimmel; Review of Toumani Diabate's new album "The Mande Variations."

Transcript

DATE March 12, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Comedian and author Robert Schimmel discusses his
life and memoir "Cancer on $5 a Day"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

It's not exactly the subject comic Robert Schimmel wanted to write a memoir
about: cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The diagnosis killed the sitcom he
was about to start and it nearly killed him; but he came through and has been
in remission for seven years. Cancer changed just about everything in his
life, including what he talks about in his stand-up act. His new memoir is
called "Cancer on $5 a Day: How Humor Got Me Through the Toughest Journey of
My Life." Schimmel has had Showtime and HBO specials, starred in a Fox TV
pilot and released several CDs.

Robert Schimmel, welcome to FRESH AIR and congratulations on remission. I'm
guessing it's easier to find the laughs in cancer several years after going
into remission.

Mr. ROBERT SCHIMMEL: I found it right away, as soon as I--the day I got
diagnosed. I was in the oncologist's office with my parents and my wife, and
he said, `There's Hodgkin's disease and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and you have
non-Hodgkin's.' And I said, `You know, that's just my luck. I got the one
that's not named after the guy.' And he laughed and he said, `You're going to
be OK.' And I said, `How do you know?' And he said, `Because your attitude is
just, you know, you're who you are and you're finding humor.' And, you know,
he said that's a healthy thing.

And I think I've become more in touch with myself and with the people that I
meet because of what I talk about years later. But the comedy that I wrote
that I do, I wrote while I was going through it.

GROSS: Did you feel obliged ever to be the funny guy with your doctors
because you're a professional comic and maybe they had expectations that you
were going to keep them amused as they gave you bad news?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: I wanted to make them laugh because I've had that urge in me
ever since I can remember. My parents told me when I was five years old I use
to mimic Jackie Gleason and watch Ernie Kovacs and all of these comics--I'm 58
years old, and never missed Ed Sullivan when a comedian was on. And I found
that laughter--my parents are both Holocaust survivors--and that laughter is
very disarming. And, you know, it's not easy for doctors either to come in
and give you bad news. It's not easy for your friends and your loved ones to
come in and visit you in the hospital and they don't know what to say. And I
think that if you make light of it, you let them off the hook emotionally, and
it's a lot easier for them to be themselves around you. And doctors and
nurses, they're a lot better around you if you're joking around instead of
complaining.

GROSS: There's never a good time to get cancer, but you got your diagnosis at
a really strange time. You and your wife were getting a divorce, you were
living with your girlfriend, and you were working on a TV pilot. OK, so the
TV pilot goes on hold or it's kaput, whichever. But in the meantime you
decided not to continue living with your girlfriend but to move in with the
wife from whom you had separated so that you could be near your children, and
so that she could take care--like, what was going through your mind? It seems
like such a difficult choice to make.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: You're not the first one that asked that.

GROSS: Yes, right.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Well, my wife and I were--my ex and I were married three times
to each other; and we got married, she was 18 years old and I was in my 20s,
and we had some problems. And in retrospect, I...

GROSS: Wait a minute. You married and divorced three times?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yeah, the same person.

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yeah. It's...

GROSS: Confusing.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: ...like going to the refrigerator and getting something to eat
and it being spoiled, and then coming back a few weeks later to see if it got
any better.

So we wound up back and forth. And then I had a son that had cancer, Derek,
that passed away in 1992. So we had already filed for divorce then. And when
he got diagnosed, we decided that we would not split up and we would stay
together and help him get through this battle. And they gave him about eight
months, and he survived eight years past that. So he passed away in '92. We
split up in 2000. And I was living with my girlfriend, who's now my wife, and
I got diagnosed. And I didn't--I thought it was the flu. I was feeling run
down. I was getting night sweats and chills and losing weight and went to the
doctor. And when they told me that I might only have six months, I wanted to
be with my children. And even though I love my present wife and I was in love
with her then, I didn't want to put her--it sounds crazy, but I loved her so
much that I didn't want to ruin her life and like throw her into--I already
went through this once with my son, and I didn't want her to have to wind up
being my caretaker. And if I only had six months to live, I wanted my
children to know who I was.

So I broke up with my girlfriend. I didn't tell her that I had cancer. I
just said that, `You know what? Find somebody else. You're too young for me;
and I have children and I should really be with them. And find somebody else
to go out with.' Which, by the way, she had no problem doing. Women, you
know, they listen to you. When you say find another guy, they got no problem
doing that. And...

GROSS: Wait. Let me stop you here. So you didn't want to move in with your
girlfriend because you thought, you know, `This isn't what she signed up for.'
So you moved back in with your ex-wife. It's not what she signed up for,
either. I mean, suddenly...

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Right. Well...

GROSS: I don't know whether you were leaving her, I assume; and so now that
you're really sick, you're moving back in.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yeah. Well, I wanted to be with my kids. And honestly, my ex
did such an unbelievable job with my son, Derek, and I felt that if there was
anyone I was going to have a chance with surviving through it, it was going to
be with her and not with Melissa, who's my wife now, because Vicki already had
eight years of experience of dealing with that.

GROSS: She was OK with this, with you moving back in?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yeah. And I think that she was hoping that maybe things could
work out, but she knew that there was a strong possibility that it wasn't, and
went to every treatment with me. And I promised her that I wouldn't call
Melissa and that it was definitely over between us. And I didn't talk to
Melissa until I had my last chemotherapy. It was right before my last
treatment. And I really missed her every day, and I just couldn't call. I
didn't want to break that promise to Vicki. And I called her up and she said,
`How you feeling?' And I thought she heard me, you know, I do "Howard Stern"
and all these other stations, and they were calling me when I was in the
hospital, so I figured she already knew somehow. And I said, `I got one more
chemo to go.' And she said, `You have cancer?' and started crying on the phone
and said that she missed me. And I said that I missed her and that I really
felt like I was on this earth to meet her. And she told me she started seeing
somebody else and that she actually consummated the relationship the night
before I called, which is--that's the way my timing is.

So I snuck out of the hospital and went to LA to surprise her and see her,
because I was at Mayo Clinic at Scottsdale, Arizona. And I went over to her
apartment, it was raining out; I rented a car. I had no hair, no eyebrows, no
eyelashes, wearing a baseball hat. And I'm looking up at her window, she
lived on the second floor, and she was making out with this guy in the window.
And she had given me this book, "The Worst Case Scenario Book," for my
birthday present, and inside wrote, `Dear Robert, I love you and there's never
going to be anybody else in my life but you.' So I became a real jerk and tore
that page out of the book and drove back to her place and put it under her
windshield wiper.

And my cell phone rang about 20 minutes later, and it was her. And she said,
`You're in town.' And I said, `How do you know?' And she said, `Because the
guy I'm seeing went to borrow my car to go and get us something to eat and
came back upstairs with the page that you left on my car and said, "What's
this?"' And she told him that that meant it was over between her and him and
said that she would wait for me to be finished with treatment, and I went back
to Melissa after.

And I know it doesn't sound good. It makes me look like a real creep. And...

GROSS: Well, look, this is like none of my business; but since you've put it
on the table...

Mr. SCHIMMEL: No. Well, you know what?

GROSS: How...

Mr. SCHIMMEL: I want to be totally honest. I mean, I really do.

GROSS: Yeah, how does your wife feel? How does your wife feel, you know,
your now ex-wife, that after she like took care of you, she saw you through
cancer, she nursed you and then you kind of left again?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Well, because...

GROSS: Not kind of. You left again.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yeah. Well, because I--it wasn't--our relationship was no
good. It was dysfunctional and we definitively needed a therapist or a
marriage counselor, which we didn't do then. We should have. And I even tell
her to this day, `You know what? I wish we would have done that and we
probably wouldn't have had the problems that we had.' But on top of all the
problems that we had prior to Derek, losing a child is a really big marriage
buster. There's a really high divorce rate in couples that lose children; and
because you're a constant reminder of the child, and sometimes there's this
secret blame about who didn't do what and whose fault it is. You know, it's
just really hard. And I actually am closer with her now than I was when we
were married. And because we have other children, so we have to have a
relationship together.

GROSS: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. Yeah.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: And she has a guy that she's in love with. And I think that
things changed and she--when I had my son, Sam, with Melissa--because they
told me I could never have children again and that I would be sterile. And
that was on June 5th, 2000. And I had a son on June 5th, 2003. So I think
that Vicki got upset and that bothered her because we had a trend of getting
together, breaking up, reconciling, getting pregnant, having a kid, breaking
up, reconciling, divorcing, visitation, getting pregnant, having a kid, kid
gets sick, stay together, break up. But there was always the get back
together. And I think that me having my son with Melissa was like the last
nail in the coffin, that I wasn't going to come back because now I already
have a kid with somebody else. And Sam was totally not planned. I mean, I
was not supposed to have children.

GROSS: Well, if you're just joining us, my guest is comic Robert Schimmel.
He has a new memoir called "Cancer on $5 a Day." That's a memoir of the time
that he was getting treatment for a non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, which pretty much
did him in; but, yeah, he's in remission now.

So when you were diagnosed, one of the things the doctor told you was that
during chemotherapy, it might really help to smoke marijuana.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yes.

GROSS: Were you already into smoking pot? Was this good news?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Well, I...

GROSS: That the doctor was telling you, `Hey!' You know?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Well, I had done it earlier in my life, but I was 50 years old
and not Rodney Dangerfield, so I wasn't doing it then. But my mother and
father were there in the doctor's office. And when he said, `if you're open
minded, you might consider marijuana because it helps with the nausea and the
appetite.' And it definitely does. I mean, they--I tried Marinol, which is
medicinal marijuana. It's synthetic THC, which is pills that they give you.
And because the flipside of that is getting Compazine and Zofran shots and all
these things that are a lot worse and more toxic than marijuana would be. But
to hear a doctor at Mayo Clinic tell me that it's OK to smoke pot in front of
my parents was almost worth the diagnosis. Because, you know, it was like,
`Wow, where were you 25 years ago? That's when I really needed you.'

And my mom called me once and said, `I'm coming to visit. Is there anything I
could bring you?' And I said, `Could you stop at the 7-Eleven and get me some
rolling papers?' And my mom's 70 years old, Hungarian. She was in Auschwitz
during the war. And she calls me from 7-Eleven and goes, `Bob, they have like
20 different kinds. I don't know which one to get.' I said, `There's a white
pack with a guy on the front.' And she said, `The anti-Semitic-looking guy?' I
said, `The Zig-Zag guy's anti-Semitic?'

And she came over. And, you know, I thought it would be really cool to be
smoking a joint in front of my parents. It wasn't what I thought it was going
to be. I realized that they were accepting it because of my condition, and it
wouldn't have been that way if I had not been sick. And so that
just--anything I did like that confirmed to them that I was in pain or feeling
nauseous. And I didn't want to--I had to sneak it because I have children and
I had a nine-year-old daughter, and I didn't want to be a father that says,
`Do what I say and don't do what I do.' And I made a pipe out of a piece of a
cardboard tube from a coat hanger, and something that I could, you know, use
like once and then just throw it away. And I fell asleep and my daughter
found it, and when I woke up she asked me what it was, and I told her I was
trying to make like a kind of a whistle or a flute, and she didn't say
anything to me.

When I was done with chemotherapy, I had a record deal with Warner Brothers
and they gave me tickets to see John Fogerty, who was performing live in
Phoenix; and I took her on a date with me to see John Fogerty. And as soon as
we walked into the place, she said, `Hey, dad, it smells like your whistle in
here.' And I knew I was busted right then and that she was just playing dumb
when she found it.

GROSS: My guest is comic Robert Schimmel, whose new memoir is called "Cancer
on $5 a Day." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Robert Schimmel. He's a comic who has written a memoir
about his treatment for cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. And the book is
called "Cancer on $5 a Day."

You know, of course, with the chemo you lost your hair, which you expected.
But you probably hadn't been thinking so much about losing your pubic hair
which, of course, you lost, too. And you made an interesting discovery, which
other people who have had cancer might already know, which is they have wigs
for your pubic hair.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yes.

GROSS: To replace your pubic hair. They even have a name. What are they
called?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: It's called a merkin. It's M-E-R-K-I-N. They've been around
actually since the late 1800s. And, you know, the guy showed me a ring binder
with head shots of wigs, real wigs. And, you know, I was losing my hair
anyway before chemotherapy. And so just jokingly I said to the guy, `You got
one for, you know, south of the border?' And the guy said, `As a matter of
fact, we do.' And I was shocked, and he was showing me pictures of them. And
they basically--it looked like a donut that somebody dropped on a barbershop
floor. And they had different models. It wasn't just one. There's like "the
executive," "the adventurer," "salt and pepper," "the surfer." And it was
really the craziest thing that I ever bought in my life. And...

GROSS: You bought it?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Of course I did.

GROSS: As a prop?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Guys are...

GROSS: As a prop or to actually wear?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: No.

GROSS: Which? Which?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: I was pretty insecure.

GROSS: You really wore it?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yes. I tried it. It was--you know what? You can't really
have sex when you're on chemotherapy because all the drugs are in you and so
anything that comes out of you--saliva or anything else--all have toxins in
them. And so you're not really supposed to. But, you know, I looked at
myself naked and, you know, a 50-year-old man that's bald down there, it's not
a really a good look. It looked like a small plucked bird fell on my lap and
broke its neck during the fall. And guys are insecure enough about, you know,
size and everything else; so when you don't have hair down there, it didn't
work with me.

GROSS: Well, you know, as anybody who knows your stand-up comedy knows, you
are deeply absorbed in thinking about sex a lot of the time. And you say in
your memoir that even when you were really sick with chemo and you were hardly
capable of putting on your shoes, let alone of having sex, you still thought
about it all the time. And I'm wondering, like, why do you think you were so
obsessed with it even when you were too sick to do anything sexual or
otherwise?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Well, I'm not a psychiatrist, but I think that it's really
like a primal thing that's in men that this thing about reproducing and about
that you know that everything has a beginning and a end, and you want it to
continue, and that's where that urge comes from. You don't want to think of
it that way because then that's really nothing less than two dogs doing it,
and they're not in love with each other. But, yeah, it's true. I mean,
you're sick. A nurse walks by and you look at her and you go, `Boy, if I
could be with her for 10 minutes.' And you're forgetting that you could have
10 minutes with her and then be gone for eternity. But better to think about
it than not.

And the reason why I talked about sex so much is because it was such a taboo
thing to talk about. When I started doing stand-up, it was like there was
like regular comics and then you were X-rated if you talked about having sex,
which is the most natural thing, I think, that two people can have. And to
me, I'm that guy that wants to get the laugh in the place where you're not
supposed to be laughing; like in church or when you're in the service or at a
meeting or something, I'm the guy that'll say the thing that'll turn
everything upside down. So I think it's funny that people put that much
pressure on sex and performance and all these other things. And, I mean,
because to me I've learned that it's the relationship that you have with the
person; and if that's real and there's really something there, those other
things really don't matter.

GROSS: Comic Robert Schimmel will be back in the second half of the show.
His new memoir is called "Cancer on $5 a Day." I'm Terry Gross, and this is
FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with comic Robert Schimmel.
He's released several CDs, had comedy specials on Showtime and HBO, and
starred in a Fox TV pilot. Right after making the pilot, he was diagnosed
with cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He's been in remission for seven years.
His new memoir is called "Cancer on $5 a Day: How Humor Got Me Through the
Toughest Journey of My Life."

During the period that you can cancer, you tried a bunch of alternative
therapies and relaxation techniques. Which of all of those seemed most out of
character for you?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: The crystals. My wife took me to this place and got crystals
and, you know, told me that my chakra was off, or I don't know what that, you
know--at that point you're trying anything. And so I have a purple crystal
that I was supposed to put between my eyes on my forehead and lay there and
then hold a different stone in one hand and one on my belly button and one in
the other hand and meditate; and at the same time, I was getting reflexology
and acupuncture and Reiki and meditating. So I don't know which worked, which
didn't work. But as far as far out, probably the crystals. The other things
were--I could tell the effect immediately. I could feel it. And if it was my
imagination, as long as, to me, it was working, that's all that really made
any difference.

GROSS: I completely understand. There's one point where you're describing
one of the alternative therapies and you say--and you describe how much of the
musician Yanni you'd been listening to.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yeah.

GROSS: And I'm thinking, `Oh, no. Yanni!' And then you'd say, `If I beat
this thing, it's because the cancer cells couldn't stand Yanni anymore.'

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yeah. Yeah. The cancer cells are like, `You know what?
We've had enough of this. Let's get out of here.'

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: And you know what? I wound up meeting John Tesh, and I told
him that.

GROSS: Oh, no. Uh-huh.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: And I didn't know that like him and Yanni are like rivals, you
know, because they both play new age music.

GROSS: Oh, yeah. Because John Tesh had that whole new age thing going on.
Yeah.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yeah. And so he thought it was hysterical that I was making
fun of Yanni's music like that, because they are very competitive with each
other. He told me that they play volleyball together and that Yanni is like
really hell bent on beating John Tesh constantly.

GROSS: Who knew?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: They don't seem like that type.

GROSS: No.

My guest is Robert Schimmel. He's a comic who's written a new memoir about
getting treated for cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. It's called "Cancer on $5
a Day." And he's been in remission for several years now and has had two
children since then.

Near the end of your treatment, when you are down, you are just like totally
out. I mean, your immune system is shot. You are at your weakest and sickest
and lightest in weight. I mean, there was nothing left of you. You told your
father--you had one more treatment left, one more chemo treatment--and you
told your father that you just couldn't go on. And you asked him basically to
help you die. You asked him to either, you know, pull the plug on the IV or
open up the window so that you could jump.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yeah.

GROSS: How serious were you about that? Were you just like expressing how
depressed you were, or did you really want him...

Mr. SCHIMMEL: No, I was...

GROSS: ...to do that?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: I was really serious. I had been positive the whole time. I
would make people laugh every day in the infusion center. I'd be the guy
bringing doughnuts every day for the nurses when I was going in for my
treatments and my scans and all those things, and everybody knew me at Mayo.
And my white blood cell count dropped to 0.5, and I basically had no immune
system left. I was in isolation. I couldn't have flowers in my room. I
couldn't have fresh fruit in my room. I was in a room that had no window
sills or no ledges. There was no place where any dust could settle.

GROSS: This is to protect you from any possible bacteria or virus...

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Any infection. Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Because I had no immune system left.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: And I wasn't even allowed to eat real food. I was IV fed, and
they wouldn't even give me ice chips to chew because if the ice machine had
any bacteria in it, that could do you in. And they actually told my parents
that day that if I woke up the next morning they would be surprised, because I
was definitely at the end of my rope right there. And they give you Neupogen
shots and Epogen shots to boost your white and red blood cells. And what
happens is it forces your bone marrow to produce blood cells at an accelerated
rate to make up for you losing them from the treatment. And it feels like
your bones are breaking from the inside out. And I just felt really bad.

And he came in and said, you know, `How you doing?' And I said, `Really bad,
dad.' And I said, `If you really love me, you'll help me unhook the IV and get
me to the window, and I want to jump.' And he said, `How could you say
something like that?' And I said, `Because if I'm going to die, then I want to
do it my way. And if I jump out the window, then I take the cancer with me
and it dies the minute I hit the sidewalk.' And he said, `I'll be back in a
minute.' And he walked out and came back in with my son, Jacob, who was two
years old then, and Aliyah, my daughter, who was nine years old then, and
said, `Tell them what you just told me.' And I couldn't.

And I was looking at my father and I was thinking, `Here's a guy who watched
his mom and dad and sister and brother, they were all killed in front of him;
and he wound up going to a concentration camp.' And he knew what it was like
to grow up without a mother and father, and he didn't want that for my
children. And I knew what it was like to lose a child, and I didn't want my
dad to have to go through something like that.

And I said, `How could you go what you went through and watch your family get
killed and still even have the desire to live and wind up being successful and
having a great life?' And he said that his best friend was marching in front
of him--they were in a forced labor march--couldn't march anymore. A German
soldier shot the kid in the back of the head. The kid fell down dead. The
father bent down to hug his son. The soldiers shot the father and then turned
around and said to the other people in the line, `If you want to survive, keep
moving forward.' And he said, `And that's the way life is, Robert. If you
want to survive, you have to keep moving forward. You can't go back in time
and change anything. You just have to, you know, move on.' And he saved my
life.

GROSS: You think if it wasn't for that moment, if it wasn't for your father
bringing in your kids and having to face them, you would have found a way to
kill yourself?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Either I would have found a way or I would have gotten
depressed in such an intensity that I can't--I don't think I could describe it
verbally, but I--the thought of hearing that the treatment didn't work, by the
time I felt like that, if they would have come in and said, `We're sorry but
it didn't go away,' I wouldn't have been able to handle that news at that
point. I really wouldn't, and he turned it around for me.

GROSS: If this next question is too personal, you just tell me, OK? Your son
Derek died of cancer when he was 11. He was diagnosed when he was three. Did
you feel like you learned about facing illness and death from watching your
son deal with it?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yeah. The advantage that children have is that at three years
old, when you get diagnosed with cancer, he had no sense of mortality. He
didn't even know--you know, I mean, he had no idea there was a death and, you
know, don't come back tomorrow. And they're a lot more resilient. And Derek
never complained about anything. And he always did things to make other kids
laugh or feel comfortable with the treatments and the procedures they were
going through. And he would walk around and visit other kids and tell them,
`Hey, look, I got this IV that goes into my heart. And I got this here.' And
he was the first to tell jokes about it.

And I was really afraid--I had this unusual fear of death until I went through
that with Derek. And it went away. And I am convinced that Derek and I are
connected from another time, another place, and that he chose that path to go
through what he went through because he knew that I had to watch him go
through that for me to be able to do what I was going to have to do later on
in my life.

GROSS: My guest is comic Robert Schimmel. His new memoir is called "Cancer
on $5 a Day." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is comic Robert Schimmel. His new memoir is called "Cancer
on $5 a Day: How Humor Got Me Through the Toughest Journey of My Life." He's
been in remission for seven years.

When you were told that the chemo had done its job and you were--for a short
or long term--going to be in remission--you didn't know yet if it was going to
be long term or not--and you felt that gratitude, was there somebody you had
to thank? I mean, your doctors, of course, your family, of course; but, like,
did you have a, like, religion? Did you have, like, a god to thank? Or was
it, you know...

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yes. I think I'm more spiritual than actually hard-core
religious. I don't think that you can really be a good religious Jew and be a
comedian and work on Friday night, because that's the Sabbath.

GROSS: Oh, yeah, good point.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Well, it's the truth. I mean, you can't be an Orthodox Jew
and work Vegas on the weekend. It just, they won't book you if you say, `I
don't work on Friday nights.' But I prayed to everybody, and I didn't discount
the fact that maybe Jesus is the one. Maybe Buddha is the one. And I prayed
to everybody and promised to celebrate everything when I got out. And I did
pray every day, and it was--I meditated and prayed.

But the other people that I have to thank, besides who were with me and God,
are the people who are in clinical trials that volunteer for that. And, you
know, if you're in a clinical trial for a new cancer drug and there are a
thousand people in the trial, 500 people really get the drug and the other 500
get a placebo. It's not that you don't get anything, you get what's standard
treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, but you don't get the extra thing that
they're testing. They never tell you whether you got it or you didn't. You
never know if you did. You're a number. You're not even a name on those
tests. And there are people that volunteer for that, and their whole mindset
is, `I might not make it, but maybe they'll learn something with me and
that'll help somebody else in the future.'

Well, I'm getting to have this conversation with you right now because I was
in somebody else's future. So every morning when I wake up, I thank people
that I can't even connect a name or a face to; and I do it when I get laughs
onstage, in my head I'm saying thank you. At night when I go to bed, I say
thank you. I know it's a tough fight.

And the book, I wanted to do this book because I owe it to other people that
are fighting this fight to know that it's worth the fight, and that life can
be really great after. And this definitely is not a money-making thing for
me. And I don't think that health books are--self-help books are big
blockbuster money makers, but I do know what it's like to be in the infusion
center and be looking for anything to hold onto to get you to the next day.

And when I heard somebody say, `I'm two years in remission,' to me two years
seemed like an eternity when I was on my third chemotherapy. And on December
12th, I hit seven years. And I think that people should know that I hit seven
years. It's not something that my agent wanted me to do. In my business,
they would advise me to not even mention cancer in my act because you would
scare the crap out of everybody in Hollywood.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: And they're not going to take a chance with you because, to
them, you say "cancer," that means it can come back, and they're not going to
invest in you.

GROSS: Well, you were starting a pilot when you were diagnosed with cancer, a
TV pilot that was supposed to be...

Mr. SCHIMMEL: It was picked up, yeah.

GROSS: It was picked up. OK. So...

Mr. SCHIMMEL: It was picked up for 13 episodes. It was going to premiere
after "The Simpsons." It was created by Mike Scully, who was running "The
Simpsons." And I got diagnosed eight days later.

GROSS: So where are you with that pilot? Is it ever going to happen?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Gone.

GROSS: Gone. Uh-huh?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: No. It was based on my life at that time, and my life at that
time isn't my life now. I was on "The Simpsons" while I was getting
chemotherapy. Mike Scully called me once and said, `You want to be on "The
Simpsons"?' And I said, `I'm in the hospital and I'm not allowed to even get
on an airplane because I can't be exposed to other people.' And he FedExed me
a digital tape recorder and a script and called me the next day and directed
me on the phone while I talked into the tape deck, and sent the thing back to
him. And I was on "The Simpsons" while I was in the hospital.

GROSS: That's great. What was your part?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: I played an inmate that was in prison when the wife was
teaching an art class in there, and it was me and Michael Keaton. We were
both prisoners in this jail.

GROSS: That's great. And you probably felt like a prisoner, too.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: I felt like, you know, I'll tell you what it feels like. It's
like Robert Schimmel the person, whoever's in my head, that part doesn't have
cancer. And it's like I'm trapped in a body that's betraying me. And I don't
feel sick in my head, you know. You don't feel like you're dying. You don't
even look bad when you have cancer. It's the treatment that makes you look
bad, and it feels like my body's the Titanic and it's going down, and I'm the
captain of the ship and it's going to take me down with it. You can't go to
a--you can't switch to another body.

GROSS: Right. So you have to make peace with it.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yeah. But I learned a lot. I learned a lot of things. I got
to--I have to tell you this. I really do.

GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Because I really mean it, and I can't do this on any other
show, because most of the shows I do, they want to hear joke, joke, joke,
joke, joke. If I could go back to June 5th, 2000, right now and have the
doctor say it was nothing, and it was fatty tissue or whatever, but in
exchange for that I don't have the life with Melissa that I have now, I don't
have my two sons--Sam and Max--that I had with her, I don't have the
relationship with my other children and the other people in my life that I do
now, nor know the things that I know about life since then, I would not take
that deal.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: I really wouldn't. Because I think that I am a better person
after what I went through. I can't even tell you where I would be today if I
hadn't of gone through this. This definitely was a gigantic wake-up call. It
was a tap on the shoulder like, `Hey, you know what? This doesn't last
forever. What are you going to do for the rest of your life?' I spend as much
time as I can with my children. I, you know, I don't take my cell phone with
me when I'm with them because I want my time with them to be my time with
them.

And the hardest thing for me is when they told me that I was in remission, I
had survivor's guilt. Instead of me jumping up and down and saying, `Yes, I
beat it,' the first thing I thought is, `How come I made it and Derek didn't?'

GROSS: Yeah. You describe in your acknowledgements, you know, one of the
people you thank is Howard Stern, who called you in the hospital. But part of
the reason he called you, apparently, is that he had a death pool on the air.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yeah. They had, yeah.

GROSS: And so was he betting you were going to die before New Year's, was
that it?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Well, they were placing odds. It's something that they used
to do every year. And so he called me and I was live, and I had no idea. And
I was in Mayo Clinic. And he said, `How you doing?' And I...

GROSS: So he's just calling you live on the radio?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yeah.

GROSS: Uh-huh, OK.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: And he goes, `How you doing?' And I said, `You know, I'm
pretty sick.' And he said, `Do you think you're going to make it to New Year's
Eve?' And I said, `Why?' And he said, `Because Robin has Anthony Quinn picked
and I have--it's between you and Anthony Quinn.' And I said, `Pick Anthony
Quinn because I'm still going to be here.' And then Anthony Quinn died like
out of nowhere and I felt really bad. I mean, he wasn't even sick, Anthony
Quinn. So they just picked that name out of nowhere and it wound up
happening.

GROSS: So when Howard Stern called you live in the hospital because they had
a death pool and they wanted to know if you were going to make it to New
Year's, did that seem funny to you at the time?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yeah. Because I know Howard. And the first time I met him, I
hadn't listened to his show a lot. And Warner Brothers got me on there
because that's what I had my record deal with. And when I sat down on the
couch, the first thing Howard said is, `You lost a son, didn't you?' And there
was no pre-interview, I mean, and he just wings it. And I'm sitting there
thinking, `Oh, God. I mean, what am I supposed to say?' And he said, `That
must have been, you know, really tough to go through something like that and
still be a comedian.'

And I told him that the Make-A-Wish Foundation came to our house and they
wanted to make a wish come true for my son, and I told them that his wish was
to watch me have sex with Dolly Parton. And the Make-A-Wish people were
pretty stunned. And Derek, though, thought it was funny. My son almost fell
out of his bed. And the lady, you know, I told this on the air. And Howard
was screaming; and he said, `You know what? You could be on for the rest of
your life.' Because I actually had a comeback to something like that and it
wasn't something negative.

And that's the way I choose to look at it. You know, I can be miserable. I
mean, I have the ultimate trump card; I lost a child. I can fail at anything
and use him for an excuse. And instead, it forces me to do the opposite and I
will not exploit what he went through to elicit any kind of response from an
audience. I will talk about him if I'm doing a charity event for cancer,
otherwise he's not really a part of my stand-up act.

GROSS: Well, Robert Schimmel, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.
Really appreciate it a lot. And, you know, be well and good luck. Thank you
very much.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Thanks.

GROSS: Robert Schimmel's new memoir is called "Cancer on $5 a Day." You can
download podcasts of our interviews on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, Milo Miles reviews a new solo album by a kora player from Mali who
use to perform with the late world music star Ali Farka Toure. This is FRESH
AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Milo Miles on "The Mande Variations" from kora player
Toumani Diabate
TERRY GROSS, host:

Virtuosi Toumani Diabate is a member of an elite musician family in Mali and
claims to descend from 54 generations of "griots," or traditional
song-storytellers. During the last 20 years, Diabate has become the most well
known promoter of the 21-stringed harp-like instrument called the kora. He's
done duets with blues man Taj Mahal, and the late world music star Ali Farka
Toure. And he leads an international fusion big band called the Symmetric
Orchestra. Now he's released "The Mande Variations," his second solo kora
album since his 1988 debut. Critic Milo Miles has a review.

Mr. MILO MILES: Toumani Diabate is a captivating modernist musician. He's
restless but precise, an experimenter who follows no trends. He avoids
synthesizers and syn drums, but makes it clear that he's heard and appreciates
them. At bottom, however, he's an advocate of the kora, a 300-year-old West
African instrument that I am sure will become more popular with Western
audiences as time goes on. Diabate's brilliant "The Mande Variations" will
certainly help.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. MILES: The kora is often compared to the harp or sometimes flamenco
guitar. While its tone is harp-like, the kora isn't really like any other
instrument. It features a large resonator made from the calabash gourd and a
long neck with 21 strings attached, now often made from fishing line. Though
only four fingers are used to play it, the effect is like a piano, with thumbs
stating rhythm and melody, the index fingers adding variations and
improvisations. This explains why solo kora performances can be so complete
and satisfying. It also hints that the instrument is tricky to record.

Produced by Nick Gold and recorded and mixed by Jerry Boys, "The Mande
Variations" is the most meticulously recorded kora album I've heard. It
reveals new layers of vitality and resonance.

Some tracks take off from very traditional numbers, including one recorded by
Diabate's revered father Sidiki. A couple others, such as this tribute to Ali
Farka Toure, were improvised from scratch in a studio.

(Soundbite from music)

Mr. MILES: Diabate readily acknowledges that he incorporates his impression
of Senegalese drums, Indian sitar and, yes, flamenco guitar into his playing
here. But stylistic analysis is beside the point, what matters about "The
Mande Variations" is that it enchants you. Diabate's wordless storytelling,
his flights of imagination, and particularly the deep, meditative quality of
many passages rewards repeated listening. For example, he's recorded the
basic tune of "Cantelowes" at least twice before, but never with such probing
authority, even though he begins it with a joking wink.

(Soundbite from "Cantelowes")

Mr. MILES: The Web site of his British label World Circuit includes a snappy
short film about Diabate, and even some footage of koras being built. Diabate
explains how he always intended to expand the kora's range, and his solo
albums show his progress vividly. On his debut, "Kaira," he was a gifted
youngster. With "The Mande Variations" he's set to change the future of his
instrument.

GROSS: Milo Miles lives in Boston. He reviewed "The Mande Variations" from
Toumani Diabate.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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