Skip to main content

Fresh Air Remembers Comedian Robert Schimmel

The 60-year-old comedian, who often joked about his own life in his raunchy stand-up routines, died Friday from injuries suffered in a car accident. Fresh Air remembers Schimmel with highlights from a 2008 interview in which he discusses his memoir Cancer On $5 A Day.


Other segments from the episode on September 8, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 8, 2010: Interview with Michael Potter; Interview with Robert Schimmel.


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Good Night, Sleep Tight, Don't Let The Bedbugs...


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

I don't know about you, but checking into hotels during my vacation had a new
note of anxiety. Will there be bedbugs? I inspected. I lifted the sheet and
looked at the edges of the mattress and thankfully didn't see anything.

In spite of the fact that this wasn't exactly a thorough inspection, I got
through my vacation bug-free. I'm really not sure how worried I should be about
the spread of bedbugs and what precautionary actions to take.

To get a sense of perspective, as well as some practical advice, we have as our
guest today, Michael Potter, who is a professor of urban entomology at the
University of Kentucky, specializing in pests infesting buildings, people and
pets. He's the former technical director of a major pest control company.

If you want to know what to look for, he describes bedbugs as the color of an
apple seed and a little bit smaller. Typically, bedbugs can live two to three
months without feeding, which is one of several reasons they're hard to get rid

Michael Potter, welcome to FRESH AIR. Give us a sense of how big the problem
is. You co-authored a study at the University of Kentucky and the National Pest
Management Association surveyed the U.S. and international companies about the
state of the bedbug resurgence. So what did you find?

Professor MICHAEL POTTER (Professor of Entomology, University of Kentucky):
Well, what we found was not really that surprising to us, that bedbugs are
resurging throughout the world, not just here in the United States. So we're
really dealing with a global resurgence and really a growing importance
worldwide, affecting many different types of stakeholders, not just homes and
hotels and apartments.

GROSS: But also?

Prof. POTTER: Well, where do we start? College dormitories.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Oh, stop. Yeah.

Prof. POTTER: College dormitories, homeless shelters, nursing homes, office
buildings, hospitals, schools and day cares, movie theaters, modes of
transportation, Laundromats, retail stores, libraries, camps. Should I keep

GROSS: No, maybe you should stop. Maybe you should stop.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So when you mentioned that whole list, I mean, is the typical clothing
store infested? Is the typical library infested? Or are these one-offs?

Prof. POTTER: No, Terry. First of all, we need to, you know, put a lot of this
in perspective. What we're seeing with the bedbug is not surprising at all. If
you look back at the historical precedents for this bug, it was quite common in
places beyond where people slept.

That said, we're still in, I think, the early stages of bedbugs showing up in
these less-conventional places like clothing stores and libraries and movie
theaters. And we have to sort of keep a sense of perspective about ourselves,
about the likelihood of finding them in those types of places.

GROSS: And you think it's pretty unlikely right now?

Prof. POTTER: Well, the problem is building. It's just a matter of what you
mean by unlikely. I would say that people should probably be unconcerned about
encountering bedbugs in those types of places at this point.

Is it possible? Certainly it's possible. But what's happening is the news media
attention focusing on these isolated infestations here and there I think
creates a huge concern among people, and I think we have to, you know, keep a
bit of this in some perspective.

GROSS: So what are the cities with the biggest infestations right now?

Prof. POTTER: Well, you know, there have been different surveys on that, and I
think it parallels, you know, basically the larger metropolitan areas that have
a lot of people and a lot of movement of people tend to have more bedbug

So it's, of course, cities like New York and Philly and Detroit and Chicago and
San Francisco, Baltimore, and there have been some lists that list those and
others. But basically, when you've got lots of people living in close proximity
to one another and lots of travel and movement of people, you're going to have
bedbug issues.

GROSS: And typically, it spreads from the cities to other locations, suburbs
and then beyond suburbs, yes?

Prof. POTTER: Well, that's correct. I mean, the bug has a remarkable ability to
move from one place to another. And again, we could go back to the 1700s and
see exactly the same patterns, where bedbugs originated in large seaport towns
and areas of commerce. And with time, they move inland, with the railroad and
so forth, to more rural, outlying areas. And we're seeing the same pattern
again today. Places that didn't have bedbugs five years are now reporting
incidents, as well.

GROSS: Why are they sometimes called the perfect parasite?

Prof. POTTER: Well, I've used that term for a number of reasons. First of all,
they bite you while you're sleeping, under cover of darkness, in your bedroom.
The bites are painless. In other words, the victim seldom realizes they've been
bitten until some time later on. So there's a lot of confusion in terms of, you
know, what's happening here.

Unlike a lot of other parasites like ticks and fleas and lice, bedbugs don't
stay on the host - they scurry away to their hidden harborages that are often
far from obvious.

And then on top of all of that, people react to bedbug bites differently. Some
don't react at all. They're being bitten, but they just don't react. And in
other people, the reactions are delayed until maybe days or even as much as
weeks later.

So it creates a lot of confusion in terms of what exactly is going on. So it's
a very efficient critter from the standpoint of doing its business and creating
a lot of anxiety and uncertainty in terms of what's happening.

GROSS: If the bite is painless, is that because they basically anesthetize us
when they bite us?

Prof. POTTER: Yeah, when a bedbug bites a person, they inject both an anti-
coagulant, which allows the bug to extract blood from the human, and also sort
of anesthetizing agent, which causes the bite to be painless, unlike say a flea
bite, for example. And, you know, if you just sort of use common sense, that's
a good survival mechanism because if you woke up and felt the pain immediately,
not too many bedbugs would survive to feed another day.

GROSS: How does a bedbug bite compare to a mosquito bite?

Prof. POTTER: Well, in people that are sensitive, they both cause these raised,
red, itchy lesions. And, you know, everybody is different in terms of how they
react to insect bites. Some people – you know, I get bit by a mosquito, and I
itch for 20 minutes, and it goes away. You know, my wife gets bit by a
mosquito, and she itches for two weeks.

People that suffer bedbug bites tell me that they itch like crazy. In other
words, the itching is very intense, often lasting for an extended period of
time. But in most people, you know, the reactions are somewhat similar in that
you see these raised, red, very itchy welts.

GROSS: So at the risk of stating the obvious, why do bedbugs live in beds, and
how do they manage to live there?

Prof. POTTER: Well, one thing that a bedbug needs to survive is blood. So this
creature has evolved over the eons to feed on humans. And from an efficiency
standpoint, you know, much in the insect world is about efficiency, why crawl
further than you have to for your next meal?

So the bed is probably the most common place where bedbugs are found, although
we do find them in couches and recliners, which also people tend to sleep in.
But with time, they move outward from the bed into lots of other places. But
the bed is certainly ground zero for bedbug infestations.

GROSS: And apparently, they like to live in cracks and folds. So that kind of
crevice at the end of a mattress, where the ticking – is that what it's called
– that raised thing at the edge of a mattress, they apparently love to live in
that crevice there. So why do they like cracks and crevices and edges like

Prof. POTTER: Well, a lot of insects like to be up against edges. If you were
to put a bunch of bedbugs into a flat dish, they would work their way to the
edge of a dish. If you were to put a pencil in the dish, they might line up
along that pencil, much as they line up along those seams and folds and corners
of mattresses.

So those are the places we typically find them, but we have to remember that
the mattress - basically when you find bedbugs on the mattress, you've probably
got fairly large numbers of bedbugs because they tend to prefer even more
secluded places like the juncture between the box spring and the mattress, the
side of the box spring where it sits on the frame of the bed.

In the case of a hotel room, probably the first place you'll find bedbugs is
behind the headboard because there's less disruption in that area, yet it's
close to the person sleeping.

So they've adapted and learned, you know, where the most efficient place is to
be close to their meal and still be hidden away, which of course is one of the
most maddening things about, you know, bedbug eradication and detection is
finding all these hidden locations.

GROSS: Okay, you're killing me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I recently stayed at a couple of hotels, and I thought, okay, I know
what I'm doing. I know about the bedbug things. I'm going to lift the sheet in
a corner and look at the mattress, and I did that.

I looked in one corner of the mattress, looked in another corner, and I
thought: Nothing there, we're done, I'm safe. And now I realize I had done
nothing. I mean, my search was completely inefficient.

Prof. POTTER: Well, you've done more than nothing, and at least that's a good
start. You know, we have to be realistic about these things in terms of what
people are going to be willing to do. And, I mean, I can tell you what I do,
you know, when I inspect my room.

GROSS: Please.

Prof. POTTER: First thing I do before I unpack is I remove the bed sheets and
the blankets – I'm probably going to be blackballed from every hotel in the
United States now that I've revealed this on air.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. POTTER: And I examine the upper and lower seams of the mattress at the
two corners by the pillow area and along the seam that runs below the

The reason I look there first is that bedbugs tend to be drawn to heat and
carbon dioxide as a person sleeps. So typically if they're on the mattress,
we're more likely to see them in that location.

Now, we could see them at the foot of the bed, you know, around the label or
other places. But I'm basically, you know, lazy like everybody, and there's
only so much I'm going to do.

So that's the first place I look, and if I can see the upper seam of the box
spring in those areas, I'll take a look at that, as well, looking for the
little brown bugs themselves, as well as the black speckling, little spots,
which are the droppings of the bedbug, the fecal material of the bedbug.

GROSS: My guest is Michael Potter. He's a professor of urban entomology at the
University of Kentucky. We'll talk more about bedbugs after a break. This is

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about bedbugs. My guest,
Michael Potter, is an expert on that. He's a professor of urban entomology at
the University of Kentucky and has actually worked in the pest control
business, as well.

We were talking about what you do to check out a hotel room. Have you been in
hotel rooms where you've checked it out and realized, yes, bedbugs?

Prof. POTTER: Yes, I have.

GROSS: So then what do you do?

Prof. POTTER: Well, you know, everybody's entitled to do what they want, but
what I do is I contact the front desk and say I need another room, preferably
one that's, you know, farther away than the room next door.

I should say that I, you know, I do do a more thorough inspection than what I
just mentioned to you...

GROSS: Oh, keep going then. Keep going.

Prof. POTTER: Well, I mean, when you get on the Internet, you read about this
stuff, and I think it's a great time to clarify some things.

It is probable that if you have a very low-level infestation of bed bugs in
that hotel room, you will not see them in the areas that I just mentioned. As I
said, when pest control companies inspect hotel rooms or hotels inspect the
rooms themselves, it's a prudent practice to remove the headboard, if the
headboard is fixed to the wall.

In many hotels, the headboard rests on a little ledge that if you basically
lift the headboard up and off, it will be removed. And we often will see these
earliest stages of bedbug infestation behind the headboards, around the
crevices and the seams where wood meets wood, the corners and so forth behind

But, you know, these headboards can be very heavy. And it's probably an
imprudent practice for the average person to try to remove these things, and it
can be difficult to get them back on the wall afterwards.

I take some other precautions. I tend to not spread my stuff all over the room.
I tend to, you know, use what I need and zip up my suitcase. I tend to leave my
suitcase on as hard a surface as I can find, like a tabletop or credenza, or if
that's not available on the luggage rack, rather than laying it on the floor,
you know, up against a wall or in the corner of the room or on the other bed if
there happen to be two beds in the room.

But this is just me. I mean, you know, you asked me if I've found bedbugs in
hotel rooms. I have, but it's still a pretty rare occurrence. I think I've only
found them two or three times, and I travel a fair amount.

GROSS: So when you say, okay, there's – you call the front desk. You say
there's bedbugs in my room. I need another room. Why don't you say there's
bedbugs in the room, I need another hotel?

Prof. POTTER: Well, for starters, you know, most bedbug infestations in hotels
are spotty. In other words, they may have, you know, one, two, a few rooms that
are infested.

Rarely is the entire hotel infested. And I think that's a really important
point for people to remember because I think there's a perception that, you
know, if you read something online that there were bedbugs in somebody's room,
that means the whole hotel is infested, and we've got to go find another place.
Not – you know, that's usually not the way it works.

Do we have some hotels that have, you know, more extensive bedbug problems? We
do, but that tends to not be the case. So, you know, usually getting another
room and preferably one that's not right next door because there is a tendency
for bedbugs to move from room to room. So, in other words, the odds increase
that they'll be in the room adjoining to the room that you find them in

GROSS: You're a pro. Now, you've been studying bedbugs for years. You used to
be in the pest management business. Are you as creeped out by bedbugs as most
of us are?

Prof. POTTER: Not creeped out but very concerned. Very concerned because I
think we're in uncharted waters this time with bedbugs and a lot has changed
societally since we dealt with bedbugs, you know, 40 or 50 years ago.

GROSS: What's changed?

Prof. POTTER: Well, all sorts of things. I mean, first of all, we've got
unprecedented movement of people today, and we know this bug has an amazing
ability to hitchhike from one place to another. So while we didn't just start
traveling, you know, 10 years ago, we certainly have a lot more movement of
people today than years ago.

I mean, the bedbugs that you're dealing with in, you know, an apartment
building in New York City could have come from across the ocean, you know, two
days before.

There's a lot more stuff and clutter that people have today. In other words,
you know, if you looked at a typical boarding house or dwelling in the 1930s,
you know, they didn't have all the books and CDs and electronic equipment

GROSS: You're describing my home.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. POTTER: And the relevance of that is that, you know, as bedbug problems
persist, they tend to move outward from the bed into all the other stuff. So
from a preparation standpoint, it's extremely draining on people to have to
prepare their home or apartment for bedbug inspections and treatments because
they can be in all this stuff. And pest control companies are very apprehensive
today about over-applying pesticides.

You know, we've been training the pest control industry over the last 20, 25
years, you know, don't spray where you don't need to, don't – and heaven
forbid, don't spray anybody's bedroom because that's not where bugs typically
live. And for goodness sakes, don't spray their bed.

Well, these are in fact exactly the places where bedbugs live. So, you know, we
generally do not spray over people's clothing and bed sheets and stuff on the
floor. So it requires a lot of preparation.

But there's a lot of other reasons why things are different this time around.
We have, unfortunately, less potent insecticides for both the pest control
professional, as well as for use by householders themselves.

What pretty much wiped the slate clean on these bugs was some phenomenally
effective, long-lasting insecticides that we don't have available for use
anymore today.

GROSS: Because they're too toxic.

Prof. POTTER: Well, there's some debate about all that, but basically, yeah,
their concerns about health risks with these materials is why they're no longer
on the market.

GROSS: You're talking for instance about DDT, right?

Prof. POTTER: Well, DDT and some of the products that came after it. I think
people need to understand that probably the single biggest reason, by far, that
allowed us to virtually wipe the slate clean of bedbugs in the 1950s and '60s
was the availability of DDT, which was just phenomenally effective on bedbugs
and lasted a really long time, perhaps as much as years after the treatment.

But maybe, you know, as big or bigger than all those reasons, Terry, was that
people have changed today. I mean, we have literally gone through, you know, a
generation where we live pretty much vermin-free, at least in the developed

And I think with that, we've developed sort of a sense of entitlement or a
sense of, you know, that everything goes right and you just don't live with
bloodsucking parasites feeding on you while you're sleeping.

So I think people have gotten so creeped out about this, and there's a tendency
today to, you know, frankly, you know, want to blame people when something goes
wrong. So it's going to be interesting to see how this all evolves.

And of course, the news media attention directed on this is something that also
has changed quite a bit from years ago, when people would – I'm not saying that
bedbugs weren't a big problem and concern years ago, but it was another thing
that life threw at you, whereas today, I think, you know, you get two or three
bedbugs in someone's cubicle in an office building, and they vacate the whole
office building for three days. You know, those sorts of changes are quite
different this time around.

GROSS: Michael Potter will talk more about bedbugs in the second half of the
show. He's a professor of urban entomology at the University of Kentucky. I'm
Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: So if you find that you have some bedbugs at home, what should be the
first step?

Prof. POTTER: Well, first of all, you're either going to see the bugs or you're
going to start developing, you know, these red, very itchy welts. And while
that's not a guarantee that it's bedbugs, because there can be all sorts of
things that can cause, you know, red itchy welts. But if you suspect bedbugs,
it would be prudent to contact a pest control company to come out and do an
inspection and try and verify that in fact that's what is the problem.

GROSS: And if it is the problem, what are some of the tools that the individual
and the pest control company have to deal with the bugs?

Prof. POTTER: Well, they start with an inspection to confirm, you know, that
bedbugs are in fact the culprit, and then what they should do is provide the
person with education, information, instructions about how to prepare for their
treatment. And unfortunately this is where, you know, a lot of the anguish and
exasperation comes in, because typically pest control companies will require
that people remove all of their belongings from floors. Many companies will ask
them to strip the sheets off the bed and launder all of those bed linens.
They'll ask them to empty closets, commonly the drawers in the bedroom at

So there's a tremendous amount of preparation and then all that stuff either
goes into the washing machine on a high temperature setting or you can just put
it right into a clothes dryer and the heat from the clothes dryer will
accomplish the same thing. But then all that stuff gets bagged up or put in the
large, you know, Tupperware type containers while the pest control company does
their series of treatments, and that can take some time. So often people are
living out of, you know, trash bags for several weeks or longer.

GROSS: So if you're using a dryer, what heat does it need to be at to kill the

Prof. POTTER: Well, basically if you take a bedbug and you put him in a
container and you heat that container, which could be your clothes dryer up to
say, 120 degrees, those bugs will be dead in a matter of, you know, a few
minutes or less. And most clothes dryers, if you take a thermometer, you know,
an infrared thermometer, and shoot it into a clothes dryer while it's running,
usually you're in that range of, you know, 120 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit, even
at, you know, low to moderate settings. So a clothes dryer is your best friend
in de-infesting items that either you choose not to wash or just can't be

So you know, people are throwing out a lot of things unnecessarily and
basically, you know, clothing, kids toys, backpacks, sneakers, you know, a lot
of that stuff can go into a clothes dryer and be de-infested quite efficiently.

GROSS: Heat treatments are effective if you're throwing your clothes in a
dryer. Are there other forms of heat treatments like for your mattress or for
the bed frame that could be effective?

Prof. POTTER: There are. Some pest control companies around the country are
offering total heat treatments where they literally heat up an entire home or
apartment or a hotel room by either bringing in large heaters into the dwelling
or running flexible ducts from the outside of the building and pumping heat
into the building, hot air. The idea of this is to elevate the temperatures
wherever the bedbugs may be hiding to at least a temperature of about 120, 130
degrees, which kills all the life stages.

It can be very effective. It can be very efficient. In other words, rather than
battle these infestations for many days or weeks or perhaps months, we can
often eliminate the infestation, you know, that day. But the technology is
rather costly. It's not unusual to spend an excess of $1,000 or more for a heat
treatment, and is not really that widely available throughout the United

The equipment is quite costly, so only a relatively small percentage of pest
control companies around the nation are currently offering heat treatments. And
the other thing is the heat technology doesn't have any residual lasting
effect. So if it's an apartment building, for example, you could de-infest, you
know, an individual unit of its bedbugs, but if bedbugs are reintroduced into
the building, you could have the problem again.

GROSS: And I imagine if you have like art on the walls or a vinyl record
collection, that the heat wouldn't be good for that.

Prof. POTTER: Well, there's a short list of things that have to come out of the
building, things like medications and chocolates...

GROSS: Right.

Prof. POTTER: ...and bottles of wine that might burst. But surprisingly, most
things can stay - computer equipment, electronics can stay, for example. They
monitor the temperatures that the heat gets up to, to ensure that they don't
get to those levels that can cause damage to most household items. So usually
you're not heating the unit to much more than about 140 degrees, which seems
high to us but in fact most items won't be damaged at those temperatures.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about bedbugs. My guest,
Michael Potter, is a professor of urban entomology at the University of
Kentucky. He's not only studied bedbugs, he's the former technical director of
the world's largest pest control company.

New York recently passed a law that if you're renting an apartment building,
your landlord has to tell you of any infestation that occurred in the building
within the past year. So I'm wondering, like, if one apartment has had bedbugs
in an apartment building, how likely is it that that will become a building-
wide infestation?

Prof. POTTER: Well, it's certainly a possibility. And like all legislation,
there's, well, often good elements and some elements that, you know, are a bit
questionable. I think that everyone would agree that, you know, people should
be entitled to know about things that could potentially cause them harm,
particularly if, you know, the probabilities of that are quite high. So, you
know, it certainly seem prudent, at least to me, that if a person is moving
into an apartment that previously had a bedbug problem, you know, particularly
recently, that they should be told that.

I think, you know, there's a lot of questions out there particularly among
property managers, you know, what the prudence is of knowing whether there had
ever been a bedbug problem anywhere in the entire building because, you know,
you could have a, you know, a unit that had a bedbug problem on the 18th floor
and you're moving into, you know, a unit that's far removed from that, and
maybe the infestation had been long since eliminated, so your risks are
actually quite low in that case. But it certainly can create a lot of
apprehensions in people.

I expect what's going to happen is, in cities like New York City, as people,
tenants tend to realize that bedbugs are, you know, an increasingly common
phenomenon, that they'll perhaps sort of take this in stride and that won't be,
you know, the decision that determines whether or not they move into that
building. But it's going to be interesting to see how this plays out, because I
know that there are a lot of concerns among property managers.

GROSS: In one of the publications, I think it was a publication for
professional pest control people, you had an article (unintelligible) bedbugs
and there was an ad in the magazine that said bedbugs are back and so are your

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Create a new revenue stream with the most effective bedbug trap and
monitor available. So is this like a payday for exterminators?

Prof. POTTER: Well, it's certainly true that bedbugs have increased the
revenues of many pest controls companies around the United States, particularly
in the larger metropolitan areas. That said, and I work with pest control
companies all over the country and in other countries, and many of them have
told me that, you know, they hate bedbugs.

In other words, they love bedbugs because it generates revenue for them, but it
is such a maddeningly difficult problem to deal with and it causes a lot of
aggravation for pest control companies as well.

GROSS: So bedbugs are a real nuisance, they bite you, the bites itch. Do they
carry any diseases?

Prof. POTTER: Based on what's known at this point, the answer is no. The main
problems with bedbugs appear to be the, you know, the itching, the irritation.
And of course any time you have a breakage of the skin from a bite or a wound,
you run the risk of secondary infection. But beyond that, the biggest problem
is the mental anguish they cause, the stress, the anxiety, the sleeplessness,
and of course the financial burden of dealing with them. But at least at this
point we don't have the evidence to say that they transmit any diseases.

GROSS: So in one of your articles about the history of bedbugs, you wrote that
they basically date back to the beginning of humankind and that there's, like,
ancient fossils of bedbugs. What about that little rhyme - sleep tight, don't
let the bedbugs bite - where does that date back to? Do you know like what era
that's from?

Prof. POTTER: Well, probably from the 15, 16 hundreds or so. In other words,
that term had to do with, years ago, our beds often had...

GROSS: Sleep tight? That term?

Prof. POTTER: Yes. Often had ropes on the bed and the ropes were essentially
like a box spring today; they provided support as a person slept. So there was
a little wooden dowel that you would tighten or twist that would tighten the
individual cords of rope that would allow the sleeping surface to be firmer, so
thus sleep tight. And then don't let the bedbugs bite, I assume that was
because they were, you know, common back then. But that's where the sleep tight
came from.

GROSS: Got it. Okay. Well, Michael Potter, thank you very much for talking with

Prof. POTTER: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Michael Potter is the professor of urban entomology at the University of
Kentucky. To find detailed instructions on how to make sure your hotel room is
free of bedbugs, visit our website,
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Fresh Air Remembers Comedian Robert Schimmel


Comedian Robert Schimmel, who was known for his self-depreciating, sexually
explicit stand-up act, and for his frequent appearances on Howard Stern's radio
show, died last Friday after injuries he sustained in a car accident. His son
and his daughter, who was driving, survived the crash. Robert Schimmel was 60
years old.

Schimmel's comedy was dark and raunchy and often based on the minutiae of
everyday life. But his straight-shooting stand-up act also touched on life-
changing events, like losing a son to leukemia and marrying and divorcing his
first wife three times. Cancer became part of his stand-up after he was
diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. The illness killed his sitcom deal and
then threatened to kill him. At the time of his death, he still had serious
health issues and was waiting for a liver transplant.

I spoke with Schimmel in 2008, after he had been in remission for seven years
and had written a memoir called "Cancer on $5 a Day: How Humor Got Me Through
the Toughest Journey of My Life."

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

Mr. ROBERT SCHIMMEL (Comedian): 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 okay.
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 in it, you know. And he
said and that's a healthy thing.

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


GROSS: Were you already into smoking pot? Was this good news? The doctor was...

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Well, I...

GROSS: ...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, 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 okay to smoke pot in front of my
parents was almost worth the diagnosis.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHIMMEL: 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 can bring you? And I said, could you stop at the
7-Eleven and get me some rolling papers?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHIMMEL: And my mom's 70 years old, Hungarian, she was in Auschwitz during
the war, and she calls me from the 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?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHIMMEL: And 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, anything I did like that confirmed to them
that I was in pain or feeling nauseous. And I had to sneak it because I have
children, and I had a nine-year-old daughter. And I don't wanted to be 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 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHIMMEL: And I knew I was busted right then and that she was just playing
dumb when she found it.

GROSS: 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've had cancer might already know, which is they have
wigs for your pubic hair - to replace your pubic hair.


GROSS: 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. 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 doughnut that somebody dropped on a barbershop floor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHIMMEL: And they had different models. There 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?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Of course, I did.

GROSS: As a prop?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: You know, guys are...

GROSS: As a prop or to actually wear?


GROSS: Wait, which?

Mr. SCHIMMEL: I was pretty insecure, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You really wore it.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yes. I tried it. 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 in my lap and broke its neck
during the fall.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHIMMEL: 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: We're listening back to a 2008 interview with comedian Robert Schimmel.
He died Friday of injuries sustained in a car crash. We'll hear more of that
interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're remembering comic, Robert Schimmel, who died Friday of injuries
sustained in a car accident. We're listening back to an interview we recorded
in 2008 after the publication of his memoir about being treated for non-
Hodgkin's lymphoma. He had been in remission for seven years when we spoke.

GROSS: During the period that you had 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 had 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 on 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: Well, 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.


GROSS: And I'm thinking, oh, no, Yanni. And then you say, if I beat this thing,
it's because the cancer cells couldn't stand Yanni anymore.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yeah, yeah. That the cancer cells are like you know what? We've
had enough of this. Let's get out of here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

GROSS: Oh, no.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: And I didn't know that, like, him and Yanni are like rivals, you
know? Because they both play that 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 and - because they're very competitive with each
other. He told me that they play volleyball together and that Yanni's, like,
really hell-bent on beating John Tesh constantly.

GROSS: Who knew?

(Soundbite of laughter)

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


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 am more spiritual than actually hardcore
religious. 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. But the other people that I
have to thank, besides who were with me and God, are the people that 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.

You don't get - it's not that you don't get anything, you get what's standard
treatment for that - 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 who 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.

GROSS: You describe in your acknowledgments - you know, one of the people you
thank is Howard Stern, who called you in the hospital, but part of the reason
why he called you, apparently, is that he had a death pool?


(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: On the air.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Yeah. Yeah.

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

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

GROSS: He was calling you live on the radio?


GROSS: Uh-huh, okay.

Mr. SCHIMMEL: So - and he goes, how you doing? And I said, you know, I'm pretty
sick. And he said, you think you're going to make it to New Year's Eve? And I
said, why?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHIMMEL: 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHIMMEL: 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...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHIMMEL: 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. 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 have -
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. I
really appreciate it a lot and, you know, be well and good luck. Thank you very

Mr. SCHIMMEL: Thanks.

GROSS: Robert Schimmel, recorded in 2008. He died Friday of injuries sustained
in a car accident. He was 60.

You can download podcasts of our show on our website,

(Soundbite of music)

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.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Why a scholar banished from Iran 15 years ago is hopeful about the current protests

Iranian American scholar Pardis Mahdavi, who was once dragged out of a Tehran classroom by morality police while lecturing about her latest book, "On Iran's Sexual Revolution" joins Tonya Mosely to help shed light on the protests in Iran.


Remembering Sue Graham Mingus, widow of composer and bassist Charles Mingus

After her husband's death in 1979, Sue Graham Mingus worked to keep his legacy alive, forming a repertory ensemble devoted to playing his compositions. She died Sept. 24. Originally broadcast in 2002.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue