Robert Schimmel, talking from a hotel room in Las Vegas, is a smorgasbord of medical procedures: At this very moment, the stand-up's on painkillers because of yesterday's root canal; he suffered a heart attack in 1998; and he spent last year undergoing chemotherapy after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Some of us might call that bad luck; he thinks of it as "25 minutes of new material." Maybe that's why the 48-year-old is among the handful of greatstand-ups: He's not afraid of ripping open his scars and making his pain painfully real and really funny. His sexual screwups are ours, his parenting missteps are ours, his fears are ours; we look in the mirror and find staring back a thin, bald man swaddled in designer suits. We see a survivor who wants no pity and begs for no sympathy; we see Richard Pryor as bar-mitzvah boy, Bill Hicks without the cigarettes, Sam Kinison without the pounds. We see a genius.
On becoming a comedian:"I became a stand-up because of insecurity. That's the whole thing that's so bizarre about it: You can be onstage, connect with the audience and have an unbelievable show, and at the end, when you say, 'You guys have been great, good night' and everybody claps, and they all get up and leave, then you're alone. You're not alive again until they go, 'Ladies and gentlemen, coming to the stage...' That's what it is. You can be short, you can be losing your hair, you can be driving a Kia, you can have a club foot, you can have one testicle, you can have crooked teeth, but you make people laugh, and all that shit goes away. Nobody sees any of those things when they're laughing."
On chemotherapy: "It wasn't bad the first time, but the second time it was murder. By the fourth time, I was crying and telling my parents, 'Fuck it, I'm not getting any more. I'd rather die than go through this again.' But when you really think about it, you don't really wanna die. So you just smoke a lot of pot while you're going through chemotherapy and stay stoned through the whole thing. It works. The doctor told me to do it. And I think he gets out in 18 months."
On being an inspiration:"It's a weird thing. I just got an award a couple of weeks ago from the Lymphoma Research Foundation of America...for being brave and an inspiration. But it's not really being brave. It's knowing where the Xanex is. They gave it to me because...I show you can have a sense of humor and life doesn't suck and it's not over and all that. But that's just the way I deal with it. When you go for chemo, you don't get it alone. You're in a room with 10 other people in an infusion center, and I met people who were just so pissed off at the world...I would find that person every month when I went in for treatment, and I would make it my goal to have them laughing before the chemo was over...And I did it because that person I saw every month who looked like that was me."