Sometimes funny hurts. And I guess that's why comedy makes sense. But, in the case of Robert Schimmel, successful comedian of the HBO-special variety, the nature of said pain is particularly unfunny. Once a Dice-lite provocateur of sexual exploits and the fringes of decency, troubling censors and Conan O'Brien alike, Schimmel three years ago got the wake-up call nobody wants. With cancer, waking up is hard to do.
(What the hell am I doing here?)
"I just got in from doing press all morning," Schimmel shimmies on the phone from Baltimore, offering clumps of silence as uncomfortable as a thrice-worn hair shirt. So I guess a joke is out of the question. I've had better hangovers.
But I like Robert Schimmel, in that observational, self-inflicted-pain kind of way. His appearance at the Comedy Improv at the end of the month should provide suitable banter for this humor-starved journalist and the horse he rode in on. Except cancer isn't really funny.
"I talk about me going through, ah, chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, which I was diagnosed with June 5, 2000," he takes me down a thousand. "And raising my 12-year-old daughter."
So that's funny, right?
"It's about finding humor in very dark places."
OK, then, but there's not that horrible sense that your comedy has to involve Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks sucking on GW's udder, right?
"I don't like to talk about politics, because you might have to rile up the audience to win them back," he cracks me up. "You can tell the guaranteed crowd-pleasers -- people are going to applaud, you're going to get a standing ovation. But that's sort of like a circus trick. That's not real comedy."
Real comedy -- meaning the Lenny Bruce, irresponsible sort. "You've been compared to Mr. Bruce," I pour caution.
"By his mom," he brags.
So comedy sucks.
"I think it's the last bastion of free speech that you really have. Because -- even you yourself, with this interview -- if I was totally talking the way I wanted to and saying everything I wanted to say, you wouldn't be able to print everything the way I say it," he uncomfortably exposes my motives. "So, live on stage, or on the Internet, is probably the only way that you can. When I'm on stage, nobody's up there saying, 'You can't say this,' 'You can't say that.'"
Turns out, my friend may be attracted to the darker crevices of the comedic enterprise but he is playfully hip to things that regular people might never hear.
"Like my friend Buddy Hackett used to be on 'The Tonight Show,'" he goes all gray. "Johnny Carson would come back from a commercial, and everybody would be laughing -- Johnny would be on the floor. I always thought, 'What joke did he tell during the break that he couldn't tell on the show?' And that's why you would pay to see Buddy Hackett, because you would want to see that stuff."
But you did "Hollywood Squares" ... with Whoopi.
"'Hollywood Squares' was because HBO and Warner Bros. wanted me to do that," he works for food. "But I went on and basically got in so much trouble there -- Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Corrola were on the same time I was on -- because no matter what the questions they asked me, I knew the answer. The answer was something about Louie Anderson eating ice cream out of some kid's asshole."
"Jimmy Kimmel did an interview for Playboy magazine, and they asked him what was his favorite moment on television, and he said 'Hollywood Squares' when Robert Schimmel was on," he clearly loves himself. "No matter what the question, Louie Anderson was the answer. And he said, everybody was just falling out. Him and Adam started saying Louie Anderson until they literally had to stop the show, and say 'Lay off Louie'."
I never thought I would see the day that Louis Anderson would populate my contrived flippance.
"You know, if you're gay, great," Schimmel is on to me. "Who cares? I mean, the worst thing is if your fans find out you're deceiving them."
Speaking of gay, let's talk Carrot Top, a furry subject that never gets old.
"I was at the Monte Carlo in Las Vegas two weeks ago, and he came out to see me. And I'm talking and all of a sudden people aren't looking at me," he looks at me. "They're looking at like the third row, center, and there he is. And I pointed him out in the audience, and I said, 'What a nice guy,' and he ran up on stage and kissed me."
So, considering that this interview is going precisely nowhere, I again tap the cancer vibe. Apparently the TV interviewers preceding my inquisition found the comedian making dirty and sick fun like they ought to be.
"They said, 'Is there anything funny you can find to do with cancer?'" he perks. "So I said, 'Yeah. Y'know when I was on chemotherapy, I lost all my hair. You lose all your hair -- your eyebrows, your eyelashes, even your pubic hair. Which is embarrassing when you're a guy -- a guy with a bald crotch -- it looks like a plucked chicken. But they sell crotch wigs.' And they said, 'No way.' And I said, 'Yes. You know it's better than growing, like, three long hairs and combing them across.'
"If I hadn't had cancer and tried a joke like that, they would have cut to a commercial and had to have had security take me out."
And that would have hurt. Can a lady get a comb-over?