Standing before a full house at the Kalamazoo State Theater in Michigan, comedian Robert Schimmel regales his audience with a tale of tough love: His teenage daughter’s boyfriend wants to know what it’s like to ”go all the way.” Schimmel’s solution? Personally introduce the lad to the pleasures of carnal love. The deed done, he asks the beau, ”Was it everything you thought it would be?” Then, ”Are you going to stop crying or what?”
Those and other family values will be on full display in Robert Schimmel: Unprotected, the comic’s HBO special airing Nov. 13. In snagging the prestigious gig, Schimmel joins the ranks of household-name stand-ups like George Carlin, Chris Rock, and Jerry Seinfeld — which is all the more impressive given that most viewers have no idea who he is. After toiling for nearly 20 years on the yuk circuit, the 49-year-old Schimmel blew up at March’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo., where he wowed the visiting flacks and hacks with five sold-out sets. Suddenly, the former stereo salesman from Scottsdale, Ariz., found himself signing deals for the HBO special as well as a Fox sitcom (slated for next fall). A few weeks later he won Best Male Stand-up Comic at the American Comedy Awards. Somehow, Schimmel kept his modesty: ”I think I really won them over,” he says.
The Bronx, N.Y., native first grabbed the mike at a 1981 amateur night at L.A.’s Improv, which led to an open invitation from the club’s impresario, Budd Friedman. In what proved to be an unwelcome career omen, Schimmel relocated to Tinseltown — only to find that the comedy landmark was damaged in a fire the night before his arrival. ”It was boarded up and still smoldering,” he remembers. ”The bad part is that I never thought about how I was going to take care of my family once I got there.”
His initial professional flameout was compounded by a series of personal crises, including numerous splits from his wife of 22 years, Vicky; a 1998 heart attack; and most traumatic, the 1993 death of his 11-year-old son, Derek, from cancer. ”I don’t get bitter,” he says. ”It’s those things that define who you are. That was Job’s test. Flee or fight. I chose to fight.”
Ever so slowly, he started winning. In 1996, Schimmel landed a sit-down with legendary comedy producer William McKuen, who brought him to Warner Bros. to record his debut, Robert Schimmel Comes Clean. That and his 1998 follow-up, If You Buy This CD, I Can Get This Car, are marked by ruminations on sexual foibles and fears that in less articulate hands would be written off as ”blue” shock comedy.
”What he does is quite raw, but he does it in such a context that it doesn’t seem to offend too many people,” says actor Martin Landau, a friend and collaborator on a script for a big-screen comedy based on Schimmel’s life. ”He has the mouth, as Mel Brooks would say.”
But the same uncompromised frankness that’s made Schimmel a hero to many of his peers — Rock has jokingly called him ”the funniest black man in America” and fan Conan O’Brien frequently books Schimmel on Late Night — has, up until now, also made him anathema to television execs. The network people ”would come over to me and say, ‘Man, you rocked!”’ says Schimmel, who once blew an audition for Seinfeld’s George Costanza by ridiculing the script. ”Then two days later I’d look in the trades and three guys who bombed before me got development deals.” Of course, that was before TV suits embraced extremes like South Park, Action, and Loveline, an evolution that now allows Schimmel an unlikely boast: ”Today, I’m almost middle-of-the-road.” Almost.