Comics show local cancer patients that laughter is the best medicine |

Comics show local cancer patients that laughter is the best medicine

Naomi Havlen
Aspen Times Staff Writer

In the last season of HBO’s “Sex and the City,” Samantha is diagnosed with breast cancer. Surrounded by her friends during a round of chemotherapy, a nurse comments that the ladies look like they’re having fun. Samantha zings back, “Yeah, cancer is hilarious!”

Cancer isn’t really a laughing matter. But thanks to the efforts of a New York-based nonprofit, patients at Aspen Valley Hospital will get a round of comedy to keep their spirits up, and to possibly help them heal.

Comedy Fights Cancer’s mission is to help cancer patients smile through the toughest times, and to raising money for cancer research. The organization is in Aspen to bring comedians from the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival to AVH. Inpatients, hospital staff, oncology inpatients and outpatients, support groups and family members are invited to attend the free hourlong show today at 3 p.m.

“It’s a great opportunity for us. We very much appreciate [Comedy Fights Cancer founder] Abby Russell for thinking of us, and these comedians who are taking time out of their day to come over and make us laugh,” said AVH spokeswoman Ginny Dyche. Five comedians will perform at AVH; all are donating their time to the cause.

“It’s my own feeling that laughter is good for the soul, whether you’re dealing with disease, injury or getting through the day-to-day activities of life,” Dyche continued.

For Russell, the inspiration behind Comedy Fights Cancer was her father, who was diagnosed with prostate cancer in the late ’90s.

“I spent a lot of time with him, and I was depressed going back and forth to the hospital,” she said. “I kept looking at him in this hospital bed, wishing there was something that would make the hospital more tolerable.”

Russell was an amateur stand-up comedian at the time, writing her master’s thesis on stand-up comedy. Comedy Fights Cancer came together because of her love of comedy, and because the comedians she knew were supportive of the idea.

Russell has since organized The Hamptons Comedy Festival, which has three successful years of raising money for cancer research under its belt. And as a nonprofit, Comedy Fights Cancer continues to grow.

HBO, sponsor of the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, is also a sponsor of Comedy Fights Cancer through the Hamptons festival. This year, the cable company supported Russell’s request to come to Aspen as part of the USCAF. Russell hopes the organization will eventually be a national one, distributing comedy tapes and bringing live talent to cancer patients.

Comedian Robert Schimmel, one of the performers joining Comedy Fights Cancer at AVH, has a personal relationship with cancer: His son, Derek, died 11 years ago from the disease, and Schimmel himself was diagnosed with stage three non-Hodgkins lymphoma five years ago. While in isolation in the intensive care unit of the Mayo Clinic, Schimmel made a deal with God that he would collect comedy tapes, CDs, DVDs and books and distribute them to cancer patients in every town where he makes appearances.

“I made a deal with God, Jesus, Buddha ” I’m Jewish, but I had to cover all the bases ” that if I survived I would never forget others who were still in hospitals until all those places are empty,” he said. “I do believe that every time you laugh, you heal yourself.”

During his time in the hospital, Schimmel listened to tapes of fellow comedians. He said, “I’m happy I can do the same for cancer patients in Aspen.”

In addition to his AVH appearance, Schimmel will perform in the USCAF’s storytelling event, “The Moth,” where he will talk about his experiences with cancer. And while ComedyFest may be the perfect place for Schimmel and other comedians to showcase their talents to agents, peers and a large influential audience, Schimmel tries to keep it in perspective. “Cancer is the big bulls–t eliminator,” he said.

Other comedians performing for Comedy Fights Cancer this afternoon include: Cindy Chupack, writer/executive producer for “Sex and the City”; Jeffrey Ross, a frequent comedian at Friar’s club roasts, Andrew Donnelly, a regular performer at the Apollo in New York City; and Carmen Lynch from the first season of NBC’s Last Comic Standing.

[Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is]