Risque Business

From now on, when Robert Schimmel sits down to swap war stories with other comics, he'll have one that's hard to top. Could there be a much tougher room to play than a comedy club in Denver, barely a week after the Littleton shootings? To make that audience laugh takes a true standup guy.

That's a title that Schimmel, a Bronx native who relocated to Phoenix in his late 20s, has worn proudly since his odd debut nearly 20 years ago. "My sister was living in L.A., and I went to visit her, and she took me to the Improv one night," Schimmel recalls. "I watched [Jerry] Seinfeld, Jay Leno, George Wallace, Richard Lewis, all these guys. And she said, 'You're funnier.'"

His sister brought him back to the club the following Sunday. "It's amateur night, which I didn't know, and she signs me up without telling me. I'm in the audience, and they pull my name out of a hat. They said, 'Robert Schimmel.' I said, 'What?' And she said, 'Get up there.'"

He gamely gave it a try. "I do, like, two minutes. I have no material. I said, 'Y'know, I'm not really a comedian, I sell stereo equipment.' People started laughing. They thought it was part of my thing. After I get off the stage, Bud Friedman, who owns the Improv, calls me up and says, 'That was great, you're pretty funny.'"

Although he was already past 30 and had a baby daughter, on his return to Phoenix Schimmel told his wife, "I want to move to L.A. and be a comedian. And she said, 'Okay.' She said, 'You know what? You can always get another job working in a stereo store. If this is something you really want to do, let's go do it.'"

The move began with an unpromising omen. "We sell the house, we put all the stuff in a U-Haul, and we get there to L.A., and we get off the Hollywood Freeway on the Melrose exit, 'cause I want to show my wife the Improv. It had burned down the night before we got there. I pulled up, and it was still smoldering. And she started crying. And I said, 'Don't worry, I'm sure they have insurance.'"

Although this setback required Schimmel to return to stereo sales for a time, he has since made a highly successful career out of comedy--both on the national club circuit and as a writer for In Living Color.

"I always loved to make people laugh. I watched comics my whole life. When my friends were watching Ed Sullivan to see The Beatles, I was watching for Jackie Vernon."

In content, Schimmel's act is modern raunch--the sexual frustrations and fixations that clutter the mind of an otherwise basically stable, happily married doting dad. In style, however, his delivery has more in common with the blustery old-school campaigners he loved as a kid, particularly his idol Vernon, for whom he opened late in Vernon's career.

Schimmel's act is too thoroughgoingly dirty for most of TV, although he has been a guest on Late Night With Conan O'Brien a half-dozen times in the last year. But while blue humor is a handicap on the tube, it's a classic form for comedy recordings. Under the prestigious banner "William E. McEuen presents"--McEuen produced Steve Martin's smash concert LPs in the '70s--Schimmel's second CD, If You Buy This CD, I Can Get This Car, was recently released by Warner Bros. Records. And even without regular TV exposure, he received an American Comedy Award for best standup.

Yet despite this string of career triumphs, Schimmel had understandably little stomach for his most recent challenge: playing Denver the weekend of May 1, just a week and a half after the horror at Columbine High School. "I didn't want to do it. But they'd already sold a lot of tickets. And Mark Curry had been there the weekend before, and people had shown up." Booked from Thursday through Saturday, Schimmel ultimately decided to add a Wednesday show, in which he performed with six Denver-area comics, as a benefit for the families of the victims.

Despite his love of live performing, Schimmel, who plays to a presumably more relaxed house at the Tempe Improv this weekend, is currently considering development deals for sitcoms. TV's major appeal to him, he says, is one of simple quantity: "If, say, Tim Allen gets a laugh with a joke on his show, more people laugh at that one joke than will ever see him live in his whole career. And I love to make people laugh."

--M. V. Moorhead

Robert Schimmel is scheduled to perform at 8 p.m. Thursday, May 13; 8 and 10 p.m. Friday, May 14; 8 and 10 p.m. Saturday, May 15; and 8 p.m. Sunday, May 16, at the Tempe Improv Comedy Theater, 930 East University (at Cornerstone mall). 480-921-9877.