Looking Life in the Eye : Combining Wit, Wisdom, Survivor Joe Kogel Wrests Comedy From His Cancer

Times Staff Writer

Joe Kogel, the cancer survivor who turned his disease into a traveling one-man show, is publicly ruminating on God’s twisted sense of humor.

Here at the Seattle Mime Theatre, he’s informing his audience about the ambitious comedian who wanted to do more than make humanity laugh. The guy aspired to make God laugh.

“Actually, my first thought was, was it possible to make God stop laughing? It’s not hard to imagine--just read the newspapers,” Kogel tells a full house gathered for yet another performance of his autobiographical show, “Life and Depth, Actual Stories of Whimsy and Alertness.”


A former sportswriter who at age 25 was diagnosed with malignant melanoma, an often-fatal skin cancer, Kogel talks a lot about God. Impishly pacing in blue jeans, oxford cloth shirt and red leather shoes, he warns his listeners, for instance, to be cautious about what they pray for: “I don’t think God takes pleasure in disappointing people, but God is a kidder. If you can learn something and she can have a good time teaching it, so much the better.”

The storyteller provides the audience an immediate case in point. Kogel, who is now 33 and has been free of detectable cancer for seven years, once beseeched God for the opportunity to do “Life and Depth” Off Broadway. Seattle wasn’t exactly what he had in mind, but technically, the request was fulfilled. To a T . The theater where he’s performing his show through September, is ironically located a half block off Broadway . . . on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, not far from Kogel’s home.

“I’m not saying God is cheap, simply efficient,” he says, addressing what he calls the “prayer specificity” issue.

“My motto is: Love like a poet; pray like a lawyer.” The crowd howls.

But if the New York City-born performer has a pirouette he most frequently unfurls during his 1 1/2-hour comedic philosophy session, it’s not about the perfect way to pray or how to outsmart life-threatening illness. Rather, it’s about embracing all of life, especially the yucky parts.

Kogel claims cancer actually turned out to be a good deal for him. He insists that “steering into the skid” of his fast-approaching mortality forced him to learn how to really live.

“I call it the Kogel Effect,” he says of the notion he describes on stage and in an autobiography he is writing. “The worst thing in your life, or in any given situation, may contain the seeds of the best. I say ‘may’ simply because I like to leave room in my theorems for the possibility that some things in life may just suck.”


Fantasies and Metaphor

For Kogel, cancer wasn’t one of them, although he allows that he spent a lot of time crying in the “first rush of terror” after the diagnosis. In the most recent version of the constantly changing show, Kogel doesn’t discuss the crying or many other specifics of his healing adventure, which involved traditional mainstream medicine and alternative holistic approaches.

He is an artist--a mixture of clown, sage, fool and teddy bear--and he works indirectly, often through metaphor. He employs stories, fantasies, touches of slapstick and even an “obligatory” mime interlude, given his current venue.

But what Kogel thinks he serves up best are his “moments,” those epiphanies of daily life that bring sudden, intuitive understanding.

“Life is filled with moments and the more open to them you are, the richer your life becomes. Not easier, not better--richer,” he emphasizes to the audience, observing that a pivotal moment occurred in his life when a deer dashed in front of his Honda on an Oregon freeway. After it gave him a first-class scare, the deer suddenly pranced onto his hood and deftly avoided getting creamed by flying over the top of the car.

“It’s as though the deer was saying, ‘Joe, let’s speak metaphorically. You’re driving down the freeway of your life in the Honda of your body, and you see something about to cross your path. And based on your long experience of problem solving and problem not-solving, you know that this is gonna be a mess . . . it’s going to end in tragedy.’

“The deer seemed to be saying, ‘Well, that may be true, Joe, but then again . . .’ “--Kogel mimics the deer’s leap--” ’. . . maybe it’s not.’ ”


It’s obvious such escapades have helped Kogel to see possibilities other than dying. But what else did he do to get well? Hang around and wait for more moments? Love that cancer into remission?

Answering Big Questions

“I said, ‘You go into remission right now! I’ve had just about enough of you!’ ” he teases, when pressed for details during a Sunday brunch the morning after a performance. “My goal wasn’t to get the cancer to go into remission. That was more of a byproduct of answering the big questions: Who are you? Why are you here? What do you want to do?

“This (work) is not about cancer. It’s about change. Cancer’s just one of those things that intensifies whatever’s going on. . . . Cancer really provided me the oomph, the leg up to take the next step. The next step was dying. I died of cancer. Whoever I thought I was at that time died.”

Pressed to be more direct, Kogel reveals he also quit his sportswriting job for the Ashland (Oregon) Daily Tidings because he thought it didn’t adequately challenge his talents. He broke up with a woman he was “using to avoid dealing with my life.” He asked his parents to support him financially for a while so he could do only the things he really wanted to do. He had the surgeries his physicians recommended and was glad they didn’t want him to undergo chemotherapy.

He briefly tried a macrobiotic diet. He dropped his long-cherished “hard-core East Coast cynicism” and periodically visited a “cowboy healer” in Northern California. As instructed, he then affirmed “I am now no longer needing cancer to fulfill my destiny” thousands of times a day. He stopped seeing a psychotherapist he’d been with for five years.

‘Danced With the Void’

And for several uncomfortable months, he “danced with the void, doing nothing--because I needed to unlearn how I dealt with problems.”


Eventually, and most significantly, Kogel remembers that he finally summoned the nerve to start doing what he secretly wanted to do all along: quit hiding his gifts and start performing his life story--complete with all its pain and absurdity--before live audiences.

For the last four years, various incarnations of “Life and Depth” have played audiences from Harvard University’s Medical School to a drywall contractors’ Christmas party in Portland. And Kogel has worked regular theaters, hospitals, wellness centers, about 40 medical schools (among them, USC’s and UCLA’s) and countless cancer workshops (including 15 put on by best-selling author Dr. Bernie Siegel of “Love, Medicine and Miracles” fame).

Indeed, Kogel thinks he’s still close enough to cancer that he’s not ready to characterize his former disease as being in remission.

‘What Is Remission?’

“What is remission?” he asks, between bites of salmon sprinkled with a colorful citrus sauce. “It’s like, well, it hasn’t shown up in a while. They don’t know. I was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in 1981. Two weeks before my second diagnosis (of metastatic melanoma to a lymph node in May, 1982), I had a complete physical and had checked out perfectly healthy. So what is remission?

“The issue is, what did I learn as a result of being diagnosed? I learned there is a way of being alive that is so much richer and brighter than anything I’d imagined. Cancer helped me understand and appreciate that. (The issue now is), how do I live there without cancer? That has nothing to do with remission. And, ironically, I think it’s one of the reasons I’m still here.”

When it comes right down to it, though, Kogel is the first to concede he is not sure precisely why he is still alive.


“I attribute a tremendous amount of my healing to the strength of my will. I don’t attribute everything to it. Maybe it’s because it wasn’t my time,” he reasons. “I do know that had I not been diagnosed, I probably never would have started performing autobiographical stories. I found something more frightening than going out there and boring people: dying of cancer without having been fully used, dying with time still left on the meter.”

How does a person become so numb to the dance of life that it takes a death threat to resume waltzing with what remains on the meter?

Kogel trots out some clues--but no hard and fast answers--in one of the scenes in his show, a chilling scenario that took place when he was 7 years old.

“I grew up with a family that was filled with love--and filled with a lot of other stuff too,” he tips the crowd. “We didn’t have skills and tools to deal with the level of feelings and problems in our family. . . . (Pain) just was never dealt with. It didn’t exist.”

Recalls Family Violence

As Kogel remembers the source of considerable shame, he and his sister repeatedly heard their parents fighting. One day, he hid behind a door and listened to his mother scream to his father: “I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you.”

On a later occasion, when he was home from school for lunch, Kogel heard a fight during which his mother fell; she was “thudding down the stairs, her large-boned body carrying all that weight she never lost after the pregnancies.”


Shortly thereafter, Kogel’s parents were divorced. He now suspects that because he chose to suppress his pain, to swallow it internally, it may have later sought release in his body. He recalls that he missed “half of high school” due to recurrent mononucleosis and the fact that “basically I didn’t want to participate.” (Even so, he finished high school early and was graduated magna cum laude from Southern Oregon State College.)

Kogel was so depressed at one point in his late teens, that he called a suicide hot line to make sure that when he swallowed a bottle of Sominex it wouldn’t kill him: “I didn’t want to die. I just wanted to check out.”

Coming Out of Hiding

Now, however, on stage, he makes a point of the freeing, redemptive value in coming out of emotional hiding. Quoting from his poem, “Until Now,” he says to the stunned, intensely silent audience: “I could not have known then that I would learn to love this memory (of his mother falling down the stairs), rub it smooth between my fingers, a velvety stone found on a beautiful beach. I hold this stone like a charm.

“The charm is not the pain. But when I give myself back my pain, I make myself real and when I’m real, I’m lucky. I am lucky knowing it was wrong and a lie. What we called a happy family was not. I . . . hid in small rooms. Until now.”

Neither of Kogel’s parents has seen these intimacies hauled out on stage. But each has witnessed other versions of the show and given their son an OK to use the material as he recalls it.

Reached at her home in East Orange, N.J., Kogel’s mother, Gerry Kogel, a nursing-home controller, says that her son “sent me (a written version of) that portion and I haven’t read it yet. He warned me about this some time ago. I have to laugh. I said I would disown him. I said that’s his interpretation of history and everyone’s entitled to viewing it the way they remember it.

No Signs of Trouble

“I don’t need that to add to the guilt I already feel, but if it works for him, that’s fine. His childhood was not the way I saw it. . . . He was adorable. Teachers loved him. He had lots of friends and he did well. There was no indication that I could see that there was any trouble.”


Hank Kogel was an engineer turned math tutor at the time of the stairway incident. Now remarried and a psychotherapist in private practice in Laguna Beach, he says he doesn’t remember the incident the way his son does.

“That’s not to deny that some of it was not the best and I’m sure there was the basis for some negative reaction for a child that would be lasting and affect his life,” offers Hank Kogel. “That was a scary time for me. . . . I was pretty desperate. . . . I’ve made my peace with that whole period of the past so (having it presented publicly) doesn’t worry me at all.”

In fact, the marriage and family counselor calls his son’s show “entertaining and inspiring. . . . Joe has the wisdom to avoid giving the answer to anything and more a tendency to give how he sees it and some of the possibilities of looking at things. I’m delighted he’s getting attention for it.”

At the conclusion of “Life and Depth,” it seems half the audience stops by to personally tell the star how much they were moved by seeing him perform. Some simply grab him and give him a big hug.

And more than a few women say, “Hi, I’m answering your personal,” in response to the bit where Kogel elaborates on the qualities of his ideal mate, then instructs the audience to consider his fantasy a classified ad.

Kyle Winn, a $2,500-a-day business consultant whose 8-year-old son was born with three-quarters of a heart and expected not to survive, was so enlivened with “Life and Depth” that he offered to take Kogel on as a client without charge until the performer can comfortably afford his services. Winn expects the whole world will benefit.


In any case, it’s likely that far greater numbers of people will soon have access to Kogel’s views.

Chad Hoffman, an independent producer who bought, developed and supervised such series as “thirtysomething” and “China Beach” while he was at ABC, is negotiating with Kogel to produce his life story as a television movie.

But not everybody approves of Kogel’s message.

“There have been some directors of cancer support programs who fear that I’m blaming people for their diseases,” Kogel volunteers. “I’m not. My job is to represent my experience. This is not necessarily anyone else’s experience. The work is about being present, letting things matter and not matter in perfect balance.”