An author speaks the truth to cancer in his painfully funny second memoir
Glenn RockowitzHis life has been deeply influenced and shaped by the two big C’s: comedy and cancer.
His new memoirs, Cotton Teeth, his second, takes a further unwavering look at his ongoing cancer experience, but with humor. Right now you’re probably channeling Joe Pesci’s voice from goodfellas as you rightly ask, “Funny how? What’s so funny about cancer?
The answer, of course, is that there is nothing funny about cancer. It’s not even remotely funny to be diagnosed with stage 4 cancer at 28 and have three months to live when your wife is one month after the birth of your first child. Rockowitz described that challenge in his well-received early memoir, Rodeo in Joliet (2010).
In Cotton TeethStill very much with us, Rockowitz focuses on his relationship with his beloved stepfather, Ronnie, who has cancer himself. After Ronnie’s funeral (no spoiler; Rockowitz reveals this in the book’s prologue), condolences from an utterly strange rekindle of a shared experience that forces him to contact former childhood friends for “the validation of memories none of us ever talked about.” everyone outside of our therapists and maybe a single trusted person in each of our lives,” he writes, adding, “I just buried my one trusted person.”
But again, with humor. Take this rumination on the decade it took him to write the second memoir:
I was too afraid to write about certain events in my life that I believe have played an important role in making me who I am today, and even more afraid to lean into the pain I knew the memories of would always bring to those events.
But isn’t that why someone is writing a memoir in the first place, Greg?!
Yes. (And it’s Glenn.)
Cancer is unpleasant material, but Rockowitz, a former stand-up comedian and writer on Saturday Night Liveagrees with Mel Brooks, one of his major comedic influences, that the noblest purpose of comedy is to tell people the truth, just as medieval jesters accused of amusing the king did, telling him the truth about whatever was going on in the kingdom, however difficult or inconvenient that truth may be.
“Comedians are the last line of defense when it comes to speaking the truth in a way that engages conversation,” Rockowitz says. “Regarding Cotton Teeth, many, many books have been written about cancer and survival. I speak as one who has received those books. I was encouraged: ‘Read this book, it will inspire you.’ And I used to say, “Can you maybe give me a book by someone who hasn’t died since?” †
In dealing with his own experience, Rockowitz was determined not to “oprahfy” cancer or make it palatable. (“We’re taking care of our gardens again and doing fun runs.”) Writing Cotton Teethhe kept in mind what his stepfather once told him: “You can’t protect people from the truth.”
“We’re ultimately doing a disservice to people who have it and those who love them,” Rockowitz says. “Cancer is painful, it’s terrible, it’s incredibly lonely and scary. I didn’t hold back with this book, like my first. I write very profoundly, as if you were in my head; God forbid, right? But you’re experiencing it first hand as close as you can, so maybe you understand a little bit more.”
This is illustrated in a harrowing scene after Rockowitz’s stepfather’s funeral when he experiences a painfully familiar scenario:
A wave flies through my body….I grab the garbage can next door….I drop to my knees, vomit. What the hell was that? Coffee and bile and a bitter metallic taste that I haven’t tasted since my first round of chemo. I know that taste….I close my eyes and wait for the floor to stop rising and falling below me. I get up and slump back in my chair. i know this feeling†
It may be questionable whether laughter is the best medicine, but comedy has long served as Rockowitz’s lifeline. Besides Mel Brooks movies, Plane was also “on repeat in my house,” he says. The fearlessness of the material and attitude resonated with him. “They were unapologetic about jokes; nothing was sacred,” he says. †[In speaking truth to power], it’s empowering for people at the bottom of that equation. Mel Brooks would be banished to the cornfield if he did… Burning saddles today, but people miss the point of that film, which is to expose racist attitudes.”
Two other intrepid performers who shaped Rockowitz’s comedic worldview were Andy Kaufman (“It was all about getting a reaction from people, making people uncomfortable. I had a huge respect for that”) and comedian Bill Hicks, who died at age 32 of pancreatic cancer (“He was our Lenny Bruce”).
But it was the lessons he learned while taking improv classes in Chicago’s famed Second City that taught Rockowitz essential coping skills that would prove invaluable in facing his cancer diagnosis and presumed death sentence. Second City is ‘the Julliard of comedy’, he says; the graduates are a Who’s Who of American comedy — Alan Arkin, Bill Murray, Stephen Colbert, and Tina Fey, to name a few.
“Improvisation had a huge effect on how I handled everything,” Rockowitz says. “It became a cognitive coping tool that allowed me to be prepared for anything and adapt. When I was diagnosed I didn’t seem to have any real symptoms; I was just so tired for a long time. Then I found out it was stage 4 it was the worst public suggestion in the world: “Give me a prognosis.” ‘Three months.’ †
Rockowitz completed Cotton Teeth just before the pandemic. As a voiceover artist (he’s been the voice of Xbox for 13 years and T-Mobile for 12), his livelihood hasn’t been overly affected by the country’s shutdown.
The son he feared would not see him grow up is now 23 and working. “He is doing very well; he’s a good boy’, he says proudly.
When asked how he is, Rockowitz says: “My health is stable at the moment. I’ve had a few fears over the past few months, but I’m constantly being watched. But I’m fine. Every day above ground is okay.”
Donald Liebenson is a writer from Chicago.