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

September 06, 1989|BETH ANN KRIER | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — 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?

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