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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

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."

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