An Author Speaks Truth to Cancer in His Painfully Funny Second Memoir

Glenn Rockowitz’s life has been profoundly impacted and shaped by the two big C’s: comedy and cancer.

His new memoir, Cotton Teeth, his second, takes a further unflinching look at his ongoing cancer experience, but with humor. At this point, you are probably channeling Joe Pesci’s voice from Goodfellas as you rightfully ask, “Funny how? What’s so effing funny about cancer? 

The answer, of course, is that there is nothing funny about cancer. There is nothing remotely amusing about being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer at the age of 28 and given three months to live when your wife is one month from giving birth to your first child. Rockowitz chronicled that challenge in his well-received first memoir, Rodeo in Joliet (2010).

In Cotton Teeth, Rockowitz, still very much with us, focuses on his relationship with his beloved stepfather, Ronnie, who himself has cancer. After Ronnie’s funeral (not a spoiler; Rockowitz reveals this in the book’s prologue), condolences from a total stranger rekindle memories of a shared experience that compel him to contact former childhood friends for “the validation of memories none of us had ever talked about with anyone outside our therapists and maybe a single trusted person in each of our lives,” he writes, adding, “I had just buried my single trusted person.”

But again, with humor. Take this rumination on the decade it took for him to write the second memoir:

I was too afraid to write about certain events in my life that I believe played a significant role in making me who I am today and even more afraid to lean into the pain I knew the memories of those events would invariably bring.

But isn’t that why a person writes a memoir in the first place, Greg?! 

Yes, it is. (And it’s Glenn.) 

Cancer is off-putting material, but Rockowitz, a former stand-up comedian and writer on Saturday Night Live, agrees with Mel Brooks, one of his primary comedy influences, that comedy’s noblest purpose is to tell people the truth, just as medieval jesters who were charged with amusing the king did, all the while telling him the truth about what was going on in the kingdom, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable that truth.

“Comedians are the last line of defense when it comes to speaking the truth in a way that engages conversation,” Rockowitz says. “With regard to Cotton Teeth, there are many, many books written about cancer and survivorship. I speak as someone who received those books. I was encouraged, ‘Read this book, it will inspire you.’ And I would always say, ‘Could you maybe give me a book by someone who hasn’t since died?’ ”

In dealing with his own experience, Rockowitz was determined not to “Oprahfy” cancer or make it palatable. (“We’re tending our gardens again and doing fun runs.”) Writing Cotton Teeth, he kept in mind something his stepfather once told him: “You can’t protect people from the truth.”

“We wind up doing a disservice to people who do have it and those who love them,” Rockowitz says. “Cancer is painful, it’s terrible, it’s incredibly lonely and scary. With this book, as well as my first, I didn’t hold back. I write very viscerally, as if you were inside my head; God forbid, right? But you’re experiencing it as close as you can firsthand so you maybe understand it a little bit more.” 

This is illustrated in a harrowing scene following Rockowitz’s stepfather’s funeral when he experiences a painfully familiar scenario: 

A wave flies through my body….I grab the trash can next to the door….I drop to my knees, vomit. What the hell was that? Coffee and bile and a bitter metallic tang I haven’t tasted since my first rounds of chemo. I know that taste….I close my eyes and I wait for the floor to stop rising and falling beneath me. I stand up and fall back into my chair. I know this feeling.

It may be debatable whether laughter is the best medicine, but comedy has long served as Rockowitz’s lifeline. In addition to Mel Brooks movies, Airplane 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 is empowering for people on the bottom part of that equation. Mel Brooks would be banished to the cornfield if he made Blazing Saddles today, but people miss the intent of that film, which is to expose racist attitudes.”

Two other fearless performers who shaped Rockowitz’s comic worldview were Andy Kaufman (“His whole thing was about getting a reaction from people, making people uncomfortable. I had a huge respect for that”) and comedian Bill Hicks, who died at the age of 32 from pancreatic cancer (“He was our Lenny Bruce”).

But it was lessons learned while taking improv classes at Chicago’s famed Second City that taught Rockowitz essential coping skills that would be invaluable in facing his cancer diagnosis and supposed death sentence. Second City is “the Julliard of comedy,” he says; its graduates are a Who’s Who of American comedy—Alan Arkin, Bill Murray, Stephen Colbert, and Tina Fey, to name only a few.

“Improv 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 to adapt. When I was diagnosed, I ostensibly had no real symptoms; I was just so tired for a long time. When I found out it was stage 4, it was like the worst audience suggestion in the world: ‘Give me a prognosis.’ ‘Three months.’ ” 

Rockowitz completed Cotton Teeth just before the pandemic. A voice-over artist (he has been the voice of Xbox for 13 years and T-Mobile for 12), his livelihood was not overly impacted by the country’s shutdown.

The son whom he feared he would not see grow up is now 23 and working. “He’s doing really well; he’s a good kid,” he says proudly.

When asked how he is doing, Rockowitz says, “I’m in a stable state of health at the moment. I’ve had a couple of scares in the last couple of months, but I’m under constant surveillance. But I am doing OK. Every day aboveground is OK.” 

Donald Liebenson is a Chicago-based writer.