Fred the Fighter: How comic spirit stays alive for this five-time cancer survivor from Santa Cruz
THE HERE & NOW: Beloved comedian and writer Fred Reiss has beaten back cancer five times, but he knows the real enemy is not illness or death, but despair. “You gotta let go of this idea that you don’t deserve this,” he says.
One chilly night, in a parking lot in Santa Cruz, Fred Reiss almost slipped into the abyss.
The darkness that nearly engulfed him was not fear, or grief, or the dread of facing crippling loss or even the fact of his own death. As a five-time cancer survivor, he’s become intimate with all of those monsters. He recognizes them, adapts to them, even jokes with them.
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The abyss, in his mind, was something altogether more sinister, especially for being so familiar. The abyss is self-pity.
At the time, Reiss had reached 60, had built a life for himself as a stand-up comic, journalist, radio personality, novelist and motivational speaker. He had been on television. He was featured in a documentary about living with cancer. He’s even seen his face staring back at him from a billboard in Times Square.
But on this night, he was back at Square One in the comedy business, doing open-mic night at the downtown pub The Poet & the Patriot. As he waited for his moment on stage, he watched one inexperienced comic after another take a swipe at wringing a laugh or two out of a thin crowd. And he panicked.
“Here I am with all these beginners,” he remembered, “after all the time I’ve put in, going through cancer, making a living on fumes, sitting through this one-nighter. I just jumped up (and said), ‘Take my name off the list. I can’t do it. I can’t go on.’ And I ran out of the room. I sat in my car and I started crying.”
It was only then — sliding into self-pity outside a bar, not while undergoing chemotherapy or radiation — that Reiss experienced annihilation.
And then came the insight.
The fight was not with cancer, or struggle, or suffering, or even death. His mortal foe was despair.
“I just start talking to myself. Fred, you just got to muscle up. You gotta do this. The only way to survive this is to go back into the salt mines. This is all going to be hard work. You gotta let go of this idea that you don’t deserve this. So, I did.”
I first met Fred Reiss, now 66, about a decade ago well into his novelist phase. He had written a series of wacky novels lampooning surf culture, especially of the Santa Cruz variety, titled “Gidget Must Die,” “Surf.com,” and “Alien! Surf! Santa Cruz!” He embraced surf culture as if he were born on Its Beach, which he was most certainly not.
Reiss grew up in Springsteen Country, and still retains a kind of frenetic New Jersey energy. Ever since I’ve known him, he has tended to speak in rapidly paced bursts to keep up with a racing mind.
At the same time, he mixes his East Coast intensity with a decided West Coast serenity, a product of being a Californian for close to 40 years. A long-time surfer, he’ll often use the Santa Cruz surf scene as a kind of barometer of changing times.
Though cancer has posed a mortal threat for years, you could say that Reiss owes his life — or, at least, his life’s path — to it. His first cancer scare — testicular cancer — was back in the 1980s when he was still in his 20s. It shook him enough that he decided to pursue his dream of moving to California to become a stand-up comedian.
Since then, he has cobbled together a living “just being Fred,” as he puts it, touring as a stand-up comedian, working in radio, selling books and doing speaking gigs. But about seven years ago, the cancer roared back and since then, he has been whipsawed back and forth between good news and bad.
“Over time, you just get worn down by it,” he said. “It’s like, every two weeks, your check-engine light goes on and you gotta go to the dealership. They hook you up, you’re off the leash again and off you go.”
Those who’ve experienced cancer become intimately familiar with their oncology nurses and doctors during treatment and, if they’re lucky, they leave those relationships behind when they’re free and clear. Reiss has said hello and goodbye to the same health care professionals over and over again.
“You can see it,” he said, “when you come back in again after having ‘beaten it.’ The nurses come in and you bring them a cake, and I can just see their eyes pull back a little bit in their skull and you can see what they’re thinking, ‘Aw, poor Fred.’ I mean, you know these people. It’s like taking your car in for repairs so much that you know the names of all the guys in the shop. You wish you didn’t. But you do.”
As of the winter of 2021, after a couple of flare-ups of esophageal cancer, Reiss is back to a good place, a clean PET scan. Still, he thinks of cancer as a “low burning flame,” that’s never just going to go away.
The pandemic year has been an especially hard one for him, because it coincided with the loss of a long-term relationship and a drastic change in his day-to-day living situation. It also severely undercut his ability to make a living. Before the pandemic, even while undergoing cancer treatment, Reiss was touring clubs, doing stand-up. Now, all that’s stopped.
During these times of crushing hardship, for solace and insight, he has turned to art — movies and music, but mostly literature.
I spend a lot of time with readers, writers, booksellers, and I know few people with Fred’s passion for the Great Books. He’s not interested in thrillers, mysteries, or beach reads. Understandable for someone accustomed to wrestling with life-and-death issues, he’s looking for insights, answers, wisdom.
He’s big on the ancient Greek myths. He knows exactly the best English translation of “Don Quixote” to get. He adores Mark Twain. He thinks Dostoevsky is funny. He name-drops Theodore Dreiser.
He’s always been into books, but he’s noticing that his passions as a young man — Thoreau’s “Walden,” Kerouac’s “On the Road” — have lost their flavor for an older man.
“I don’t read Thoreau much anymore,” he said. “But Emerson, who I didn’t like when I was younger, makes more sense now, a balanced view of what’s going on.”
He turns to literature like many people turn to religion, for guidance and spiritual sustenance. But part of that wisdom is in realizing its limitations.
“It’s taken me a long time to be inspired by those words again, because I’ve had so much taken away from me. And when I turned back to my heroes, I found out that they couldn’t save me,” he said. “But, in a way, they did save me, because there is still a spark in me that just doesn’t want to be put out, even as painful and miserable as it’s been.”
Reiss is mapping out a comeback as a comedian, prepping a new Instagram feed he’s calling “Fred for Your Head,” in which he plans to share insights and anecdotes not only about surviving cancer, but surviving life in the 2020s.
After so many bouts with cancer, he’s learned a few things: that anger and self-pity are the real enemies — “Take in the pain; don’t take in the anger” has become a mantra. And he’s also learned a bit about how to regard this familiar foe, still entangled with his impulse to live, every day.
“People think you enter the ring with cancer, you come out punching. No, what you do is walk into the ring. There it is, this giant ogre. And you keep your arms down and tell yourself, all I have to do is hold my ground. That’s all I have to do to get through this. Then, this thing beats the living sh— out of you, pounds you and pounds you and pounds you. All you have to do is hold your ground, instead of fighting back.
“Then, there’s a moment, when you attack. Then, you say, ‘It’s my turn.’”