London-based American comic Lewis Schaffer can be utterly infuriating to work with.
I know. I have worked with him.
If you can call it work.
But, after a tsunami of indecision and self-doubt, he will occasionally come up with brilliant ideas.
And, equally often, he will talk rubbish.
I had him on the phone a few weeks ago – after he had played a gig in some provincial theatre – saying he felt embarrassed to charge people for tickets to come and see his comedy shows.
“I feel like a con-man,” he told me. “What if they don’t like my show? What if they don’t like me? I will have ripped them off. You don’t pay up-front in a restaurant. You pay after you’ve eaten the meal and know what it was like. In no other area of life do you pay before you know what you are getting.”
“Lewis,” I said, exasperated. “In almost every area of life people pay up-front. It is called shopping.”
He ignored me. Today he has issued a press release saying:
“It bothers me to ask for money before a punter knows what they’re getting. Just because my show has been recommended by newspapers or because I look great in a suit or come from New York doesn’t mean they’ll like what I do. If they do like it, THEN they’ll give me what they think it’s worth.
“I hate disappointing people. I’ve disappointed my parents. I’ve disappointed my ex-wife and my kids. I’ve let America and the Jews down. I don’t want to disappoint any more people than I have to.”
Pure Lewis Schaffer.
Now for a major explanatory detour. Stick with me, dear reader.
I know I am going to get at least one complaint about this.
Rising comedians are almost obliged to go to the Edinburgh Fringe every year. It is the biggest arts festival – and therefore the biggest showcase – in the world.
Once upon a time, going to the Edinburgh Fringe every August was relatively simple to understand.
Each performer paid their venue an inordinately large amount of money up-front to hire the performance space; an average of around only six people per day paid to see the show; and the performer lost a shedload of money but gained that vital 0.0001% chance of being talent-spotted and/or getting an agent or radio series or TV series and becoming a temporary millionaire.
In their dreams.
Oh, I forgot to mention the cost of accommodation in Edinburgh – possibly £1,000 for a one-bedroom flat and £2,000 or so for a two-bedroom flat – plus the cost of flyers, posters, transport and lots of other sundries.
The main problem, though, was and is the cost of venues. There is a fee to hire the place and then the venue takes around 40% of the box office earnings plus VAT plus you may be forced to pay around £500 for a listing in the big venues’ brochure as well as the £300-ish cost of appearing in the main Fringe programme. And over a thousand quid for a quarter page ad in the main Fringe programme. Plus the cost of getting it designed and formatted.
One year, the very successful and very funny comic Tim Vine paid for a single giant poster – we are talking vast here – which said, simply, that he was NOT appearing at the Fringe.
It must have cost him a fortune but it was the talk of the Fringe and probably cost him less than the cost of travelling to, staying in and performing at Edinburgh – and it certainly got him just as much publicity and attention as he would have got if he had put on a 28-day show. Meanwhile, for the 28 days of the Fringe, he could perform elsewhere for better money.
The Edinburgh Fringe experience for a performer has been described as standing in a cold shower for three weeks while tearing up £20 and £50 notes. Sadly, I have forgotten which comic said that: a reflection on the uncertain benefit of writing good gags.
This losing-shedloads-of-money-at-the-Fringe equation was changed in 1997 when Peter Buckley Hill (the PBH mentioned above) put on his show Peter Buckley Hill And Some Comedians in a venue without being charged a venue fee: the pub venue was happy enough to receive the extra drink sales generated by audiences at his show. He also did not charge any admission fee to the audience: they only paid whatever they liked at the end if they had enjoyed the show.
The idea of free shows at the Fringe really took off around 2005/2006 by which time PBH and comedy promoter Laughing Horse were jointly promoting lots of shows by various performers.
Inevitably, the two fell out so, from 2007, there have been two sets of free shows at Edinburgh in August: the PBH Free Fringe and the Laughing Horse Free Festival, both of them under the over-all umbrella of the vast Edinburgh Fringe.
The format for both of these two freebie empires is that the performers do not pay to hire their venues… the audiences do not pay up-front to see the shows… and there is a bucket of some kind at the end so you can give your appreciation by paying whatever you think the show was worth.
Lewis Schaffer had successful years at paid venues on the Fringe in 2000 and 2008 and still lost money. At the Fringe, “successful” means breaking even or losing only a small amount of money.
Since then, Lewis Schaffer (he is always called ‘Lewis Schaffer’, never ‘Lewis’) has performed as part of the Laughing Horse Free Festival, usually doing two shows each day – and filling his rooms.
He brought this idea – basically PBH’s original Free Fringe idea – to London in 2009, performing a twice-per-week (sometimes thrice-per-week) show Lewis Schaffer is Free Until Famous at the Source Below club in Soho. He now claims – and I think he has to be right – that it is the longest-running solo comedy show in London.
And it is free. You only pay only if you like the show and, at the end, you throw however much you want to (or nothing) into a bucket.
Now Lewis Schaffer has, in a suitably ramshackle way, organised his own mini-tour by persuading arts centres around the country (so far only in England) to give him venues for free and to stage The Lewis Schaffer is Free Until Famous Tour.
He says: “Lee Mack suggested I take my show on tour. I know: You don’t think Lee Mack knows me, but he does. You can ask him. On the other hand… just wish me luck.”
I do. Though who knows if it will work?
“Look,” he says, “I think that only I could pull this off. Better known comics don’t have to and worse comics wouldn’t get the gigs and surely couldn’t get the money. No-one gives money for a bad time, no matter how much the comic begs. Who else would have the nerve to ask a British audience for money? Only an American would have the chutzpah.”
Obviously – if you know Lewis – at the time of writing this blog, he has not actually put his tour details on his website. But the upcoming shows – the first is only four days away – are:
10 December 2011 – The Nook, Northampton
27 January 2012 – The Plough Art Centre, Great Torrington
4 February 2012 – The Bromsgrove Artrix
20 April 2012 – Colchester Arts Centre
27 April 2012 – Cambridge Junction
21 July 2012 The Belgrade, Coventry
Now, if only he could get some self-confidence…