This is going to be a bit like describing a man having a meal after the Battle of Waterloo. Whether that man is Napoleon or Wellington is an interesting question.
It is 11.15pm last night and I am sitting in a late-night ice cream parlour in Soho with London-based American comedian Lewis Schaffer. He has just finished his first Free Until Famous show after the Christmas/New Year break. Free Until Famous is the longest-running solo comedy show in London. Lewis Schaffer has been performing it at least twice-weekly since – heavens! – was it really 2008?
Lewis Schaffer is always referred to as ‘Lewis Schaffer’ never ‘Lewis’. He does it himself. I am never sure if this is a marketing ploy or if it reflects some deep psychological need beyond my ken.
His flyer for Free Until Famous proudly proclaims that Time Out called him “unpredictable” and tonight’s show was, indeed, that.
At one point, he asked every individual member of the audience to say “Sorry” to him.
At the end, he asked the audience what the most uncomfortable part of the show had been. An 18-year-old girl from Sunderland told him:
“The bit where the two lesbians were talking about the drugs they took.”
He had asked two teenage girls if they were lesbians (they said Yes) and then asked them what drugs they had taken at a party the night before. It was detailed questioning.
Lewis Schaffer had only had three hours sleep the night before.
So… we were sitting in this Soho ice cream parlour after the show and Lewis Schaffer looked at his three-flavoured ice-cream and said: “After one of my shows, a woman told me she had never realised how important feeling uncomfortable was for comedy.”
“Why?” I asked, knowing he would make up a credible answer as he went along.
“Because of the release,” Lewis Schaffer told me. “Because every joke is an alternate reality that makes sense. It’s like a rubber band that has to be pulled really taut in order to get any snap out of it.”
“But,” I suggested, “if the audience is uncomfortable, they won’t laugh.”
“Well, they’re uncomfortable and they won’t laugh until they’ve been released and made to feel comfortable. That’s what jokes do.” He looked up. “Is that interesting?” he asked. He paused. “Or not?”
“The more uncomfortable they are,” he continued, constructing his thoughts as he went along, “the more comfortable they’ll become. What’s more comfortable than laughing? You only laugh when you know things are going to be OK, after the bad things happen, after you’ve been told by the judge you don’t have to pay the money to your evil proctologist for operating on you unnecessarily and you thought you were going to owe him all that money…”
He looked at me.
“Is this funny?” he asked.
He ate his ice cream.
“The reason I am going to be the best comedian in Britain,” he said with a twinkle appearing in his eyes, “is that I create the most uncomfortable moments. Other comics only say uncomfortable things; I actually do uncomfortable things….”
There was a pause.
“I give them moments of doubt. Moments of panic.”
“What are they doubting?” I asked.
“The audience is doubting whether I’m a comedian or not,” Lewis Schaffer laughed. “What I’m trying to do is have the audience feel all manner of uncomfortableness – from the idea they might be ripped-off in this show, that they’re wasting their time and this is not a real comedian, that maybe they… I haven’t thought about this, but… like what I did tonight. Where you sit down right next to someone in the audience and you talk to them and break the performance so it’s no longer a performance, so it’s no longer even comedy, so it’s a discussion, so it makes people feel uncomfortable.”
“You must have been a great salesman,” I said. “What was it you used to sell?”
“I used to sell advertising space,” Lewis Schaffer replied. “I worked for Hotel & Resort Industry magazine. I don’t think I sold a single page of advertising in four months. Pennsylvania Wine & Liquor Quarterly – yeah, that was as bad as it sounds. I sold not a single ad. Not a single ad. I had other jobs selling space for two or three publications, but I didn’t actually sell any space for any of them.”
“Did they notice?”
“Of course they noticed! I was fired… I’ve been fired from more jobs than people have had jobs.”
“Why did they employ you in the first place?”
“Because – look at me – I look amazing! – I look like I’m employable! In the same way, I look like a real comedian and this is why, if I can get my act together, I create the biggest cognitive dissonance in the audience.
“Here is someone. He looks like a comedian. He acts like a comedian. He is everything an American-style comedian looks like – He’s wearing a black suit, shiny shoes, he’s a middle-aged Jew, very articulate. This guy should be funny… Wait a second!… He’s not being funny!… Is it on purpose?… Oh! He was funny there for a second… Why doesn’t he keep on being funny?”
“Why?” I asked.
“My favourite British comedian,” Lewis Schaffer told me, “who I knew nothing about until I moved here, is Tommy Cooper. At some point, when you’re watching him, you’re thinking This guy’s not going to make it to the end of the act. He’s not funny. He is shambolic in his jokes. He can’t tell jokes and the jokes that he’s telling are just shit jokes. But collectively, because you’re feeling so uncomfortable, the release is Hey! – He’s doing this on purpose! Maybe the joke’s on us. Maybe that’s why Tommy Cooper is a genius: because the jokes were on the audience.”
“I like to see the audience squirm. I like to squirm…. In comedy clubs, I’m tired of seeing guys who are so cock-sure of their jokes. I had this Canadian dude see my show and he said my stuff would get more laughs if I didn’t express doubt in my own material and I told him That would take the fun out of it.”