One night a few years ago, I went with comedy character act Charlie Chuck to The Cockpit Theatre in London. Also on the bill was comedian Mark Watson who had successfully performed for several years using a Welsh accent, despite the fact he came from Bristol and had an English accent. The problem Mark had, he told me, was how could he now drop the Welsh accent he had originally adopted to differentiate him from other comedians playing the circuit?
That night, about 28 minutes into his 30 minute set, he said in his Welsh accent (I paraphrase):
“…but, in fact, I don’t speak like this at all (then switching to his real English voice) I actually speak like this…”
There was (this is true) an audible gasp from the audience. It was an extraordinary coup de théâtre.
And Mark got away with it.
Similarly, this year at the Edinburgh Fringe, a well-known English comedian performed as a fake Canadian comedian, disguising his face with a clever mask. Most critics never mentioned his real name though their reviews had knowing ‘winks’ for those in-the-know. He would have been nominated for a Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award except that it was widely known by the media who he was (at least one publication named him) and, in fact, he admitted it in an interview.
To my mind, though, the best ‘fake’ comedian – revealed here for the first time – is ‘American’ comedian Lewis Schaffer, who has kept up the pretence for nigh on ten years without anyone realising.
‘Lewis Schaffer’ is actually English character actor Brian Simpson who hails from Brownhills in the West Midlands.
“Frankly, it’s relief to admit it,” Simpson told me last night over a very English meal of seared fillet of sea bream with Devon crab and crushed new potatoes at Langan’s restaurant in London’s Mayfair.
“I thought I had gone as far as I could with the Lewis Schaffer character and it was beginning to become a parody of itself.”
“Why did you start it?” I asked.
“I was an actor in my mid-forties, struggling like most,” Simpson told me in his own soft English voice which has a slight twang of a Birmingham accent. “The comedy club circuit was still at its height and I thought I’d try that, but I needed a USP – a Unique Selling Proposition. So I thought of this character.
“The Lewis Schaffer character was a New York Jew set adrift in an alien environment – England – on which he could give insights as a supposed outsider. I remember as a kid watching the BBC TV series Adam Adamant Lives! which was about a Victorian James Bond type character frozen in ice who is revived in Swinging Sixties London. So he looked OK – his Victorian cape did not look out of place in the King’s Road – but ‘normal’ things like light bulbs, cars and TV were all new to him.
“They used the same idea in the original Crocodile Dundee film – a figure set down in an alien environment. So, to be honest, I nicked that idea and I gave him a back story – He had married a British woman whom he calls English, but actually she’s Scottish because, as an American, he doesn’t know the difference. And I gave him two children because that widened the terms of reference for his stories. So he’s a divorced, neurotic Jewish New Yorker trapped in the UK by love of his children. In fact, I’m gay and have a partner who is not in showbusiness, which I think is what keeps me sane.”
“So why,” I asked, “have you decided to ‘come out’ now as Brian Simpson?”
“I guess,” said Simpson, “I was getting tired of the ‘Lewis Schaffer’ character. I’ve played him for over ten years now and, for an actor, that’s… well, it’s not what I want. It’s like performing in The Mousetrap every night. Not that The Mousetrap is not a very fine play. It is. But only playing Lewis Schaffer is very limiting for an actor. It’s not what I came into the business to do.
“Also meeting the American comedian Laura Levites at the Edinburgh Fringe last year had a big effect on me. I had always claimed that Lewis Schaffer was brought up in Great Neck, New York because that was where one of my great comedy heroes – Andy Kaufman – was born. But, by coincidence, Laura was from Great Neck too.
“It’s not a big place and she almost caught me out on details a couple of times, though I was able to bullshit my way through chatting with her. But it kind of made me feel like the fraud I was. It took the edge off the ‘game’ of playing Lewis Schaffer. I thought I have been doing this for ten years and still don’t have a TV series or vast amounts of money flowing in from the character, so why keep up the pretence?
“I do OK. I have always said Lewis Schaffer lives in Nunhead, Peckham, but actually my partner and I live in West Hampstead and we’ve got a couple of properties we rent out in Swiss Cottage. So we get by.
“But something happened to me this year; I don’t know what it was. I let my hair go grey and I got a bit tired of being Lewis Schaffer not Brian Simpson and I started feeling broody or something. I might move back to the West Midlands, to Brownhills.”
“So where do you go now professionally?” I asked.
“Well,” said Simpson, “I’ll keep doing the Lewis Schaffer character in my current shows in London – Free Until Famous is every Tuesday and Wednesday at the Source Below in Soho and American in London is at the Leicester Square Theatre every Sunday. I might even do another mini-tour of arts centres with Lewis Schaffer. I tried that out earlier this year and it went OK.
“Next year, I’m thinking of staging an Edinburgh Fringe show called Lewis Schaffer Is Not Feeling Himself or possibly Lewis Schaffer Is Not Lewis Schaffer. And I have a new character I’m working on. She’s a schoolteacher character from Ulster and she was once a…”
“She?” I asked.
“Yes,” explained Brian Simpson. “I need a complete break from Lewis Schaffer.”
“Are you actually Jewish?” I asked.
“No,” Simpson laughed. “Catholic… non-practising but, once a Catholic, always a Catholic…”
“Did you think of killing off the Lewis Schaffer character?” I asked. “Giving him a Reichenbach Falls ending?”
“You mean like Malcolm Hardee?” Simpson asked me.
“Well, it worked for him,” I said. “Derek has put the Malcolm Hardee years behind him and has carved out quite a good career for himself in South Africa.”
“I prefer to leave it open-ended,” replied Simpson. “I can keep the Lewis Schaffer schtick going for a few more years yet. It’s like plate-spinning. You have to keep everything up in the air.”