In the last couple of weeks, I have posted some extracts from a chat I had with Liam Lonergan for his BA (Hons) course in Creative and Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth.
Yesterday, Liam sent me a transcript of a chat he had with London-based American comedian Lewis Schaffer, who often turns up in my blog. Below, with Liam’s permission, are some edited extracts.
Liam chatted to Lewis Schaffer at The Source Below in London’s Soho where, twice-weekly, he performs his show Lewis Schaffer: Free Until Famous. It is free to enter but the audience can, if they want, pay on the way out.
Liam: Have you got a clear business model? If you pushed to go on television would you give…
Lewis Schaffer: If I pushed to go on television?
Liam: Yeah. Would you give up this free show bit up or would you still do it, d’you reckon?
Lewis Schaffer: I dunno. Because I’ve grown to enjoy it in the same way one grows to enjoy a retarded child. Is that horrible to say? You love your children even though they’re deficient. And I’ve grown to love this because I’ve done more of these kind of shows than anybody else. I can’t imagine anyone else doing as many shows as this. I’ve done over four hundred shows here over four years. I started in 2009. The benefit of it is it’s training for chaos.
Liam: In one of your interviews you’ve said that you alternate between panic and bored and you’re used to living in chaos and it bothers you when there’s no chaos.
Lewis Schaffer: I believe in chaos.
(Lewis Schaffer and Liam are standing in the street outside the entrance to The Source Below and two fans of his comedy shows have arrived – Sean and Arnie.)
Lewis Schaffer: I’m being interviewed here. Real comedians let the audience enjoy themselves. And me? I’m just going to stop you from enjoying yourselves. Am I right?
Sean: I like the awkwardness.
Lewis Schaffer: Openness…
Sean: Awkwardness. My two word review for you is “awkwardly hilarious”. Which means I’m laughing awkwardly. I’m laughing at you but I don’t know why some of the time.
Lewis Schaffer: I dunno why you’re laughing at me either.
Sean: I love your gigs. I’ve been here and I’ve come here again. That’s how good you are.
Lewis Schaffer: But besides Lewis Schaffer, who else is there?
Sean: The minute you become famous, Lewis, I wouldn’t come to see you. There’s vulnerability at your gigs because I feel vulnerable.
Lewis Schaffer: Exactly.
Arnie: That’s because you’re vulnerable. Am I right? You expose yourself don’t you?
Lewis Schaffer: Well, I hope I do.
Liam: You need to show the ligaments.
Lewis Schaffer: Is that what that’s called? “Show the ligaments”?
Liam: Yeah. Since you cultivate an environment of full disclosure in your stand-up act, is everything fair game?
Lewis Schaffer: Everything is fair game except for my ex-wife’s husband. Which is me… Are any subjects fair game with the proper audience? Well, everything’s up for discussion. It’s how you discuss it.
Liam: Have you got a central philosophy?
Lewis Schaffer: A core philosophy? If it’s raining in South London by the time you get to North London it’ll be clear.
Liam: Good philosophy.
Sean: I can answer.
Lewis Schaffer: What is my core philosophy on comedy?
Sean: On comedy, your schtick is you’re a failure.
Lewis Schaffer: I am a failure but it’s not a schtick. It would be like saying New York is my schtick. I’m a New Yorker. But it’s not my schtick.
Liam: It’s just what you are.
Lewis Schaffer: My core philosophy is to take what people know and tell them they’re wrong. Most comedians tell people what they already know and then make a joke about it. Or they will tell people what they don’t know and then make a joke about that. My thing is just to say: “You think this. You are wrong”.
Liam: One thing you say is: “I want people to know everything about me and still love me”.
Lewis Schaffer: Yes. I want them to love me, anal warts and all.
Liam: Do you reckon that’s tied in with some sort of mania? Could you call it mania?
Lewis Schaffer: Well, my mother was diagnosed as a bi-polar manic-depressive and I think that I’ve got all the attributes of bi-polar manic depression without being a bi-polar manic-depressive.
Liam: Do you reckon it’s learnt behaviour?
Lewis Schaffer: Yes. If you’re raised by wolves you’re going to be howling at the moon. You might not be a wolf but you will learn to howl at the moon. Was that a good answer?
Liam: That was really, really interesting.
Lewis Schaffer: Was that very interesting? It’s not funny.
Liam: But it doesn’t have to be rat-a-tat scattergun jokes. Answers are like that good as well.
Lewis Schaffer: I’m rapid cycling. Rapid cycling. I change moods so quickly that people don’t notice. I’m like alternating current. I’m like on sixty cycles.
Sean: I need the toilet. I’ll be honest with you.
Lewis Schaffer: OK. See you down there.
Liam: Is there a toilet down there? Because I’m gonna need one as well soon…Talking in a broader sense about the whole Love me attitude, do you think that applies to comedy as a…
Lewis Schaffer: What attitude?
Liam: The Love me attitude… You wanting people. Needing the acceptance.
Lewis Schaffer: That only applies to comedians. Actors don’t do that. Actors just wanna be noticed. They don’t care how they’re noticed. They can play a villain or they can play a hero. But comedians want people to… It’s like it’s on a continuum. Most people are happy. Somewhere in the middle with people not hating them or people not loving them but comedians, generally… people have to be constantly loving them in order for them to feel safe… I’m not saying my mother is bi-polar.
Liam: No. I won’t print that.
Lewis Schaffer: You can print anything I’m saying. You can put down anything I say here. I’m just saying she was diagnosed that way. I don’t believe in the psychiatric establishment.
Liam: I don’t as well. There’s like a diagnostic spider’s web where they sort of broaden it so everyone fits into that. Everyone fits into a category so they can sell the solution to that.
Lewis Schaffer: They can sell the pills, Or the surgery.
Liam: Do you ever feel threatened by the audience?
Lewis Schaffer: Yeah. I always feel threatened.
Liam: Even after all these years of doing it?
Lewis Schaffer: Sometime I don’t feel threatened by the audience and those are the nights that go pear-shaped from the very beginning. Where I go in and I feel they’re my friends and they turn on me.
Liam: You need that? You need that tension?
Lewis Schaffer: I need to fear my audience. I need to fear people. They may not love me. I think worry produces positive…
Liam: This is why I’ve always wanted to do stand-up but why I can’t do it because I can’t bear to have the rejection.
Lewis Schaffer: To me, the rejection is the normal… If they do hate me it’s very rarely more than what I expected them to. And if they love me it’s always a surprise. That’s why I have failed more than most comedians… Every show that I do has elements of failure. Wouldn’t you consider me a failure?
Liam: Er… No. I dunno. Well…
Lewis Schaffer: Twenty years of doing comedy.
Liam: What’s the zenith?
Lewis Schaffer: I can pay my bills.
Liam: Is there a financial…
Lewis Schaffer: Yeah. It’s not about the money but I’d like to be paid some money. Money is the proof… just one more bit of love.
Liam: Is that why you do these free shows? The bucket at the end… So you can put a monetary value to their love?
Lewis Schaffer: Yes. I can be sure whether the show was good or bad… I can tell when people put money in or people don’t put money in. A lot of times they don’t and it’s horrible. So that is the reason. It’s a measure of whether I’m funny or not. It’s also a measure if people come back to see me repeatedly.
Liam: Is it a neurosis? Is it endemic?
Lewis Schaffer: Endemic. What a big word.
Liam: Is it something that’s derivative of the New York mentality? As a whole?
Lewis Schaffer: No it isn’t. It is among Jews and New York is a very Jewish community and a lot of comedians have taken over the attitude of the Jews.