Comedian Lewis Schaffer gets serious about madness, his mother and himself

Lewis Schaffer briefly went all Jewish in the show last night

Lewis Schaffer briefly went all Jewish in a Leicester Square  show last night

“Honestly!” I said to Lewis Schaffer’s official stalker Blanche Cameron at the end of last night’s show, “It’s so frustrating! The things I can’t blog about!”

Lewis Schaffer’s apparently limitless ongoing weekly shows at the Leicester Square Theatre (sometimes on a Thursday, sometimes on a Sunday) are always, each in their own, unique events but – Ye Gods! – last night was quite a show. People say Lewis Schaffer lacks self-confidence but, to do what he did last night, takes extreme self-confidence.

Now you can be as frustrated as I am. I can’t write about it. You won’t know what happened.

Lewis Schaffer thinks I should write about it. I think it would intrude too far on at least two other people’s private lives. Remember that when you read the rest of this blog.

Suffice to say, it involved a very amiably drunken member of the audience, three – count ‘em – three people showing draw-dropping insights into their very, very personal lives and the line “Stop talking it’s my turn to speak!” not spoken by Lewis Schaffer.

Lewis Schaffer talked to me in Starbucks last night

Lewis Schaffer reads his publicity last night

Before the show, I had talked to Lewis Schaffer. It was supposed to be about his upcoming tour. Then he decided NOT to talk about it because he was not sure he should publicise it. Then he wanted to. Then not. Welcome to Lewis Schaffer’s world.

“The reason my shows work,” Lewis Schaffer told me, “is that, in today’s day and age, audiences have very little in common. They don’t watch the same TV programmes; they don’t work together; they don’t share the same political or religious ideology. Usually, they have nothing in common.

“With me, my personality is so strong that, by the end of an hour, the audience has a shared friend. It’s like being at the funeral of someone they loved. The difference is the friend is Lewis Schaffer and he’s dying in front of them. People are rarely bored after my shows. They may want to commit suicide, but they’re rarely bored.”

“What did your father do for a living in New York?” I asked.

“He was a truant officer. He used to find kids who were playing hookey and bring them back to school. But he wasn’t a truant officer for very long. He became a lawyer – a patent and trademark attorney.”

“Lots of money it that,” I suggested.

“For everybody else,” Lewis Schaffer bemoaned, “but not my father. It was one of the highest-paying legal professions but my father barely scraped by. He became the patent attorney for intellectual property which came from communist Czechoslovakia and wanted to be trademarked in America. He originally worked for AMF, the people who made bowling alleys – one of the first conglomerates. I should have been a lawyer.

“I think my father wanted to be in the entertainment business and never was. I think maybe that’s why he went to Law: because maybe he thought he could be some type of performer in that. But patent law is zero performance.

“He told me he had had an offer to go to California and be in the Pasadena Playhouse, which was one of these great workshops for comedians after the Second World War and he didn’t go.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. I think he was a scared man. I think I lived his dream by leaving my ex-wife. That was my father’s dream: to divorce my mother.”

“But he didn’t?” I asked.

“Eventually he did, when he was 70 years old.”

“Seems rather pointless,” I observed.

“Well,” explained Lewis Schaffer, “not when she’s driving you crazy. She was like off-the-wall. Instead of calming down, she got crazier and crazier and I think my father lost the energy to cope with it.”

“Should I mention your mother going into mental homes in my blog?” I asked. “I’ve always avoided it.”

“She’s dead,” said Lewis Schaffer. “Back in the day, they institutionalised everybody and this was a very fancy place. Charles Schulz, the Peanuts guy, was there. It was an expensive place in the country: The Institute of Living in Hartford, Connecticut. Very prestigious.”

“So,” I said, “it wasn’t Arkham Asylum.”

“Oh no,” said Lewis Schaffer. “My mother had a big health insurance, because my father was working for this conglomerate as an in-house patent attorney. My mother was always under a lot of stress. She was a perfectionist. She had a mental illness. I would just call it an extreme personality. I don’t believe in mental illness. I think this Stephen Fry business is just shit.”

“Being bi-polar?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Lewis Schaffer. “My mother was described as bi-polar.”

“What year was this?” I asked. “Bi-polar is one of those new terminologies, isn’t it?”

“They called my mother manic-depressive,” said Lewis Schaffer. “By calling it bi-polar, I think they’re trying to make it sound more scientific.”

“Has ‘manic-depressive’ become non-PC without me noticing?” I asked.

“Everything becomes non-PC,” said Lewis Schaffer. “Manic is like wired. And depressive is depression. But they still use the word depression. They haven’t called that uni-polar. Now it’s considered a disease. I think by calling something a mental illness, it’s trying to take away someone’s responsibility for their horrible behaviour by saying it’s a disease or some chemical imbalance. But the truth is, if you show me a mental person – a person who’s acting it out in a bad way – I’ll show you someone who’s been treated really badly. Something horrible happened to my mother to make her act that way.”

“Something happened,” I asked, “rather than she had that personality anyway?”

“Yeah. Something happened when she was a kid.”

“Surely,” I said, “people are a combination of nature and nurture?”

“No,” said Lewis Schaffer. “I think it’s always because something horrible happened.”

“You think it’s all nurture not nature?” I asked.

“Yes. I don’t think people are born crazy. When you see people misbehaving, I don’t think that’s ever, ever, ever nature. I think it’s always because something bas happened to them. Or the other side is it could be macro not micro – society has declared what they are doing as unacceptable. Maybe they’re acting in a normal way in an abnormal society.”

“Maybe,” I suggested, “if you’re a totally sane person you can’t be really creative, because creativity is about originality and originality is the opposite of thinking like other people do.”

“The case can be made,” said Lewis Schaffer, “that all excellence comes from passion and all passion comes from insanity. Last night I was thinking what my psychological problem is… I think by the time I was conscious of being a person, my parents had sort-of given up on me. My mother was mental and really wasn’t paying that much attention to me and I wanted to entertain her, so I grew up through life thinking: I have to entertain my mother and get her attention.”

“You were trying to entertain her when you were 14?” I asked.

“And younger,” said Lewis Schaffer. “Now I feel I am responsible for making people happy. Not just entertaining them but making them happy. It’s like I’m responsible for my mother’s happiness. Maybe because I was blamed. When we moved from Brooklyn to Great Neck, Long Island, she went all wonky. Probably a lot had to do with moving away from her home into this very pleasant, prosperous suburban environment and she felt lonely.”

“How old were you when you moved?”

“Almost three. Jerry Seinfeld is like me: a family of Brooklyn Jews who moved to the suburbs, then moved back into Manhattan to make our way. I was born in New York, moved out to a nice suburb and then moved back into Manhattan. I lived in Manhattan for 18 years.

“The reason I am the way I am is I had resentment towards my mother that I had to entertain her and give her happiness. So, with my comedy, I’m standing there trying to make other people happy but, at the same time, I’m thinking: Why the fuck do I have to make them happy?  Most comedians are happy to make other people happy. I am somewhat happy but also feel bitterness and resentment that psychologically I need to be in this role. On stage, I’m thinking about the audience: Why the fuck do you deserve to be made happy? I’m thinking: Why am I sacrificing what I want? Why don’t YOU make ME laugh? Why am I having a bad time doing this?

“I look at the audience when I’m performing and I think: I can’t make you happy all the time. You’re going to have to make yourself fucking happy.

“You should be happy,” I suggested, “that you’re saving lots of money by doing self-therapy.”

“It’s not self-therapy,” said Lewis Schaffer. “It’s self-analysis.”

1 Comment

Filed under Comedy, Mental health, Mental illness, Psychology

One response to “Comedian Lewis Schaffer gets serious about madness, his mother and himself

  1. Blanche

    Brilliant blog John

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