Brian Simpson, the English character comedian who performs as American comic Lewis Schaffer, was a massive fan of Tiswas, the slapstick children’s TV show I used to work on. He was born and bred in Brownhills.
Tiswas was broadcast live from the ATV Studios in the centre of Birmingham every Saturday. Brownhills is in the north of Birmingham and Brian, then a novice comedian, knew one of the regular cameramen on the show.
Brian would stand in the crowded studio and try not to be noticed but he had this wild laugh and people did tend to notice him. Most people assumed he was one of the crew.
After one particular Tiswas Christmas show in 1981, his friend the ATV cameraman told me Brian wanted to meet me. I was only a researcher on the show, but Brian told me it was a thrill to meet me. He said he loved the bizarre ‘real people’ acts I found for the show, including a ‘Talented Teacher’ segment I sorted out.
He said he was struggling to get noticed on the comedy circuit and he thought this was largely because he was based in Birmingham. He was thinking of moving to London, especially as he was having trouble at home. He was in a relationship with a young Jewish American girl at the time (she was around 19) and they were having problems. This was before he discovered he was gay.
He was disillusioned and was thinking of quitting comedy.
After our first chat, he would talk to me almost every Saturday after the show and ask me what eccentric ‘real people’ items I was working on. He was trying to develop his own eccentric stage character. He was also getting advice from his American girlfriend. He told me he was trying to develop a character act in which he would pretend to be a no-hoper Jewish American comedian from New York who had performed at Caroline’s and at the Cellar, then married a Scottish girl, moved to England and was trying to establish himself over here.
I thought this sounded a little unbelievable, but his girlfriend helped him ‘translate’ his jokes into American English and give it a Jewish slant.
I thought and still think he could have been a brilliant British comic as himself but he didn’t think he was funny at all.
And, slowly, he built that self-doubt into the Lewis Schaffer character he created.
After about five years of advice from me (it continued after I left Tiswas), he told me that he thought he was going to make it in the UK and that he didn’t need to speak to me as often – that there were other ‘artists’ who needed my help.
Now we see each other less often.
On YouTube, there is a rare brief glimpse of Brian as himself in the background of the crowd on the studio floor of the last ever Tiswas, broadcast on 3rd April 1982.