The penultimate time I saw London-based American comedian Lewis Schaffer, he was touting a show in a venue “near Leicester Square” in which the audience had to turn up at a corner of the square and be led to a highly secret venue.
When the audience assembled, he took them to the upstairs floor of a Burger King bar on the corner of the square, where he found a table and sat around chatting to them.
Now, in the lead-up to the Edinburgh Fringe, he is performing a new Monday night show in a more conventional venue – a room above a pub near London Bridge, an hour-and-a-half after his weekly Resonance FM Radio show which is transmitted live. His radio show is allegedly specifically for Americans living in Nunhead, London. But the guests are almost never American and rarely come from or have any link to Nunhead.
“Come along to the radio show and sit in the corner,” he told me. “You don’t have to say anything.”
The actual guest on the radio show last Monday was comic Lucy Frederick, though he did ask me a couple of questions, introducing me as “the worst guest ever”.
In a pub after the radio show, he talked about his upcoming Edinburgh Fringe show Unopened Letters From My Mother
He has a whole batch of letters sent to him in London from his mother in New York over a ten year period. Each night, he will genuinely open a different sealed letter received from her which he has never read.
“Every woman that I know,” he told us in the pub, “has said their mother was insane, so it has given me the impression that maybe all mothers are insane.”
“I am not a parent,” said Lucy Frederick, “and I don’t really plan to be, but maybe maternal love almost drives you insane. The weight of my mother’s affection and love was quite a burden. Which sounds a dreadful thing to say, but I think living up to that was…”
“I have a feeling,” interrupted Lewis Schaffer, “that is what’s going to be in my mother’s letters. The burden of my mother’s love.”
“You’re riddled with guilt,” suggested Lucy. “Guilt and gratitude: two very heavy things.”
“These are letters,” I asked Lewis, “which you received after you came over here in 2000?”
“And she died when?”
“So why did you not open the letters?”
“We don’t know why,” replied Lewis Schaffer. “There were six I did open. The first six. I looked in the envelopes to see if there was any money. I didn’t read the letters and just put them aside. After the first six, I didn’t open any of them. I thought: The chance of there being money in them is… But I didn’t want those letters to go to waste, so I kept them.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Well, we don’t know,” he replied.
“And why,” I asked, “for the first time in your life, are you using the word ‘We’?”
“I’m thinking for the show,” he explained. “We as an audience, and me, are going to find out.”
“But you have no idea why you have never read the letters?” I asked.
“I think I have an idea. I could give you an answer but, whether that would be the real answer… It’s been 17 years.”
“You have no idea,” I said, “what is in the letters. They might be very emotionally upsetting. What happens if, on the second night, you break down with paranoid fear of what’s going to be in tomorrow’s letter?”
“We don’t know,” said Lewis Schaffer. “You know, for the past two years I’ve sort-of wound down my comedy because, two years ago, I had a 5-star review at Edinburgh and, that year, I achieved all the goals I wanted to with comedy: which weren’t very much… To do a ‘regular’ type show and to have people appreciate it. And I acted in a play. And I also organised a tour with over 50 dates. After that, I felt: Why bother? Why do I need to continue? That’s what I’m really afraid of: that I don’t really have a desire to do stand-up comedy any more.”
That was what Lewis Schaffer said to us in the pub.
An hour later, in his weekly comedy show, upstairs in another pub, he told the audience:
“When I open the letters, people are going to cry – Moms or people with moms. We all have moms. I thought: People are going to cry and that is going to get me an award. The way you win a comedy award in Edinburgh is by making people cry. Heartfelt. I have to do this show now, because I promised to do it.
“I kind of know why I didn’t open the letters, but I don’t know what’s in the letters. My mother is dead. So I am thinking: How can this be funny? Does it mean I didn’t love my mother? Does it make me a bad person?”
A woman in the audience said: “Yes.”
“Does it?” said Lewis Schaffer. “I left my mother behind in New York. I have a sister. I’ve noticed this about daughters… they think their mothers are crazy.
“I would say all women are crazy. I got married late and the mother of my children threw me out. I’ve had a lot of dealings with women and I’ve noticed how crazy they are. My father would say to me: Your mother’s crazy, but that woman over there is not crazy. He said that because he wasn’t married to that woman over there. That’s when I started to think that all women are crazy. I don’t hear many people calling men crazy. They call them shits.
“At some point, you have to say that women are a different species from men and you have to learn to love them for what they are, otherwise you will be very unhappy. My father never understood that. He would say Your mother’s crazy so I grew up thinking my mother was literally crazy. But, when I look back at her now, based on the other women I’ve met in my life, she was just a normal woman. I didn’t open the letters because…”
Well, you will have to see the show.
As always with Lewis Schaffer shows, it will be different every night. With insight and an element of crazy.