Tag Archives: American

Two Jews on the pressures of comedy – or even getting a venue to perform in

Last August, I met New York based comedian Laura Levites when she was performing her show American Girlfriend in Edinburgh and blogged about her in a joint interview with her and London-based American comic Lewis Schaffer titled Two Jews Jabbering About Sex, Drugs and Suicide at The Edinburgh Fringe.

She is very funny. They both are. And they both have their worries.

Yesterday, I got an e-mail from Laura. This is what she said (posted with her permission):

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Laura Levites flyers in the Royal Mile yesterday

Laura Levites flyers Edinburgh’s Royal Mile in 2012

I was going to the Fringe again this year. I was told by (Xxxxx venue) that I had a spot, in fact I’m sure I was one of the first to put my application in. Last week (Xxxxx venue) told me I no longer have a spot.

I’m pretty fucking pissed off, because I didn’t put in for anywhere else and I have no idea what to do.

I’m going to be completely honest here. I’m in the throes of finishing my first book, American Girlfriend, ‘the full version’. So, for the past two months, I have been locked in the confines of my head writing… or thinking about writing… which has required me to think about my life a lot and – What do you know? – Bang!… Full-blown depression kicks in…. So I thought about ending it. I’m like Fuck it. I’m done with life…….. and curled up in the fetal position.

Luckily for me, my brother called my shrink and intervened.

Hence, an idea for a new show SelfHelpless.

I had to make a deal with my shrink – He would only see me if I finish my book and not kill myself. So, this week, I’m seeing another new doctor to see if we can get my medication right. And, I kid you not, Friday I start going to a depression support group. Part of my mandated recovery is exercise, so I’m doing the latest in feminine exercise called Physique57, where I stand at a ballet bar in a room with a bunch of angry women and get yelled at to lift my leg higher. I’m actually starting to enjoy the pain of this.

I’m doing this depression right!

But I have been writing and I do have a book – Fuck, writing a book is hard. Hopefully it will be done in the next few weeks and I can start looking ahead instead of behind.

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Last night, I also got an e-mail from Lewis Schaffer who is performing his show Lewis Schaffer’s American Guide to England on eight consecutive Sundays at the Leicester Square Theatre, starting this weekend. He has been performing his free show Lewis Schaffer: Free Until Famous twice-weekly at The Source Below in London for the last three years or more. This is what he told me:

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The Fringe has reduced comedian Lewis Schaffer to this

Lewis Schaffer is worried about his Leicester Square shows…

My Leicester Square Theatre run starts this weekend and I’m in over my head.

How can I ask for £10? But then again, what is ten quid? Nothing. Bubkis. I am funny!

But, then again, am I asked to do the Old Rope comedy club? Or that Stewart Lee Alternative Comedy TV thing? Or nominated for a Chortle Award? Not even something for Nunhead American Radio. Nothing.

I am not sure who is going to turn up and pay ten quid.

The idea I pitched was Lewis Schaffer’s American Guide to England. 

Does anyone care about England nowadays, especially the English? Do they care about what an American thinks about England? I am not even much of an American, anyway. I am barely a New York Jew. I was weird in New York and I am weird here.

I want to tell the audience that the show they have paid £10 to see has been replaced by The Lewis Schaffer Show. All about me!

Knowing me, I will tell the audience that. Like when I told a Democrats Abroad fundraiser in 2004 that I had voted for George W. Bush. That didn’t go down well. Fact was I hadn’t voted for GWB. I hadn’t voted since 1984. I just couldn’t help saying it.

All I want to do is do what I always do: not be limited to some structure about England or Britain or America. I do need some kind of structure. I should be writing the show, or at least reviewing the stuff I have about Britain, which is probably a lot. Did I tell you I was on stage in Birmingham the other night for maybe two and half hours? Frigging mental!

I know what you’re going to say:

“But you always say you’re not ready and you always say no-one will turn up and it always works out.”

I have struggled in anonymity at the Source Below and, by charging money for my show at the Leicester Square Theatre, the reviewers from The Times and the Guardian will be coming in. I’ll be a total shambles and start panicking on stage and – boom – the work I’ve put in over the past few years will have been wasted.

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The confusions of the Edinburgh Fringe and lessons learned from Lewis Schaffer

On the stylish streets of Edinburgh, the Athens of the North

It must be a nightmare for newcomers to the Edinburgh Fringe.

First of all you have to get your head round the fact there is an Official Festival which is not the one most people think of. Then there is the Edinburgh Fringe, the Free Fringe, the Free Festival and the Alternative Fringe (linked to the Free Festival), all of which come under the banner of the Edinburgh Fringe Office who stage no shows themselves.

Then yesterday I got an invitation to a showcase event today at the Spiegeltent Teatro at Assembly George Square Gardens in the Old Town. This is not to be confused with the Famous Spigeltent in the New Town outside the Assembly Rooms, which has no connection with Assembly.

Fringe newcomers have all that to contend with but I have worse. I have to contend with American comedian Lewis Schaffer who has temporarily landed in my spare bedroom for two nights and, as if that were not enough, I keep bumping into him in the street.

Yesterday, I bumped into him in Bristo Square standing with another comic.

Lewis Schaffer (left) gives advice to comedian Erich McElroy

“This is Erich McElroy,” Lewis told me. “He is the young Lewis Schaffer and he is one quarter Scottish.”

“Hello,” said Erich McElroy, shaking my hand.

“He has an American accent,” I told Lewis Schaffer.

“He is still one quarter Scottish and he learned from Lewis Schaffer,” replied Lewis Schaffer.

“What did you learn from Lewis Schaffer?” I asked Erich McElroy.

“Years ago, in 2002,” Erich McElroy told me, “Lewis Schaffer told an audience of English people that he was going to be the funniest comic in Britain that year. He had been storming the night and, as soon as he said that, they turned on him and then he turned on them and said, Fuck you! I will be! I will be! Afterwards...”

“I never said Fuck you!” Lewis Schaffer interrupted.

“Afterwards,” Erich McElroy continued, “I explained to him, Lewis, you can’t tell an English audience that. You need to tell them you’re going to be the worst comic of the year and they will love you for that. And he said, No, no! I am going to be the best, Erich. I AM going to be the best! and I told him That doesn’t matter. You can’t tell them that.”

“And what did you learn from that?” I asked.

“I learned you can’t talk the way he talks and say those things with an American accent,” said Erich McElroy.

“I never said Fuck you!” Lewis Schaffer protested again. “In Britain in 2002, when I said I’m going to be the best comic in Britain in 2002, British people thought: You arrogant American!… But, when I told my American friends I was going to be the best comic in Britain 2002, they suggested I aim higher…”

“That was just after the 9/11 attacks,” I said. “Has he told you about his Tweets today?” I asked Erich McElroy.

Erich McElroy shook his head and looked rather worried.

“After seeing my show, somebody sent me a Tweet,” Lewis Schaffer explained to Erich McElroy. “It said: For the first half of your show, I wished you were in the North Tower of the World Trade Center. And, during the last half, I wished I was in the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

“That is good,” said Erich McElroy. “That is good, Lewis.”

At about ten minutes past midnight this morning, as I was about to go to bed, I got a text message from Lewis Schaffer.

“Oh my god. Huge fuck up,” it read.

“…and what would that be?” I texted back.

“Horrible,” Lewis Schaffer texted back. “I need some advice.”

I eventually got to bed at 3.10am.

It may be a bumpy two days for me.

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Two Jews jabbering about sex, drugs and suicide at the Edinburgh Fringe

(This piece was also published by the Huffington Post and by the Indian news website We Speak News)

Laura Levites and Lewis Schaffer: New York Jews together

At the Edinburgh Fringe, I know comic Lewis Schaffer and bumped into comic Laura Levites. It turns out they were both brought up in Great Neck, New York, but had never met. I suggested we should have a chat for this blog. Two New York Jewish comedians. What was I thinking? I hardly got a word in.

Andy Kaufman was born in Great Neck,” Laura Levites said. “The first line in the movie Man in the Moon is It all started out in Great Neck…”

And Groucho Marx moved there,” added Lewis Schaffer. “And in the movie Miracle on 34th Street, she wants to buy a house in Great Neck. And Alan King moved to Great Neck. And then there’s F.Scott Fitzgerald.”

The Great Gatsby is set in Great Neck,” said Laura Levites. (It is called ‘West Egg’ in the book.)

“You told me Great Neck was full of sad rich, flashy Jews,” I said to Lewis Schaffer.

“And a few Jew failures,” he added.

“My dad wasn’t smart enough to get rich,” said Laura Levites.

I laughed.

“I’m not even joking,” she insisted. “He really wasn’t. And he was an asshole.”

“Did you live in a house?” asked Lewis Schaffer.

“We had a house.”

Lewis Schaffer: his show at Edinburgh Fringe

“Then we must have been poorer than you.”

“My parents didn’t buy the house,” said Laura Levites. “my grandmother gave them money to buy it.”

“Well my grandmother gave my parents money to buy a car,” said Lewis Schaffer. “I hate to talk about them this way cos it makes them seem like losers, my parents.”

“My parents ARE losers,” said Laura Levites. “My dad is dead and my mom is alive.”

“What did your dad do for a living?”

“He was in advertising and then he was just an asshole.”

“Did he divorce your mom?” Lewis Schaffer asked.

“Yes.”

“He moved away?”

“No, he stayed in Great Neck.”

“But the money was spent on another flat?”

“No, the money was spent in a bitter custody battle over me and my brother.”

“How old were you?”

“Ten.”

“So you were a child of divorce,” said Lewis Schaffer. “I sensed that. I sense that. Vulnerable.”

“I’m vulnerable,” said Laura Levites. “I have daddy issues. I’m a mess.”

“Am I old enough to be your daddy?” asked Lewis Schaffer.

“You wanna adopt me?”

“I don’t want to adopt you that way.”

“Yeah, but I mean that in a sexy way. I like to be spanked.”

Enough, already! Enough, already! Enough already!

“You like to be spanked?” laughed Lewis Schaffer. “I like to punch. Well, I would like to punch women, but I haven’t.”

“I can take a punch,” said Laura Levites. “You wouldn’t be the first guy who tried to hit me.”

“So basically.” I interrupted, “we are talking here about two bitter Jews who had a bad upbringing and became comedians.”

“My parents were not in a bitter custody battle,” said Lewis Schaffer, “because they were old school and thought they had to stay together until they or the kids died.”

“Lewis’ comedy,” I told Laura Levites, “is very autobiographical.”

“No,” said Lewis Schaffer. “I wouldn’t say I was autobiographical. I would say I mostly do penis jokes.”

“But,” said Laura Levites, “they’re about your penis.”

“There’s also a lot about his children and ex-wife,” I said.

“But those are substitutes,” explained Lewis Schaffer, “for the core issue that my parents didn’t love me. Let me re-phrase that. My mother didn’t love me. So I focus on my ex-wife.”

Laura Levites’ show at the Edinburgh Fringe

“Does your family feature in your show a lot?” I asked Laura Levites.

“This one, no. But, by virtue of everything they did to me, yes. I mean, I am their fault. Are you going to come see my show?”

“You’re down there somewhere in the list,” I said.

“I’m somewhere in the list? I’m tired of people saying that.”

“So you grew up in the house with your brother,” said Lewis Schaffer. “and you were ten.”

“I was ten or eight. I was not fully-formed.”

“Did you have breasts?”

“I did not have breasts. I don’t have breasts now.”

“Let me be the judge of that,” said Lewis Schaffer.

“I don’t have breasts now,” she repeated. “Look at this! I have nothing! It’s just skin. Who cares? I don’t have boobies. My grandma used to work at Bloomingdales. My grandma, she’s in a nursing home. I went to see her one day. She put both hands on my breasts. She sold underwear: that’s what my grandma did for a living. And she said You have big nipples, but you’ve small breasts. That’s what she said to me. Even my grandma said I got no titties!”

“This is a New York Jew,” said Lewis Schaffer.

“I’m a New York Jew,” said Laura Levites. “What d’ya want?”

“If I were younger,” said Lewis Schaffer, “I’d be getting an erection right now. That’s all I’m saying.”

“I’m losing my shit if you’re not getting an erection.”

“Why is talking about nipples Jewish?” I asked.

“You couldn’t get a conversation like this out of an English girl,” said Laura Levites. “Because they don’t express themselves. They can’t even answer a simple question. It’s like How are you FEELING? Don’t give me the answer you THINK I want to hear. It fucks with your goddam head! I’m not even kidding. The English are fucking mad!”

“Did you see my show?” asked Lewis Schaffer.

“Three-quarters of it,” replied Laura Levites. “I was in the back”

“Did you enjoy it?”

“Yeah. I REALLY enjoyed it. I feel at home with you. I understand everything you say. I relate to everything. I feel the same way you do.”

“I think circumcision should be illegal,” said Lewis Schaffer. “but not for women.”

“You’re cut and I’m sorry about that,” said Laura Levites. “You don’t know what you’re missing. I can teach you how to grow it back. You make this (wanking) motion and you pull every day or you put weights on it. I’m not even joking.”

“But, “ laughed Lewis Schaffer, “I do pull it every day and it hasn’t grown.”

“You haven’t been pulling it the right way. There’s a motion; there’s a technique; I’ll take you to the websites.”

I interrupted: “One thing I like about New York Jews is the pace. Jabber jabber jabber. No time to inhale oxygen. How do you breathe? You have no gaps to breathe in.”

“No no no. Wait! Wait!” said Laura Levites. “Look what’s written on my wrist…”

Laura Levites’ wrist reminds her that she has to BREATHE

She held up her arm to me. Tattooed on her wrist was the single word BREATHE.

“It’s written there,” Laura Levites said, “because I don’t breathe. You’re looking at my arm. You’re going to talk about my cut marks?”

“Suicide?” asked Lewis Schaffer. “They say suicide’s painless, but it’s not painless.”

“Yeah, it is,” said Laura Levites. “I tried to kill myself a bunch of times.”

“I won’t put this in the blog,” I said.

“You see,” Laura Levites said, “that’s so British of you. That’s fucked up. I don’t care. I’m OK with it.”

“You have to think PR,” I said. “Is it in your show?”

“No,” she said. “I don’t mention about trying to kill myself in this show, but I’ll talk about it all the time because I’m not repressed. I take pills and I’ll take ‘em in front of people because I don’t care. Anti-depressants, stuff for ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), sedatives; you name it, I take it. Do you know how many drugs I brought? Because you can’t get shit here.”

“Are these legal?” I asked nervously.

“They’re legal in America,” she said. “They’re not legal here because you guys have terrible drugs.”

“Look at my face!” said Lewis Schaffer. “Look at my face! I’ve become English now.”

“I got bottles,” said Laura Levites.

“I can’t believe you’re saying this,” said Lewis Schaffer.

“I came here with bottles of pills…” Laura Levites continued.

“You said they’re illegal in Britain,” I warned her.

“No, no,” she corrected me. “I can bring them in. I have prescriptions. But, like, my ADD medication isn’t legal in this country.”

“So you can’t get arrested?” I asked warily.

“I’m not going to get arrested EVER,” she replied. “I’m a white girl. No-one’s going to arrest me. Do you know how much shit I’ve gotten away with in my life?”

“You’ve got red hair, pale skin, you’re pretty and you’re American,” I agreed.

“No-one’s going to arrest me,” she said. “And I’ve done some fucked-up shit.”

“Have you really?” asked Lewis Schaffer.

“Yeah.”

“Can I get the video of it?” Lewis Schaffer asked. He paused… “The thing with this girl is you can’t get a rise out of her.”

“Why do you want to make me angry?”

“I love making people angry.”

“You’re not going to make me angry, because I actually agree with what you say in your show.”

“I know. I find that uncomfortable.”

“That I agree with you? That I think women are crazy?”

“Yes.”

“I do think we’re bananas. I know who I am. I have self-awareness. Do you know how much therapy I’ve had?”

“But that doesn’t make you any less crazy,” said Lewis Schaffer.

“I’m aware of my craziness,” she replied. “I don’t have a problem with someone saying that to me.”

“You’re like a wild girl,” said Lewis Schaffer. “It’s like old home week for me. You’re nuts.”

“I’m good nuts,” said Laura Levites.

“Yeah. You’re good nuts,” agreed Lewis Schaffer. “Well, you’re good but you’re not nuts.”

“No, no, I’m not nuts. Well, I mean, like on paper, I actually am. If I wanted to kill someone, I could get away with it.”

“Did it seem like I was funny in my show?” Lewis Schaffer asked.

“You’re naturally funny, yeah,” said Laura Levites. “The Jews and the Blacks are always funny. But American Jews aren’t dominating the comedy scene any more.”

“People are bored with the Jews,” said Lewis Schaffer. “The Holocaust was exciting, but we haven’t done anything interesting in a long time.”

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North Korea – Phallic monuments, war lies, famine and an interview with MI5

An amazing erection in Pyongyang: the Tower

(A version of this blog was also published on the Indian news website We Speak News.)

Surprisingly today, our older male guide admitted that North Korea had a famine in the 1990s. It was, he said, caused by “no rain” and, in the period 1994-1999, “only 200,000” people died, not the 3 million he said was claimed by the Americans.

I think Apartheid in South Africa was doomed when they let television into the country. People could see what life was like outside the country.

Widespread tourism in North Korea brings much the same threat.

Being a North Korean must be like being a sheep or a goat. You are born into a place where people look after you and you learn to trust them and believe they care about your welfare. Then, one day, they may slit your throat and eat you with vegetables.

North Korea is an enclosed world of brown countryside and white-and-red towns. Or white-and-off-red towns. Brown earth. Off-white buildings. Red banners and slogans.

The Great Leader Kim Il-sung’s Juche Idea of self-reliance – much touted when I was here in 1986 – seems to have been superceded by the Songun philosophy of “military first” – which “prioritises the Korean People’s Army in the affairs of state and allocates national resources to the army first”. Interestingly, this first seriously appeared in 1995, the year after Kim Il-sung’s death, when his son the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il took over the country.

I wonder what sucking-up to the military Kim Jong-Il’s son the new Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un will have to do.

All towns seem to have at least one tall thin monument in a central position with slogans carved around or on it – the ultimate being the Tower of the Juche Idea in the country’s capital Pyongyang with eternal sculptured flame atop. It all seems a bit like worshipping a stone phallus erected in the middle of ancient communities with dwellings huddled round it.

North Korea is very big on icons.

We were taken to the national film studios today. The late Dear Leader Kim Jong-il was much bitten by the would-be-Hollywood bug. We were proudly told that he had visited the film studios more than 590 times. We were told the studios made 20 films each year. So that would be almost two per month with lots of overlapping.

But the studio buildings and the widespread backlot streets were deserted. The ladies and gents toilets were closed and had to be found and specially opened. The gents was flooded. Someone told me there appeared to be an old woman sleeping in the ladies toilet.

The man in charge of the film studios said that the Great Leader Kim Il-sung himself had given advice on the positioning of the studios. He had said they should be outside the city.

Good advice, I believe.

The school year here starts on April 1st, which seems a very appropriate date given some of the facts learned in school. We were taken to an ‘ordinary’ school today.

In reality, of course, foreign visitors are never taken to ‘ordinary’ schools.

The school we were taken to – the June the 9th Middle School Number One School – was closed. This is the fourth day of a two-day public holiday. the extra two days, we were told, are “because in the previous two days the people had to celebrate”.

The science schoolroom had a small, cheap microscope on each desk. There was one room devoted to lessons about the Great Leader Kim Il-sung. And one room devoted to lessons about the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. “The children have one lesson each week on them,” we were told proudly.

Some children had been dragged in to perform for us. As with all performances in North Korea, they were perfect in every way, though with a slightly unsettling emphasis on accordion-playing.

I was very impressed by one small picture among many others stuck on a wall. It was of the small children undergoing military training – crawling under barbed wire and the rest.

Then we were taken to the War Museum where we had explained to us why the Korean War started. Basically, as I understood the story, the US made lots of money during the Second World War by selling its armaments. When the War finished, the US went into a big economic Depression and decided to start the Korean War to stop the Depression.

Last time I was here, in 1986, the line was that the Korean War started when the running dog South Korean lackeys of the US imperialists wantonly attacked North Korea, but the valiant North Koreans pluckily fought back, drove the Americans back to the sea and the Yanks begged for a peace treaty.

This fails somewhat to explain why the border between the two Koreas remains in the middle of the peninsula and, as told in 1986, the Chinese Army was not involved in any way. Presumably North Korean grandfathers who remember US/UN troops surging northwards through their village and then remember Chinese troops surging southwards through their village see the value of keeping schtum.

Today, I asked if many Chinese visitors came to the War Museum and if they saw the same rooms as us. “There are four Chinese rooms in the museum,” I was told, “but we do not have time to see them today.”

I do not really care. The more important factor to me is that, although there is some talk of the US conning the UN into being involved in the Korean War, it is the Americans who are 100% blamed (or credited) with the war. We see their downed aircraft, captured vehicles and photos of their POWs. Britain is never mentioned because it seems important to keep the focus of North Korea’s xenophobic hatred on the Americans alone.

That’s fine by me. It gives me a quieter life as a Brit.

In the evening, as a special treat, we are taken to Pyongyang’s main theatre for a special mega-performance by a cast of 2,000 in honour of Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday. Broadway and Andrew Lloyd-Webber eat your heart out. A stupendous production of professional perfection. It is later put on YouTube:

But, really, you had to be there to appreciate the scale of it.

At a restaurant meal, one of our group tells me his story about being interviewed for a job in MI5. He passed the tests where you are given lots of disparate information from different sources about a fake situation and have to compile a risk assessment  situation report. He got through to the interview stage and failed. He says he thought it was because he was around 22 years old at the time and “they like more fully-formed people… all the others were older, maybe in their early 30s.”

I wonder how uni-directional the microphones are in the restaurant. I feel reassured that the North Koreans have better people to bug in this celebratory period.

When I get back to the hotel – our final night is unexpectedly in the 5-star Yanggakdo Hotel – the television, very bizarrely, has the BBC World TV channel on it. What are the authorities thinking of? North Korean workers in the hotel can see this. I think of South Africa and Apartheid.

The BBC is saying there has been a Los Angeles Times report with photos of US soldiers posing with the severed limbs and other body parts of suicide bombers… and North Korea has said it will no longer allow UN nuclear inspectors into the country because the US has withdrawn food aid to North Korea in response to the launch of their rocket last week.

We live in interesting times.

Most of it utterly unknown by the people of North Korea.

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North Korea – A land of nuclear bombs and satellite launches, but no electricity

North Korea reveals the face of the evil Americans

I look out of my hotel window in the early morning and see a Turner sunset with two tall Dickensian chimneys, a yellow golden sun, the indistinct nearby river and a bleak landscape in a misty, disfiguring white haze. It is The Fighting Temeraire with pollution. It is Pyongyang, capital of North Korea.

We are driven south in our coach on long, long, decidedly dodgy potholed-pitted roads to the DMZ – the Demilitarised Zone between North and South Korea. The countryside is eerily empty as we pass through it, as if all human life has been hoovered up by some giant alien vacuum cleaner.

I would like to come back here with a farmer who could explain what I am seeing. The barren brown supposedly agricultural land looks barren to me, as if the regime has over-farmed it or something, but I am no expert. To my inexpert eye, something has gone very wrong; no-one is farming the occasionally slightly-ploughed fields for mile after tens of miles.

If your land is devastated, you would normally invite in specialists with expert advice but North Korea is no normal country and has, I suspect, screwed itself.

On the one hand, they have lived in self-imposed isolation for decades. On the other hand, the Great Leader Kim Il-sung thought up his superficially-attractive philosophy of The Juche Idea.

This basically means the country and everyone in it should be self-reliant. But, this being North Korea – a land which is not of Planet Earth – the Juche Idea is counterbalanced (or negated) by the idea that the Great Leader Kim Il-sung and subsequently his son the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il and now the grandson the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un go round the country giving on-the-spot advice.

This is a paranoid country with a population indoctrinated since birth into worshipping – and that is not too strong a word – the ruling family. Nothing will happen until the current Leader comes to a factory or a field or a region and says, “I think we should produce more cabbages/paperclips/babies.” Once that is said, a plaque goes up commemorating the visit and (certainly in Kim Il-sung’s day) the fact that the Great/Dear/Supreme Leader gave on-the-spot advice.

How the advised people are going to produce more cabbages or paperclips, of course, is up to them. I imagine they can cope with the details of complying with any advice to have more babies.

But, for whatever reason, the countryside on the long, rough road to the DMZ at Panmunjom looks devastated. And this is dangerous.

North Korea had actual famine in the 1990s and currently the proud, independent nation which follows the Juche Idea of self-reliance and accepts no help from others, gets food aid from its arch-enemy the United States in return for (in theory) not furthering its nuclear ambitions and arsenal.

But picture a country with no real knowledge of how diplomacy, international relations or the outside world actually works. Picture this country with a devastated farming industry, a situation so desperate that they have to go ask their arch nemesis for help. This is a country whose leaders, if they have their noses tweaked or their pride dented even slightly more or unintentionally more, will react with sudden, unpredictable behaviour which is totally OTT. If they think they are being treated like children, they will react like children with no concept of any rules or what is a normal or balanced response.

On our way to Panmunjom, at about 10.30am, we are told that, this morning at 8.00am, North Korea successfully launched its rocket – the one the West thinks is a test for an ICBM – carrying what our young female guide called “our satellite number 3”.

At Panmunjom, next to a small block of gents and ladies toilets, up a slight slope, I see a tall man with his back to me facing a tree. It is evident he is pissing on the tree. A guard spots him. Two soldiers bring him back from the tree. Two non-uniformed men are called. They look shocked. The man’s Western tour guide is called. Much worried discussion ensues. The man looks slightly triumphant. They are standing perhaps 20 feet away from me. It seems, from talking to other people, that the man is an American.

In certain circumstances, it is possible to agree with the North Korean view that the Americans are, en masse, barking at the moon.

Eventually, as we are taken down to the actual border itself, the man seems to be let off with a severe reprimand. But I would pay to be a fly-on-the-wall when he tries to leave the country and the border guards go through his belongings.

At the border, things have changed slightly since I was here in 1986, but only slightly.

There are still three blue huts where peace negotiations have taken place since the early 1950s. In the middle of a central table in the middle hut, negotiations took/take place. The border runs through the middle of the table; the North Koreans sit on one side; the South Koreans/Americans sit on the other side. The huts are painted by the Americans. They are blue because that is the United Nations colour but, since I was here last, it is a slightly darker blue. Perhaps this has been dragging on for so long that they have forgotten why the huts are blue.

When I was here in 1986, opposite a large stone North Korean building, stood a small South Korean pagoda on the upper of level of which stood an American G.I. with what, I presumed, was a directional microphone. Today, the pagoda has been moved to the left (as seen from the North Korea side) and a large building erected to rival the North Korean building.

When I was here last time, the two sides had just finished a ‘flag war’. One side erected a giant flag pole with a giant national flag flying from it. The other side erected a taller pole with a bigger flag. The first side then erected an even bigger pole with an even bigger flag. And so on. And so on. Looking at the poles today, the North Koreans won the flag war.

Party people (a phrase which has different meanings in Manchester and North Korea) wear small flag badges with the Great Leader Kim Il-sung or, less often, the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il’s face on them. The soldier designated to tell us the ‘truth’ at Panmunjom has a badge with two heads on it – both the Great Leader and the Dear Leader. This has more prestige and is, we are told, specially awarded.

I notice that our two North Korean guides wear single-head badges, but our driver wears a double-head badge.

We overnight at a hotel in the nearby town of Kaesong. The hotel has no hot water or electricity.

North Korea launched a satellite this morning, but the country’s agriculture system is medieval. They are proud yet have to accept food aid from their arch enemy America. On a hill overlooking the town of Kaesong is a gigantic bronze-coloured statue of Kim Il-sung. It is floodlit at night. But even the hotel which aims to impress foreigners has no hot water or electricity.

The older male North Korean guide tells me it is too cold in his room to sleep.

Earlier, when it was still daylight, he took us to a roundabout at a road junction to get a better view of the town. Before we crossed the wide road, he warned us: “Take care crossing the street because of the traffic.”

There was no traffic.

Giggles were stifled in the group.

You do not laugh at or with North Korea. This is a land without a comedy club and without a sense of humour.

Humour is a dangerous thing.

But the country has something else which, I think, will eat away at it.

Children sometimes wave at our coach as it passes by. This never happened in 1986. Coaches and people who were visibly foreigners were ignored.

Children who wave at coaches containing people who smile and wave back at them will grow up into adults still willing to believe all Western foreigners are devils. But imperceptible cracks will be inbuilt in their indoctrination. It is the start of a slippery slope.

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How I ate in a Chinese restaurant in London’s Soho with four New York Jews

Lewis Schaffer on stage last night

(This was also published in the Huffington Post)

Last night, I went to see American comedian Lewis Schaffer’s ongoing 90-minute twice-weekly Free Until Famous comedy show in London’s Soho. Every time a different show, but I almost got bushwhacked in Leicester Square by the ever-persuasive Dan March, flogging his excellent monthly sketch show Skitsophrenia. Well, it’s a show featuring The Real MacGuffins, but Dan is one of ‘em. It’s very good. I saw it at the Edinburgh Fringe.

“I’ll come and see it in May,” I told Dan. I’m away in April.”

“Where?” he asked.

“I’m not saying,” I replied.

“When did you get back from Adelaide?” he asked.

“I never went,” I replied. “It’s the power of bullshit in blogging. It just seems like I did because I quoted people’s e-mails so often.”

I had told Lewis Schaffer I was coming with comedian Bob Slayer but, at the last moment, Bob could not make it. I suspect he is probably still hiding from the wrath of expatriate Australians after his sojourn in Oz where, I imagine, the good people of Perth and Adelaide may bear the psychological and emotional scars for years.

Lewis Schaffer – always call him ‘Lewis Schaffer’, never just plain ‘Lewis’ – it’s more memorable in publicity terms – managed a stonker of a show, good from start to finish, despite five 18-year-old American girls in the front row who appeared to have had a major humour bypass or possibly even a humor bypass.

They were particularly offended by Lewis Schaffer’s circumcision routine and by his closing Holocaust routine – which still includes the best Holocaust joke I have ever heard.

After the show, I went with Lewis Schaffer, a New Yorker called Peter who lives in London and Jenna, the girl who rents Peter’s apartment in New York, to a Chinese restaurant in Soho. On the way, bizarrely, we bumped into Jenna’s father Steve. He is passing through London, working, for a week. Don’t ask. I didn’t.

So that’s how I ended up in a Chinese restaurant in London’s Soho with four New York Jews and that’s where the question came up:

“Who is John and what does he do?”

Steve asked Lewis Schaffer.

As I have mentioned before in this blog, I have never been able to explain what I do. I wish someone could tell me.

“Do you know the phrase fingers in pies?” Lewis Schaffer asked Steve.

Steve nodded.

Lewis Schaffer shrugged and nodded towards me.

“I was working with Reg Hunter…” said Lewis Schaffer.

“Who’s that?” Steve asked.

“There are only five American comedians who are of any note in this country,” explained Lewis Schaffer. “There’s the black guy which is Reg Hunter. There’s the left wing guy which is Rich Hall. There’s the hippy guy which is Dave Fulton. There’s the gay guy which is Scott Capurro. And there’s a fifth…”

“You?” I prompted.

“No, I’m not noteworthy,” Lewis Schaffer replied absentmindedly. “Anyway there’s one more. But there’s not enough room in this country for even four, because they hate American comedians here because we’re not one of the tribe… So I was working with Reg over at the Arts Theatre… I liked Reg. Same as Peter,” he said, nodding at the young guy sitting opposite him. “Just as soon as I met Peter, I liked the guy. Did you sense Lewis Schaffer liked you?”

Peter shrugged.

“With you, John,” Lewis Schaffer said, looking at me, I didn’t know if I would like you or not, because you’re a shambolic, horrible-looking mess of a man. You don’t shave. You need your hair cut. It’s longer in the back. It’s like a Larry David kind of haircut. It’s like a mullet. I just met you and I didn’t know exactly what you did or what you wanted from me and I still don’t… So I said to Reg Hunter, who was my friend at the time – he doesn’t call me now. He doesn’t speak to me. People don’t like me.”

Jenna laughed loudly.

“Stop it!” said Lewis Schaffer. “We’re not in New York. This is why you’re going to hate living here. You’ve gotta lower your expectations.”

“Look at the food,” said Jenna.

“It looks good from a distance,” said Lewis Schaffer. “But then you taste it… It’s like my penis.”

“Small portions,” I said.

“It’s probably true,” said Steve, “that all comedians have small penises, because the whole comedy thing is a result of…”

“No,” said Lewis Schaffer, “I just pretend that I’ve got a small penis for the sake of comedy. “My penis is very large – it’s nine inches long. I measured it this morning. I put the ruler in backwards – 12 – 11 – 10 – 9 inches. How long into the skin are you allowed to jam the ruler?… So I asked Reg: What about this guy John Fleming? He looks like a shambolic mess.

“A shambolic mess?” Steve asked.

“Look at this man,” Lewis Schaffer said to Steve, pointing to me, “This man is a dictionary definition of shambolic.”

“Is ‘shambolic’ not a word in America?” I asked.

“No,” said Lewis Schaffer. It’s not a word here either. There is no word ‘shambolic’ in English dictionaries.”

“There is,” I protested.

“There isn’t,” said Lewis Schaffer. “There’s no word for ‘gullible’ in the dictionary either.”

“In America?” I asked.

“Anywhere,” said Lewis Schaffer.

“Yes there is,” I protested.

“John,” said Jenna. “He’s just trying to make you seem gullible.”

“Very smart girl,” said Lewis Schaffer to Steve. “Your daughter’s very smart… So, I said to Reg, Is he a reasonable guy? Look at the way he looks? He hasn’t shaved. So he said… I can’t remember the funny quote, but he said…”

“Who said?” asked Steve.

“This guy Reg Hunter,” explained Lewis Schaffer, “He’s the Number One comedian in this country.”

“Does this guy really even exist?” asked Steve.

“Yes,” insisted Lewis Schaffer. “He said I like the way he looks…”

“Who?” asked Steve.

“John,” said Lewis Schaffer.

“I’ve never met him!” I interrupted.

“He said I like the way he looks,” Lewis Schaffer continued, “because, in this country, you never trust a man who wears new clothes – because he’s trying too hard.”

There was a long pause.

“Trying too hard?” asked Steve.

“Trying too hard,” repeated Lewis Schaffer. “Because in this country… Well, maybe he didn’t say that. But I’m saying that. That’s what Reg Hunter said.”

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Well,” said Lewis Schaffer, “I don’t want to misquote him. I don’t want to put words into Reg’s mouth which he didn’t say because I want to use it in my show.”

“I often get mistaken for Brad Pitt,” I said.

No-one laughed.

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Shakespeare, Chaucer, Jane Austen – all of them bad at the English language

(This blog was later re-published in the Huffington Post)

I posted a blog (or did I?) the other day.

Someone on Google+ took offence (or did he?) and posted (or did he?) this comment:

“no offense,” he wrote, “but can we stop calling blog posts and blog articles ‘blogs’? unless you actually are composing an entire collection of articles and posts each time you say you’ve written ‘a blog’, you’re really not using the correct term and are just coming off as uninformed and just desperately trying to drop a buzzword (albeit incorrectly).”

I am not sure about this.

He is, I presume an American, because he wrote “no offense” instead of the British English “no offence”. I have a suspicion the problem may be an example of two nations separated by a common language – even in cyberspace.

I am sure I have commonly seen and heard in the UK, the word “blog” used both for the collection within which the “posts” are… erm… posted… and for the individual blogs… erm… posts… themselves.

But, some might think surprisingly, I am no great upholder of ‘correctness’ in writing. If you get too hung up on the niceties of what is ‘correct’ and what is ‘not correct’, things can get pretty mind-numbingly dull, as I am about to prove…

I think the French are mad to have an academic body which decides what words and phrases are or are not ‘correct’ French. They are mad to try stopping ‘Franglais’.

The nearest thing we have in Britain is the Oxford English dictionary which decides to include not what it thinks is ‘correct’ English but what has become common usage.

The sentence, “Men and women competed in a quiz with a £1,000 prize but the rules stated that, when the single eventual winner received THEIR money, THEY had to donate it to charity,” is clearly grammatically incorrect, because “winner” is singular but “their” and “they “ are both plural.

The Oxford English Dictionary decided several years ago that the use of “they” and “their” in this sort of sentence structure was “acceptable” usage simply because it had been so commonly used for years by everyone. The alternative would be saying “he or she” and “his or hers” instead of “they” and “their” every time the circumstance cropped up and your tongue and brain would go potty after a time.

In English, ‘good’ English is ultimately whatever way English speakers actually speak and write the language. The French are heading towards a dead language; ironically, they are stifling it by trying to protect it.

The English language is a bit like the Edinburgh Fringe. No-one actually organises the over-all thing, anyone can join in and it becomes all the more vibrant for it.

It is anarchy, but it works.

Shakespeare could not even spell his own name the same way every time he wrote it – he used various spellings. As far as I understand it, English spelling had no need to be uniform until Dr Johnson published his dictionary in 1755 – and, even now, we are in the anarchic position of having “humour” and “humor” and “colour” and “color” being correct in different places and how the fuck did “programme” and “program” and “aluminium” and “aluminum” ever come about? They’re relatively new concepts!

I share comedian Stewart Lee’s horror at the constant mis-use of apostrophes though it is a losing battle and what gets up my own personal nasal passages is the mis-use of commas around subordinate clauses and in lists.

If you have a list of A, B, C, D, and E there should be no comma before the “and” because, in a list, the commas represent “and”s – that’s what they are, so it should be A, B, C, D and E (without the fourth comma).

But I think Americans have a different usage and the comma is correct in the US.

The abbreviation Mr for Mister should never have a full stop (i.e, Mr.) because the full stop represents an abbreviation as in etc. which has a full stop because the “etera” has been cut out. It’s like the apostrophe in “don’t” or “wasn’t” – it shows there is a missing letter or letters.

People lament the change wrought in the language by the arrival of text messaging.

But who cares?

Shakespeare wrote in what was virtually a foreign language.

Chaucer certainly bloody well did.

Even some of the Victorian novelists are a bit heavy-going nowadays.

The English language is constantly changing, which is what makes it so vibrant.

I worked in Prague in the mid-1990s, writing scripts for TV voice-overs to read in Czech – a neat trick, as I did not speak, write nor understand Czech. The scripts were translated into Czech and I then had to direct the recording of the Czech-language voice-overs – giving the TV announcers direction on intonation and suchlike – another neat trick.

On several occasions, the translator came back to me and said: “I can’t translate this exactly, because I can’t translate the nuance. Czech has fewer words than English and I can’t translate what I know you want to say.”

It is like the (apparently untrue) story that Eskimos (sorry, Inuits) have 30-odd words for “snow” and we have only five or six.

English is a wonderful language because it is so rich but also because it is so fast-changing. And long may it continue to be so.

Language is about communication not rules.

According to an Oxford University professor who has seen her original manuscripts, Jane Austen was shit at grammar and crap at spelling. I happen to think she wrote dull novels as well (apart from Emma). Others disagree with me on that. But she is an example that great writers are about ideas not linguistic rules.

Grammar and punctuation can be ‘cleaned up’ by a sub-editor.

Clear ideas are what matter.

Now, if only someone could come up with a word to replace the valuable lost meaning of “gay”…

What a great word was lost there…

I am sure Jane Austen used it.

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