A very young Brian Simpson (left) in Edinburgh with genuine American comedian Erich McElroy
Brownhills Town Entrance feature sculpture by John McKenna (Photo by Jpb1301 of Wikipedia)
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.
Brian got onto the ATV studio floor courtesy of a friend
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.
Brian today – now firmly established as ‘Lewis Schaffer’ (Photograph by Garry Platt)
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.
At my home last night: A worried man who is Lewis Schaffer
“This is the year I’ve gotten old,” Brian Simpson said to me last night – New Year’s Eve. “What is Lewis Schaffer going to do in 2014? What is Lewis Schaffer’s New Year’s resolution going to be?”
“To be famous,” I suggested.
Brian Simpson, from Brownhills in England’s West Midlands, is the character comedian who plays the part of American Lewis Schaffer on-stage (and now, most of the time, off-stage too). He spent New Year’s Eve at my home with me and my eternally-un-named friend.
“2013 was the year Lewis Schaffer got old,” he repeated. “My hair went grey.”
“No it didn’t,” said my eternally-un-named friend. “You just stopped dying it black.”
“OK, I stopped dying it,” agreed Lewis Schaffer. “But I’m surrounded by young people and it’s really bothering the hell out of me.”
“I find young people a bit dull, “ said my eternally-un-named friend.
“I don’t find them dull,” said Lewis Schaffer. “I don’t find anybody dull… except Lewis Schaffer. How can anyone be interested in anything Lewis Schaffer says? The more slightly famous I get, the more people are coming up to me and being involved in Lewis Schaffer’s world and the less happy I am. Not that I could be any less happy than I am now.”
Lewis Schaffer with a cuddly badger on New Year’s Eve
“Why do you get less happy if more people are interested in Lewis Schaffer?” I asked.
“Because they can only be disappointed,” said Lewis Schaffer, “and it can only get worse and it can only go back to where it was.
“I’m happy that I’m doing better. But the more people come up to me, I’m thinking: Where were you two years ago or five years ago? Did you call me then? Were you interested in me then?”
“Members of the public?” I asked.
“Mostly other comedians,” said Lewis Schaffer.
“So,” I said, “if club owners and promoters want to book you, you’re worried about working for them because they didn’t want to book you when you were not such a good act?”
“Even if I am better,” said Lewis Schaffer, “there’s always the chance things can go wrong. People are booking me now because they’re just reacting to some sort of increased interest in Lewis Schaffer without taking into account what Lewis Schaffer is really all about.”
“So what is Lewis Schaffer really all about?” I asked.
“It’s about chaos,” said Lewis Schaffer. “It’s about going into a place and creating a level of chaos that shakes things up and that, hopefully, people find interesting.”
“I think,” I said, “you’re just rationalising the fact you prefer not to keep to a script.”
“Yes, I am rationalising it,” said Lewis Schaffer, “but I have to figure out what the benefits of it are. There are benefits to everything.”
“What’s the benefit of being more famous?” I asked. “More money. More recognition. More ability to do what you want to do.”
“More money,” said Lewis Schaffer. “Yes, I’d like more money. Money is really, really, really good.”
Lewis Schaffer and my eternally-un-named friend last night
“Do you think you’ll stay in your flat in Nunhead for the next ten years?” asked my eternally-un-named friend.
“What would you like to do?”
“I’d like to move back home to Brownhills.”
“The only other person I know from Brownhills,” I said, “is Adrian ‘Nosey’ Wigley. I booked him on The Last Resort With Jonathan Ross in 1987. He plays the electric organ with his nose. He got in touch with me again recently. He’s playing gigs in Blackpool clubs and hotels as part of a singing duo. Did you know him in Brownhills?”
“No,” replied Lewis Schaffer. “What sort of songs do this duo sing in Blackpool?”
“I don’t know,” I explained. “That’s all he told me: that he was in a singing duo. According to his Facebook page, from April to November 2011, he was a donkey minder at Blackpool Pleasure Beach.”
“Erin O’Connor,” Lewis Schaffer repeated. “She’s an English model. I taught her when I was teaching the drama group at Brownhills Community School.”
“Have you ever actually been to America?” I asked.
“A couple of weeks ago, I did this online ad for Skype/Toshiba. I was in London and I talked to people on the street in New York. I’m only in it twice – for about ten seconds!”
“Last Friday and Saturday,” he continued, “I did a couple of private parties in the West Midlands. I do these amazing gigs there every six months in one of those run-down old pubs; Lewis Schaffer is a huge hit in Cradley Heath.”
“It’s a small room,” continued Lewis Schaffer, “but we sell out these shows. They start at 8.00pm and they usually last about four hours with three or four breaks.”
“Just you?” I asked.
“Just me, doing all of my comedy. It’s like luxuriated comedy. I go there every six months and someone who was there invited me to do his own private party.”
“A sex party?” I asked.
“No,” said Lewis. “A Seventies theme party.”
“A sex party for people in their Seventies?” I asked.
“No,” said Lewis, “a 1970s theme party. And the guy promised to make me a pair of glasses.”
“So you said, for the price of a pair of spectacles…”
Lewis Schaffer linked to American Psycho
“And some money,” he added. “When Lewis Schaffer was in New York, he was actually sponsored by the Oliver Peoples company – the people who made the famous Oliver Peoples glasses from American Psycho, the movie. Remember in American Psycho the glasses were mentioned?”
“No,” I said.
“I used to wear the same glasses,” explained Lewis Schaffer, “as the guy in American Psycho.”
“So they based him on you?” I asked.
“Except the guy was successful,” replied Lewis Schaffer. “But, as soon as I become famous, people will be tired of me. Look, on New Year’s Eve I’m with you, John Fleming, and your eternally-un-named friend. What does that say about me? I’m in this house of yours, which is like my ex-wife’s aunt’s house in Elgin in Scotland.”
“Elgin?????” burst out my eternally-un-named friend. “I lived in Lossiemouth, which is just north of Elgin. My father was in the RAF and got posted there when I was about 17. It was the most foreign country I’d ever been to.”
“Scotland?” I asked, surprised.
“It is very foreign,” agreed Lewis Schaffer.
“Yes!” enthused my eternally-un-named friend, “because, in every other country, you go out shopping with your mother and, at some point, she always says: We’ll have tea and a cake. So that’s what you look forward to. A tea and a cake. But in Elgin, you go round the town and you go for tea and… no cakes. There was only a dry oat biscuit without even any butter on it. And you think: Hello! I’ve lived in Cyprus, I’ve lived in Germany, I’ve lived in Southampton, I’ve lived in Devon. They had meringues in Devon. In Germany, they had Black Forest cakes.”
A recently produced Black Forest cake from a united Germany
“They have amazing cakes,” agreed Lewis Schaffer.
“Scotland was the only country without cakes,” said my eternally-un-named friend.
“The English stole our cakes,” I told her.
“Everywhere else does cakes and treats,” continued my eternally-un-named friend.
“The bastard English stole our cakes,” I insisted. “We had cakes before the English came.”
“Then you heard people kept porridge in a drawer for twenty years,” said my eternally-un-named friend. “Or maybe less. Anyway, they kept porridge in drawers.”
“In drawers?” asked Lewis Schaffer.
“Well, that’s what you heard,” insisted my eternally-un-named friend. “If you bought a chest of drawers, you wouldn’t be surprised to find some porridge in the corner of a drawer.”
“Why?” asked Lewis Schaffer.
“That’s what they do up there,” said my eternally-un-named friend. “Then my parents divorced, because my mother couldn’t take it. After a year, she said: I’ve had enough of this. I’ll go back down to the South of England and open a nursery school. So my father commuted every weekend. He drove down in a Dormobile and slept in lay-bys on the way down and found people killing themselves with their exhaust pipes.”
“Did he really see that?” asked Lewis Schaffer. “Or did he just say that?”
“I would think he saw it,” said my eternally-un-named friend. “He was in the RAF. He was that sort of person. He would notice things.”
“People are starting to notice me,” said Lewis Schaffer. “I’m not sure I like it.”
One night a few years ago, I went with comedy character act Charlie Chuck to The Cockpit Theatre in London. Also on the bill was comedian Mark Watson who had successfully performed for several years using a Welsh accent, despite the fact he came from Bristol and had an English accent. The problem Mark had, he told me, was how could he now drop the Welsh accent he had originally adopted to differentiate him from other comedians playing the circuit?
That night, about 28 minutes into his 30 minute set, he said in his Welsh accent (I paraphrase):
“…but, in fact, I don’t speak like this at all (then switching to his real English voice) I actually speak like this…”
There was (this is true) an audible gasp from the audience. It was an extraordinary coup de théâtre.
And Mark got away with it.
Similarly, this year at the Edinburgh Fringe, a well-known English comedian performed as a fake Canadian comedian, disguising his face with a clever mask. Most critics never mentioned his real name though their reviews had knowing ‘winks’ for those in-the-know. He would have been nominated for a Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award except that it was widely known by the media who he was (at least one publication named him) and, in fact, he admitted it in an interview.
To my mind, though, the best ‘fake’ comedian – revealed here for the first time – is ‘American’ comedian Lewis Schaffer, who has kept up the pretence for nigh on ten years without anyone realising.
‘Lewis Schaffer’ is actually English character actor Brian Simpson who hails from Brownhills in the West Midlands.
Real face of talented English actor Brian Simpson
“Frankly, it’s relief to admit it,” Simpson told me last night over a very English meal of seared fillet of sea bream with Devon crab and crushed new potatoes at Langan’s restaurant in London’s Mayfair.
“I thought I had gone as far as I could with the Lewis Schaffer character and it was beginning to become a parody of itself.”
“Why did you start it?” I asked.
“I was an actor in my mid-forties, struggling like most,” Simpson told me in his own soft English voice which has a slight twang of a Birmingham accent. “The comedy club circuit was still at its height and I thought I’d try that, but I needed a USP – a Unique Selling Proposition. So I thought of this character.
“The Lewis Schaffer character was a New York Jew set adrift in an alien environment – England – on which he could give insights as a supposed outsider. I remember as a kid watching the BBC TV series Adam Adamant Lives! which was about a Victorian James Bond type character frozen in ice who is revived in Swinging Sixties London. So he looked OK – his Victorian cape did not look out of place in the King’s Road – but ‘normal’ things like light bulbs, cars and TV were all new to him.
Inspirational Crocodile Dundee movie
“They used the same idea in the original Crocodile Dundee film – a figure set down in an alien environment. So, to be honest, I nicked that idea and I gave him a back story – He had married a British woman whom he calls English, but actually she’s Scottish because, as an American, he doesn’t know the difference. And I gave him two children because that widened the terms of reference for his stories. So he’s a divorced, neurotic Jewish New Yorker trapped in the UK by love of his children. In fact, I’m gay and have a partner who is not in showbusiness, which I think is what keeps me sane.”
“So why,” I asked, “have you decided to ‘come out’ now as Brian Simpson?”
“I guess,” said Simpson, “I was getting tired of the ‘Lewis Schaffer’ character. I’ve played him for over ten years now and, for an actor, that’s… well, it’s not what I want. It’s like performing in The Mousetrap every night. Not that The Mousetrap is not a very fine play. It is. But only playing Lewis Schaffer is very limiting for an actor. It’s not what I came into the business to do.
American comedy hero Andy Kaufman
“Also meeting the American comedian Laura Levites at the Edinburgh Fringe last year had a big effect on me. I had always claimed that Lewis Schaffer was brought up in Great Neck, New York because that was where one of my great comedy heroes – Andy Kaufman – was born. But, by coincidence, Laura was from Great Neck too.
“It’s not a big place and she almost caught me out on details a couple of times, though I was able to bullshit my way through chatting with her. But it kind of made me feel like the fraud I was. It took the edge off the ‘game’ of playing Lewis Schaffer. I thought I have been doing this for ten years and still don’t have a TV series or vast amounts of money flowing in from the character, so why keep up the pretence?
“I do OK. I have always said Lewis Schaffer lives in Nunhead, Peckham, but actually my partner and I live in West Hampstead and we’ve got a couple of properties we rent out in Swiss Cottage. So we get by.
“But something happened to me this year; I don’t know what it was. I let my hair go grey and I got a bit tired of being Lewis Schaffer not Brian Simpson and I started feeling broody or something. I might move back to the West Midlands, to Brownhills.”
“So where do you go now professionally?” I asked.
Simpson had grown tired of keeping the Lewis Schaffer secret
“Well,” said Simpson, “I’ll keep doing the Lewis Schaffer character in my current shows in London – Free Until Famous is every Tuesday and Wednesday at the Source Below in Soho and American in London is at the Leicester Square Theatre every Sunday. I might even do another mini-tour of arts centres with Lewis Schaffer. I tried that out earlier this year and it went OK.
“Next year, I’m thinking of staging an Edinburgh Fringe show called Lewis Schaffer Is Not Feeling Himself or possibly Lewis Schaffer Is Not Lewis Schaffer. And I have a new character I’m working on. She’s a schoolteacher character from Ulster and she was once a…”
“She?” I asked.
“Yes,” explained Brian Simpson. “I need a complete break from Lewis Schaffer.”
“Are you actually Jewish?” I asked.
“No,” Simpson laughed. “Catholic… non-practising but, once a Catholic, always a Catholic…”
“Did you think of killing off the Lewis Schaffer character?” I asked. “Giving him a Reichenbach Falls ending?”