All through my adult life, I have had an irritating dry cough. My father had the same cough. Eventually, he had to have polyps on the inside of his throat scraped off. His voice was higher afterwards.
For the last week or so, though, I have had a harder, hacking cough. It happens occasionally when I pick up the tail end of other people’s colds.
Having a hard, hacking cough which occasionally drifts into uncontrollable coughing fits is not ideal if you go to see a live comedy show in a small club. But, last night, I went to London’s West End to see Lewis Schaffer’s Free Until Famous show anyway.
Instead of cough sweets, I took a packet of Werther’s Original butterscotch to suck. They are cheaper. I am a Scot who was brought up among Jews. Remember the Werther’s. They become relevant later.
Lewis Schaffer has performed Free Until Famous at the same venue at least twice a week for who knows how long? Maybe three years. He currently performs it every Tuesday and Wednesday. And now he is also performing a £10 show at the Leicester Square Theatre every Sunday.
He tells me that, bizarrely, the twice-a-week free shows do not seem to be affecting audience figures at his Leicester Square pay show. In fact, numbers at his free shows are down and numbers at his Leicester Square show were high from the start and have not dropped. The Leicester Square show was due to end on April 21st but has now been extended to July 28th.
Lewis Schaffer is also being stalked by a sociologist. He introduced her to his audience last night.
“That’s her in the front row,” he said. “She’s following me around. She got the highest grade you can get for a paper she wrote about me. She got a First. She was looking for something to write. She came to my show and she came to a lot of my shows and I thought she was just obsessed by me – it happens. I’m 56, but I’m in great shape. But she wasn’t obsessed by me; she was writing this paper.”
“What was the paper about?” I asked the girl afterwards.
“Comedy taboos,” she told me.
“Why is Lewis Schaffer a taboo?” I asked.
“Well,” she said, “I was looking at taboo material first of all and the real taboo he breaks is that he is not really a comedian. The taboo isn’t in the material, it’s in his performance. The idea that he’s performing but it looks like he doesn’t know what he’s doing. I wrote in my paper that he can say anything he wants because he tells his audiences how shit he is, so no-one really takes his comedy seriously.”
“And your sociology degree was in comedy?” I asked.
“No,” she corrected me. “This is an ethnographic study. The study of people-watching.”
“And now you’re planning to do another one?”
“On audience participation. I’m focussing mainly on the audience patterns: what they’re doing. I’m not looking at comedy; I’m looking at people’s interactions. Like Lewis said in tonight’s show that people cover their mouths when they laugh. I’ve noticed more women do that than men. I want to find out why that is. It’s a socially-constructed idea.”
“Women do it and men don’t?” I asked.
“Both genders do it, but women do it a hell of a lot more.”
“Is it because an open mouth is sexual in some way?” I asked.
“I think because an open mouth is unattractive,” she replied. “I wonder if it’s the same idea as covering your mouth when you yawn, because we know certain people do that and certain people don’t.”
“But,” I said, “people open their mouths when they smile, which I’ve never understood. You would think baring their teeth would be an aggressive gesture, but smiling is a friendly gesture.”
“I don’t bare mine,” she told me, “because they’re fucking awful.”
“So…” I said, “what’s the most unexpected thing you’ve found about audiences?”
“In couples,” she told me, “if it’s a man and a woman couple together, the woman will look at her partner for the approval of the laughter.”
“She’ll look before she laughs?”
“Yes. She’ll quickly just glance then start laughing. I’ve only seen this reversed in gender once.”
“What happens if it’s a gay couple?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I’ve not seen many gay couples at Lewis’ shows.”
The sociologist doesn’t want me to name her or her college in case someone steals her idea.
“Someone’s going to nick my idea; I know they are,” she told me last night.
“Well,” I said, “all the more reason you should have your name, university’s name and photo in my blog, so you can prove your idea pre-existed on a specific date.”
“No,” she told me. “You can photograph my leg instead. I don’t even want people to know I’m in a blog. I don’t have Facebook, I don’t have Twitter, I don’t have anything. I only have email, which I give to people I know. I don’t want anyone on the internet knowing anything about me unnecessarily. I think the whole thing is fucking weird. The whole idea that something about me can be seen by anyone freaks me the fuck out.”
At this point, I had a coughing fit and took a Werther’s Original.
“Have one,” I offered.
“No,” she said. “My dad’s allergic to them, so I don’t eat them.”
“Not allergic to other butterscotch? Just Werther’s?”
“And you don’t eat them either?” I asked.
“If I ate those,” she said, “and I kissed my dad when I see him tomorrow, his face would swell up. He ate one when he was in his thirties. We were in the car and my mum said Have one of these to suck on. First of all his lips swelled up. Then his face swelled up and then his throat closed up. It came on over a period of about two hours.”
“Any other food problems in the family?”
“My aunt used to be so afraid of tomatoes that she would rather have seen a dead animal carcass in her fridge than a half-eaten tomato.”
“Did some traumatic event involving tomatoes happen to her when she was a kid?”
“It just built up. She used to just not eat them and then, gradually, she got more and more scared of them to the point where, if someone was eating a tomato, she would have to leave the room.”
“And she’s still afraid of tomatoes?”
“No. Because once, when she was sunbathing in the garden, lying out flat, my dad sliced up some tomatoes and put them all over her body. So, when she woke up, she was covered in slices of tomatoes. She screamed the place down and shit herself but was absolutely fine about tomatoes after that.”