Last night, London-based American Jewish comedian Lewis Schaffer and I went to see legendary American Jewish comedian Jackie Mason at the Adelphi Theatre in London – allegedly his last ever London appearances.
Afterwards, we went to Kentish Town for his regular Thursday night gig at the Monkey Business Comedy Club. Lewis Schaffer’s regular Thursday night gig; not Jackie Mason’s.
At the Adelphi Theatre, the flyer had trumpeted: ALL NEW MATERIAL!
“That was smart of him to do,” said Lewis Schaffer.
“But then,” I said, “people don’t necessarily go to a Jackie Mason show for new jokes.”
“Yes,” said Lewis Schaffer. “It’s like that old story about the dog. It’s not that the dog can talk well. It’s that he can talk at all. The fact Jackie Mason can do 45 minutes, then a break, then 40 minutes and never for a minute did you think: Oh my, he’s forgotten his act… I mean, I’m 58 years old and I have moments of panic when I think: Shit! what the fuck do I say next? He’s 83 – a full 25 years older than I am.”
“I think,” I said, “he thought he was being more outrageous than he was. He apologised for bad-mouthing Starbucks!”
“I don’t think he thought he was outrageous.” said Lewis Schaffer. “I think that’s just part of his act.”
“His style was slightly similar to yours,” I suggested.
“People have said there’s a similarity between us. But it’s the same thing with Woody Allen. We’re all of a type. There’s a certain tone.”
“I saw some old-style Borscht Belt comedian at Soho Theatre,” I said. “I have never really thought of you as a ‘Jewish’ comedian but, when I saw this guy, I thought: That style, that delivery – pure New York Jewish – it’s pure Lewis Schaffer.”
“Well, basically, what a Jewish comedian is…” said Lewis Schaffer, “is that the insult comes at the end after you butter somebody up – as opposed to insulting them at the beginning.”
“Do non-Jewish comedians do that?” I asked.
“Ma-a-y-y-b-e,” replied Lewis Schaffer cautiously. “Was that funny?”
“I’m surprised Jackie Mason didn’t mention you,” I joked.
“Maybe he didn’t know I was there.” laughed Lewis Schaffer. “They’ve forgotten about me in America. Not that they ever knew I was there…
“I thought to myself when I was watching Jackie Mason tonight: Maybe I can take his act when he dies. There were a couple of good jokes in there about being older. I’m getting old. I’ve already talked to Robin Ince and Robin Ince says I can have his followers, his fans, though there was some question about the fact they might not like me.”
“Robin Ince,” I said, “is not happy about the PBH fiasco at the Edinburgh Fringe.”
“He’s lovely and loyal to PBH,” said Lewis Schaffer. “I don’t think he fully understands the severity of what’s been going on.”
“You are,” I prompted, “charging £5 for your Fringe show this year…”
“I’m charging £5,” agreed Lewis Schaffer.
“Is the show,” I asked, “still called Free Until Famous?”
“Yes; Free Until Famous: £5.”
“You’ll get arrested under the Trade Descriptions Act,” I said.
“It says it right there; Free Until Famous: £5… It doesn’t say that the entry is free. It says I am free.”
“How?” I asked. “Free to roam the grasslands like a gazelle?”
“I’m free most weekends,” said Lewis Schaffer. “I’m free to do other gigs.”
“That’s your good luck in not having a PBH Free Fringe contract,” I replied.
“I’m free most days,” continued Lewis Schaffer. “The Edinburgh show is just an extension of my Free Until Famous tour.”
“This is the tour you are not telling anyone about?” I asked.
“No. I’m not telling anyone. 45 dates. It’s the most amazing thing that has ever been done. I am really proud of myself. On the other hand, I’ve been doing bugger all work in the last six months.”
“But,” I said, “you’re doing a 45-gig tour, your weekly radio show and at least two weekly London gigs – a full show at the Leicester Square Theatre every week and weekly stuff at Monkey Business.”
“I feel,” said Lewis Schaffer, “I should be getting more gigs. That’s how you get successful. It’s not just about doing the gigs but getting the gigs. I’m the hardest-working failure in the comedy business. I’m not doing my weekly shows at the Leicester Square Theatre any more. They’re at the Museum of Comedy. It’s a much better room. It doesn’t have any pillars blocking the view, so now I can see the empty chairs. The Museum of Comedy is perfect for me because I’m getting old, though I’m not as old as Jackie Mason.
“Jackie Mason is charging £51-£86 for tickets. The reason I’m charging £5 at the Edinburgh Fringe, not doing it for free, is I want to weed out the people who are not insane. My target audience is people who are a bit loopy who will like what I do. Do you think that’s true? I don’t know. I just said it right now. Is it true? Is it funny? The reason I’m charging £5 is because I was just fed up with people walking in and wandering out of my free shows.”
“They don’t wander out,” I said. “Well… occasionally someone walks out if you tell a joke about Madeleine McCann or the Holocaust. You may get someone walk out because you’ve offended them, but no-one ever wanders out due to tedium.”
“They don’t wander out,” said Lewis Schaffer, “because they’re intimidated. But they don’t feel committed. That’s the trouble with free shows. My audience is not committed.”
“I suspect some of your audiences have been or will be,” I said.
“They just wander in to see what’s going on,” moped Lewis Schaffer. “I want to be respected. I feel like I’m that character in the Woody Allen movie Broadway Danny Rose, where he wants to be respected as a comedian. I want to be respected and I think it’s a huge mistake I have made to charge £5, because I think no-one is going to come and see me.”
Welcome to the world of Lewis Schaffer, comedian, where every silver lining has a cloud.