(This piece was also published by the Huffington Post and by the Indian news website We Speak News)
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’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.”
“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.
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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…”
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.
“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?”
“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.”