Tag Archives: Jewish comedy

Jewish comic and burlesque performer Lynn Ruth Miller in Berlin and London

Lynn Ruth Miller continues her globe-trotting blogs…


It has been over a year since I visited Berlin. I try to get there every six months. In all the places I visit, I have been fortunate to make good friends and Berlin is no exception but, this past year, it was impossible to schedule anything sooner.

I try to stay with my wonderfully gifted friend Lilli Höch-Corona when I am there because she and I are on the same page in so many ways.

She runs a company that distributes Gefühlsmonsters – wonderful pictures that psychologists and counsellors use to help people identify and deal with their emotions. The pictures were first drawn by her son Christian when he was 13 or 14 years old but, through the years, they have been refined and expanded to cover a gamut of feelings.  

Whenever I am with Lilli we talk about how important it is to identify what you are feeling before you can deal with it sensibly and logically.

She has helped me understand that ‘now’ is all I really have to deal with and if I can manage that, tomorrow will take care of itself.

Lynn Ruth in Berlin with Bryan Schall aka Nana Schewitz

This visit I spent a lot of time with her talking about what life really means.

I had just read an essay about the turbulence and uncertainty of the past decade.

Lilli pointed out that what those writers ignore is how many, many people are now standing up and making themselves heard; people like Greta Thunberg, the women in the #MeToo movement and others demanding equality, recognition and action to remedy the inequalities so prevalent in our world.  

In her Christmas broadcast this year, Queen Elizabeth of Britain reminded us that progress is taken in very small steps and I think it is these steps we should encourage and support. Little by little they will renew stability and encourage reform that will address the major problems of our age.

Lilli and her husband live in East Berlin now but, during the time Berlin was a divided city, they were in the West. Lilli and her family used to visit friends in the Eastern sector and bring them little luxuries because everyone was forced to live meagre, Spartan lives. It was a communist country then and, although everyone had food, a no-frills car and enough to supply their basic needs, their lives were very limited and it was a hard life for them all.

The neighborhood has been tarted-up since it was part of East Berlin and the artists and non-conformists that defined the district’s intriguing subculture in the 1980s and 1990s have been replaced by a young, hip crowd that frequents the many cafes there. Where there were once run-down houses in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, there are now designer shops and varied lovely restaurants.

“The very first comedy club that took me into their heart in Berlin…”

The very first comedy club that took me into their heart in Berlin was Neil Numb’s Cosmic Comedy Club.

Neil is a born entrepreneur and he started this English speaking comedy club in the basement of a hostel called Belushi’s. The club has grown into a successful, professional performance area frequented not just by visitors but by the entire ex-pat community in Berlin. The key guy on stage is Dharmander Singh who not only hosts every night but helps with publicity and is the man who put Cosmic Comedy on the Edinburgh Fringe comedy map.

The beautiful thing about Cosmic Comedy is that, unlike other established comedy clubs, they give everyone a chance to perform. Comedy is a developed skill and you cannot get better unless you do it over and over again. Dhar and Neil offer everyone their moment of fame on stage and I have seen the quality of performance there get better and sharper each time I am there.

However, this time, my first show was not with the boys. It was with Bryan Schall who does a magnificent variety drag show called Jews, Jews, Jews that has travelled all over the world. This was their Chanukah show and Bryan, whose drag name is Nana Schewitz, with his first in command LoIita VaVoom, put on a spectacular show for Jews and non-Jews alike.

Jews, Jews, Jews with (L-R) Gieza Poke, Karma She, George N Roses, Nana Schewitz, Lynn Ruth Miller, Lolita VaVoom, Betty Q and Caitlin Gresham at Monster Ronson’s Ichiban Karaoke

The audience was a mixture of religions and backgrounds and the show was both original and very camp.

All the performers were amazing but the final act was a Polish Burlesque star called Betty-Q.

She knocked our socks off using Chanukah candles to light her performance.

Nana came out as a giant golden menorah.

And Lolita treated us to a potato pancake extravaganza.

I felt like I had entered another world: one filled with magic and wonder, miles away from reality.  

Finally, after all these years, I got a glimpse of the real Berlin kind of cabaret I had heard so much about. This time I managed to get a bigger taste of Berlin than I usually do. Ordinarily I just eat, sleep and run to the comedy club for my performance. 

This time, Friday and Saturday nights, I performed at The Cosmic Comedy Club. 

The second night I did my show I Never Said I Was Nice and, to my surprise, a woman who loved that show in Tokyo was there to see it again. The international comedy scene is far smaller than I thought and we tend to see one another in very unexpected places as we travel from one place to another.

I came home to London on Sunday, ran to perform in A Night in Soho and then packed to go to the Limmud Festival in Birmingham, a Jewish international festival powered by learning. It features hundreds of educational and informative events and caters to thousands of Jews worldwide. Many similar festivals are held all over the world but the UK one in Birmingham is the biggest and people have been attending for at least forty years.

Lynn Ruth Miller and Rachel Creeger at the Limmud Festival

I had the good fortune to do an hour’s comedy show, be part of a showcase, do a talk on optimistic living and then have a discussion with Rachel Creeger on how we got into comedy and what it means to us. Usually, when someone sees me at a gig and likes what they see, they come up to me after the show to find out where I am performing next. This, however, was a Jewish event and people came up to me to invite me to dinner.

When anyone walks into a Jewish home, they are immediately invited for a meal. The lady of the house will rush into her kitchen, swearing there isn’t a morsel of anything in the house, open her refrigerator and it will be so packed that food will tumble to the floor. She will hastily put together a five course feast for whomever is standing in her front hall and then, should there be anything left over after the meal, her eyes will fill with tears and she will say: ”No one ate a thing!”

I assure you huge feasting is not limited to the Jews. I thought only my people ate a lot on their holidays. I was wrong. The British know how to feed you on a holiday and the family I am spending Christmas with do it with a gourmet flair. The three sons are vegetarian and I have been inundated with mushroom and ale pies, beetroot flan and alcohol, alcohol, alcohol.

I am not complaining.

I have taken an antacid and I am ready to welcome 2020.

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With other comedy clubs closing, a new one opens in maybe an ideal location…

Borehamwood view by Google with 96 pretty-much centred

I live in Borehamwood which is on the north west edge of London, just inside the M25, London’s outer orbital road. This is relevant.

I moved here because of the easy access. It is close to and betwixt three motorways – the M1, the A1(M) and the M25.

It is also on the Thameslink railway line (appallingly managed by the incompetent Govia franchise but extremely convenient). Trains run direct from Luton and Bedford (north of London) to Brighton (on England’s South Coast), connecting Luton Airport with Gatwick Airport and running through the middle of London, across Blackfriars Bridge, interchanging, I think, with every Underground line in London. And the trains run throughout the night.

Borehamwood (just to confuse visiting Americans) is home to Elstree Film Studios (which also hosts TV shows like Big Brother) and to the BBC’s Elstree Studios (home of the TV soap EastEnders).

What is strange is that it has had no permanent comedy club.

Until now.

Philip Simon outside Borehamwood’s 96 venue

This Saturday, comic Philip Simon is opening the Borehamwood Comedy Club in the local Council-owned 96 venue, right slap-bang in the middle of the high street.

The Jongleurs comedy chain has staged a few sporadic ‘On The Road’ gigs at the venue. But, last month, Jongleurs went bust.

“I have always thought that Borehamwood is the perfect place for comedy,” Philip told me. “It was just a case of finding the right venue. When Jongleurs ended, the Council was approached by every comedy booker you can imagine, including some that have no links whatever in London or even in the South. But I think the Council were more interested in working with a local one-man-band than a big company, so here I am.”

“It’s a great location for a comedy club,“ I said.

“Transport is really important,” agreed Philip. “Elstree & Borehamwood station is the last stop on the Oyster (cheap travel) card and it’s very easy to get to. I did a gig last night in Brixton (in South London) and I got back to Borehamwood in 45 minutes – and that was three trains. Acts can double-up very easily.

“I genuinely think you can get top-level acts who would have opened at maybe the Comedy Store in Central London and be looking for a second show to close and think: Oh! I can get to Borehamwood in half an hour! Because of the transport links, there’s no reason we couldn’t get Brighton acts. It’s a direct train. The venue is a 5-minute – if that! – walk from the station…”

“And the trains run all night,” I said.

Philip has written for TV’s Mock the Week and Taskmaster

Philip was involved in setting up the Comedians’ Network within the actors’ union Equity.

“I’ve heard a lot of complaints,” he told me, “about the way acts have been treated by promoters on the comedy circuit in general – not specifically related to Jongleurs. About how replaceable we comedians are and how irrelevant we are to the bigger picture. So when I found Jongleurs had booked acts here already, the first thing I said was: Those are the acts I want to replace themselves, if they’re still available.

There was already a date booked in here by Jongleurs – this Saturday 25th November – so I took that and went back to the acts who were previously booked by Jongleurs and had been let down. I wanted to honour the bookings so the people who had potentially lost money were given first refusal on the new gig. There had been three acts booked. Two of them signed back up and one was busy elsewhere.”

“And the two are?” I asked.

“Lateef Lovejoy and Trevor Crook. I added in Geoff Boyz to close and I am going to compere it. In future, it will be that same format – One act / a break / another act / a break / headline act. And I will compere it.”

“How much per act?” I asked.

He told me.

“That sounds quite high,” I said. “How much are the tickets?”

“£12. The venue decided that. I have no control over it. The thing I am guaranteeing is that I will pay all of the acts on the day.”

“Unlike Jongleurs,” I laughed.

Are royal portraits all that comedy promoters care about?

“Well,” said Philip, “speaking as an act… the thing that really frustrates me is that I have done gigs where I have seen promoters walk off with a wad of cash and then refuse to pay you for 30 days after the event. I don’t have an agent and I don’t want to spend all my time chasing payment when the money is in the hands of the promoter. Whatever happens, the acts here will get their money on the day of the gig provided the gig goes ahead and they turn up. If, for some totally unforeseen reason, the venue cancels the gig, then the act will be paid a cancellation fee.”

“You don’t have a gig here in December,” I said, “because, obviously, 25th December is not an ideal date. But will you try to go weekly next year?”

“No. I don’t think there’s enough interest for a weekly comedy club of this level. When we re-launch in 2018, I am hoping we will take it monthly. What I might do is a monthly comedy show of this level and, in between, maybe another monthly new act/new material night. £12 a ticket is a lot of money to spend weekly and I’m not convinced that, by spreading myself so thin, I can give enough attention to the gig. Especially if I resident compere it.”

“You said of this level,” I pointed out.

“Yes. I would like it to be a high-end type of show. with faces that people will recognise and will represent the demographic of this area.”

“You could,” I suggested, “do a monthly Jewish gig here?”

“Well,” said Philip, “I did a show at Camden Fringe last year with Aaron Levene called Jew-O-Rama and maybe in this venue here we could do a once-a-quarter Jew-O-Rama. We were intrigued that it did not appeal as much to the Jewish audience as it did to the non-Jewish audience. The nights we sold out, there was a predominantly non-Jewish audience.

Philip aims to heighten the glamorous world of Borehamwood

“As well as the main monthly show, there are two things I want to do – one is the Jewish gig; one is a local gig. To find a way of supporting local acts. If the venue is investing in me as a local act, then there is a benefit in extending that.

“I could do the main show monthly, here. And then, in between those main shows, on alternate months, I could do the Jewish gig and the local gig. There are loads of comedians in the Borehamwood/St Albans/Radlett/Barnet/Shenley/Watford area – comedians of all levels. Newcomers and pro-level comedians.

“What I probably cannot do in the main show is to give stage time as many local acts as I’d like. Because they are all at different levels. The level of the main show at this venue has to be at a high level. But, if I can find a way of supporting local comedians with maybe a lower-level gig that is going to involve less cost and less administration… And there are other projects I would like to do such as maybe a quarterly charity gig and a Christmas show.”

“To be totally PC,” I suggested, “you would need a white male… a female… gay… black… and Jewish… You would need to have five acts per show.”

“I want funny,” said Philip. “The diversity will come with finding the right funny people.”

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Accidental meetings and a comedy revelation at the Edinburgh Fringe

I pretty much started the Malcolm Hardee Awards as an ongoing annual event in 2007, saying they would run until 2017, on the basis that I would then be able to get free tickets to all comedy shows on the Edinburgh Fringe for ten years.

Tragically, until this year, I have been involved in other shows and been unable to make full use of this fine scam – mostly just seeing shows recommended by other judges. But this year, with the five Malcolm Hardee shows happening only in the final week, eureka! –

Yesterday at the Fringe, I saw seven shows.

My day started with the always excellent Steve Day‘s definitely at least 4-star show Run, deaf boy, Run about how he took part in the London Marathon this year. There is an interesting reason – explained in the show – why ‘deaf boy’ in the title does not have capital letters. Afterwards, Steve told me one story not included in the show.

He was given his first comedy bookings by Malcolm Hardee at his Up The Creek club in Greenwich, which is on the London Marathon route. As Steve was running past Up The Creek this year, he tried to Tweet the fact on his phone but failed because of the large amounts of Vaseline transferring from his fingers onto the phone.

Alright, alright. You have to see his show to understand that but – hey! – you should see his show. And yes, he had been pretty much doing what you might think he had been doing with the Vaseline.

I was sitting in the Pleasance Dome thinking how funny this story was – though admittedly only if you’ve seen Steve’s wonderful show – when American comic Lewis Schaffer sat down at my table; it was akin to an Assyrian descending like a wolf on the fold – though admittedly only if you ignore his Jewishness, which is difficult.

He told me:

“I have new shoes. They are so tight, John. They hurt my feet and make me feel like a girl…”

I looked at him.

“My act has changed,” he said. “I have gone full-on flexible.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“You know what it means,” he replied. “Full-on is a British phrase.”

“No it isn’t,” I said, “it’s an American phrase and even if it were British English, I have gone full-on flexible still doesn’t mean anything.”

“Well,” he said, “I don’t know what it means either. Kate Copstick is coming to review my show tonight for the Scotsman. I’m not ready.”

“It’ll be OK.” I said, trying to be reassuring. “She likes you.”

“Well, I find that irritating,” Lewis said.

“What?”

“That she likes me. Does she really like me? I find it irritating when people like me. My girlfriend likes me. I find that very irritating.”

It is sometimes very difficult to talk reasonably to Lewis Schaffer.

We walked off together to the Counting House venue and passed comedian Diane Spencer, flyering for her show All-Pervading Madness.

“Are you coming to see it?” she asked me. “I know you saw it in London, but it has changed so much – out of all recognition.”

“I did think about it,” I said, “but I don’t need to see you because I know how good you are.”

She thought I was bullshitting.

I was not.

She IS that good.

I keep thinking I should suck-up to Diane Spencer so that when, inevitably, she is highly successful she may one day buy a Big Issue from me when she comes out of some future BAFTA Awards ceremony. Forward planning is important, but young women tend not to take it very well when a man of my age tries to suck-up to them. The police are a constant sword of Damocles.

At the Counting House, I saw Ivor Dembina‘s show which he calls Ivor’s Other Show because he… has another show at the Fringe. His other show Free Jewish Comedy is his stand-up comedy show; the clue is in the title. Ivor’s Other Show is a sit-down chat show in which he and two different comics each day talk about jokes and comedy with the audience joining in – it’s Ivor’s own format idea called Desert Island Jokes.

It was certainly interesting to see Ivor’s Other Show, because I will be chairing two panel shows about comedy as part of Malcolm Hardee Week – the final week of the Fringe.

Ivor is a surprisingly good chat show host. Most comedians are too self-obsessed and keen to make an impact to be a good, moderately self-effacing host, but I guess Ivor’s many years compering at his Hampstead Comedy Club have given him the vital necessary experience.

Yesterday’s show was also interesting because, in my own mind, it clarified why you can listen to a Beatles’ song 25 times and enjoy it equally each time… and listen to a comic story 25 times, enjoying the experience and the ‘journey’ equally each time, but you cannot hear a joke 25 times with equal pleasure: you are unlikely to ever repeat the scale of the large belly-laugh at the punchline to an equal extent on subsequent hearings because the element of surprise at the punchline is missing on repeated tellings.

The exception might be Tommy Cooper gags where, although they may be straight punch-line-based gags, it is the style of the telling of the joke at which you are really laughing.

But what do I know?

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