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Lynn Ruth in Singapore, Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Bangkok… and on Israel

Lynn Ruth now has a taste for the Far East

Lynn Ruth Miller, the irrepressible 85-year-old American comic and occasional burlesque stripper based in London, has been off on her professional travels again.

Here is an edited version of her whistle-stop diary of the trip.


SINGAPORE

This is the first time I have flown directly to Singapore from London. It is a very long flight: about 17 hours. I could have paid twice as much and gotten there two hours earlier but I am Jewish.

I do not waste money.

I have been thinking about why comedians travel as far as we all do to stand in front of a lot of strangers for as little as ten minutes or as long as an hour talking about ourselves. For me, living alone as I do, it is worth the travel and the personal inconvenience to have those few moments when I am in the spotlight making a lot of people love me – because, in that moment, they do.

But it is more than that.  

We are, after all, social animals and interaction feeds our souls. As I get older (and I sure hope I keep doing it) I realize that the impetus to keep doing this is far more than those moments on stage. It is that amazing connection with different people from different backgrounds and the jolt of surprise when I realize how similar our values are and how alike our mutual vision of what makes the good life.

This is the third time I have been to Singapore.

This time, Naomi from Jakarta alerted the Jewish population of Singapore (which is far larger than I thought) to come to the show, so the place was packed. When I do comedy here, the audiences want to laugh and want to support us. They make us all feel like stars.

After the shows in Singapore, we all stay to have a drink and get to know one another as people. This is in contrast to the London experience, where the headliner usually comes in just before it is time to do his set and the rest of the comedians leave the show when they are done performing.  

Lynn Ruth has found she has many fans in the Far East

Here in Singapore, you realize you are all working together to create a good experience for the audience and it reduces that sense of competition that I always get in London. No one person is better than another because each performance presents a unique viewpoint.

And that is what makes stand up comedy so satisfying. The audience gets a glimpse of another perspective on the life we are all trying to live.

HO CHI MINH CITY (formerly Saigon)

Compared to Singapore, which is spacious. modern and richly beautiful, the streets in Ho Chi Minh City are narrow and the buildings retain the flavor of  the pre-war city. It has preserved some of its original character and yet it is filled with bright lights and glittering signs that give it a Las Vegas feel.

I featured for Jojo Smith who is an established comedian who has been doing this kind of thing for about 25 years or more. It is always an honor for me to be on the bill with women who have broken down barriers I still have yet to smash.  

We both did very well but the interesting thing was that I thought the evening was a huge success and I do not think Jojo agreed. The audience was smaller than she expected and the ambience of the room was not what she had hoped. I have decided that my expectations must be very low because I thought it was a gem of an evening.

Jojo and I were on the same plane to Hanoi the next morning.

HANOI

When we got here, Dan Dockery picked us up and, like the reliable rock that he is, he got us back to the very lavish Intercontinental Hotel that sponsors his events.

Jojo was not feeling well so she went up to her room which was the size of a three storey mansion and I toddled over to one of the several cafes each one fit to serve tea to Queen Elizabeth.  

When I returned to my room – so spacious I am amazed I managed to find the bed without a divining rod – I napped until show time. Poor Jojo had digestive problems and, like the understudies in West End shows, she gave me my big moment. She stayed in bed and I headlined.  

“Every joke worked. I was walking on air when I left the stage”

I did fifty minutes of comedy and every joke worked. I was walking on air when I left the stage then, after I drank the bottle of wine one of the audience members bought for me, I was floating on a cloud so high my feet didn’t touch the ground.

I think that is what keeps me in this business. The thrill of a successful gig has not worn off for me. It is never just another night.  

I vaguely remember the night I lost my virginity on plastic sheets in a grim motel in Indiana and I have to say that supposedly cosmic moment did not compare to standing on stage in Hanoi talking dirty to a bunch of expats in a hot little room overlooking the river.

It was my kind of magic.

The next morning, Dan’s driver took me to the airport and he was telling me how life has changed since the war. He said the entire place has been rebuilt and now there are more motor bikes than there are people on the roads and also a huge gap between rich and poor. Hanoi though – even more than Ho Chi Minh City – has retained its rustic flavor while always sparkling with colorful lights.

In Bangkok, “Everyone loves funny old ladies.”

BANGKOK

Chris Wegoda runs Comedy Club Bangkok, the most successful English-speaking comedy club in Bangkok. I headlined there.   

Chris, who is unbelievably reliable, sent a man named Sheldon – a swimmer, former surfer and LA guy – to pick me up and off we went to the show. 

The show was fast-paced and the audience anxious to laugh. I did my set and I did well.

Then we all went down to the bar to drink and Liam and Kordelia, whom I had met at the airport, said I must come to Mojacar Playa to do a show. I said I would.

They said: “Everyone there loves funny old ladies.”

I said: “I hope so.”

The next morning, my darling buddy Jonathan Samson sent a Thai guy to fetch me to his club in another neighborhood of the city. Jonathan does comedy in a youth hostel and keeps the prices low, which I support.

After our show that night, Jonathan bought a pan, a hot plate and a lot of ingredients for me to make my signature dish: blintzes (Jewish crepes.) Six members of the audience stayed after to help with the mixing, the beating and the frying and, by God, we made blintzes so authentic that Moses descended for a taste.

The next day I met Matthew Wharf for lunch. He is originally from Melbourne and runs a club in Bangkok but, this time around, he could not fit me into his line-up. He took me and a wonderful American man he called Wine for lunch. It turned out the man was from New Jersey and his name is Wayne. We talked shop for a couple of hours because ‘Wine’ wants to do stand up and I have the sense he is going to be great at it.  

Lynn Ruth heard about Tel Aviv at Bangkok’s Comedy Den

Then I played a club on the outskirts of the city called Comedy Den Pakkret. The line up was excellent.  

Tristan, one of the comedians there, had married an Israeli. He was telling me how modern and exciting Tel Aviv has become. He also talked a great deal about how biased the foreign press is against Israel, partly because of Netanyahu‘s belligerent policies and partly because so much of the press is anti-Zionist.  

It was a revealing discussion because, even though I personally do not like Israel’s practices toward the people in Gaza, I had never realized that there are so many extenuating circumstances.  

The one observation I made to justify what goes on there is that, after the Holocaust, the Jewish people never want to be in a situation where they are not the majority.  One can hardly blame them for that.

The next day, I met Aidan Killian and Trevor Lock for lunch. Aidan has managed to put on large shows once a month in Bangkok that feature major names like Shazia Mirza. Trevor has lived in Bangkok for several years doing comedy throughout Southeast Asia. He only returns to Britain for short periods of time to do shows in Edinburgh and London.  

It was an interesting lunch because again we talked shop.

It turns out that Bangkok has a very small audience base so it is almost impossible to earn a living doing comedy there. And yet we all agreed stand up comedy is the last place left where you can say what you really think without fear of being banned… though I have to say that is not as true as it once was.  

I still hold to the theory that any topic works if you can make it funny. The idea is to make people laugh.

Isn’t it?

Home to London now, to freeze and get ready for trips to Harrogate and Amsterdam.  

It is a good life.

… LYNN RUTH’s TRIPS CONTINUE HERE

Online, there is a clip of Lynn Ruth on Britain’s Got Talent in 2014.

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Old Jewish Jokes and why comedian Ivor Dembina gets hate mail from Jews

I was partly brought up in Ilford in East London and went to school near Gants Hill which was, at the time, extremely Jewish. When there was a Jewish holiday, class numbers were so depleted that teachers at my school tended to abandon the lessons and have general knowledge tests. One of the bonuses of going to my school, though, was that I got endless top-notch Jewish jokes told by Jews.

Ivor played his Palestine show in Washington

Ivor played his Palestine show in Washington

Next week, Wednesday to Saturday, comedian Ivor Dembina is performing his show called Old Jewish Jokes at the Leicester Square Theatre in London.

“It came about because of my previous solo show This Is Not a Suitable Subject For Comedy,” he told me yesterday. “That was a story with jokes about the Israel-Palestine conflict seen through the eyes of a North London Jew.

“Some people complained it was ‘too political’. So I came up with the idea of preceding it with a 20-minute curtain-raiser called Old Jewish Jokes. Then I was going to have an interval and perform This Is Not a Suitable Subject For Comedy.”

In fact, Ivor never did this. Old Jewish Jokes developed into its own one-hour show.

“One day,” he explained to me, “I did a gig at a Jewish venue and, before the show, the organiser asked me: You’re not going to do jokes about the Holocaust, are you? That slightly threw me – not because I actually do jokes about the Holocaust, though I do jokes about the way people use the Holocaust to fit their own agenda – about people appropriating history for their own purposes. I think that’s fair comment for the current comedian.

“But there was something odd about being asked beforehand about material I was not going to do. So I have worked that idea of being told by a venue owner what jokes not to tell into a narrative in which to tell the old Jewish jokes: Jews and Israel, Jews and money, Jews and sex. There ARE lots of jokes, but it’s underpinned by this story of what it’s like being a modern Jewish comedian when you’re given a shopping list of things you’re not allowed to talk about.

“I tested the show out last August at the Edinburgh Fringe – on a small scale at the Free Festival – and it sold out on the second night and then every night throughout the run. What was clear and heartening was that at least 75% of the audience was non-Jewish. So I thought I’d try it in London. The tickets for the Leicester Square Theatre show are selling really well without any great PR. If it works well there, I’ll probably take it back to Edinburgh again this year, maybe in a bigger pay venue.”

“The title is great,” I said. Old Jewish Jokes. You know exactly what you’re going to get.”

“Yes,” said Ivor, “People don’t come to see Ivor Dembina, by and large: they come because of the title.

Ivor Dembina on the pendulum swings of UK comedy

Ivor Dembina: “a typical alternative comedian”?

“I’m just a typical London-based alternative comedian. I’m used to writing stories about myself or whatever. But I’ve found actually standing on stage telling jokes is really hard. You could tell the best jokes in the world for an hour but, about 10 or 15 minutes in, the audience’s enjoyment will start going down. Which is why it’s so important to have the story in there. It gives the audience a breather and an additional level of interest because it becomes not just about the jokes themselves but about ethnic minorities having a fear of people making jokes about them.

“Black people can make jokes with the word ‘nigger’ in. White people can’t. Jews can make jokes about being mean with money and use the word ‘Yid’ but non-Jews can’t. What’s that all about? All those issues are kind of bubbling underneath and I think that’s what makes this quite an interesting show. The old jokes are great. I don’t have to worry about the jokes. But hopefully the audience may go away thinking about acceptability. Why are some jokes acceptable and others not? Why is the same joke OK in a certain context but not in others? It just stirs it up a little and I like that.

“In London, the Jews still have something of a ghettoised mentality; they tend to live in North West London or Ilford. Most Jewish entertainers work the Jewish community – the culture centres, the synagogue halls. Which is fine. But no-one – particularly in comedy – has yet stuck their neck out and consciously decided to try and take Jewish humour of an English kind out of the community and target it fairly and squarely at the ethnically-mixed audience. That’s what I’m trying to do. Instead of Jews just telling these jokes to each other, the whole culture of Jewish jokes could be opened up to a much wider audience.”

Ivo Dembina at Hampstead Comedy Club last night

Ivor Dembina at his Hampstead Comedy Club last week

“But surely ,” I said, “Jews have been telling jokes about Jews forever? There’s that whole New York Jewish thing.”

“Ah,” said Ivor. “That’s America, Over there the whole Jewish schtick is much more widespread.”

“I suppose you’re right,” I said. “There are loads of British comedians who are Jews, but I can’t think of a single famous comedian over here who you could describe as doing his or her act as ‘a Jewish comedian’. Bernard Manning was a bit Jewish. Jerry Sadowitz is a bit Jewish. But you couldn’t describe either of them as being ‘Jewish comedians’ in the genre sense.”

“Mark Maier does a bit about it,” said Ivor, “and there’s David Baddiel, but you wouldn’t say he’s a specifically Jewish comedian. Lenny Henry was the UK’s ‘black comedian’ but there has never been a comic who became Britain’s Jewish Comedian.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

“America’s a much bigger country,” said Ivor, “and they have a predilection for ethnic assertiveness – I’m an American black! – I’m proud! – I’m an American Jew! – I’m proud! – I’m an American Italian! – I’m proud! Jews in America see themselves as American first and Jewish second. In Britain people see themselves as Jews first and British second.”

“Really?” I said, surprised. “I’m not English, but I’m Scottish and British equally.”

“In my opinion,” said Ivor.

“Lewis Schaffer – a Jewish New York comedian,” I said, “surprised me by saying he was brought up to distrust Gentiles.”

“Well,” said Ivor, “I was brought up to fear Gentiles.”

“They are shifty, untrustworthy?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Ivor. “You can’t trust them. That was what I was told. In a way, the reason why Israel is so important to the Jews is because they see it as a bolt hole to go to if anti-Semitism gets too bad.

Ivor’s Edinburgh show with Omid Djalili: The Arab & The Jew

Ivor’s 1996 Edinburgh show with Omid Djalili: The Arab & The Jew

“I think what drives most Jewish behaviour is fear. Because of the experience of our past… I was brought up to think You can’t trust non-Jews. Obviously you find that same mentality in Israel: You can’t trust the Arabs. Shoot first. Ask questions afterwards. And, in the diasporait’s even more so. If anyone begins to raise a dissenting voice within the community, you get labelled as a traitor. I get hate mail just because I’ve dared to question the prevailing ethos through my comedy and through my very low-level political activity.”

“How did Jews react,” I asked, “to your show This Is Not a Suitable Subject For Comedy? It was about you actually going to Palestine and what you saw there. Did you get hassle about being perceived to be pro-Palestinian?”

“I get loads,” Ivor replied. “Hate mail.”

“Even now?” I asked.

“Not so much now,” said Ivor. “What happens is they try to marginalise you. Its main function is to intimidate you. Life would be easier if I kept quiet. Or to provoke you into doing something or saying something outrageous that will make you look stupid or like a villain. To get under your skin, to make you angry. I’m used to it now. I don’t take any notice of it.

The Bethlehem Unwrapped wall

The Bethlehem Unwrapped wall at St James’s in Piccadilly

“I don’t do much. I took part in that Bethlehem Unwrapped thing where they did a replica of the wall separating Palestine from Israel at that church in Piccadilly. I did a comedy show with Mark Steel, Jeremy Hardy and a couple of other Jewish comedians. And there was a line of people outside complaining Ivor Dembina makes jokes about the Holocaust! Which I don’t. But they’re very organised these Zionist people. It’s like banging your head against the wall.”

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What Hermann Goering’s great-niece told me about the Holocaust this week

Hermann Goering, leader of the Nazi Luftwaffe

Hermann Goering, the Deputy Führer

This week, via Skype, I talked to Hermann Goering’s great-niece Bettina Goering in Thailand. She is writing a book.

“Hermann wasn’t really a nasty Nazi, though, was he?” I asked her. “He wasn’t identified with the Holocaust. He was simply head of the Luftwaffe. The image I have of him is an overweight man, who liked art, stamping around in rather flamboyant uniforms.”

“That’s what I thought,” replied Bettina. “That’s the image I had too, until I started digging further and it’s much more complex. The truth is that he was involved in the Holocaust too. I didn’t know that until I started the process of writing this book. He was as involved as any of them. He might have not been as gung-ho in his rhetoric about Jews. He came across as ‘the Luftwaffe guy’. But he was just as involved. I first learned that when I did a documentary called Bloodlines. He was part of the Final Solution. He co-authored it. So he was very involved. He was part of setting up concentration camps. And, when they decided to do the Final Solution, he was part of all that.”

Bettina has no children.

In the documentary Hitler’s Children, she says:

“My brother and I had the sterilisation done in order not to give life to other Goerings… I was feeling responsible for the Holocaust, even though I was born after the War, because of my family, who had an active part in it.”

“You got sterilised,” I asked her this week, “because you didn’t want to pass the genes on?”

“I think that was part of it,” she told me. “I think we had a lot of other intellectual arguments. There are enough children. We don’t want children, blah blah. I think, deep down, that was part of it too. It’s kinda complex.”

“And your relationship to Hermann Goering is…” I asked.

“He is the brother of my grandfather on my father’s side,” Bettina explained.

“You were born in the decade after he died,” I said.

Bettina Goering - currently living in Santa Fe, USA

Bettina Goering – currently living in Santa Fe, New Mexico

“Yes. The only member of that direct family that I knew who was really involved was my grandmother. My book is also largely about her and her relationship to Hermann and her relationship to the whole family. They were a very close-knit family.

“Her husband – Hermann’s older brother – died very young when she was in her 30s. She had three young boys and Hermann took care of her. I just found out she actually looked after his household at the beginning of the Nazi times – 1932/1933.”

“So,” I said, “by the time you’re really aware of anything, it’s the early 1960s, when people are making films about the Nazi era, but it’s not the immediate past…”

“There was a bit of a limbo time in Germany,” said Bettina, “when really not much was mentioned in education or films and it really came home to me when I was about 10 or 11 and documentaries were shown and that’s when I really started to see how bad it was. Before that, I knew bits and pieces, but I didn’t know what it meant, really.”

“Which obviously,” I said, “must have had an effect on you…”

“There have been different stages to it,” replied Bettina. “I came of age around the end of the 1960s and I got into this whole ‘Anti’ movement. I became left wing, hippie and tried to somehow understand this whole dilemma more and create something else.”

“That’s roughly the time of Baader-Meinhof,” I said.

Baader-Meinhof: a troubled generation

Baader-Meinhof – in a troubled generation

“Yeah. They were around and one of my friends became one of the second generation of Baader-Meinhof. I was in a left-leaning organisation but for me to use violence was totally out of the question. But some of my friends were starting… You’d be surprised how many people were sympathetic to them (the Baader-Meinhof activists), including us, for a while. There’s a good movie that came out a couple of years ago…”

The Baader Meinhof Complex?” I asked.

“Yes. That was about the time I was growing up and I think they (the Baader-Meinhof activists and supporters) were partly in reaction to the Nazis in some ways, because most of them were born during the War. All that manifested in themselves.”

“A very mixed-up generation,” I said.

“My mother only met my father after the War,” explained Bettina. “My family was the Hermann Goering family on one side, but my mother’s family were the opposite. Very different families who married each other. My grandfather on my mum’s side was an anti-Fascist. He was once arrested. It was well-known he was supporting Jewish people. He had to be really careful.

“So here I have the Fascist side and the anti-Fascist side both in my family and that made it very… crazy. This trouble within myself was always trying to work itself out.”

“So your book is going to give an inside view of a troubled family?”

“Yes. It’s the inside view and trying to find some way to… You can’t really marry those two sides together… Also I was judging them so negatively that I was judging some part of me. Do you get that? That came to a head at some point where I realised I couldn’t really live my fullest potential  because I was really judging part of me so negatively. That is something I have been striving to overcome. Exactly that. To find some forgiveness in myself – of myself. It’s like an impossible thing to do, but just in order to feel healthy, I feel like I need to do that.

“There’s a lot been written about the Nazis on a very intellectual level but my book will be maybe a more emotional way to deal with it, which is hard for the Germans to do. There’s still all this guilt, conscious or unconscious, and I write a lot about this guilt stuff. On an emotional level, it is not resolved.”

“Who do you think would like to read your book?”

“Well, anybody who has any traumas in their closets. So far, we’ve only approached one or two German literary agents. Until now, we’ve really not been that ready.

“Maybe it will be that a British publisher will publish it first and then it will, in a roundabout way, go to the Germans. We are writing it in both languages and I have been living more in English-speaking countries than I have in Germany. I lived even in England for a couple of years.”

“You are in Thailand at the moment, but you and your husband live in Santa Fe in the US?”

“Yes, but we are moving…”

“… to where?” I asked.

“We’re not sure just now. We are sort of in flux. We have a house in Santa Fe that has still not been sold. It’s gonna take some time.”

“Could you live back in Germany happily?”

“No, I don’t think so. It’s not that I don’t like Germany. We go visit a lot. But I’ve never felt drawn to live there again. I feel it’s a bit limiting.”

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The Secrets of The Elders of Zion and daft feminists at the Edinburgh Fringe

Hayden Cohen at the Edinburgh Fringe last year

Hayden Cohen at Edinburgh Fringe, 2012

After I saw Hayden Cohen’s show Age of The Geek at the Edinburgh Fringe last year, he interviewed me for his podcast.

Yesterday, he was passing through Borehamwood and popped in to see me at my home but, this time I asked him questions.

Obviously, the first thing I asked him what he was working on.

“I’m doing Secrets of the Elders of Zion,” he told me. “I can’t decide if it’s for the Edinburgh Fringe or not. I still don’t know what works at Edinburgh and what doesn’t – maybe no-one does. The concept is that I’m trying to become a member of the Elders of Zion, but I can’t find who I need to speak to, so I decide to start up the UK branch myself. The stage show would be like a members’ open day, to get people involved. I don’t know how far I want to take it in the real world. But I’m thinking of contacting the Chief Rabbi.

“I’ve seen Jewish performers do Jewish shows and it’s either Yeah! I’m proud to be Jewish! or I hate Jews!… I want to do something that’s kinda both. I did a free scratch performance of Secrets of the Elders of Zion at the annual Limmud Conference at Warwick University last month and I came out bleeding a little bit from that. But I now know what works and what doesn’t in the show.”

“And after that, it’s…?” I asked.

Feminisn’t,” said Hayden.

Feminisn’t?” I asked.

Feminisn’t,” said Hayden. “That’s the next show after Secrets of the Elders of Zion, if I can find a way to do it without alienating half of my demographic. I get irritated by sexism. It annoys me but, at the same time, I feel there are certain issues that blokes are scared to address… but, if I can do it in a funny way… What I was thinking of doing was going to as many different organisations and to as many different women as possible who define themselves as Feminist.

“A lot of religious women feel empowered even though the Feminist movement would argue the last thing they are is empowered. But they say: Well, it’s my choice to cook and clean and not do all the main praying in the place of worship. I want to contrast that with, say, the Women’s Institute people and the women who say Being a woman is just a construct of society; there is no gender.

“I already know what I want the end to be – I want it to be that anyone who thinks they know what Feminism is clearly doesn’t understand Feminism.

“It annoys me when Feminists say Oh, we want women to be able to choose whatever they want and, when a woman decides to choose to have a family, they then say Oh, well that’s anti-Feminist!

No it’s not. No it’s not at all.

“At the same time, I want to do it a way that’s not quite as ham-fisted as what I’ve just said, because that will end up offending people. I want to do it in a fun way and it’s difficult to get that balance.”

“So you see yourself basically as a comic doing serious material?” I asked.

“I don’t know if I’m ever going to make it with my style of stuff,” said Hayden. “I don’t want to be type-cast. Some people have said You should do Age of The Geek 2 and I did think of Age of The Geek 2: The Cash-In Sequel, but that requires Age of The Geek to be much bigger than it is.

“It sounds weird, but I want to be a guy like Phill Jupitus. Not really categorised as anything specific. Neither is Craig Charles now. They do lots of different things.”

“Well,” I said, “Craig Charles has done Coronation Street on TV and Phill Jupitus has been in Spamalot and Hairspray in the West End after starting as Porky The Poet, so I see what you mean. The money is in TV, though.”

“Money would be lovely,” said Hayden, “but it’s not about the money. You see the same faces again and again on TV panel shows and all the bite’s gone. The bite has disappeared from TV. Where is it? You’ve got Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, which I love.

“But the style I‘d like to emulate – not emulate, build-upon – is George Carlin. He was brilliant. The fact that he philosophised in a funny way that was never contrived. I still can’t figure it out. I’ve watched it loads of times and tried to think Can I do anything like that? but, every time I try, it just comes out like a rant.”

“But your rant,” I said, “might end up as good as his non-rant. If you copy someone else’s style it won’t work but, if you do the same basic skeleton of a concept in a different way, it can work because it will be you.”

“I don’t know where I fit,” Hayden told me. “Age of The Geek was not really a standard show. It wasn’t yer ordinary stand-up and so I felt a lot of people didn’t know what they were expecting.

“I got very frustrated when some people went Oh, I loved the poetry but I hated the songs and others went The songs were really good; hated the poetry. It feels like you can’t win. This is now my rant. It seems like everyone wants to pigeonhole you. You’re a stand-up comedian. Or You’re a writer. Or You’re a musician… Why?

“You can understand bureaucrats wanting to pigeonhole themselves, because they like the structure and clarity of it. But people in entertainment??? I don’t understand why… Well, I do understand from a practical viewpoint. If you say you’re a comedian, then someone who wants a comedian will get you in. But there needs to be something more – your favourite word – anarchic.

“I’ve done an album of straight music and I feel like I’m doing more comedy because people have said Oh, you’re a comedian! and it’s just too much of a headache to say It’s a bit more complicated than that… People don’t like that.”

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The journey of one scary Israeli lawyer from corset-wearer to stand-up comic

(This piece appeared in the Huffington Post and on Indian site We Speak News)

Daphna Baram – comedian moved from corset to controversy

Yesterday seemed a good day to go see Miss D’s Silver Hammer, the weekly New Act comedy night in London’s Hammersmith, run by Israeli comedian Daphna Baram.

The death toll in Gaza had reached over 100.

Daphna started her career as a human right lawyer and a news editor on a paper in Jerusalem.

“Basically,” she explained to me last night, “I was representing Palestinians accused of security offences at military courts in the West Bank and Gaza. I was – still am – very political. But the only thing I liked about lawyering was performing. There was lots of performing. I had a robe, I was young and I felt like I was an actress.”

“So you were a frustrated comedian?” I asked.

“No,” said Daphna,” it never occurred to me for a minute. I never saw live comedy.”

She moved to the UK ten years ago but even then she was not particularly interested in comedy until something dangerous happened.

“When I was 39,” she told me, “I had a heart attack while I was at the gym, I was struggling with diabetes which was diagnosed when I was 37, I’d lost a lot of weight and was really sporty. I was running five times a week, I was looking like Lara Croft. I got to the hospital in a good shape, except for nearly dying.”

“So that was your Road to Damascus?” I said, choosing an unfortunate phrase.

“It was,” she agreed. “While the thing was happening, I was quite jolly and everybody in the ambulance was laughing and the doctors were laughing and I was cracking jokes all the time.

“Once I was in the ambulance and they said I was not going to die, I believed them. So I thought How can I get drugs here? This is an ambulance. They asked me Are you in pain? and I wasn’t but I said Yes I am and they gave me the morphine and the pre-med and everything. By the time I got to hospital, I was really happy and there was a really good-looking doctor waiting at the door.

“So I was in quite a good mood and they put a stent in my heart, but the next morning I woke up and started thinking Fuck me, I’m 39. I just had a heart attack. My life is over… I’m never going to have sex again, because people don’t want to have sex with women who have had heart attacks. What do you think when the woman starts twitching and breathing heavily and stiffening and her eyes widen? Do you keep doing what you’re doing or do you call an ambulance?

“At that time, both my best friends were getting married. One of them a week before the heart attack and one of them a month after. I did their wedding speeches, which went down really well; people were laughing. At the second wedding, there was one guest called Chris Morris who I’d never heard of because I knew nothing about comedy.

“He said to my friend Kit, the groom: Does she have an agent? And Kit said: Yes, I’m her personal manager. Chris Morris asked Is she doing it for a living? and Kit said No, but I think she might and then he was on my case.

“I’d just had a heart attack, I was turning 40, I felt I needed to do something creative, something new, perhaps write a book. But I’d already written a book in 2004 about the Guardian newspaper’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the last hundred-and-something years.”

Daphna’s book on Israel: Disenchantment

The book is still available and Daphna writes occasionally for the Guardian on Israeli-Palestinian affairs.

“What’s happened in Israel this last week,” I suggested, “must be a joy for a comedian.”

“Normally,” she explained to me, “I open on Israel stuff about how aggressive we are and how I can kill and it kinda works with my persona which is quite authoritative. But the war broke the night I was in Glasgow and I did about ten minutes of just taking the piss, all the sex stuff, the fun stuff, the growing old stuff and being a reluctant cougar. Then I started talking about Israel and told a few jokes about that and people were not feeling uncomfortable about it.

“So I said Hold on, I want to stop for a minute because I have a lot of these self-deprecating jokes about Israel, but I’m feeling terrible telling them today, because my country has attacked Gaza, which is basically a massive prison surrounded by a wall. They are bombing them with F-16s jets and this will only stop if there is international intervention. The place is the size of Glasgow but without the drugs. I thought Obama was chosen to be the American President but, reading a statement that came out of the White House today, I realised it was really Mitt Romney. People were clapping – some of them were standing up and clapping. Then I went on to talk about pervy Englishmen and it went down really well.

“When that happens, you come out and you feel exhilarated. People laughed on the one hand, but also listened to what I had to say. Comedians want to be seen and heard. Maybe all of us were children who were not heard enough. Being in comedy is a little like being in prison or an asylum. Nobody is here for no good reason. Nobody stumbles into it by mistake. There’s something driving people to do it.

“I know one main thing which took me from lawyering to journalism to comedy was I need to be heard. I have opinions. I have thoughts. I need people to hear them. And I felt very ‘heard’ last week in Glasgow.”

“But you’re unlikely,” I said, “to do so well with Jewish audiences at the moment.”

“Well,” said Daphna, “there’s a website called the SHIT List. SHIT is an acronym for Self-Hating Israel-Threatening Jews. I think it came out around 2003. I’m on that list; my dad’s on that list; my uncle’s on that list.

“But Jews are not a homegenic crowd. Of course a vociferous majority both here and in America are very pro-Israel… Israel is like the phallic symbol of the Jewish nation. We’re the cool ones! We’re aggressive! We’re in your face! We don’t take shit from anybody! At the same time, we’re also embarrassing and rude. We’re a bit brutish. I think there is a dichotomy about the way British Jews feel about Israelis. Right wing Israelis who come here and speak can seem crass and sometimes people feel that they sound racist. There’s a feeling they don’t word it right.

Occasional Guardian articles…

“Leftie Jews come here and are quite critical of the Israeli government and some liberal Jews think You invoke anti-Semitism and you’re not even aware of it because you’re not even aware of anti-Semitism. And it’s true. We grow up in Israel where we kick ass and we’re the majority.

“There’s a lot of self-righteousness in Israel – a sense that we are right. But we have taken another people’s country and we don’t understand how come they don’t like it. That is probably my best joke ever, because it encapsulates the way I see the Israeli-Palestinian problem. First the taking over and then the self-righteousness, the not understanding how come the world cannot see we are the victims.

“But they’re not going to let us be the victims forever. Not when you see on television pictures of victims being dragged from the wreckage in Gaza and taken to shabby hospitals in a place that is basically a prison.”

“So,” I persisted, “maybe Jews won’t like your act at the moment?”

“When British Jews complain to me about something I’ve said in my act,” Daphna told me, “they don’t say it’s not true. They say Why do you say that? Why do you bring the dirty washing outside? When an Israeli comes out and talks like I do – because Israelis are the über-Jews and we are the ones who are there and have been though the wars – they find it quite difficult to argue with us.”

“Until last year,” I said, “you wrote serious articles under your own name of Daphna Baram, but performed comedy as Miss D.”

“I was worried that people who read me in the Guardian would… Well, no heckler that I’ve ever encountered has been as vicious as people who write Talkbacks to the Guardian after your article has been published.

“Hecklers sit in an audience. Other audience members can see them. When you write a Talkback to the Guardian, no-one can see you. So people are vicious.

“This is why I started gigging under the name Miss D – because I was scared. I thought These people are so vicious they will come follow me to gigs and, because my on-stage persona was so new and vulnerable… Look, it’s scary coming on-stage and telling jokes when you think you have a lot of enemies you don’t even know. Even now, after I ‘came out’ under my own name in January last year at preview gigs for my Edinburgh Fringe show Frenemies

“Look, when I started doing comedy, I was worried about these things…

“In my first year, I was not talking about Israel at all. I was doing some sort of reluctant dominatrix routine partly because the material was not coming. I was taking all the aggressive traits of my persona. I was dressed like a sexual predator. I wore corsets and the premise of my set was I’m scary and I don’t know why people think I’m scary. It’s still a theme in my comedy, but I think I’ve learned to put it in a less crass way. My premise now is that I’m not hiding behind my scariness.

“There’s something interesting about wearing corsets. You would think when you want to hide you cover yourself. But sometimes just exposing yourself is also a kind of cover. Being sexy on stage is a kind of cover. You’re a character. You’re somebody else. I don’t think I’m there yet but, more and more, I envy the comedians who stand on stage and they are who they are and just chat.

“When people talk to new stand-up comedians, they say: Oh, just go on and be yourself. As if that’s easy. It’s not. The whole journey of becoming a good comedian is managing to be yourself on stage as you are when you are funny in real life. I think it can take years.”

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How I ate in a Chinese restaurant in London’s Soho with four New York Jews

Lewis Schaffer on stage last night

(This was also published in the Huffington Post)

Last night, I went to see American comedian Lewis Schaffer’s ongoing 90-minute twice-weekly Free Until Famous comedy show in London’s Soho. Every time a different show, but I almost got bushwhacked in Leicester Square by the ever-persuasive Dan March, flogging his excellent monthly sketch show Skitsophrenia. Well, it’s a show featuring The Real MacGuffins, but Dan is one of ‘em. It’s very good. I saw it at the Edinburgh Fringe.

“I’ll come and see it in May,” I told Dan. I’m away in April.”

“Where?” he asked.

“I’m not saying,” I replied.

“When did you get back from Adelaide?” he asked.

“I never went,” I replied. “It’s the power of bullshit in blogging. It just seems like I did because I quoted people’s e-mails so often.”

I had told Lewis Schaffer I was coming with comedian Bob Slayer but, at the last moment, Bob could not make it. I suspect he is probably still hiding from the wrath of expatriate Australians after his sojourn in Oz where, I imagine, the good people of Perth and Adelaide may bear the psychological and emotional scars for years.

Lewis Schaffer – always call him ‘Lewis Schaffer’, never just plain ‘Lewis’ – it’s more memorable in publicity terms – managed a stonker of a show, good from start to finish, despite five 18-year-old American girls in the front row who appeared to have had a major humour bypass or possibly even a humor bypass.

They were particularly offended by Lewis Schaffer’s circumcision routine and by his closing Holocaust routine – which still includes the best Holocaust joke I have ever heard.

After the show, I went with Lewis Schaffer, a New Yorker called Peter who lives in London and Jenna, the girl who rents Peter’s apartment in New York, to a Chinese restaurant in Soho. On the way, bizarrely, we bumped into Jenna’s father Steve. He is passing through London, working, for a week. Don’t ask. I didn’t.

So that’s how I ended up in a Chinese restaurant in London’s Soho with four New York Jews and that’s where the question came up:

“Who is John and what does he do?”

Steve asked Lewis Schaffer.

As I have mentioned before in this blog, I have never been able to explain what I do. I wish someone could tell me.

“Do you know the phrase fingers in pies?” Lewis Schaffer asked Steve.

Steve nodded.

Lewis Schaffer shrugged and nodded towards me.

“I was working with Reg Hunter…” said Lewis Schaffer.

“Who’s that?” Steve asked.

“There are only five American comedians who are of any note in this country,” explained Lewis Schaffer. “There’s the black guy which is Reg Hunter. There’s the left wing guy which is Rich Hall. There’s the hippy guy which is Dave Fulton. There’s the gay guy which is Scott Capurro. And there’s a fifth…”

“You?” I prompted.

“No, I’m not noteworthy,” Lewis Schaffer replied absentmindedly. “Anyway there’s one more. But there’s not enough room in this country for even four, because they hate American comedians here because we’re not one of the tribe… So I was working with Reg over at the Arts Theatre… I liked Reg. Same as Peter,” he said, nodding at the young guy sitting opposite him. “Just as soon as I met Peter, I liked the guy. Did you sense Lewis Schaffer liked you?”

Peter shrugged.

“With you, John,” Lewis Schaffer said, looking at me, I didn’t know if I would like you or not, because you’re a shambolic, horrible-looking mess of a man. You don’t shave. You need your hair cut. It’s longer in the back. It’s like a Larry David kind of haircut. It’s like a mullet. I just met you and I didn’t know exactly what you did or what you wanted from me and I still don’t… So I said to Reg Hunter, who was my friend at the time – he doesn’t call me now. He doesn’t speak to me. People don’t like me.”

Jenna laughed loudly.

“Stop it!” said Lewis Schaffer. “We’re not in New York. This is why you’re going to hate living here. You’ve gotta lower your expectations.”

“Look at the food,” said Jenna.

“It looks good from a distance,” said Lewis Schaffer. “But then you taste it… It’s like my penis.”

“Small portions,” I said.

“It’s probably true,” said Steve, “that all comedians have small penises, because the whole comedy thing is a result of…”

“No,” said Lewis Schaffer, “I just pretend that I’ve got a small penis for the sake of comedy. “My penis is very large – it’s nine inches long. I measured it this morning. I put the ruler in backwards – 12 – 11 – 10 – 9 inches. How long into the skin are you allowed to jam the ruler?… So I asked Reg: What about this guy John Fleming? He looks like a shambolic mess.

“A shambolic mess?” Steve asked.

“Look at this man,” Lewis Schaffer said to Steve, pointing to me, “This man is a dictionary definition of shambolic.”

“Is ‘shambolic’ not a word in America?” I asked.

“No,” said Lewis Schaffer. It’s not a word here either. There is no word ‘shambolic’ in English dictionaries.”

“There is,” I protested.

“There isn’t,” said Lewis Schaffer. “There’s no word for ‘gullible’ in the dictionary either.”

“In America?” I asked.

“Anywhere,” said Lewis Schaffer.

“Yes there is,” I protested.

“John,” said Jenna. “He’s just trying to make you seem gullible.”

“Very smart girl,” said Lewis Schaffer to Steve. “Your daughter’s very smart… So, I said to Reg, Is he a reasonable guy? Look at the way he looks? He hasn’t shaved. So he said… I can’t remember the funny quote, but he said…”

“Who said?” asked Steve.

“This guy Reg Hunter,” explained Lewis Schaffer, “He’s the Number One comedian in this country.”

“Does this guy really even exist?” asked Steve.

“Yes,” insisted Lewis Schaffer. “He said I like the way he looks…”

“Who?” asked Steve.

“John,” said Lewis Schaffer.

“I’ve never met him!” I interrupted.

“He said I like the way he looks,” Lewis Schaffer continued, “because, in this country, you never trust a man who wears new clothes – because he’s trying too hard.”

There was a long pause.

“Trying too hard?” asked Steve.

“Trying too hard,” repeated Lewis Schaffer. “Because in this country… Well, maybe he didn’t say that. But I’m saying that. That’s what Reg Hunter said.”

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Well,” said Lewis Schaffer, “I don’t want to misquote him. I don’t want to put words into Reg’s mouth which he didn’t say because I want to use it in my show.”

“I often get mistaken for Brad Pitt,” I said.

No-one laughed.

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Jewish comedian Lewis Schaffer reacts to the Palestinian refugee camps myth

Yesterday, I wrote a blog about Palestinian so-called refugee camps.

I asked London-based Jewish American comedian Lewis Schaffer if he had any opinion on it.

I do not know why I foolishly asked if he has an opinion.

Of course he does.

He has an opinion on everything.

You might spot a of self-marketing in it.

This is his response…

_____

You are not going to pull me into an argument.

I grew up supporting and loving Israel but I also see the devastation the creation of the State of Israel has caused on the Palestinians.

Keeping in mind that more Muslims come to my show than Jews (Lewis Schaffer is Free until Famous at the Source Below – 8.00pm Tuesdays and Wednesday; reserve at www.sourcebelow.com), I lean to siding with Palestinians, solely for business purposes.

The great American humorist Will Rogers (and all Americans are great, but this dude was GREAT even by American standards), once said:  “You’re dead as a comic if you take yourself seriously or if the audience takes you seriously”.  

I am lucky because I barely have an audience to alienate and the more I take myself seriously the more people think I am just kidding.

An analogy of the situation in Israel/Palestine is a sad vignette presented on BBC’s Frozen Planet with David Attenborough this week. They showed a fight to the death between a wolf and buffalo in the cold snowy north of Canada – actually Canada is all cold snowy north.

David Attenborough expressed the modern view that humans shouldn’t take a side in this natural fight between two species. He felt both the wolf and the buffalo had a right to live. A few years ago we might have sided with the gentle grazer bison and not the hunting wolf but now we see the wolf’s side, too.

And rightly so.

I have Wolfs in my family on my father’s side. They moved out to Phoenix after the War and did quite well in the furniture business.  On the other hand, my mother’s maiden name was Buffalofsky.

_____

Well, that’s the Palestinian problem sorted then.

Tomorrow, back to the blog…

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