Tag Archives: Lenny Bruce

Two comedians talk about being failures

Will Franken (right) gives Lewis Schaffer 60p at St Pancras station

Will Franken (right) pays back Lewis Schaffer 60p in London

It is Christmas Day.

Bah! Humbug!

So here are British-based American comics Will Franken and Lewis Schaffer talking about being failures in the comedy business, with a couple of questions from me…


WILL
Lenny Bruce could not have made it in this day and age.

LEWIS
Did he make it even in his day and age?

WILL
He did make it in that day and age. Well…

LEWIS
Yes, he made it briefly, for a couple of years.

JOHN
Did he make money?

LEWIS
He did make money. He had a house in the Hollywood Hills.

WILL
Two reasons why he would not have made it today… ONE Because everybody’s got to be a fucking businessman and he didn’t have a scrap of businessman in him.

LEWIS
That’s totally not true. He was a…

WILL
He was a vaudeville guy.

LEWIS
He had been doing it for years and years. He was a crook. He used to go out in the street and pretend he was…

WILL
…a priest. I know.

LEWIS
…and to hustle.

WILL
Yeah, but that was a bit, man.

JOHN
A Christian priest?

WILL
Yeah.

LEWIS
There is no way – ever – somebody could be a success without being good at business.

WILL
You’re out of your mind, man. There was something different in those days. And the second reason he would not make it in this day and age is because people no longer understand the concept Freedom of Speech. They don’t get why Political Correctness is anathema to it.

LEWIS
You are talking about a man who was destroyed for what he said. You say they understood Freedom of Speech back then?

WILL
If he was around today…

LEWIS
They were putting him in jail, in jail, in jail.

WILL
If he was around today, he’d be going after every PC sacred cow there is and they’d say: Oh my God! This guy’s a racist! Let’s not go to his shows!

LEWIS
Exactly. So he wouldn’t make money.

JOHN
But Jerry Sadowitz does that.

LEWIS
And he does make money, yes. But he doesn’t put his head above the parapet. He doesn’t make Facebook announcements. He has his own 200 people going to every single show. And he makes a decent living from that.

WILL
He’s a cult.

LEWIS
He’s a cult. But you (TALKING TO WILL) want to be more than a cult.

WILL
I don’t want to be more than a cult. I’m happy being a cult.

LEWIS
You want to be bigger than Jerry Sadowitz.

WILL
This pisses me off about you. You say I want to be bigger than Jerry Sadowitz. No. I want to be able to pay my rent, buy some classic literature every now and then and go to the movies. That’s it. That’s all I want.

LEWIS
Well, then, you’re being a bad businessman.

WILL
How good a business person do you have to be to pay your rent? You don’t have to be Donald Trump.

LEWIS
As a comedian, you’ve got to be really good.

WILL
You don’t know what you’re talking about. If you were sitting there in an Armani suit and you’d just come of a 500-seat gig, I’d say: Yeah. I’ll never be like Lewis. But the fact is you and I are squabbling over £50…

LEWIS
I didn’t say I was a good businessman. I’m an absolute failure as a businessman.

WILL
I went to three different countries in October.

LEWIS
I know. You were a somebody back then.

WILL
This was only two months ago. I had a comfortable…

LEWIS
You only speak to me when you’re doing badly.

WILL
Exactly.

LEWIS
Why do you do that?

WILL
Because it reinforces my self-pity. The way this business is… I wasn’t gigging last night, so I went on Twitter, scrolling through, waiting to see if somebody agrees with me that ISIS are bad people. I’ve been doing this lately. Does anybody think ISIS deserves to be punished? And I see Lewis Schaffer is in North Allerton. He’s supposed to be a failure! You’re my barometer for failure, Lewis! So, if Lewis Schaffer is gigging and I’m not, that’s not good and I have to call you. Whereas, if I’m going to three different countries in a month…

LEWIS
You wanna know why I had a gig and you didn’t? Because last year I spent a couple of months working. Actually working. And that’s something you do not do.

WILL
I work!

LEWIS
No, you spend time on your comedy, which is why you’re so funny. You go home and write shows. Every single day, you’re thinking of comedy.

JOHN
(TO LEWIS) You were working at what?

LEWIS
Working is doing stuff you don’t wanna know. It’s calling up people on the phone and saying: Hey! Can I come to North Allerton?

WILL
You told me you’re a failure.

LEWIS
IAM a failure! But you’re more of a failure than I am, because you’re funny. That’s what I like about you. You make me feel good. Of all the people I know, you have the largest gap between what you have achieved and what you deserve to achieve. You are totally capable of achieving great things. You could be a success tomorrow and this whole conversation will sound so fucking stupid. You have time. There’s an old saying: A happy ending depends on when they end the movie. Your movie might have another four hours to go.

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Comic Lewis Schaffer “has got that same metaphysical motive as Shakespeare’s characters” says British academic study

Academic researcher Liam - as he wishes to be seen

Academic researcher Liam – as he wishes to be seen

In the last few months, I have posted some extracts from chats Liam Lonergan had with me and various comedians, including Lewis Schaffer for his BA (Hons) course in Creative and Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth. Yesterday, I got a message from Liam:

I got a 1st for my Media Writing Project / Dissertation. It consisted of a research bundle, a series of long-form articles and an essay about:

a) how stand-up starts as an egalitarian pursuit but is eventually absorbed into market capitalism,

b) How Lewis Schaffer relates to literary modes of humour and

c) the link between humour and hypomania.

(The latter was eventually abandoned but it was still part of my research).

“Can I print your academic piece about Lewis Schaffer?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“What should I say about you?” I asked.

“Maybe mention,” he said, “that I review restaurants for a website called Blue Tomato and that, one day, I hope to write ‘The Great Essex Novel’ in the same vein as that other quested-for chimera ‘The Great American Novel’.”

“Have you got a photo of yourself looking suitably academic?” I asked.

“I’ve attached a picture that you can use,” he told me. “I want a picture of me that is the antithesis of scholarly.”

That is the picture above, together with Liam’s thesis below.


Lewis Schaffer, shoeless man

Lewis Schaffer, shoeless guru

All of us think in a series of banalities; useless thoughts and redundant ideas that fall away like discarded receipts. My housemate and I used to have an ongoing joke where we place bits of ephemera found in our pockets (a ticket; a tissue; a raisin) onto each other’s pillow. We put them there as if they were a present or a swimming certificate or anything other than a train ticket or a bit of old raisin.

We never spoke about it. The joke was that, by sneaking in and displaying these innocuous items prominently on the pillow, they were given some sort of “weight.” They were imbued with symbolic gesture. We also used to play a game where we left a mug out on the mantelpiece and waited four months until it was really dusty. We called it Dusty Cup.

This meant nothing.

In his book about comedy and literature, The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel, James Wood writes about the irrelevance of stream of consciousness and how we’re “continually remembering more, and most of it is useless information.” Our thought processes are pure raisin – they’re full of useless information – but we always infuse this uselessness with meaning.

Nearly all the dialogue in the HBO series True Detective was constructed by this instinct to make bollocks seem important. (Sidenote: The Ladybird Book of Gnosticism was a vital source for Nic Pizzolatto). Another example is Andy Kaufman’s “deadpan showbiz parody” and “dadaist performance art.” While commentators wrote about the postmodernist aspect of his act, he always insisted that it was devoid of any real substance. In 1979 he told Time magazine “The critics try to intellectualize my material. There’s no satire involved. Satire is a concept that can only be understood by adults. My stuff is straight, for people of all ages.” Wood goes on to write about the “status of irrelevant detail.”

For me, my favourite comedy is about these irrelevant details and our digressionary pursuit of gravitas (while, ultimately, settling on the pointless stuff). Again, as Wood says: “It is always funny when singular novelty is passed off as a general wisdom.”

Stream of consciousness on the page can never mimic actual thought processes as syntax is too calculated; it’s too exact. Russian novelist Vladimir Nabakov complained that the problem with James Joyce’s Ulysses is that we don’t think in words. Joyce – in-between writing letters to Nora Barnacle about her “gushing hole” or “arse full of farts” that he fucked out of her – attempted to capture the metamorphosis and constant displacement of mental activity.

When you transcribe interviews (or watch politicians go off-piste during a photo op in Iceland) you notice this kind of transient, shifting language. People speaking in half aborted statements that they pick up an hour later; malopropistic mangling that, somehow, has its own internal logic; explanations that peter out and…

The prototype for stream of consciousness in fiction was Shakespeare’s soliloquies. These are meant to provide an insight into the brain of Lady Macbeth or Edmund via. a recital to the omnipotent audience, but they, too, can’t accurately capture consciousness. They’re “thought” after thought. Carefully composed language acts as an agent for the knotted-pubic-thatch of brain function.

After five years of studying Shakespeare in senior school we know that these speeches are attached to a half-a-ton of subtext; a Kerouac scroll of margin notes about “out damn spot!” and “unsex me here”. (Sidenote (2): In the latter speech, Mrs. Macbeth wanted her feminine nature to be taken away. She should have just called Joyce and asked him to come over to suck the “little naughty farties” out of her arse. Job done).

Shakespeare’s universe is populated by people with intent. Everything that comes into their head is multi-sided and full of meaning. They never ruminate on why James Locke from The Only Way Is Essex looks like he has no eyelids or if Kim Kardashian uses a lot of Sudocrem. The heroes and heroines / villains and villainesses vocalise their interior monologues because they have a metaphysical motive: they want to show the audience and themselves that they exist. They can’t exist in a cocoon of private mood.

In life, people don’t usually narrate their feelings and intentions out loud. They keep them contained on a human Cloud Drive or put them on their Twitter feed. One notable exception is the comedian.

The best comedians transmit their agonies or intentions – minus an author’s literary-technical need – directly to the other people in the room. The more ill prepared the material, the better. They usually position themselves in contrast to what, in the words of American academic and Presbyterian minister, Conrad Hyers, is considered “authentically human”. Hyers writes that heroic traits such as “courage, loyalty, duty, honor, pride, indomitable will, stubborn determination, passionate involvement, absolute devotion, uncompromising dedication” have become, in our common understanding of what makes someone a correct human, a list of sought after characteristics.

For comedians, it’s part of the criteria that they’re none of these things. (Sidenote (3): Although, Tim Heidecker, of the comedy duo Tim & Eric, was stabbed twice in 2006 while attempting to protect his elderly neighbour from her son. Some are brave but only behind closed doors).

Hyers goes on to say that “the comic vision possesses a greater appreciation for the muddiness of human nature.” This includes the raisin and the Dusty Cup of nothing. The insubstantial stuff.

Dusty Cup is the “midst of nothingness” that Vladimir, in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, talks about towards the end of the play. It’s the elliptical nature of existence. It’s the explanations that…

In November 2013, I went to Soho to meet Lewis Schaffer. Lewis is a 56 year old stand-up who moved from New York to Nunhead approximately 12 years ago and performs two weekly shows at The Source Below. He also has a residency at the Leicester Square Theatre where he features most Sunday evenings with his other show, American In London. Martin Witts, the Artistic Director of the LST, said that Lewis is a “long term project” and he hopes that, one day, “he’ll be consistently funny”. When he emailed me this, I replied with: “the inconsistency is part of his charm!” Lewis keeps the discarded receipts.

Lewis has an off-white complexion that is somewhere between “Dunmore Cream” and “Monroe Bisque” – with a slightly swampy tinge – and a face with the same solid architecture as the Boxer of Quirinal (minus the beard). He’s stocky with hunched shoulders and wears a suit that has some strain on the middle button a la Oliver Hardy or Jackie Gleason. His hair is peppery. This is a different colour to the ink-cartridge-black that appears in most of his promotional photos.

He is scattergun in speech and disposition and sounds a bit like Martin Scorsese or Greg Proops or one of those manicured Jewish mothers. During conversation, he often veers off course (“A limey! A limey. From Limehouse. Limey from Limehouse. Hey! So. So what was the question you had?”) and chases another fleeting thought or a snippet of conversation with the Lewis Schaffer regulars. He was on first name terms with nearly all of the people who filtered into his show. It was like a tree-house gang.

Lenny Bruce, in his autobiography How To Talk Dirty and Influence People, wrote “As a child I loved confusion: a freezing blizzard that would stop all traffic and mail; toilets that would get stopped up and overflow and run down the halls; electrical failures – anything that would stop the flow and make it back up and find new direction. Confusion was entertainment to me.” Schaffer’s whole act operates on this notion of chaos – “I believe in chaos. [The whole thing] is training for chaos” – but it all seems so brilliantly aimless.

When Lenny Bruce utilized stream of consciousness and exploratory improvisation – in the jazz-club-patois that he helped to popularise – he always had an ulterior motive. It was a device to dent taboos or rile up the audience with its incessantness; it was used to rouse a state of righteous indignation so he can could highlight the hypocrisy of the righteous. Bruce was the hero with a bundle full of soliloquies. Schaffer is pure comedy. There doesn’t appear to be any social or political incentive; it’s all about answering Schaffer’s often repeated mantra: “Is that funny?”

Richard Zoglin, an American journalist and author, said that the cardinal rule of comedy is “Don’t ever be standing on the same level as the tables.”

The Source Below is a tiny venue run by two Brazilians (one Brazilian/Italian; one Brazilian/German). The “stage” is just another section of floor in front of the 30/35 seats and lit up by a spotlight. Lewis stands there with his microphone and fluctuates between a strained holler forced through inflamed vocal chords (when he chides the audience or slips into mock-American jingoism – “It’s called the World Series! Because it’s our world!”) and a quiet, subdued voice when he’s trying to coax his tree-house gang into loving him.

Psychoanalyst and author, Darian Leader, writes this about hypomania: “[What] distinguished manic-depression from other forms of psychosis, where the person may construct a virtual, distant or internal addressee [is that the manic-depressive] has [to have] a real listener right there in front of them. And yet there is something tenuous, desperate even, about how the manic person maintains their interlocutor, as if they [have to keep] them there at all costs, like a nightclub entertainer who has to keep his audience focused on himself at all times.”

When Lewis climbs on a chair in the front row and begs for his audience’s attention like a dinner party host trying to initiate party games, Leader may well have seen a bit of Lewis is that “nightclub entertainer.”

Lewis has got that same metaphysical motive as Shakespeare’s characters – to make the audience know that he exists – but he does it with a couple of adlibs about the smell of corn and biofuel manufacturing. These go nowhere. They mean nothing. They are Dusty Cup.

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The death of Tony Gray of The Alberts, who linked BBC2’s awful opening to The Goons, the Bonzo Dogs & Monty Python

Tony Gray

Tony Gray was billed for the opening of BBC2

Fifty years ago this Sunday – 20th April 1964 – the BBC2 television channel was due to start with a special programme The Albert’s Channel Too by anarchic comedy duo The Alberts.

It was billed as coming “direct from the Alberts’ Television Centre” featuring (according to Radio Times) Ivor Cutler, David Jacobs, Adolf Hitler and Birma the elephant.

Instead, a fire broke out at Battersea Power Station and, separately, there was a fault in a 60,000 volt cable at Iver in Buckinghamshire which cut power in West London, including BBC Television Centre.

The opening of BBC2 was a shambles.

The Alberts performed the following night, so BBC2 had two consecutive opening nights, both utterly anarchic.

Last Saturday, I sent a message to Albion Gray, the son of Tony Gray, one of The Alberts:

Tony Gray (left), Douglas Gray (right) and Bruce Lacey (top)

The Alberts – Tony Gray (left) and Douglas Gray (right) – with Bruce Lacey (top) and dog (bottom)

I trekked out to Norfolk to chat to them in the 1980s when I was a researcher on, I guess, Game For a Laugh

Possibly Malcolm Hardee mentioned them to me. They were wonderful people. I don’t suppose they’d be up for a blog chat would they?

He replied:

My dad Tony is a bit too frail to be interviewed but Douglas is in better shape. Let me find out and get back to you.

Yesterday, I got another message from Albion. It started:

Unfortunately my father passed away yesterday, at the grand old age of 86. 

By last night, there was an obituary on the Daily Telegraph website headlined

Tony Gray was a co-founder of a musical comedy act whose brand of anarchic slapstick inspired Monty Python

The Alberts were brothers Tony and Douglas Gray. The Daily Telegraph obituary is rather low-key in saying “their specialities included bubble-blowing automata and exploding camels”.

A Show Called Fred (from left). Top row: Graham Stark, Spike Milligan, Tony Gray, Valentine Dyall, Peter Sellers. Bottom row: Kenneth Connor, Douglas Gray, Johnny Vyvyan, Mario Fabrizi

A Show Called Fred (from left)… Top row: Graham Stark, unknown dummy, Spike Milligan, Tony Gray, Valentine Dyall, Peter Sellers… Bottom row: Kenneth Connor, Douglas Gray, Johnny Vyvyan, Mario Fabrizi

In 1956, in an attempt to transfer the radio success of The Goon Show to TV, Associated-Rediffusion made the series A Show Called Fred in which The Alberts featured. It was broadcast only in the London region, was written by Spike Milligan, starred Peter Sellers and was produced & directed by Dick Lester (who went on to direct cult short The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film with Peter Sellers and Bruce Lacey in 1960 and later The Beatles’ feature films A Hard Day’s Night and Help!

There is an entire 25-minute episode of A Show Called Fred on YouTube. The Alberts first appear 20 seconds into the pre-credit sequence carrying musical instruments. Douglas enters first.

If you want to know what The Alberts were like – both on AND off stage and screen, think The Goons on the way to Monty Python with The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band stirred in.

Satirist John Wells famously described one of The Alberts’ 1960s performances thus:

“Moth-eaten men in beards and baggy Edwardian clothes strode on and off the stage; there were a great many random bangs and explosions, trumpets were blown, jokes were muttered and shouted, usually into the wings; the stuffed camel had its tail turned like a starting handle to the accompaniment of further bangs and more dirty men in ancient military uniforms strode on and off shouting at each other; someone appeared dressed as a bee; a mechanical dummy was wheeled on to deliver a monosyllabic political speech; a musician in grubby white tie and tails attempted to play the cello, and subversive figures winking at the audience and slyly tapping their noses were seen to lay a charge of dynamite under his chair, reel out the cable to a plunger and finally blow themselves up with another thunderous bang.”

There is a 4-minute video on YouTube of The Flying Alberts – Tony & Douglas with Bruce Lacey and Jill Bruce in the 1960s.

In 1962, Peter Cook booked The Alberts for a residency at his seminal London comedy club The Establishment. They performed a Dada-inspired quiz show in which Bruce Lacey asked the questions. A description of one show said Lacey asked a question, the competitor got a bucket of whitewash poured over his head and then said: “Could you repeat the question, please?”

American comic Lenny Bruce saw The Alberts perform at The Establishment and booked them for an American tour. They crossed the Atlantic on the Queen Mary liner, reportedly either entertaining or annoying other passengers by riding penny-farthing bicycles around the decks. By the time they arrived in New York, Lenny Bruce had been arrested on charges of obscenity but The Alberts’ show was a success in New York. Somewhat oddly, it reportedly bombed in San Francisco which, you would think, would have been more open to their eccentricities.

The Alberts - purveyors of fine British Rubbish to royalty

The Alberts – purveyors of fine British Rubbish to royalty

Back in London, their West End show An Evening of British Rubbish ran for almost a year in 1963 (Princess Margaret went to see it twice) and they later toured the show in Belgium and France, under the title Crazy Show de British Rubbish.

An Evening of British Rubbish was released as an LP in 1963, produced by George Martin whose work with The Alberts was rather overshadowed that year by his work with The Beatles. George Martin also produced a single for The Alberts (with Bruce Lacey) featuring The Morse Code Melody on one side and Sleepy Valley on the other.

The Alberts – always very musical – are often cited as a big influence on The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band. Vivian Stanshall of The Bonzos said: “If there was any influence at all, it would be The Alberts or the Commedia dell’arte.”

According to their oft-times collaborator Bruce Lacey, The Temperance Seven band was originally formed by the Alberts but they were later ejected for ‘musical incompatibility’. I know no more.

The fake accounts and AGM of Albert, Lacey & Albert 1960-1961

The fake accounts and AGM of entertainment experts Albert, Lacey & Albert Ltd, 1960-1961

Around 1971, EMI issued a musical compilation album simply titled: The Alberts/The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band/The Temperance Seven and there was a later 1999 album called By Jingo, It’s British Rubbish with tracks by The Alberts, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, The Temperance Seven, Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers

It was almost 30 years ago – in the mid 1980s – when I went up to meet Tony and Douglas Gray at home in Norfolk. I can remember very little except that it was an ex-vicarage and I liked both of the brothers immediately and immensely. I do remember Douglas played bagpipes indoors (a commendably eccentric thing to do, though never a good idea to experience) and Tony was dressed in full cricketing outfit… Neither did either of these things for any discernible reason.

Producer Danny Greenstone, who was with me on the visit, told me this morning: “I remember the bagpipe playing, but it didn’t stop at bagpipes. We were also treated to the tuba, a ukulele and other bizarre instruments. We wanted them for Game For a Laugh (of course) but I can’t remember what it was we wanted them to do. It MUST have been some kind of musical act and I think we DID get them to do it, but the details have faded. I also remember that you got a flat tyre on the way back.”

Memories fade. I only remember the bagpipes, Tony’s clothes and their personalities. I think there is a slight possibility that Douglas wore a kilt and a sporran. Perhaps I imagined it. Perhaps not.

At the time Danny and I met them, they were both working for the Sunday Telegraph and, I think other Fleet Street newspapers by driving delivery vans. This was before Rupert Murdoch fully broke the power of the newspaper unions and I have some vague memory of them telling me that they performed part of their journalistic duties by signing in (or having other people sign in for them) as M.Mouse in London while staying in Norfolk and not actually doing anything. Perhaps I imagined it. Perhaps not.

Tony (left) and Douglas Gray when they were young

Brothers Tony (left) and Douglas Gray when they were young

The Alberts had a varied and influential career which deserves to be remembered. They appeared in several Ken Russell films and in the 1965 Royal Command Performance at the London Palladium and, in 1966, they appeared in their own show The Three Musketeers Ride Again both at the Arts Theatre and the Royal Court theatre in London.

On YouTube, there is a song – sung by Tony Gray this century – which was written for The Alberts’ 1966 production of The Three Musketeers Ride Again. It is called When I Was Seventeen.

RIP Tony Gray 1927-2014

So it goes.

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Which makes you a better stand-up comedian? Alcohol, cocaine or heroin?

Andy Zapp - the current man in my bed at Edinburgh Fringe

Andy Zapp stayed in my flat at the Edinburgh Fringe last year

At last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, musician/comedian Andy Zapp performed in a show with comedian Ivor Dembina.

Currently, he performs on Saturdays at Ivor’s Hampstead Comedy Club in London.

He is billed as The Orchestra of Andy Zapp.

“A lot of jazz musicians liked heroin,” I said to him over tea in Soho.

“Yes,” agreed Andy. “Miles Davis, John Coltrane, all those ones.”

“One comedian told me,” I said, “that he might take Red Bull, but he never took cocaine before going on stage because he wouldn’t be able to control his act. I’m not sure I believed him, though.”

“Well,” said Andy, “Lenny Bruce managed to do it quite successfully for a time. I think you can do it if you have that creative spurt. I might be quite good doing that for five or six months, then I’d just be fucked. You’ve got that sort of creative burst because you’ve got the energy and you’re not worried about how you feel when they don’t laugh. Subjectively, you’re cut off. You’re not really connecting with the audience and it doesn’t bother you.”

“I suppose though,” I suggested, “it could make the paranoia even worse.”

“Well, yeah,” said Andy, “you’ve gotta get paranoid first, though. When you take cocaine, you don’t automatically get paranoid; that’s further down the line. The initial part of it’s really nice, but then you start getting paranoid. Heroin would be better. Nice and relaxed.”

“You don’t want to be too relaxed performing comedy, though,” I suggested.

“You wouldn’t have the anxiety, though,” Andy argued. “I don’t know how it would work for comedians. They’re more piss-heads. Drink.”

“I wonder why?” I mused.

“Well,” said Andy, “it’s a different type of buzz. More outward. Music’s a little bit more inward: you don’t really have to ‘perform’.”

“I suppose drink makes people go off more at tangents,” I said.

“Garrolous,” agreed Andy. “Drink dis-inhibits. Heroin stops you feeling. You don’t feel physical pain, you don’t feel emotional pain. Me, I couldn’t use anything, really. I’m never tempted that much.”

“Why are you tempted at all?” I asked.

A ‘selfie’ taken by Andy Zapp in London last week

A ‘selfie’ taken by Andy in London last week

“I think: Oh yeah, I’ll just take a bit of speed and I can just really fly about or some cocaine and it’ll really turn off the internal sensor. But doing comedy clean the way I’ve been doing it – I’ve been doing it two-and-a-half years now – being with Ivor helps. He’s really useful.”

“Why? Because he’s analytical?” I asked. “I saw Ivor put his Palestine show together over a few months and it was like seeing a watchmaker paying attention to every little detail.”

“He’s maybe a bit too careful,” replied Andy, “but I’m all over the place, so he’s very good at getting me back on track. I’m still trying to sort this composure stuff out before I go on stage. If I forget my composure, I forget what I’m doing and get scared when I get up on stage.”

“Where did you and Ivor meet?” I asked.

“At the Red Rose Club about 27 or 30 years ago,” said Andy. “I used to like going to comedy shows. I was a junkie then.”

“How many years?” I asked.

“I’ve been in recovery for 27. I’m 15 years clean now.”

“How does that add up?” I asked.

“I was clean for 7; got a tumour on my spinal cord; the doctors prescribed me pain-killing medication and I sort of lost the plot on that; then I relapsed for 4 years; and I’ve been clean for 15. That’s 26-and-a-bit years. It’s been a great journey. I love being clean; I really do.”

“You recommend it as a career path?”

“I would. What’s your bag?”

“Chocolate,” I explained. “I have a stomach to support.”

“Other people do gambling or sex,” said Andy. “I just do drugs. It’s all addiction.”

“But if you’re clean of drugs now,” I asked, “what’s your addiction?”

“It’s kind of low-grade now,” said Andy. “I kind of understand how I roll. I can do chocolate now. I’ve got a high metabolic rate. I exercise quite a lot.”

“Marihuana is fairly harmless,” I said.

“That’s not true,” said Andy. “It isn’t harmless. It mimics mental health problems. Schizophrenia, paranoia, low self-esteem.”

“Sounds like the basic requirements for becoming a stand-up comedian,” I said.

“Well, it’s a good starting point,” said Andy, “but you can’t tell which way it’s going to go. It’s the way you smoke it, really. Physical damage; throat cancer; stuff like that. Heroin is the most benign of all the drugs.”

“Pure heroin,” I said.

In the 1950s, heroin was a popular medicine prescribed by family doctors

In the 1950s, heroin was still a popular medicine prescribed by family doctors

“Yeah pure heroin,” agreed Andy. “I used to get jacks – 10mg tablets – like little saccharine pills. You got them off doctors. As a drug, heroin progresses through the body really easily. Within seven hours, it’s flushed through your system. It doesn’t damage any of the major organs. The only thing is it’s very addictive and, if you take a wrong amount, you can overdose. The stuff people get now… it depends what it’s cut with.

“It used to be only the middle and upper classes that took it and they were injecting heroin. But, once it became a smokable commodity, then it filtered into the working classes and the criminal classes and then it really took off.”

“It was the fall of the Shah of Iran that made heroin big here, wasn’t it?” I asked. “People couldn’t take their cash out of Iran, so they converted it into heroin and took that out.”

“Yeah,” said Andy. “But it was the marketing, really. People were putting it in joints, smoking it and thinking it was quite benign and, two weeks later, they’d got a heroin habit, a running nose, coughing.”

“What IS the Orchestra of Andy Zapp?” I asked.

“It’s me and a loop machine. Makes it sound like an orchestra of harmonicas.”

“That’s nice,” I said.

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“Being a stockbroker is like being a comedian”: Russia Today’s Max Keiser

Max with Ian Hislop on Have I Got News For You

Max (right) with Ian Hislop on Have I Got News For You

If you want to see the heir of the late American comedian Bill Hicks performing, where do you look?

Not in British comedy clubs where Bill Hicks is the comedians’ comedian. Certainly not in America,  where Bill Hicks only came to most people’s attention fairly recently.

Perhaps one place to look is a television programme transmitted three times a week on the RT channel (The channel used to be called Russia Today.) American presenter Max Keiser is RT’s economic guru; he fronts his own show: The Keiser Report.

Max Keiser (extreme left) on 10 O'Clock Live

Max (perhaps suitably on the extreme left) on 10 O’Clock Live

Last month, he was a guest on BBC1’s Have I Got News For You. Last year, he was a guest on Channel 4’s comedy series 10 O’Clock Livepresented by Jimmy Carr, Charlie Brooker, Lauren Laverne and David Mitchell. 

Jimmy Carr came up to me after the show,” Max told me yesterday in Soho. “He was very nice and wanted to know more about my views on the economy. A few weeks later, I was having lunch over at his place – beautiful house, beautiful tennis court. He had me up there to talk about gold and silver. He said he was prepared to buy a ton – that’s 32,000 ounces – of silver. Since that lunch, the price has dropped about 50%. So that’s probably why I haven’t heard from Jimmy since then.”

“And you’re a fan of Bill Hicks,” I said.

“If anyone is a big fan of comedy and they watch my show on RT,” said Max. “they’ll recognise that I borrow heavily from him. I liked Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks and that raw, unvarnished truthfulness is something we’ve always tried to strive for in The Keiser Report. It’s just very raw and sometimes it works not from having people’s funny bone tickled but because they are uncomfortable.”

Max Keiser presents his Report on Russia Today TV

Max presents Keiser Report next to Boris Johnson’s City Hall

“But The Keiser Report,” I said, “is a current affairs show – a news show covering business and finance – that is not normally a comic area.”

“At this point in time,” replied Max, “the financial world and the banks are so pathetically corrupt that it’s impossible to cover them without having, to some degree, a satirical view. Very few things which banks do, in this country at this point, are legal. Virtually 100% of everything all the Big Four banks do is illegal.”

“Could you be pushing this angle because you’re a presenter on the Russian government’s own TV channel?” I asked.

“Well, the show is produced by Associated Press,” said Max. “which is an American company. The show is recorded at a TV studio that’s part of London & Partners, which is London Mayor Boris Johnson’s public relations division. And we make other shows with Associated Press which are sold to other outlets. We sold a show to Press TV.”

“Thats worse!” I said. “That’s the Iranian government!. These are dodgy people we are talking about.”

“These are fine international news organisations,” said Max. “We’ve done a show for BBC World News. We did shows for Al Jazeera English.”

Max, in Paris, gives his opinions to Al Jazeera English

Max, in Paris, gives his opinions to Al Jazeera English, Doha

“Ah, now,” I said. “Al Jazeera English is a very, very good news channel, though I don’t know about the Arabic version.”

“When we were in Doha where Al Jazeera English is based,” said Max, “there was this famous car park with the Al Jazeera English building on one side and the Al Jazeera Arabic building on the other and they really did not get along. So there is a perpetual stand-off in Doha and occasionally executives would be taken out to the car park and…”

“Beheaded?” I suggested.

“…left to their own devices,” continued Max. “And that’s not easy to do, because you need an exit visa. So, if executives have fallen into disfavour with Al Jazeera, they have to sneak out of the country.”

“What show did you make for them?” I asked.

“We had a long-standing contract to make a series of documentary films for a show called People & Power.”

“And why is Russia Today doing a capitalist business programme?

“Well, Russia Today has left the Cold War far behind unlike America, which still seems to want to be fighting the Cold War. If you look at the rhetoric coming out of the US, they still think it’s 1970. They don’t understand that Russia and the Russian economy has leapfrogged well beyond what was happening during the Cold War, well past the Soviet Union. They are very entrepreneurial in Russia and the TV network is very savvy. They have a bigger reach than the BBC – over 800 million. I think they’ve really taken the top position in the world right now as far as global international satellite and cable TV is concerned. And whatever we can do to support that, we’re happy to do. In this country, I would say the relationship with the Soviet Union is quite strained. Other countries have moved on from their Cold War perception.”

“You’ll get a Hero of the Soviet Union medal,” I told Max. “You’ve had other comedians on The Keiser Report, haven’t you?”

Max Keiser (right) interviews comedian Frankie Boyle on Russia Today

Frankie Boyle (left) interviewed on RT’s The Keiser Report

“Yes, we’ve had Frankie Boyle. I’m a big fan of his. A no-holds-barred comedian who’s willing to take big risks.”

“What were you talking about?”

“I think he and I talked about the state of the media.”

“But you’re a business show.”

“Yeah, but so much of business now is driven by perception and that perception is driven by the media. The Stock Market – whether it’s the FTSE 100 or the Dow Jones – it’s a hologram driven by perception. There’s no actual equity in those markets; it’s completely a bubble puffed up on zero collateral.”

“What were you before being a TV presenter?” I asked.

“I started out as a stockbroker for Paine Webber on Wall Street in the early 1980s. Before that, I was at New York University and I was doing stand-up comedy. I made the transition from doing comedy to being a stockbroker at the height of the Thatcher/Reagan period.”

“Why?”

“Because, surprisingly, being a stockbroker is not that much different from being a comedian. You’re telling stories to people, going through a lot of stories quite rapidly and you are essentially getting people not to laugh but to say: Give me 1,000 shares. To get to that moment, you use the same techniques as a comedian: pacing, word-choice, empathy.

“I was at the Comic Strip on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Jerry Seinfeld was the MC. Rich Hall was doing improvisation down in the theatre district. Robin Williams was at Catch a Rising Star. On the West Coast, you had Steve Martin. It was the beginning of that huge new wave when comedy became the new rock ’n’ roll and then TV shows came out of that.

“Watching Robin Williams work was pretty remarkable. During that time, before he went on stage, his ritual was to line up seven or eight Kamikaze cocktails. They’re extremely potent alcoholic concoctions. As the MC was about to introduce him, he’d just go Bang – Bang – Bang – Bang – Bang – Bang – Bang and down those suckers and then hit the stage with all that energy.

Max Keiser stands up for his beliefs - possible in Edinburgh

Max Keiser is into a post “Comedy is Rock ’n’ Roll” period

“Now we’re into a post Comedy is rock ’n’ roll period. I’m hoping we’re getting back to the more politicised comedy – the Lenny Bruce type of comedy – that’s what I’m hoping, anyway. A lot of people who do comedy here in London go to the United States and come back and tell me: It’s great; it’s all very funny; but it’s homogenised. They’re all doing the same kind of jokes, which is because of this huge thing called TV: the sitcoms. They’re looking for a certain type to fill a certain spot and there’s 10,000 comics trying to get that one spot and they’re all doing the same act.

“I love the comedy here in London, because it’s completely different. There’s a lot of political edginess to it. A lot of comedians here identify themselves as ‘left wing’. In America, there is no left wing. There’s only slightly right-of-centre and extreme right-of-centre and the fanatical right.”

“Have you been to the Edinburgh Fringe?” I asked.

“I went for the first time last year.”

“You should do a show up there,” I suggested.

“I would like to take a show up there though, if I do, I’d have to workshop it here in London beforehand. But I’ve already been doing my Stand-Up Rage show in cities around the world: Dublin, Los Angeles, London.

“People are fans of my rages on The Keiser Report and this is a 60-minute rage without any control whatsoever. I go into a fugue state in a white rage. Afterwards, I literally have no memory of what I’ve said. It’s a cathartic experience and the audience, in many cases, achieve a level of ecstasy.”

There was a slight pause.

“So you don’t have a script,” I asked. “You just go off on a rant?”

“I start off on one basic idea,” explained Max, “and I will refer to headlines and each usually triggers a good ten minutes of rage. Then, to catch my breath, I will maybe cut to a 20 second music or video blurb.”

“And you rage about politics?” I asked.

“It’s about the bankers and the banksters because, when you have this merging of the private banking interests and the political interests otherwise known as Fascism… I mean, London is the capital of financial terrorism. This is where the financial Jihadis congregate.”

“You do good headline,” I said.

“If you go down to the City of London,” continued Max, “they have the madrassas – otherwise known as HSBC, Barclays, Lloyds and Royal Bank of Scotland. These are the madrassas of banking fanaticism. They pursue market fundamentalism which says they can blow themselves up and others around them – not to seek THE Prophet but some profit.”

(The Keiser Report is transmitted on RT, with editions also available on YouTube)

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The future of UK comedy according to a grumpy comic and a grumpy club owner

(Shorter versions of this piece appeared in the Huffington Post and on Indian site We Speak News)

A grumpy Lewis Schaffer forces himself to smile

In yesterday’s blog about the alleged crisis in the UK comedy business, I quoted an anonymous club owner who disagreed with comedian Lewis Schaffer’s opinion expressed in a previous blog that “comedy club owners want repeatability. They should not want people coming out of shows and saying It’s always good. No, they should want ‘em to say Oh my god! Something fucking amazing happened there!”

Yesterday’s anonymous club owner claimed:

Lenny Bruce said you can be amazing AND be consistent – the two are not mutually exclusive and this should be the aim of all performers in comedy – aiming for an 80% wow rate. Anything lower and you aren’t a pro standup.”

This annoyed British-based American comedian Lewis Schaffer yesterday.

“I am not going to continue talking about this,” he told me, “but never trust anyone who doesn’t want to be quoted, ever. And, John, you should never quote anyone, especially in such depth, who refuses to let people know where he stands unless you have a blog post to get out.

“I don’t remember reading Lenny Bruce saying You can be amazing AND be consistent. In his later days he was hardly consistent and not that often amazing, and rarely booked. And not just because he was being arrested all over the place.

“I would bet that the person you quoted so extensively would never, ever, have booked Lenny Bruce. And no comedy booker would tolerate a comic who was amazing only four out of five gigs – 80%. If you die once out of ten you’re on very rocky ground. If you die in the first three or four gigs you can kiss that club goodbye.

“This is the last I am talking about this as it seems self-serving and I have a show to do tonight.”

Shamefully, I did not go to Lewis Schaffer’s show last night. I was going to go to the Alternative Comedy Memorial Society’s show but I never saw that either. I got side-tracked talking to Noel Faulkner at his Comedy Cafe Theatre venue.

The successfully diversified yet rather grumpy Noel Faulkner

“What do you think about dependable repeatability versus brilliant but hit-and-miss comedians?” I asked, adding: “I prefer the hit-and-miss ones myself.”

“Unfortunately,” Noel replied, “club owners have to have a guaranteed act but, as regards putting together a good show, you do want the guy who’s hit-and-miss and taking risks.”

“So, is the UK comedy business in crisis?” I asked.

“Huge crisis,” said Noel firmly. “I think what’s happening to the comedy business now is what was happening to the music business when the internet and downloading got up-and-running. But at least in the recording business they knew it was the world of computers that was sabotaging their business. At least they knew where it was coming from. In the comedy business, other than the recession, we don’t know why it’s gone downhill.

“With the comedy business, the saturation of talking head comedians on television has done some damage. But you can’t walk up to a comic and say Oh, by the way, I wanna keep live comedy very pure with the masses crying out for it and I don’t want you to do six weeks on television and pay off your mortgage and feed your wife and kids.

“People are saying If you put on a good club and put on good acts… but that’s not working.”

“One way to survive is to diversify?” I suggested.

“You can diversify,” said Noel, “but ice cream just doesn’t sell that well at Christmas. We’re a comedy club, how much diversity can you do?”

“Music, comedy management?” I suggested.

“The punters who are coming to the comedy club just want to see good comics,” argued Noel. “I’ve already diversified. I’ve shrunk the comedy room. I have a huge building with huge rent and that’s why I have diversified.

“We’ve turned the main room into a music venue because it’s more profitable and helped keep the doors open. If we hadn’t done that – because of the decline in the comedy audience – we would have had to shut down. I’ve taken in a music partner, a very strong promoter, who’s become a partner in the company and he’s really pushing the music side and now we’re the only live music venue in Shoreditch. We don’t give you one band: we give you three or four bands.

“And I’m back in the management game. I handle four strong acts.”

“You once told me,” I reminded him, “you were not going to go back into management, because you couldn’t face acts phoning you up after midnight with their personal traumas.”

“Yeah,” Noel agreed. “When I quit the management business, I vowed I’d never go back in because of acts phoning you up at midnight asking which train they should be on. The truth is I don’t fucking care, mate. But then I stumbled across Prince Abdi and Kate Lucas and I couldn’t resist wanting to have a hand in their careers, because they really have great potential. And then Nick Sun and Jimmy James Jones came along. So I got seduced by their extreme talent.”

“Someone won £136 million on the EuroLottery last night,” I said. “What would you do if you won the EuroLottery?”

“I’d write a letter to everyone in the business and tell them to fuck off,” replied Noel.

“That’s good,” I said.

“No, if I won the Lottery,” Noel continued, “I’d put out a free Edinburgh Fringe brochure and buy a tower block in Edinburgh, rent it to students at reasonable rent all the year round and then, in the month of August, I would give it to all the comedians for £150 a week.”

“You would be a popular man,” I said.

“I would have a lot of people at my funeral,” Noel agreed. “I mean, £1,500 to put an ad in the bloody Fringe brochure is outrageous! It’s crazy! People with no money having to spend £10,000 just to struggle through Edinburgh hoping that some brainless 21-year-old talent scout from the BBC will spot you doing your show and you can make your millions in the land of television.

“I think if anyone wants to get a TV show now, the way to go is paedophilia. If you’re a paedophile, you’ve got a great chance of getting into television and the BBC will be behind you all the way.”

“So will you be going up to Edinburgh next August?” I asked.

“If I’ve nothing else to do,” said Noel, “but I might do something more productive. I’m thinking of knitting all my family scarves for Christmas.”

“There are lots of young comedians up there,” I prompted.

“A lot of the up-and-coming skinny-jean comics,” said Noel, “are just annoying, irritating, not funny and have no life experience so have nothing to talk about. Sure they can end up on telly fast, because the TV researchers are all in their early twenties. They see a cute middle class twat in skinny jeans and think Oh, he’ll be great! and they’re not interested in the big fat guy or girl who really has something to say.

“I ran a comedy agency many years ago and, maybe twelve years ago, I remember my partner in the agency, when I approached her about Milton Jones back then, she told me Oh! He’s past it! 

“It was the happiest day of my life when Milton finally broke big and now he’s definitely in the Top Five comedians in England. And, besides that, he’s a fucking diamond geezer.”

“There’s no one definite route to success,” I said.

“Well,” replied Noel, “in Hollywood, if you wanna succeed, you gotta suck seed. The future of comedy though is – if you have a good act – you have to build up your own audience, your own fan base, keep tending that audience, keep your act fresh, so they keep coming back and, eventually, you’ll have enough of them to fill the O2. Forget about whoring yourself to television.

“Be a comic with something to say, take care of your audience and that is the way forward. You have to look ahead to when your breasts are saggy and you’re not right for television because all the talent scouts are 23 without a brain in their heads. They wouldn’t know fucking talent if fucking Elvis sang to them. The aim of the business is to have longevity. You gotta look ahead to when you’re fifty and you want to still have a following and still be booked.

“It’s very difficult to be funny when you’ve got £5 million in the bank. It’s really hard to wanna write jokes then. As much as you can use other people to write, you really need to have the initial inspiration and give the ideas to the writers. If I had £5 million in my pocket, I wouldn’t be talking to John Fleming. I’d have learnt Russian so I could speak to my girlfriends in the hot tub. Have you seen Jimmy James Jones?”

Jimmy James Jones performs at the Comedy Cafe last night

“No,” I said.

“Stay and see him,” urged Noel. “He’s on here tonight.”

So I did.

When Noel Faulkner last had an agency, it made Jimmy Carr into a star and ‘discovered’ Daniel Kitson.

I have seen endless comedians. Many are extremely good. But it is rare you see someone with real knock-you-down charisma and star potential which screams through your eyeballs and your ears.

Jimmy James Jones was that last night.

Perhaps UK comedy does have a future.

When you see it, you recognise it.

And Noel Faulkner, unlike most, is not a bullshit artist.

He can spot real talent.

He has in the past. And now he has again.

Long may he be grumpy.

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