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Edinburgh Fringe, Day 13: The Elvis Dead, compost and comedy in a shed

I ended today soaked through with Irn Bru and rain.

The day started off like a normal Fringe day.

“Michael Brunström wants to borrow some of my compost,” performer Narin Oz told me, as I walked into Fringe Central. This made perfect sense at the time – a sign of how your brain soon gets affected by the Fringe.

I was on my way to the first Grouchy Club of the Fringe, supposedly chaired by Kate Copstick and me – but she had been dragged off by The Scotsman to review former First Minister Alex Salmond’s chat show at the Assembly Rooms on other side of town.

Becky Fury stood in for Copstick. Same hair; no white streak. The front row of our overwhelming audience (it’s all comparative) included two women who had seen Lewis Schaffer’s show last night and had not liked it.

Martha McBrier – castigated by some for playing a didgeridoo – arrived with a small brown box.

Copstick arrived when the show was almost over, telling chilling tales of Alex Salmond singing.

Cultural appropriation for Martha McBrier to play the box?

Martha McBrier played the small brown box by blowing into it. She claimed it was a ‘box didgeridoo’.

It was unclear to both her and us if women were banned from playing it, as they are with linear didgeridoos.

We started discussing Lewis Schaffer again.

At this point, Lewis Schaffer phoned asking me to send him a picture of himself.

Then I was off to see Michael Brunström, Phil Jarvis and  Alwin Solanky perform the legendary 20-minute routine Dinner For One in a small garden shed beside Bob Slayer’s Blundabus.

Dinner For One, recorded in English for German audiences in 1963 is extraordinarily famous in Germany, Austria, Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Faroe Islands, Switzerland, Luxembourg, South Africa and Australia. In fact, loads of places except the UK.

(Left-Right) Alwin Solanky, Phil Jarvis and Michael Brunström

Phil Jarvis introduced this shed-based production in German, then Dinner For One was performed in English with Phil as the butler, Michael Brunström in drag as the lady and Alwin Solanky as the tiger skin rug. The shed miraculously contained an audience of (I think) eight people, with more peering in through the open door.

Dinner For One: a cast over the top; an audience under threat

The spilling, throwing and spewing of Irn Bru – standing in for the original show’s alcoholic drinks – was extensive.

The result was that I was (with some pride) the only audience member left in the shed by the end.

I had taken the precaution of wearing a coat which I bought in Nuremberg and which, fortunately, has a liquid-proof hood.

This production of Dinner For One epitomised the spirit of the Fringe – people performing something for no logical reason whatsoever, ignoring financial recompense, audience numbers and any common sense.

You did, indeed, have to be there.

As did I at Nathan Cassidy’s one-off event The World’s Best MC Award Grand Final because I was booked to be one of the judges – well, THE judge, as it turned out.

I did not know what to expect from this.

I blogged about its clear Cunning Stunt Award intentions in a blog almost three weeks ago.

At the Awards (L-R) Nick Helm, Rich Wilson, Nathan Cassidy and Sarah Callaghan (Photograph by Rat Pack Productions)

As it turned out, it was pretty much what it said on the label – six good comics doing 5-minute MC-style intros – each introducing the next – in an attempt to win an alleged £5,000 prize.

The comedians/MCs were Sarah Callaghan, Nick Helm, Joey Page, Mark Silcox, Chris Turner and Rich Wilson.

Unsurprisingly, in a shock twist, Nathan Cassidy won his own £5,000.

Very enjoyable, a real audience-pleaser, but I’m not convinced it’s a Cunning Stunt. The door money DID go to charity, though.

That is not up to me, though.

Fellow Malcolm Hardee judges Marissa Burgess, Bruce Dessau, Kate Copstick, Jay Richardson and Claire Smith all have equal says to me.

Talking of Malcolm Hardee – and who isn’t at the Fringe? – the wonderful 2011 Award winner Johnny Sorrow and Bob Blackman’s Tray have arrived in Edinburgh. I saw them tonight at The Newsroom, the small venue at the top of Leith Walk. From their energy, he/they could have been playing Radio City Music Hall.

THAT is how to play to an audience of one.

No audience problem for The Elvis Dead, though.

The Elvis Dead – Cultural event or niche pastiche?

It is probably the hottest and most talked-about show in Edinburgh.

In fact, the buzz around it started at the Leicester Comedy Festival back in February and has built to dizzying heights since. It is superbly well put together together and performed.

But I am not the target audience.

It reminded me of my experience over a week ago when I saw Mother’s Ruin – about gin – with an audience fully into the subject. The Elvis Dead is a musical re-telling of the movie Evil Dead II through pastiches of Elvis Presley songs.

My problem is that I have not seen Evil Dead II; I am not a particular fan of Elvis Presley; and singalong, clapalong-stompalong-whoopalong, crowd-bonding events are not my thing. Mea culpa.

The audience LOVED it. The only-begetter of this crowd-pleasing triumph, Rob Kemp, is getting full houses every night. But for me, the elevator pitch is that it is Jollyboat rabble-rousing (I like Jollyboat) meets Harriet Braine niche pastiche (I admire Harriet Braine).

Braine and brawn vie for niche pastiche attention

Harriet Braine performs superb pastiche songs about fine art and artists – very very clever songs about Magritte, Cezanne, Van Gogh, whatever whoever. But I don’t know the subject well enough to fully appreciate them. So the full effect floats or zooms over my head, as with The Elvis Dead.

Rob Kemp says he is returning to Edinburgh next year with a Beetlejuice show.

I HAVE seen Beetlejuice.

But I am not a massive fan.

On the other hand… if we were talking about a musical version of The Wild Bunch… I would be queuing-up like the Dead Elvis fans are.

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Edinburgh Fringe, Day 12: How to destroy a comedy career & other news

One thing I always tell performers at the Fringe is: Always perform, even if there is only one person in the audience, because you do not know who that one person might be.

The two examples I endlessly give are …

  • Comic Charlie Chuck, at his first Fringe, unknown, was getting very few bums-on-seats. He was thinking of going home. I told him not to. A few days later, he performed to an audience of four… Two of them were TV producers and, as a result, he appeared on two Reeves & Mortimer TV series.
  • I turned up to see a show at the old Holyrood Tavern venue. I was 50% of the audience. I was looking for acts to appear on an ITV series. The other audience member turned out to be a BBC producer. The act had gone back to London in despair because they were not getting audiences.

Perhaps nothing would have come of us seeing the act. But maybe it might.

The thing to remember is that you are not necessarily paying out large amounts of money to get money back from audiences’ bums-on-seats. You are also – perhaps mainly – performing in Edinburgh to be seen by showbiz and media people who may change your career and your life.

An empty stage in London (not the Edinburgh venue)

Today, I turned up to see an act. I had seen this English act ‘die’ on several occasions at ‘open mic’ nights in London, performing basically to other open mic acts in ‘dead’ venues. But my intuition told me the act had something that might work and I might see it in a 60-minute show.

The show was in an out-of-the-way venue and, when I arrived, I was the sole audience member.

The performer turned up about three minutes before the billed start time and, two minutes before the billed start time, apologetically cancelled the performance, saying: “It would be awkward just performing to one person.”

About to join me, but slightly delayed, was Nick Awde, playwright, producer, publisher and critic/feature writer for The Stage.

Now, maybe nothing would have come of the two of us seeing the act but, if you perform, there is a possibility, however slight, that something may result. If you do not perform, there is a certainty nothing will result.

Cancelling is never a good idea. Cancelling two minutes before the billed start time is an even more self-destructive decision.

The phrase ‘self-destructive’ is, of course, bound to lead to Lewis Schaffer, the man who, on getting a 5-star review in The Scotsman only half-jokingly said he was depressed because he feared it might destroy his image as a loser.

“Quite unlike anything else in the programme”

This week, he got a good review on the Chortle comedy website, for his show Unopened Letters From My Mother.

The review gave him three stars but started: “Look beyond the star rating here, for this is one of those shows that it’s hard to judge by the standards of a conventional Fringe offering. For some, the fact that this is quite unlike anything else in the programme will be enough to make it a must-see.”

It went on to compare him to Award-winning Kim Noble.

Lewis Schaffer decided not to share a link to the review on his social media.

This morning at Fringe Central, I bumped into American performer Peter Michael Marino. He told me:

“I found a cracked iPhone in the Lounge at the Counting House, wedged between the fireplace and the stage. I put word out to performers in the Lounge and it turned out the iPhone was Lewis Schaffer’s. Before I gave it back to him, I tried to crack the passcode, so I could access his text messages and next year I could do a show called Unread Text Messages From Lewis Schaffer.”

PM Marino – a man with saliva in his mouth

JD who runs Sweet venues told me the Fringe Office had told him that this year’s line-up included 300 more comedy shows than last year. Getting even noticed at the Fringe takes an effort of promotion.

If you don’t promote yourself, you are invisible.

The official Fringe figures are that, this year, there are 53,232 performances of 3,398 shows from 62 countries in over 300 venues, including 686 free shows with comedy making up 35% of the shows, theatre 28% and cabaret 4%.

And that is only the Fringe. There is also the official International Festival, the Jazz & Blues Festival, the Art Festival, Military Tattoo, Book Festival and Television Festival (the last being a private conference rather than public festival, but having a big influence).

People will do anything to get noticed.

Peter Michael Marino’s Show Up follows The Grouchy Club show in the Lounge at The Counting House. Have I mentioned The Grouchy Club before? The increasingly prestigious Grouchy Club hosted by me and Kate Copstick.

Flaunt it. Flaunt it.

This morning the aforementioned Peter Michael Marino told me: “I swapped saliva with Copstick yesterday.”

“I am not even going to ask…” I told him.

I may come back to this story.

Eric has filled Fringe venues under the radar for ten years

I went inside Fringe Central and bumped into Eric, who has been performing Eric’s Tales of the Sea – A Submariner’s Yarn at the Fringe now for ten years.

After a brief conversation, he told me. “I’m off now. I gotta see this werewolf.”

Nothing odd about that at the Fringe.

An hour later, I got a text from him: “The werewolf has just finished. Cracking show. You missed a great experience.”

By this time, I was going into The Hive to see Mark Dean Quinn’s You Win You Lose. A true original, he is a combination of Andy Kaufman, Dadaism, intentional shambles and (I think genuine) emotional self-flagellation. What more could anyone want in an Edinburgh Fringe show?

I had to leave quickly at the end, taking the newly-fried chips with me (don’t ask) to get to Simon Caine’s elevator pitch event at the Apex Hotel in Grassmarket.

‘Reformed Whores’ pitch their show to Robert Peacock etc

He and JD had arranged a collection of Sweet performers to get in a lift (US translation: elevator) with reviewers Nick Awde (The Stage), Robert Peacock (Wee Review) and me and they had to pitch their shows to us in the time it took the lift to travel from the Ground Floor (US translation: 1st floor) to the 5th and back.

Then I saw Phil Ellis Has Been on Ice with unbilled co-star Pat Cahill. Phil’s breakthrough at the Fringe was with Funz & Gamez in 2014 and it has taken this long for the BBC to faff around without giving him a radio or TV show.

Phil is a successful example of one type of comedy. Post-modern originality and regular, gigantic audience Whhoooaaaaahhhs!!!!

Smug Roberts is a successful example of another type of comedy.

Neither is better than the other.

For me, the Smug Roberts show was possibly the most highly anticipated of the Fringe.

In 2006, he did a one-off, one-night performance at the Edinburgh Fringe of a show he called Me Dad’s Dead. And that is what it was about. I wrote a review of the show for the Chortle comedy website and have remembered the performance ever since.

I started the review: “Smug Roberts is a Manchester based Jongleurs-style club comic who might be described, not entirely correctly, as old-school. He is clearly a very professional Northern circuit act who can play to any audience and quickly endear himself to them rapidly.”

The intervening 11 years have not changed that, except that he is even more warm, natural and extraordinarily skilful as a performer.

He is a real person in a pub doing stand-up

Smug is 57 and had a pretty-much full audience at the Three Sisters aka Free Sisters tonight in which, I think, I was the only person over 30. It was an audience of 20-somethings (at least one was 19) and they laughed virtually non-stop for 55 minutes because this is a masterclass in comedy. Autobiographical, fanciful (at home, his dog speaks to him), seemingly effortless comedy within straight, traditional stand-up, including vocal and physical bits of ‘business’.

Smug Roberts should be a national institution.

He is a brilliantly assured comic now incapable, I would suspect, of ever putting a foot wrong with any audience.

His show is called Just Me In a Pub Doing Stand-Up.

That is more than good enough for me.

Wonderful.

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Edinburgh Fringe, Day 11: The gamut of comedy and the Grouchy Club’s origins

Today, in three shows, I saw  the whole gamut of Fringe comedy.

There was the gloriously fluent Richard Todd at The Counting House.

He was letting rip at full volume with waving hands, bouncing hair and waterfalls and tsunamis of sentences overflowing with his love of the English language while talking about Monsters within himself and people in general.

There was Narin Oz stripping off as a Dirty Woman in a basement room at The Cuckoo’s Nest.

She was having garden soil thrown at her, splashing water on herself and performing with a video of waterfalls behind her while getting (in a good theatrical way) hysterical.

And there was Samantha Pressdee going Back 2 Basics at 48 Below.

She was telling a very personal autobiographical story which turned into someone’s death and a political point.

That is a pretty good Fringe format – laughs, tears, emotional problems and occasional politics.

I was also a guest on the penultimate day of Vladimir McTavish’s chat show in the Lounge of The Counting House.

On Monday, feared Scotsman comedy critic & Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards judge Kate Copstick and I take over Vlad’s 1415-1515 slot for The Grouchy Club from 14th to 27th August.

As previously mentioned in this blog, if you got it, flaunt it.

The Grouchy Club is free to say anything you like, free to enter, free to leave. Unlike most ‘free’ shows, there is no bucket for money at the end. It a genuinely free Free show.

The original idea came from a chat with the late US promoter Calvin Wynter. He and I thought it might be good to have a Fringe space unconnected with any one venue, where performers could come and relax and gossip and bitch without fear of punters. A sort of Groucho Club for the less exalted echelons of creatives. I suggested calling it The Grouchy Club.

Calvin Wynter had talked of a Fringe club

That idea came to nought.

But I have chaired two or three chat shows at the Fringe over the years and an idea I had was to do a show where I did nothing, not even research the background of guests.

I am not a performer.

Most stand-ups begin their acts with a little bit of audience interaction, a little bit of banter with the audience.

I believe that almost every person is fascinating. If you choose the third person in a bus queue in Northampton or chat to the first person wearing brown shoes – in other words, any totally random person – and talk to them, they will have outrageously unlikely anecdotes from their unique life.

So I thought: Have a chat show where the guests are the audience. Just chat to the audience. But then I thought: This needs a performer sidekick. Who?

Lewis Schaffer did not bestow his blessings

Until last year, almost all Lewis Schaffer shows extended the traditional opening banter with the audience to 100% of the show.

So I asked Lewis Schaffer to co-present The Grouchy Club with me.

But Lewis Schaffer is nothing if not occasionally indecisive.

So, in lieu of him actually saying Yes, I went for opinionated Scotsman comedy critic Kate Copstick. But, with her on board, I thought it would be more interesting to talk to comedy industry (and other creative) people. To have somewhere creative people could have a chat. It would still be a chat show where the audience were the guests, but the guests would mostly be performers and their ilk (club owners, promoters etc).

If any genuine members of the public wander in, that’s OK. But, because we are not really aiming it at members of the public, we can dispense with a Fringe Programme listing (saving £300-£400) and flyers/posters. Just use social media and word of mouth.

So here we are.

And we are happy for performers to do BRIEF extracts from their shows to get constructive or destructive criticism from the audience and suck up to Copstick (the most influential comedy critic on the Fringe) and me (“The Boswell of the alternative comedy scene” (Chortle) – eat shit.)

There is a Grouchy Club website but, technology being technology, it is being temporarily temperamental during the Fringe. So you can access it but I can’t change anything!

Chaos and anarchy.

That’s the true spirit of the Fringe.

It is much to be encouraged.

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Edinburgh Fringe Day 7: Three naked bottoms, tears and a cunning stunt

Today, I watched three performers talking out of their arses. Hardly a new thing at the Edinburgh Fringe, you might think.

I couldn’t possibly be cheap enough to use a pun

Except this was the much-touted Wild Bore comic theatrical piece at The Traverse in which Zoe Coombs Marr, Ursula Martinez and Adrienne Truscott perform with their naked bottoms (and occasionally with the rest of their bodies).

It is a knowingly self-referential post-modernist labyrinth of analysing and criticising critics and the performance itself with some wonderful surreal images – the sight of them running around naked and erect with their heads inside their own bottoms made me glad I never remember my own dreams and nightmares.

The self-referencing reminded me inevitably of that 1969 movie I am always banging on about in this blog – Anthony Newley’s Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? – You sit there thinking the movie is a self-indulgent mess and then, at one point, three ‘movie critics’ walk on the screen and start criticising it in detail for all the many faults you have just been thinking about. I sat through it twice when I first saw it, because I had no idea whether I liked it or not. I was still not sure after seeing it twice, but it was and is certainly addictive.

Nathan Willcock’s State of The Nathan at Moriarty’s also kept referring to itself and had a strangely straight, middle-of-the-road, middle-aged, non-Fringe audience happily sitting through and enjoying an hour of his (as he admitted to them) liberal Londoner comedy.

Daddy Kamali – indefatigably charismatic

The indefatigably charismatic Jody Kamali was pretending to run a hotel – Hotel Yes Please – in a room in the actual Apex Hotel/Sweet venue in Grassmarket where he played multiple characters, integrated the audience into the show and unusually-for-him added some genuine personal stuff into a character playing another character. Apparently last year’s Fringe show was such a happy experience that, on the final night, he celebrated with his wife and the result is that he now has a daughter.

I think he will make a good dad.

Which was something Lewis Schaffer’s dead mother told him (Lewis) in one of the 23 letters he is opening nightly in Unopened Letters From My Mother at the Counting House. As he said in this blog two days ago: “To me, the letters are full-on scary and sad. But funny for the audience.”

Lewis Schaffer reads his mother’s letter for the first time

He says he does not know why he did not open the 23 letters she sent him between 2000 and her death in 2011, some from a mental hospital.

But I do remember the late Malcolm Hardee, going through a bout of depression the like of which people would not imagine Malcolm Hardee had, telling me that he was only opening one in three of the letters he received through the post. The other two he threw away without even checking who they were from.

After tonight’s performance – well, performance is the wrong word – experience – someone said to me: “I have never seen Lewis show that sort of real emotion on stage before”.

Lewis’ shows are always one-offs. These ones almost go beyond unique, if such a thing were possible.

Which could also be said of Becky Fury’s show tonight at the Black Market. Well, she did not actually perform her prepared show but improvised 55 minutes around the audience which included a Polish social worker who came to Edinburgh for the Fringe last year and just stayed. He said he was attracted to her show title Molotov Cocktail Party because of what happened at Polish football matches.

Becky Fury – not hosting a Christian show at all

Then there was the young Spanish couple who were there despite, it seemed, not actually being able to understand any English. Becky at first persuaded them it was a Christian show in which everyone had to bare themselves and managed to get the male half of the couple to strip off.

And then there was the American girl who arrived late. She said she played the violin and sewed.

“Simultaneously?” asked Becky.

Alas no, but she then took out her sewing and continued throughout the rest of the show while listening and participating. She said she was not a performer but did busk naked in Seattle, playing the violin.

I do believe this was and is true. But who knows?

In this blog four days ago, Martha McBrier mentioned that she had received a complaint about the fact that she plays a didgeridoo during her Balamory Doubtfire show – something that women are not allowed to do in Aboriginal culture. A white sociology professor in New York had accused her of racism, sexism and subjugating an entire culture.

The story was followed up, with more details, in Bruce Dessau’s Beyond The Joke site, on the Chortle comedy site and  in The Scotsman.

Chortle carried quotes from Janet McLeod, producer of the Melbourne Comedy Festival show Aborigi-LOL, and Dane Simpson, a comedian from the Kamilaroi/Gamilaraay culture.

Martha McBrier – cunning player of religious instruments

Tonight, I got a message from Martin Walker, who told me that, during the recording of his On The Mic podcast, Martha had admitted that the whole thing was a cunning stunt.

The didgeridoo appears on her flyer/poster and makes an admittedly brief appearance in her show so I do wonder if this is a stunt planned so far in advance that it is almost a work of art in its own right.

On the other hand, allegedly offending Aboriginal didgeridoo players might not have been a stunt at all but, on seeing the reaction, Martha decided to say it was a stunt to fan the flames of publicity and edge ever closer to a Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt nomination.

Only time will tell.

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Edinburgh Fringe Day 5: How to win a Fringe comedy award – make ‘em cry

Humdinger of a black eye caused by falling while sober…

Shows I saw today included the always wildly inventive and surreal Cheekykita with Somewhere in The Ether which opens with her inside a duvet.

Nai Bowen is Brave! (she is one half of comedy duo TittyBarHaHa) includes a stunningly good song about suicide and she performed it with a humdinger of a black eye caused by falling onto the cobbles of Edinburgh when she was sober…

The secret of many successful comedy shows

In Jane Hill’s show Cow, about middle age, the audience was encouraged to call her either ‘a cow’ or ‘lovely’. She was lovely. Though, like a magician revealing secrets of the Magician’s Code, she revealed the secret format of many successful comedy shows at the Fringe – which is that you include a ‘dead dad’ section at about 40 minutes into the show. Laughter + tears goes a good way to getting you a Fringe comedy nomination.

This does not have to be a story about an actual specific dead dad, but requires the revelation of some true, traumatic and unexpected autobiographical anecdote to pull the emotional carpet from under the audience’s metaphorical feet. Having done that, you then uplift them for the climax.

Tonight, I also saw Mother’s Ruin, a bizarrely potential cult-like cabaret celebration of gin at the Gilded Balloon’s smart new Rose Theatre venue in Edinburgh’s New Town.

“as if I had entered some secret society of which I was not a member"

I had entered a secret society of which I was not a member

With Mother’s Ruin, it felt as if I had entered some secret society of which I was not a member. Admittedly, I don’t drink, which is a drawback. But three talented Australians sang songs about and told the history of gin to a large, jam-packed audience who seemed to know all the more obscure songs and whooped, cheered and clapped. It was like being in an Evangelical church.

The Edinburgh Fringe, too, has its devout pseudo-religious aspect and it is a truth universally acknowledged that religion has started more wars than comedians have had self-doubts.

This morning, I picked up a wee blue book listing the Free Fringe Festival shows.

The cover says it is the ULTIMATE GUIDE TO THE FREE FRINGE FESTIVAL.

About ten minutes later, I was handed the wee blue book listing shows in PBH’s Free Fringe.

Free-for-all? Light the blue touch paper and stand well back.

As Edinburgh Fringe regulars will know, there is PBH’s Free Fringe… and there is the Laughing Horse Free Festival which split off from the Free Fringe and woe betide anyone who mentions the words ‘Free Fringe’ when they actually mean Free Festival. The two words are guarded by PBH with almost religious zeal.

So I can only imagine the wrath which may descend on the upstarts who have risked printing a new blue booklet with the words ‘Free Fringe’ on it.

Light the blue touch paper and stand well back. Blood may flow among the dangerous cobbles of Auld Reekie.

Though not in the final week.

Would it be too late to nominate a comedy tampon?

Sarah Morgan-Paul contacted me asking if a show which started on Monday 21st August and only ran for a week could be eligible for an increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award nomination. She said that, in the show, she performs in a 5’4” tall giant tampon costume. The show is called Tales From a Tampon.

The short-list for the increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards is decided at noon on 21st August and the opening the tampon show is not until 2045 that night but, as the Malcolm Hardee Award winning baby last year was nominated AFTER we had announced the short-list, I guess we have to accept that Tales From a Tampon can be nominated.

The high-cost back of Lewis Schaffer’s flyer

Dreams of award nominations are also swirling round inside the head of Lewis Schaffer who, I was honoured to see, has used a photo I took of him last year on the back of his flyer.

An invoice and a letter from my lawyer will be winging its way to him after the Fringe ends.

He has visions of (the Prize formerly known as) Perrier success because his show this year – Unopened Letters From My Mother – has the Jane Hill defined potential for laughter and tears.

As mentioned in this blog a month ago, the concept is that, each day, he will genuinely open-up a different letter from his mother. She sent him 23 letters from the US to his new home in the UK between 2000 and her death in 2011 and he never opened them. He does not know why.

“You’re doing your third show tonight,” I said. “I heard you cried in your first two.”

The genuinely unopened letters from Lewis Schaffer’s mother

“I cried a little bit in my first one,” Lewis admitted. “She wrote in the letter that she thought I was probably going to be a good father. That was in 2001. One of my sons was about a couple of months old. To me, the letters are full-on scary and sad. But funny for the audience. I am trying my best to open them in order. The next one was written in November 2001. That’s after the World Trade Centre attacks. But people don’t believe the letters are real.”

“Well,” I said, “you’re a comic. Comics lie for a living. The more likely what a comic says, the more likely he (or she) has made it up. If what is said is so ridiculous it can’t possibly be true, the more likely it is to be totally true.”

“Exactly,” said Lewis Schaffer.

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Lewis Schaffer and the unopened letters from his mother: “All women are crazy”

Lewis Schaffer (right) with his Leicester Square audience

The penultimate time I saw London-based American comedian Lewis Schaffer, he was touting a show in a venue “near Leicester Square” in which the audience had to turn up at a corner of the square and be led to a highly secret venue.

When the audience assembled, he took them to the upstairs floor of a Burger King bar on the corner of the square, where he found a table and sat around chatting to them.

Now, in the lead-up to the Edinburgh Fringe, he is performing a new Monday night show in a more conventional venue – a room above a pub near London Bridge, an hour-and-a-half after his weekly Resonance FM Radio show which is transmitted live. His radio show is allegedly specifically for Americans living in Nunhead, London. But the guests are almost never American and rarely come from or have any link to Nunhead.

“Come along to the radio show and sit in the corner,” he told me. “You don’t have to say anything.”

Lucy Frederick with radio hosts Lisa Moyle and Lewis Schaffer

The actual guest on the radio show last Monday was comic Lucy Frederick, though he did ask me a couple of questions, introducing me as “the worst guest ever”.

In a pub after the radio show, he talked about his upcoming Edinburgh Fringe show Unopened Letters From My Mother

He has a whole batch of letters sent to him in London from his mother in New York over a ten year period. Each night, he will genuinely open a different sealed letter received from her which he has never read.

“Every woman that I know,” he told us in the pub, “has said their mother was insane, so it has given me the impression that maybe all mothers are insane.”

“I am not a parent,” said Lucy Frederick, “and I don’t really plan to be, but maybe maternal love almost drives you insane. The weight of my mother’s affection and love was quite a burden. Which sounds a dreadful thing to say, but I think living up to that was…”

“I have a feeling,” interrupted Lewis Schaffer, “that is what’s going to be in my mother’s letters. The burden of my mother’s love.”

“You’re riddled with guilt,” suggested Lucy. “Guilt and gratitude: two very heavy things.”

“These are letters,” I asked Lewis, “which you received after you came over here in 2000?”

“Yeah.”

“And she died when?”

“2011.”

“So why did you not open the letters?”

Lewis Schaffer’s unopened letters from his mother (He has since – long ago – changed his address)

“We don’t know why,” replied Lewis Schaffer. “There were six I did open. The first six. I looked in the envelopes to see if there was any money. I didn’t read the letters and just put them aside. After the first six, I didn’t open any of them. I thought: The chance of there being money in them is… But I didn’t want those letters to go to waste, so I kept them.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Well, we don’t know,” he replied.

“And why,” I asked, “for the first time in your life, are you using the word ‘We’?”

“I’m thinking for the show,” he explained. “We as an audience, and me, are going to find out.”

“But you have no idea why you have never read the letters?” I asked.

“I think I have an idea. I could give you an answer but, whether that would be the real answer… It’s been 17 years.”

“You have no idea,” I said, “what is in the letters. They might be very emotionally upsetting. What happens if, on the second night, you break down with paranoid fear of what’s going to be in tomorrow’s letter?”

“We don’t know,” said Lewis Schaffer. “You know, for the past two years I’ve sort-of wound down my comedy because, two years ago, I had a 5-star review at Edinburgh and, that year, I achieved all the goals I wanted to with comedy: which weren’t very much… To do a ‘regular’ type show and to have people appreciate it. And I acted in a play. And I also organised a tour with over 50 dates. After that, I felt: Why bother? Why do I need to continue? That’s what I’m really afraid of: that I don’t really have a desire to do stand-up comedy any more.”

That was what Lewis Schaffer said to us in the pub.

Lewis Schaffer kicks off a show every Monday

An hour later, in his weekly comedy show, upstairs in another pub, he told the audience:

“When I open the letters, people are going to cry – Moms or people with moms. We all have moms. I thought: People are going to cry and that is going to get me an award. The way you win a comedy award in Edinburgh is by making people cry. Heartfelt. I have to do this show now, because I promised to do it.

“I kind of know why I didn’t open the letters, but I don’t know what’s in the letters. My mother is dead. So I am thinking: How can this be funny? Does it mean I didn’t love my mother? Does it make me a bad person?”

A woman in the audience said: “Yes.”

“Does it?” said Lewis Schaffer. “I left my mother behind in New York. I have a sister. I’ve noticed this about daughters… they think their mothers are crazy.

“I would say all women are crazy. I got married late and the mother of my children threw me out. I’ve had a lot of dealings with women and I’ve noticed how crazy they are. My father would say to me: Your mother’s crazy, but that woman over there is not crazy. He said that because he wasn’t married to that woman over there. That’s when I started to think that all women are crazy. I don’t hear many people calling men crazy. They call them shits.

“At some point, you have to say that women are a different species from men and you have to learn to love them for what they are, otherwise you will be very unhappy. My father never understood that. He would say Your mother’s crazy so I grew up thinking my mother was literally crazy. But, when I look back at her now, based on the other women I’ve met in my life, she was just a normal woman. I didn’t open the letters because…”

Well, you will have to see the show.

As always with Lewis Schaffer shows, it will be different every night. With insight and an element of crazy.

Lewis Schaffer (Photograph by Garry Platt)

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Why audiences would rather pay than see free comedy shows in London

Martin Soan and Paul Vickers before a Pull The Other One

Martin and Vivienne Soan have been running Pull the Other One comedy nights in Nunhead, South London, for over ten years. The shows are monthly. You pay to enter; and, in my opinion, they are always value for money whoever is on the bill.

Relatively recently, they also started monthly sister shows – free to enter – called It’s Got Bells On.

These two monthly comedy shows mean Martin and Vivienne run shows roughly every fortnight.

Pull The Other One is at the Ivy House in Nunhead; It’s Got Bells On is at the Old Nun’s Head in – you guessed it – Nunhead.

Martin has always paid acts to perform at It’s Got Bells On, though entry has been free for audiences. From this Friday, though, Martin is going to charge £3 entry.

“Why?” I asked him a couple of weeks ago, before a Pull The Other One show.

Also sitting at the table, mute, was Paul Vickers aka Mr Twonkey.

“Do you want to say anything surreal?” I asked Paul.

“No,” he replied.

“So,” I said, turning back to Martin Soan, “why start charging entry?”

“Well,” said Martin, “I started It’s Got Bells On because I was getting a little tired of putting on stuff that sells. If I book a big name like Alan Davies or Omid Djalili or Stewart Lee at Pull The Other One, people will happily pay to come along.

Stewart Lee (left) behind-the-scenes with Martin Soan

“If I don’t have a big name, people won’t come along in such big numbers, Which is very frustrating because all the shows are always consistently good. (Martin tells the truth here.) It doesn’t matter who is on, the shows are worth the same ticket price. The fickle nature of the public, though, is that more will come along if they see a name they recognise. And, because the audience is paying, the acts feel they have to deliver risk-free performances.

“So I wanted to have a free-to-enter evening which would allow acts to be more anarchic and experiment more without worrying about the possibility of failing. I could also feed off It’s Got Bells On and transfer acts tried-out there into Pull The Other One.

“What happened was that the first few months of It’s Got Bells On were incredibly successful. I didn’t realise at the time why, but the (mostly South London) acts I was putting on were bringing along lots of friends. But then, when I started having acts on from North London, they didn’t bring friends and I had only 20-30 people coming in, which was disappointing.”

“Why,” I asked, “would charging get you bigger audiences?”

“People have been talking to me, saying: I didn’t want to come along because it was free so, obviously, it was not going to be very good. Which isn’t true, but that’s what they think. So I thought: Right, fuck it. We will charge the audience, but all the ticket money will go directly to the Clowns Without Borders charity. 

It’s Got Bells On – £3 this Friday in Nunhead

So the people who won’t come to free shows because they think they will be shit may come to this pay show because they assume it will be better. But we will keep the essential elements of It’s Got Bells On – freedom from having to do risk-free comedy and allowing people to experiment. And I will still (as before) pay everyone £20 to perform. So it’s good for the performers and hopefully now people will start taking it a bit more seriously because there’s an admission fee (which goes directly to Clowns Without Borders).

“I’m still gobsmacked by the attitude of audiences out there. People have got these boundaries of what they will allow themselves to experience. If the performers have been on television, then that’s OK. They will come. At Pull The Other One, invariably, when we have really big names on, we will put acts either side who are completely nuts and the audience will come out saying: I loved the Big Name but that guy who did the blah blah blah whatever – I REALLY, REALLY loved him!

“The whole idea of It’s Got Bells On was to be free so acts feel no pressure not to fail… but I have never known an act to fail there. Generally, if you get up and do something new, then your adrenaline and determination will carry the whole thing through.”

Martin smiled.

Martin Soan decided not to have bluetooth

“Why do you have a green tooth?” I asked. “That wasn’t there before.”

“I wanted bluetooth to communicate better but I got a green tooth instead.”

“Ah,” I said. I turned to Paul Vickers aka Mr Twonkey. “Do you want to say anything surreal?” I asked.

“No,” he replied.

Paul lives in Edinburgh but had come to London to appear in various shows.

“Are you staying with Lewis Schaffer?” I asked.

“No. I’m staying with Martin here. That means I won’t have to do the book.”

“Do the book?” I asked.

“You remember I told you about the book?” Paul told me. “I Can Teach You How To Read Properly by Lewis Schaffer.

“Ah,” I said. “Do you have any books at your place?” I asked Martin.

“I do have a pop-up Kama Sutra,” he replied.

“A pop-up Kama Sutra?” I repeated.

“Yes. You open the pages and figures pop up fucking each other and, if you move the pages correctly, you get the penis going in and out.”

“How much did that cost?” I asked.

“It was 15p from a charity shop in Peckham.”

“That must be an interesting charity shop,” I said.

“It was in the children’s section.”

“No,” I said.

“Yes,” said Martin. “That’s the God’s honest truth.”

“Why?” I asked. “Just because it was a pop-up book and they assumed it was for children?”

“I suppose so,” said Martin. “I don’t think anyone had opened the book and looked inside.”

“Do you want to say anything surreal?” I asked Paul.

“No,” he replied.

“Ah,” I said.

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David Mills, chic gay comic with a nose for pussy, gets chatty about PrEP etc

Next Wednesday, American comic David Mills starts The Mix – the first in a monthly series of chat shows at the Phoenix Artist Club in London.

“You’ve got a bit of previous with chat shows,” I said, “with Scott Capurro and then with Jonathan Hearn.”

“And,” David told me, “I had a chat show with another comic in San Francisco maybe 20 years ago – Late Night Live – with this hilarious woman called Bridget Schwartz.

“She has since given up comedy. A great loss.

“We had big local San Francisco politicians, some of the big newscasters and drag queens – the same sort of thing I’m trying to create here. Not just people from the comedy world, but people from politics and culture and newsmakers.”

“So The Mix will not be all comics?” I asked.

“No. That’s why it’s called The Mix, John. Next Wednesday, we will have comic Jo Sutherland and the writers of Jonathan Pie – Andrew Doyle and Tom Walker who plays Jonathan Pie – and London’s Night Czar Miss Amy Lamé who will be talking about the night-time economy.

“For the second show on 19th April, we are currently negotiating to get a controversial politician and we already have comic Mark Silcox and Daniel Lismore, who is the current reigning Leigh Bowery of the world – like a crazy creature who has come out of some couture closet. A sort of Art Scenester. I don’t want it to be all comics. It’s The Mix.”

“Are you taking it to the Edinburgh Fringe this year?”

David Mills in his photograph of choice

“No. I won’t be playing Edinburgh this year. I’ve been going back to the US a lot – more regularly – so I haven’t been spending time writing a new show. I’ve been gigging in LA, gigging in New York, also I have family out there. Trying to make my way. But it’s a bit of a challenge to make your way in LA if you’re only there for two weeks every three months.”

“You could,” I suggest, “get a position in the Trump administration. He’s running out of people to nominate. Do you know any Russians?”

“There was Denis Krasnov,” said David.

“He seems,” I said, “to calls himself Jack Dennis now.”

“He’s the only Russian I know,” David told me. “He used to be on the circuit in London, then he went to New York. but I don’t think he can get me into government. Well, I don’t want to be in the Trump administration, but I’d work for Milania – perhaps as a stylist or a gay best friend.”

“You are in bigtime Hollywood movies now,” I said. “Florence Foster Jenkins. What part did you play?”

“The gay friend.”

“A lot of acting involved?” I asked.

“It was a real stretch for me, John, because… I don’t have friends. For research, I had to hang around with people who have friends and let me tell you – I don’t know if you know anything about friends, but – they’re a lot of work. There’s a lot of lying involved. Lots.”

“Where was Florence Foster Jenkins filmed?”

“All over. North London, West London…”

“It was supposed to be New York?”

“But filmed in the UK, which is why I got the job. They needed an American gay friend in London. So there’s basically me or Scott Capurro and Scott wasn’t around.”

“Stephen Frears directed it,” I said. “Very prestigious. So you might appear in other films.”

“Well, I’m in the short Robert Johnson and The Devil Man directed by Matthew Highton and written by Joz Norris. Guess who plays The Devil Man.”

“Joz Norris?”

“No. They needed someone with a suit. Who looks good in a suit?… I always get those parts. When Tim Renkow did the pilot for A Brief History of Tim, they thought: We need some guy in a suit… Who?… David Mills! – so I played the part of ‘Guy in a Suit’.”

David Mills & Tim Renkow in BBC3’s A Brief History of Tim

“Yes,” I mused. “Who wears a suit? So it’s either you or Lewis Schaffer. Strange it’s always you that gets the sophisticated parts and not him.”

“That’s because he doesn’t wear a sophisticated suit,” said David. “I love Lewis Schaffer – I’m not tearing him down, right?…”

“But?” I asked.

“…he would tell you as well,” said David. “It’s sort of a shabby suit.”

“Though he would be less succinct telling me,” I suggested.

“…and shiny,” David continued. “The suit. He’s had that suit for about 15 years. I try to keep mine up-to-date.”

“What else is happening in your life?” I asked.

“I’ve got a solo show – David Mills: Mr Modern – at the very chic Brasserie ZL near Piccadilly Circus on 23rd March.”

“Why is it called Mr Modern?

“Because it’s about modern life… and about me.”

“You do have your finger in a lot of pies,” I said. “If you see what I mean.”

“I find myself increasingly on TV talking about cats,” replied David.

“Why?” I asked.

“I did a thing called LOL Cats on Channel 5. They show videos of cats, then turn to a comedian who tells jokes, then they go back to the video and then back to the comedian. It’s a ‘talking head’ thing.”

“Are you an expert on cats?” I asked.

David admitted: “I know very little about pussy…”

“No,” said David. “I know very little about pussy. But I seem to have a nose for it. And LOL Cats went well, so they had me come back to do LOL Kittens.

“The guy at the cafe I go to every morning asked me: What were you doing on TV talking about kittens? And someone at the gym said: Why were you on TV talking about cats?”

“Cats then kittens,” I said. “They will have to diversify into other species.”

“There are still big cats,” David suggested.

“Have you got cats?” I asked.

“No.”

“Too difficult in London?” I asked.

David shrugged. “I’ve lived in London longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in my entire life. 17 years I’ve been here. Sometimes, I have lived in London longer than most of my audience have been alive. Often they are students or other people aged under 22.

“There’s a risk with younger audiences that they won’t get my references, they may only have been in London six months and they may tend to be scared of anything remotely edgy.”

“Student audiences at the moment,” I said, “are very right-on PC.”

“It’s something,” agreed David, “that’s endemic across a lot of clubs where young people are the primary audience. They are very nervous about jokes that touch on any sort of identity issues – unless you are taking the ‘accepted’ position. I always try and tweak my audiences a little bit. Having come from a world of identity politics and having been through certain battles and marched on certain marches, I feel I have some justification to joke about that shit. But these people don’t have a sense of humour about sexuality or gender or race or…”

“Surely,” I suggested, “YOU can do gay jokes in the same way an Indian comic can do Indian jokes.”

“I do think it’s more charged when it comes to sexuality right now,” says David.

“You can,” said David, “if the target of your punchline is heterosexuality. But not if the target is homosexuality. Even if you ARE gay.”

“So,” I asked, “if I were a Scots or a Jewish comic, could I not safely joke about the Scots or the Jews being financially mean?”

“I think you can,” said David, “but I do think it’s more charged when it comes to sexuality right now. Particularly around gender. Gay comics invariably wave the rainbow flag.”

“You’re saying they can’t make jokes about,” I floundered, “I dunno, retro jokes about…”

David said: “It’s not retro to be critical, to have a critical take. It IS retro to be calcified in your position and unable to hear any criticism.”

“So you couldn’t,” I asked, “do a cliché joke about camp gays?”

“I wouldn’t want to. What I would want to joke about is the oversensitivity of the gay world and there is not a lot of interest in that at the moment.”

“What sort of jokes would you want to tell and can’t?”

“I do jokes about a drug a lot of gay men take – PrEP. They take it in order to then have un-safe sex – they don’t have to use condoms. It’s sort of a prophylactic for HIV. So I say: Of course I’m on PrEP. I am a gay white man. I demand a portable treatment for my inability to control myself. And You’re not getting your money’s worth on a gay cruise unless you come back with at least one long-term manageable condition. I try to collect them all.

“With those sort of things, people are thinking: Hold on! Are you making fun of people with HIV? It’s as if there is no ability for people to laugh at themselves.”

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Mr Twonkey on the Chicken Church cult and being hit by Lewis Schaffer’s spoon

twonkey_malcolmhardeeaward

Paul Vickers aka Mr Twonkey

Paul Vickers/Mr Twonkey had forgotten too

“Why are we meeting?” I asked Paul Vickers aka Mr Twonkey, surrealist performer and winner of the 2016 increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality.

“I have forgotten,” he told me.

“Me too,” I said. “Are you doing the Leicester Comedy Festival?”

“I am. On 9th and 10th of February. And the Museum of Comedy in London on the 15th of April.”

“Maybe that’s why,” I suggested. “What else have you been doing?”

“I have been taking advice on relationships from Lewis Schaffer.”

“Are you mad?” I asked

“He has algorithms,” Paul told me, “and he is trying to teach me how to read. He says I haven’t learnt how to read properly. I am dyslexic, but he is convinced that it is not a real disease. He thinks I am not trying hard enough.”

“He is teaching you too read?” I asked.

“He has a book,” Paul explained, “and I have to read words that have similar sounds and get used to reading and recognising them.”

“What is the book called?” I asked.

Lewis Schaffer’s book

Lewis Schaffer’s book without wooden spoon

“This Simple Book Will Let You Teach Anyone to Read by Lewis Schaffer. When I mess up, he hits me with a wooden spoon. It is based on a similar thing to Dr Seuss. It does actually work. But it is tedious and unpleasant. I think Lewis Schaffer finds it funny – and I did to start with, but then it became tiring…

“…and painful,” I suggested.

“Yeah,” Paul agreed. “Lewis Schaffer was upset because I didn’t take the book with me last time. He said they had printed it out specially for me.”

“There is,” I asked, “only one copy of This Simple Book Will Let You Teach Anyone to Read by Lewis Schaffer?”

“I think there may be 3 or 4 copies. But he has got a copy that is specifically for me. It is signed at the front and  it is my copy. We have had two sessions so far.”

“When was the previous one?” I asked.

“In May last year, I think.”

“Have you progressed?”

“Not as much as I thought. He showed me the page where we left off last time, and it was only halfway through the first page. But I think he may be cheating; I am sure I did more than just that page.”

“Is it enjoyable?” I asked.

“No,” said Paul. “It is not a fun activity and, last time, I did it before and after a gig so I was quite tired. But that doesn’t stop him. He’s relentless.”

A page from Lewis Schaffer’s book

A page from Lewis Schaffer’s relentless book

“Relentless in what?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Just relentlessly… erm… cruel, I suppose. It seems a bit cruel.”

“I thought you were seeing him for relationship counselling?”

“Well, there is that as well, but he has not written a book about relationships. He just has an algorithm that he feels will work.”

“An algorithm on relationships?”

“Yes.”

“What’s the algorithm?”

“It is based on the fact that all people are fundamentally selfish.”

“Lewis Schaffer thinks other people are too inward-looking?” I asked.

Paul laughed: “I am not sure I can repeat a lot of what was said.”

“Are you going to follow his advice?”

“It is always good to get the Lewis Schaffer’s perspective on a situation.”

“No it isn’t,” I said. “On relationships??? That seems like a very bad idea. You are going to end up an emotional wreck with no self confidence and speaking with a fake American accent.”

A selfie by Paul Vickers/Mr Twonkey

A Soho selfie by Paul Vickers aka Mr Twonkey

“That is true,” Paul agreed.

“Who first suggested,” I asked, “that you should go to Lewis Schaffer for reading lessons and relationship counselling?”

“That’s just what he sees as necessary when I turn up,” Paul replied. “That’s his idea of passing time with me.”

“Better than conversing…?” I asked.

“Well,” mused Paul, “he made me a chicken sandwich and then he took the book out… and the wooden spoon.”

I asked: “Does he keep a special wooden spoon for lessons?”

“Yeah,” said Paul. “That’s the one he beats you with.”

“This should be a show at the Edinburgh Fringe,” I suggested.

“It’s quite tedious, though,” Paul told me. “It really is quite tedious. It’s like blog – slob – cog – mob – gob – hob – lob. Quite tedious.”

“What does this supposedly teach you?” I asked.

“It teaches you how to recognise how certain things sound, because he says I get my Bs and Ds mixed up, which is true. And that I have difficulty recognising sounds and words. When I look at a page, I do sometimes have that thing where I can see words backwards. It’s partly why I ended up going down the road I’ve gone down. Apparently dyslexic people either turn to crime  or art… I could be in prison…

A selfie by Paul Vickers/Mr Twonkey

Another selfie by Paul Vickers aka Mr Twonkey

“…instead of being hit by a wooden spoon?” I asked.

“The dyslexia has actually affected my life,” Paul continued. “If only Lewis Schaffer had got to me sooner, then maybe I would have turned into an upstanding member of society.”

“I am not convinced,” I told him, “that you are learning to read. You are just getting bruised.”

“He sees it as doing a good thing,” Paul countered.

Then there was a long pause.

“Well, I don’t know if he does,” he added thoughtfully.

“Anyway,” I said, “what is this new show you are taking to Leicester, the Museum of Comedy and the Edinburgh Fringe?”

“If you could push my Museum of Comedy show on the 15th of April that would be cool,” said Paul.

“And the new show is…?” I prompted.

“It is called Twonkey’s Christmas in the Jungle.”

Mr Twonkey’s Christmas in The Jungle

Mr Twonkey’s Christmas in The Jungle – is not in a jungle

“Is it going o be performed at Christmas in a jungle?”

“No. At the Museum of Comedy in London on 15th April.”

“Have you written it all?”

“More or less.”

“Which?” I asked. “More or less?”

“Well, I have a beginning and an end but, because it has never been performed in front of an audience, I don’t entirely know how much of it works. I have a rough story.”

“Which is?”

“My manager – I don’t have a manager but, in Twonkey World I do – he sends me to do the Iquitos Fringe in the Hallucinogenic Peruvian jungle. The idea is he is trying to get rid of me, cos he has other acts who are more prestigious and exciting to manage.”

“Are you,” I asked, “going to have a jungle in the venue?”

“Yeah. My long-suffering other half, Mary, has made a jungle for me and some of my puppets have turned to a religious cult called The Chieftains of Paradise Who Welcome Evil.

“They wear a lot of rosettes and they believe that Jesus, when he rested, actually went to Hawaii and, when he was in Hawaii, he came up with some ideas like the Solomon Islands and Canada and the piña colada.

“I am trying to wean the puppets off the religious cult and the only way to be rescued from the jungle is for someone to go to the Chicken Church – which actually exists. It is not in the Peruvian jungle, but it’s a massive church that looks like a chicken. Well, it is not supposed to be a chicken: it’s supposed to be a dove but it looks more like a chicken. It has become a tourist attraction.

The Chicken Church in the Indonesian jungle

The real Chicken Church is actually in the Indonesian jungle

“The idea is that, if the puppets get to the Chicken Church and ring the bells, then the rescue helicopters will come and lift us all to safety.

“There is a song about the Chicken Church in Twonkey’s Christmas in the Jungle.”

“That would be,” I said, “the show which is going to be at London’s Museum of Comedy on 15th April?”

“Yes. The song is from a new album by Paul Vickers & The Leg with the working title Sherbert and Chilli – but that’s a long way from finished. We have about twelve tracks written and demo-ed. Christmas in The Jungle is another of the songs. It takes a while to finish these things… and there is always the temptation to try and get it right this time.”

“Do you,” I asked, “resist that temptation?”

“Well, I think I sometimes get it right accidentally. I do know how to persist and I know when something has gathered a certain amount of mass and it may be worth presenting to people, but it’s difficult to know when anything is ever really truly finished. It’s quite tricky to constantly mine the human consciousness for those gems or whatever they are.”

“Have you thought of doing something completely different – like not being Mr Twonkey?”

“I could have gone into advertising, but I didn’t. I could have gone any number of ways.”

“You still can,” I suggested.

“Yeah. That’s the thing. You feel you are in a very small, tight little room but, when you find those little doors it can take the roof off and it becomes expansive again. When people talk about writers’ block it’s really that they don’t have the keys to a door yet.

Paul Vickers tries a new look after our chat

Paul Vickers tried a new look for Mr Twonkey after our chat

David Lynch explains it really well. He says that sometimes you get little bits of ideas but you can’t work out what to do with them or how they connect and everything you need is in one room but it is a room you are not allowed access to yet.

“I think the ideas I have are not necessarily always fully explored. Jennifer’s Robot Arm – the play that I did – was originally just a 500-word story but I realised I could expand it out. There’s a lot of things I have like that; they could be expanded out. I would like to write more plays.”

twonkeychristmasjungle_leicester

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How I helped create the character of the fake American comedian Lewis Schaffer

Lewis Schaffer (left) and Erich McElroy

A very young Brian Simpson (left) in Edinburgh with genuine American comedian Erich McElroy

Brownhills Town Entrance feature sculpture by John McKenna (Photo by Jpb1301 of Wikipedia)

Brownhills Town Entrance feature sculpture by John McKenna (Photo by Jpb1301 of Wikipedia)

Brian Simpson, the English character comedian who performs as American comic Lewis Schaffer, was a massive fan of Tiswas, the slapstick children’s TV show I used to work on. He was born and bred in Brownhills.

Tiswas was broadcast live from the ATV Studios in the centre of Birmingham every Saturday. Brownhills is in the north of Birmingham and Brian, then a novice  comedian, knew one of the regular cameramen on the show.

Brian would stand in the crowded studio and try not to be noticed but he had this wild laugh and people did tend to notice him. Most people assumed he was one of the crew.

A studio floor pass for the show

Brian got onto the ATV studio floor courtesy of a friend

After one particular Tiswas Christmas show in 1981, his friend the ATV cameraman told me Brian wanted to meet me. I was only a researcher on the show, but Brian told me it was a thrill to meet me. He said he loved the bizarre ‘real people’ acts I found for the show, including a ‘Talented Teacher’ segment I sorted out.

He said he was struggling to get noticed on the comedy circuit and he thought this was largely because he was based in Birmingham. He was thinking of moving to London, especially as he was having trouble at home. He was in a relationship with a young Jewish American girl at the time (she was around 19) and they were having problems. This was before he discovered he was gay.

He was disillusioned and was thinking of quitting comedy.

After our first chat, he would talk to me almost every Saturday after the show and ask me what eccentric ‘real people’ items I was working on. He was trying to develop his own eccentric stage character. He was also getting advice from his American girlfriend. He told me he was trying to develop a character act in which he would pretend to be a no-hoper Jewish American comedian from New York who had performed at Caroline’s and at the Cellar, then married a Scottish girl, moved to England and was trying to establish himself over here.

I thought this sounded a little unbelievable, but his girlfriend helped him ‘translate’ his jokes into American English and give it a Jewish slant.

Now firmly established as Lewis Schaffer (Photo by Garry Platt)

Brian today – now firmly established as ‘Lewis Schaffer’ (Photograph by Garry Platt)

I thought and still think he could have been a brilliant British comic as himself but he didn’t think he was funny at all.

And, slowly, he built that self-doubt into the Lewis Schaffer character he created.

After about five years of advice from me (it continued after I left Tiswas), he told me that he thought he was going to make it in the UK and that he didn’t need to speak to me as often – that there were other ‘artists’ who needed my help.

Now we see each other less often.

On YouTube, there is a rare brief glimpse of Brian as himself in the background of the crowd on the studio floor of the last ever Tiswas, broadcast on 3rd April 1982.

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