Tag Archives: manic-depressive

Comedian Lewis Schaffer gets serious about madness, his mother and himself

Lewis Schaffer briefly went all Jewish in the show last night

Lewis Schaffer briefly went all Jewish in a Leicester Square  show last night

“Honestly!” I said to Lewis Schaffer’s official stalker Blanche Cameron at the end of last night’s show, “It’s so frustrating! The things I can’t blog about!”

Lewis Schaffer’s apparently limitless ongoing weekly shows at the Leicester Square Theatre (sometimes on a Thursday, sometimes on a Sunday) are always, each in their own, unique events but – Ye Gods! – last night was quite a show. People say Lewis Schaffer lacks self-confidence but, to do what he did last night, takes extreme self-confidence.

Now you can be as frustrated as I am. I can’t write about it. You won’t know what happened.

Lewis Schaffer thinks I should write about it. I think it would intrude too far on at least two other people’s private lives. Remember that when you read the rest of this blog.

Suffice to say, it involved a very amiably drunken member of the audience, three – count ‘em – three people showing draw-dropping insights into their very, very personal lives and the line “Stop talking it’s my turn to speak!” not spoken by Lewis Schaffer.

Lewis Schaffer talked to me in Starbucks last night

Lewis Schaffer reads his publicity last night

Before the show, I had talked to Lewis Schaffer. It was supposed to be about his upcoming tour. Then he decided NOT to talk about it because he was not sure he should publicise it. Then he wanted to. Then not. Welcome to Lewis Schaffer’s world.

“The reason my shows work,” Lewis Schaffer told me, “is that, in today’s day and age, audiences have very little in common. They don’t watch the same TV programmes; they don’t work together; they don’t share the same political or religious ideology. Usually, they have nothing in common.

“With me, my personality is so strong that, by the end of an hour, the audience has a shared friend. It’s like being at the funeral of someone they loved. The difference is the friend is Lewis Schaffer and he’s dying in front of them. People are rarely bored after my shows. They may want to commit suicide, but they’re rarely bored.”

“What did your father do for a living in New York?” I asked.

“He was a truant officer. He used to find kids who were playing hookey and bring them back to school. But he wasn’t a truant officer for very long. He became a lawyer – a patent and trademark attorney.”

“Lots of money it that,” I suggested.

“For everybody else,” Lewis Schaffer bemoaned, “but not my father. It was one of the highest-paying legal professions but my father barely scraped by. He became the patent attorney for intellectual property which came from communist Czechoslovakia and wanted to be trademarked in America. He originally worked for AMF, the people who made bowling alleys – one of the first conglomerates. I should have been a lawyer.

“I think my father wanted to be in the entertainment business and never was. I think maybe that’s why he went to Law: because maybe he thought he could be some type of performer in that. But patent law is zero performance.

“He told me he had had an offer to go to California and be in the Pasadena Playhouse, which was one of these great workshops for comedians after the Second World War and he didn’t go.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. I think he was a scared man. I think I lived his dream by leaving my ex-wife. That was my father’s dream: to divorce my mother.”

“But he didn’t?” I asked.

“Eventually he did, when he was 70 years old.”

“Seems rather pointless,” I observed.

“Well,” explained Lewis Schaffer, “not when she’s driving you crazy. She was like off-the-wall. Instead of calming down, she got crazier and crazier and I think my father lost the energy to cope with it.”

“Should I mention your mother going into mental homes in my blog?” I asked. “I’ve always avoided it.”

“She’s dead,” said Lewis Schaffer. “Back in the day, they institutionalised everybody and this was a very fancy place. Charles Schulz, the Peanuts guy, was there. It was an expensive place in the country: The Institute of Living in Hartford, Connecticut. Very prestigious.”

“So,” I said, “it wasn’t Arkham Asylum.”

“Oh no,” said Lewis Schaffer. “My mother had a big health insurance, because my father was working for this conglomerate as an in-house patent attorney. My mother was always under a lot of stress. She was a perfectionist. She had a mental illness. I would just call it an extreme personality. I don’t believe in mental illness. I think this Stephen Fry business is just shit.”

“Being bi-polar?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Lewis Schaffer. “My mother was described as bi-polar.”

“What year was this?” I asked. “Bi-polar is one of those new terminologies, isn’t it?”

“They called my mother manic-depressive,” said Lewis Schaffer. “By calling it bi-polar, I think they’re trying to make it sound more scientific.”

“Has ‘manic-depressive’ become non-PC without me noticing?” I asked.

“Everything becomes non-PC,” said Lewis Schaffer. “Manic is like wired. And depressive is depression. But they still use the word depression. They haven’t called that uni-polar. Now it’s considered a disease. I think by calling something a mental illness, it’s trying to take away someone’s responsibility for their horrible behaviour by saying it’s a disease or some chemical imbalance. But the truth is, if you show me a mental person – a person who’s acting it out in a bad way – I’ll show you someone who’s been treated really badly. Something horrible happened to my mother to make her act that way.”

“Something happened,” I asked, “rather than she had that personality anyway?”

“Yeah. Something happened when she was a kid.”

“Surely,” I said, “people are a combination of nature and nurture?”

“No,” said Lewis Schaffer. “I think it’s always because something horrible happened.”

“You think it’s all nurture not nature?” I asked.

“Yes. I don’t think people are born crazy. When you see people misbehaving, I don’t think that’s ever, ever, ever nature. I think it’s always because something bas happened to them. Or the other side is it could be macro not micro – society has declared what they are doing as unacceptable. Maybe they’re acting in a normal way in an abnormal society.”

“Maybe,” I suggested, “if you’re a totally sane person you can’t be really creative, because creativity is about originality and originality is the opposite of thinking like other people do.”

“The case can be made,” said Lewis Schaffer, “that all excellence comes from passion and all passion comes from insanity. Last night I was thinking what my psychological problem is… I think by the time I was conscious of being a person, my parents had sort-of given up on me. My mother was mental and really wasn’t paying that much attention to me and I wanted to entertain her, so I grew up through life thinking: I have to entertain my mother and get her attention.”

“You were trying to entertain her when you were 14?” I asked.

“And younger,” said Lewis Schaffer. “Now I feel I am responsible for making people happy. Not just entertaining them but making them happy. It’s like I’m responsible for my mother’s happiness. Maybe because I was blamed. When we moved from Brooklyn to Great Neck, Long Island, she went all wonky. Probably a lot had to do with moving away from her home into this very pleasant, prosperous suburban environment and she felt lonely.”

“How old were you when you moved?”

“Almost three. Jerry Seinfeld is like me: a family of Brooklyn Jews who moved to the suburbs, then moved back into Manhattan to make our way. I was born in New York, moved out to a nice suburb and then moved back into Manhattan. I lived in Manhattan for 18 years.

“The reason I am the way I am is I had resentment towards my mother that I had to entertain her and give her happiness. So, with my comedy, I’m standing there trying to make other people happy but, at the same time, I’m thinking: Why the fuck do I have to make them happy?  Most comedians are happy to make other people happy. I am somewhat happy but also feel bitterness and resentment that psychologically I need to be in this role. On stage, I’m thinking about the audience: Why the fuck do you deserve to be made happy? I’m thinking: Why am I sacrificing what I want? Why don’t YOU make ME laugh? Why am I having a bad time doing this?

“I look at the audience when I’m performing and I think: I can’t make you happy all the time. You’re going to have to make yourself fucking happy.

“You should be happy,” I suggested, “that you’re saving lots of money by doing self-therapy.”

“It’s not self-therapy,” said Lewis Schaffer. “It’s self-analysis.”

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Filed under Comedy, Mental health, Mental illness, Psychology

For a change, comic Lewis Schaffer gets neurotic with someone other than me

Liam Lonergan meets a man with answers

Liam Lonergan interviews a Jew with a view

In the last couple of weeks, I have posted some extracts from a chat I had with Liam Lonergan for his BA (Hons) course in Creative and Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth.

Yesterday, Liam sent me a transcript of a chat he had with London-based American comedian Lewis Schaffer, who often turns up in my blog. Below, with Liam’s permission, are some edited extracts.

Liam chatted to Lewis Schaffer at The Source Below in London’s Soho where, twice-weekly, he performs his show Lewis Schaffer: Free Until Famous. It is free to enter but the audience can, if they want, pay on the way out.


Liam: Have you got a clear business model? If you pushed to go on television would you give…

Lewis Schaffer: If I pushed to go on television?

Liam: Yeah. Would you give up this free show bit up or would you still do it, d’you reckon?

Lewis Schaffer: I dunno. Because I’ve grown to enjoy it in the same way one grows to enjoy a retarded child. Is that horrible to say? You love your children even though they’re deficient. And I’ve grown to love this because I’ve done more of these kind of shows than anybody else. I can’t imagine anyone else doing as many shows as this. I’ve done over four hundred shows here over four years. I started in 2009. The benefit of it is it’s training for chaos.

Liam: In one of your interviews you’ve said that you alternate between panic and bored and you’re used to living in chaos and it bothers you when there’s no chaos.

Lewis Schaffer: I believe in chaos.

(Lewis Schaffer and Liam are standing in the street outside the entrance to The Source Below and two fans of his comedy shows have arrived – Sean and Arnie.)

Lewis Schaffer outside his Soho venue last night

Lewis Schaffer stands outside venue

Lewis Schaffer: I’m being interviewed here. Real comedians let the audience enjoy themselves. And me? I’m just going to stop you from enjoying yourselves. Am I right?

Sean: I like the awkwardness.

Lewis Schaffer: Openness…

Sean: Awkwardness. My two word review for you is “awkwardly hilarious”. Which means I’m laughing awkwardly. I’m laughing at you but I don’t know why some of the time.

Lewis Schaffer: I dunno why you’re laughing at me either.

Sean: I love your gigs. I’ve been here and I’ve come here again. That’s how good you are.

Lewis Schaffer: But besides Lewis Schaffer, who else is there?

Sean: The minute you become famous, Lewis, I wouldn’t come to see you. There’s vulnerability at your gigs because I feel vulnerable.

Lewis Schaffer: Exactly.

Arnie: That’s because you’re vulnerable. Am I right? You expose yourself don’t you?

Lewis Schaffer: Well, I hope I do.

Liam: You need to show the ligaments.

Lewis Schaffer: Is that what that’s called? “Show the ligaments”?

Liam: Yeah. Since you cultivate an environment of full disclosure in your stand-up act, is everything fair game?

Lewis Schaffer: Everything is fair game except for my ex-wife’s husband. Which is me… Are any subjects fair game with the proper audience? Well, everything’s up for discussion. It’s how you discuss it.

Liam: Have you got a central philosophy?

Lewis Schaffer: A core philosophy? If it’s raining in South London by the time you get to North London it’ll be clear.

Liam: Good philosophy.

Sean: I can answer.

Lewis Schaffer: What is my core philosophy on comedy?

Sean: On comedy, your schtick is you’re a failure.

Lewis Schaffer: I am a failure but it’s not a schtick. It would be like saying New York is my schtick. I’m a New Yorker. But it’s not my schtick.

Liam: It’s just what you are.

Lewis Schaffer: My core philosophy is to take what people know and tell them they’re wrong. Most comedians tell people what they already know and then make a joke about it. Or they will tell people what they don’t know and then make a joke about that. My thing is just to say: “You think this. You are wrong”.

Liam: One thing you say is: “I want people to know everything about me and still love me”.

The Fringe has reduced comedian Lewis Schaffer to this

Lewis Schaffer says he wants to be loved, anal warts and all

Lewis Schaffer: Yes. I want them to love me, anal warts and all.

Liam: Do you reckon that’s tied in with some sort of mania? Could you call it mania?

Lewis Schaffer: Well, my mother was diagnosed as a bi-polar manic-depressive and I think that I’ve got all the attributes of bi-polar manic depression without being a bi-polar manic-depressive.

Liam: Do you reckon it’s learnt behaviour?

Lewis Schaffer: Yes. If you’re raised by wolves you’re going to be howling at the moon. You might not be a wolf but you will learn to howl at the moon. Was that a good answer?

Liam: That was really, really interesting.

Lewis Schaffer: Was that very interesting? It’s not funny.

Liam: But it doesn’t have to be rat-a-tat scattergun jokes. Answers are like that good as well.

Lewis Schaffer: I’m rapid cycling. Rapid cycling. I change moods so quickly that people don’t notice. I’m like alternating current. I’m like on sixty cycles.

Sean: I need the toilet. I’ll be honest with you.

Lewis Schaffer: OK. See you down there.

Liam: Is there a toilet down there? Because I’m gonna need one as well soon…Talking in a broader sense about the whole Love me attitude, do you think that applies to comedy as a…

Lewis Schaffer: What attitude?

Liam: The Love me attitude… You wanting people. Needing the acceptance.

Lewis Schaffer: That only applies to comedians. Actors don’t do that. Actors just wanna be noticed. They don’t care how they’re noticed. They can play a villain or they can play a hero. But comedians want people to… It’s like it’s on a continuum. Most people are happy. Somewhere in the middle with people not hating them or people not loving them but comedians, generally… people have to be constantly loving them in order for them to feel safe… I’m not saying my mother is bi-polar.

Liam: No. I won’t print that.

Lewis Schaffer: You can print anything I’m saying. You can put down anything I say here. I’m just saying she was diagnosed that way. I don’t believe in the psychiatric establishment.

Liam: I don’t as well. There’s like a diagnostic spider’s web where they sort of broaden it so everyone fits into that. Everyone fits into a category so they can sell the solution to that.

Lewis Schaffer: They can sell the pills, Or the surgery.

Liam: Do you ever feel threatened by the audience?

Lewis Schaffer: the face of a multiple killer

Lewis Schaffer: threatening audience

Lewis Schaffer: Yeah. I always feel threatened.

Liam: Even after all these years of doing it?

Lewis Schaffer: Sometime I don’t feel threatened by the audience and those are the nights that go pear-shaped from the very beginning. Where I go in and I feel they’re my friends and they turn on me.

Liam: You need that? You need that tension?

Lewis Schaffer: I need to fear my audience. I need to fear people. They may not love me. I think worry produces positive…

Liam: This is why I’ve always wanted to do stand-up but why I can’t do it because I can’t bear to have the rejection.

Lewis Schaffer: To me, the rejection is the normal… If they do hate me it’s very rarely more than what I expected them to. And if they love me it’s always a surprise. That’s why I have failed more than most comedians… Every show that I do has elements of failure. Wouldn’t you consider me a failure?

Liam: Er… No. I dunno. Well…

Lewis Schaffer: Twenty years of doing comedy.

Liam: What’s the zenith?

Lewis Schaffer: I can pay my bills.

Liam: Is there a financial…

Lewis Schaffer: Yeah. It’s not about the money but I’d like to be paid some money. Money is the proof… just one more bit of love.

Liam: Is that why you do these free shows? The bucket at the end… So you can put a monetary value to their love?

Lewis Schaffer: Yes. I can be sure whether the show was good or bad… I can tell when people put money in or people don’t put money in. A lot of times they don’t and it’s horrible. So that is the reason. It’s a measure of whether I’m funny or not. It’s also a measure if people come back to see me repeatedly.

Liam: Is it a neurosis? Is it endemic?

Lewis Schaffer: Endemic. What a big word.

Liam: Is it something that’s derivative of the New York mentality? As a whole?

Lewis Schaffer: No it isn’t. It is among Jews and New York is a very Jewish community and a lot of comedians have taken over the attitude of the Jews.

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The manic-depressive comedy act and the fantastic female astronaut phenomenon

Tonight I’m off to see the last of American comic Lewis Schaffer‘s twice-weekly shows Free Until Famous at the Source Below in Soho. The shows should resume in January. As far as my extensive experience goes, “a rollercoaster ride of emotions” is pretty much what Lewis guarantees.

He tells me a psychiatrist friend told him his shows are an exact recreation of a bi-polar, manic-depressive incident. Bloody right. Rollercoasters. Comedy rollercoasters. That’s what they are. He has an extraordinary and mesmerising talent for plucking defeat from the jaws of victory just as often as vice versa. He has perhaps four or five hours of good, solid, funny material and you can never be certain which parts and which configuration will surface in any particular one-hour show… and then you throw into this volatile mix his occasional sudden bouts of self-doubt (which he then analyses as part of the act) and his low boredom threshold… plus he will career off-course if there is any distraction or any good audience interaction. He is a Wikipedia of knowledge. Throw him an audience member from some obscure village in Guatemala and the odds are he will know some bizarre and fascinating fact about it.

“Unpredictable” does not quite do him justice. And then there are the audiences he attracts.

A few weeks ago, he asked an American girl in the audience what she did for a living and it turned out she was USAF Sargent Katie Sparks, a former astronaut on the Mir Space Station. She had spent twelve days up there in space in 2006. Lewis got her up on stage and he and the audience asked her questions about what she’d done and how she’d felt and she answered with fascinating details.

Except that, after the show, Lewis checked out her 2006 trip to Mir and discovered that not only did the Mir space station burn up in 2001 – five years before she claimed to have been in it – but he could find no reference to any female astronaut called Katie Sparks. She had made the whole thing up – whether as an intentional con trick for unknown reasons or as a fantasist’s dream, he could not figure out. There is a photo of “Katie Sparks” on Lewis’ Facebook page.

Lewis won the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award at the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe for pulling a publicity stunt so outrageous that the Edinburgh Comedy Awards (showing a remarkable lack of any sense of humour) threatened to take him to court. Could he have been out-stunted and out-witted this time?

He (and I) would be interested to know who “Katie Sparks” is and how and why she managed to persuade Lewis and an entire audience that she was a female astronaut. Born-and-bred New Yorker Lewis is even beginning to doubt that she was American.


Filed under Comedy, Science, Strange phenomena