Tag Archives: Mark Watson

The very interesting Thom Tuck sings The Mountain Goats and I’m convinced.

On Friday this week, there is a show at the Vault Festival in London titled THOM TUCK SINGS THE MOUNTAIN GOATS.

The billing for the show reads:

“A barely known comedian (“increasingly melancholy” The Guardian) sings the songs of a band you probably don’t listen to. A phenomenally stupid idea. Total sellout Edinburgh Fringe 2017.”

Thom Tuck is a very interesting man so, obviously I had to ask him several questions. As is my wont, I tended to meander a bit. Well, OK, a lot.


JOHN: So why are you doing this show?

THOM: I fell into a hole by getting into The Mountain Goats – the best band you’ve never listened to. They are so good.

JOHN: Do they sing jolly, feel good songs?

THOM: They’ve got two styles of songs: sad and very sad. Well, three types: sad, weird and angry. New Chevrolet in Flames is about a couple who take a car for a test drive, park it behind a school and set it alight.

JOHN: So the attraction of The Mountain Goats is…?

THOM: John Darnielle is just a brilliant storyteller. The first few albums are just him with a guitar and a Panasonic boombox and they’re all first or second takes. Phenomenal stories. And then, when he decided to write about his own life it got even better. There was a concept album about loads of druggies living together in a house… then an album about his abusive stepfather.

They released a single last week. It is sort-of about a dragon.

The last record was about Goths getting old and it includes a song about The Sisters of Mercy and their lead singer – It’s called Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds.

JOHN: And you yourself were born in…

THOM: Leeds.

JOHN: And you feel Yorkshire…

THOM: Yes. There’s a Bill Bryson quote: You never feel so much a part of your own culture as when you’re surrounded by people who aren’t.

JOHN: You were brought up in…

THOM: Egypt, Sri Lanka, Denmark, Malawi, Zimbabwe, the Philippines and Bangladesh.

JOHN: How did Denmark get in there?

THOM: My (English) dad worked for Danish firms – Krüger, an engineering firm, and DANIDA, the Danish international development agency.

“Well, it had an effect. I don’t know about ‘screwed-up your brain’”

JOHN: Did being brought up in all those countries screw-up your brain about who you are and where you’re from?

THOM: Well, it had an effect. I don’t know about ‘screwed-up your brain’… That was just the way it was. I wasn’t anywhere longer than 18 months before Bangladesh. I was in Bangladesh for six years – aged 10-16.

JOHN: The formative years.

THOM: Yes. I made friends pretty quickly, because I had to. I’m quite good at that first bit,

JOHN: Do The Mountain Goats know you are doing this show?

THOM: Well, I did it before, at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017, for Mark Watson’s Festival of Bad Ideas and John Darnielle knew about that one.

JOHN: Are you taking it back up to the Edinburgh Fringe this year?

THOM: Probably. I did it sort-of unofficially last year – about 17 shows. I just put on Instagram: I’M GOING TO DO IT NOW! and went to Bob’s Blundabus and started playing in the shed.

JOHN: And you have formed a band to do this show.

THOM: Yes. The Hospital Bombers – named after a line in the Mountain Goats’ song The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton:

The best ever death metal band out of Denton
Never settled on a name
But the top three contenders after weeks of debate
Were Satan’s Fingers and The Killers and The Hospital Bombers 

And all the band except one are obsessives about The Mountain Goats as well.

Thom and The Hospital Bombers’ possible set list for the show

JOHN: So this could be the start of a new career for you: singing.

THOM: Possibly.

JOHN: But you’re a serious actor, really.

THOM: Well, the last big job I did was in the play Brexit.

JOHN: And you did Death of a Salesman.

THOM: Yes, two years ago. That was a torrid time. The lead actor died in tech rehearsal (three days before the play was due to open). Tim Pigott-Smith. So the first three weeks were cancelled.

JOHN: Had you wanted to be an actor originally?

THOM: I think so. But I always got cast as the comedy part in plays at school.

JOHN: I always think you went to university at Oxbridge, but you didn’t.

THOM: No. I went to Edinburgh University.

JOHN: Why?

THOM: Because, when I was 17, I went to the Edinburgh Festival and thought: Oh! I’ll come to university here, please!

JOHN: You studied…

THOM: Philosophy. I’m very glad I did it: I think I’m a better thinker because of it.

JOHN: But that’s no help in comedy, is it?

“Philosophical about things over which you have no control”

THOM: Well, just in life. Being able to remain philosophical about things over which you have no control and seeing logical flaws in things and fallacies in arguments.

JOHN: Seeing through bullshit.

THOM: Yes. I started doing Philosophy and Economics and that’s a bad pairing because, if you do them together, you realise Economics is false. It’s based on myriad assumptions and, time after time, these assumptions are not held up. Economists think they’re scientists and they’re fucking not.

JOHN: What are they?

THOM: They’re social scientists. They consider themselves on a par with mathematicians and they’re just not.

JOHN: You are very literate. You should be writing novels.

THOM: I’ve started a couple, but I’m not good enough yet. Jess Fortescue and I are trying to write a TV sitcom at the moment.

JOHN: So you’re busy. The Penny Dreadfuls have been commissioned to do another BBC Radio show and you run the Alternative Comedy Memorial Society live shows. 

THOM: Yes, it has been going about 7 or 8 years now. We have one next week – Tuesday 12th February – at The Albany in Central London.

One of Thom’s individually hand-drawn flyers for the show

JOHN: Your publicity for Thom Tuck Sings The Mountain Goats says you can’t sing.

THOM: I’m not a singer. That’s what I said.

JOHN: What’s the difference?

THOM: I have a nice voice, but I’m not very good at hitting the notes.

JOHN: So you sing all the right notes, but…

THOM: …not necessarily in the right order. Yes. If I was to sing in a cappella without any backing, it would sound great but, unfortunately, this is with a band.

JOHN: The Hospital Bombers.

THOM: Yes.

JOHN: And, when you did it in Edinburgh in 2017, it sold out.

THOM: Yes. When we did it for Mark Watson’s shows, it sold out because it was Mark Watson.

JOHN: It still sounds good to me. Do you see the show going further?

THOM: Possibly.

JOHN: Any more singing ahead?

THOM: Long-term, I want to do a particular musical, but I don’t know how good I am. It’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the story of an East German transsexual rock singer. The film is exceptional and the stage version is just a rock concert with a monologue in-between.

JOHN: More singing for you, though… I’m convinced.

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‘American’ comedian Lewis Schaffer revealed to be English character actor Brian Simpson

Mark Watson - Englishman with fake Welsh accent

Welsh comedian Mark Watson was not all he seemed

One night a few years ago, I went with comedy character act Charlie Chuck to The Cockpit Theatre in London. Also on the bill was comedian Mark Watson who had successfully performed for several years using a Welsh accent, despite the fact he came from Bristol and had an English accent. The problem Mark had, he told me, was how could he now drop the Welsh accent he had originally adopted to differentiate him from other comedians playing the circuit?

That night, about 28 minutes into his 30 minute set, he said in his Welsh accent (I paraphrase):

“…but, in fact, I don’t speak like this at all (then switching to his real English voice) I actually speak like this…”

There was (this is true) an audible gasp from the audience. It was an extraordinary coup de théâtre.

And Mark got away with it.

Similarly, this year at the Edinburgh Fringe, a well-known English comedian performed as a fake Canadian comedian, disguising his face with a clever mask. Most critics never mentioned his real name though their reviews had knowing ‘winks’ for those in-the-know. He would have been nominated for a Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award except that it was widely known by the media who he was (at least one publication named him) and, in fact, he admitted it in an interview.

To my mind, though, the best ‘fake’ comedian – revealed here for the first time – is ‘American’ comedian Lewis Schaffer, who has kept up the pretence for nigh on ten years without anyone realising.

‘Lewis Schaffer’ is actually English character actor Brian Simpson who hails from Brownhills in the West Midlands.

The real face of ‘Lewis Schaffer'

Real face of talented English actor Brian Simpson

“Frankly, it’s relief to admit it,” Simpson told me last night over a very English meal of seared fillet of sea bream with Devon crab and crushed new potatoes at Langan’s restaurant in London’s Mayfair.

“I thought I had gone as far as I could with the Lewis Schaffer character and it was beginning to become a parody of itself.”

“Why did you start it?” I asked.

“I was an actor in my mid-forties, struggling like most,” Simpson told me in his own soft English voice which has a slight twang of a Birmingham accent. “The comedy club circuit was still at its height and I thought I’d try that, but I needed a USP – a Unique Selling Proposition. So I thought of this character.

“The Lewis Schaffer character was a New York Jew set adrift in an alien environment – England – on which he could give insights as a supposed outsider. I remember as a kid watching the BBC TV series Adam Adamant Lives! which was about a Victorian James Bond type character frozen in ice who is revived in Swinging Sixties London. So he looked OK – his Victorian cape did not look out of place in the King’s Road – but ‘normal’ things like light bulbs, cars and TV were all new to him.

Crocodile Dundee inspired Lewis Schaffer

Inspirational Crocodile Dundee movie

“They used the same idea in the original Crocodile Dundee film – a figure set down in an alien environment. So, to be honest, I nicked that idea and I gave him a back story – He had married a British woman whom he calls English, but actually she’s Scottish because, as an American, he doesn’t know the difference. And I gave him two children because that widened the terms of reference for his stories. So he’s a divorced, neurotic Jewish New Yorker trapped in the UK by love of his children. In fact, I’m gay and have a partner who is not in showbusiness, which I think is what keeps me sane.”

“So why,” I asked, “have you decided to ‘come out’ now as Brian Simpson?”

“I guess,” said Simpson, “I was getting tired of the ‘Lewis Schaffer’ character. I’ve played him for over ten years now and, for an actor, that’s… well, it’s not what I want. It’s like performing in The Mousetrap every night. Not that The Mousetrap is not a very fine play. It is. But only playing Lewis Schaffer is very limiting for an actor. It’s not what I came into the business to do.

Comedy hero Andy Kaufman

American comedy hero Andy Kaufman

“Also meeting the American comedian Laura Levites at the Edinburgh Fringe last year had a big effect on me. I had always claimed that Lewis Schaffer was brought up in Great Neck, New York because that was where one of my great comedy heroes – Andy Kaufman – was born. But, by coincidence, Laura was from Great Neck too.

“It’s not a big place and she almost caught me out on details a couple of times, though I was able to bullshit my way through chatting with her. But it kind of made me feel like the fraud I was. It took the edge off the ‘game’ of playing Lewis Schaffer. I thought I have been doing this for ten years and still don’t have a TV series or vast amounts of money flowing in from the character, so why keep up the pretence?

“I do OK. I have always said Lewis Schaffer lives in Nunhead, Peckham, but actually my partner and I live in West Hampstead and we’ve got a couple of properties we rent out in Swiss Cottage. So we get by.

“But something happened to me this year; I don’t know what it was. I let my hair go grey and I got a bit tired of being Lewis Schaffer not Brian Simpson and I started feeling broody or something. I might move back to the West Midlands, to Brownhills.”

“So where do you go now professionally?” I asked.

The Fringe has reduced comedian Lewis Schaffer to this

Simpson had grown tired of keeping the Lewis Schaffer secret

“Well,” said Simpson, “I’ll keep doing the Lewis Schaffer character in my current shows in London – Free Until Famous is every Tuesday and Wednesday at the Source Below in Soho and American in London is at the Leicester Square Theatre every Sunday. I might even do another mini-tour of arts centres with Lewis Schaffer. I tried that out earlier this year and it went OK.

“Next year, I’m thinking of staging an Edinburgh Fringe show called Lewis Schaffer Is Not Feeling Himself or possibly Lewis Schaffer Is Not Lewis Schaffer. And I have a new character I’m working on. She’s a schoolteacher character from Ulster and she was once a…”

“She?” I asked.

“Yes,” explained Brian Simpson. “I need a complete break from Lewis Schaffer.”

“Are you actually Jewish?” I asked.

“No,” Simpson laughed. “Catholic… non-practising but, once a Catholic, always a Catholic…”

“Did you think of killing off the Lewis Schaffer character?” I asked. “Giving him a Reichenbach Falls ending?”

“You mean like Malcolm Hardee?” Simpson asked me.

“Well, it worked for him,” I said. “Derek has put the Malcolm Hardee years behind him and has carved out quite a good career for himself in South Africa.”

“I prefer to leave it open-ended,” replied Simpson. “I can keep the Lewis Schaffer schtick going for a few more years yet. It’s like plate-spinning. You have to keep everything up in the air.”

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