Tag Archives: mental health

How to perform a comedy show to an audience with dementia in a care home

Ben Targét (left) & Pope Lonergan are working on a project

So I chatted to comedy performers Pope Lonergan and Ben Targét…

“The two of you have this joint project,” I said. “Does it have a name?”

“At the moment,” Pope told me, “it just has the banner title of The Care Home Tour. One thing we are doing is a three-hour Alzheimer’s benefit Forgetting But Not Forgotten, organised with Angel Comedy at the Bill Murray in London on 2nd October. Lots of different comedians.”

“It’s a great line-up,” said Ben. “Richard Gadd, Lou Sanders, Robin Ince, Candy Gigi, lots more.”

“And,” said Pope, “we are doing two Work In Progress shows in the lead-up to that. We are doing those with Fight in the Dog, which is Liam Williams’ production company. The whole thing is being supported by NextUp and they’re partially funding it.”

“And these shows lead to?” I asked.

“A performance that is specifically tailored for an audience with dementia in a care home. I mean, anyone can enjoy it, but the feed line/punch line of a conventional joke is too complicated. They can’t follow the logic of it. Instead, they respond with a visceral, limbic response to visual comedy and physical comedy – the slapstick stuff.”

“What is limbic?” I asked.

Cross section of the human brain showing parts of the limbic system from below. (Illustration from Traité d’Anatomie et de Physiologie, 1786)

“The limbic system,” Pope explained. “When we process music. It’s an emotional response, a visceral response; it’s like our primitive brain. It’s what develops early in children. There’s a correlation between child development and mental deterioration.”

“So the humour,” I said, “must not be too sophisticated.”

“A perfectly-structured joke is not gonna land,” said Pope.

“It’s got to be driven,” Ben added, “by the visual rather than by words. How the residents are stimulated is no longer through wordplay or story.”

“But they can,” I checked, “be stimulated through sound and music and audio effects?”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Pope. “100%. Even when they have really advanced dementia, if you start singing something like Knees Up, Mother Brown, they all know the words.”

“Is there,” I asked, “a difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s?

Pope explained: “Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia. Dementia is the umbrella term. There’s Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s… My nan and David Baddiel’s dad both had Pick’s Disease – frontal lobe dementia – and that made my nan very libidinous. She was having sex with a lot of the men in the care home.”

“At what age?” I asked.

“About 85. She done well. Every time we went in, one of the carers would come over to my dad and say: Mark… A word? And my dad would come out pale, saying: Yer nan’s been at it again.”

“Is anyone going to be offended if I print that?” I asked.

Ben Targét & Pope Lonergan take afternoon tea

“No, no,” said Pope. “Good on her, you know? People with dementia obviously have diminished responsibility. They don’t really know what they’re consenting to etc, so there’s a line. But we have a husband and wife in the home who have been married 60 years. We have caught them in flagrante having sex and some people have said: We need to stop them. But that was not policy. It was just some people projecting their own discomfort. They are a married couple. They are adults. They are married. Why on earth would you stop them?”

“At a certain age,” said Ben, “we stop seeing people as adults and they become infantilised in our eyes. I don’t know if we are trained to or whether it is innate.”

“And that’s where it’s tricky,” Ben added. “Infantilised means dehumanised. The efficacy of their brain is not what it used to be but they are still adult, complex human beings.”

“I can say,” I checked with Pope, “that you work in the care industry?”

“Of course you can,” he told me.

“I am always wary,” I explained, “about saying comedians have a ‘proper’ daytime job because punters want to think of them as full-time professional comics.”

“Most of us have proper jobs,” said Ben.

“But sometimes don’t want to admit to it,” I suggested.

“We should, though,” said Ben. “I think it makes us way cooler. You get far more respect from people if you are grounded in reality.”

“Yeah,” said Pope. “Some comics think they are de-legitimised by it – Oh, my God, I’m actually part of the real world! I actually have a real job!”

“So you work in a care home,” I said to Pope, “but Ben, how did you get involved in this?”

“I used to work in care homes as well,” he told me, “as a teenager – when I was about 16 or 17. And recently Josie Long introduced me to Pope because he was looking to work with people who do physical and visual comedy. So I am trying to assemble a troupe who are willing to embrace the project.

October 2nd Benefit before the gig on 9th

“We are building to this first gig on October 9th in the care home and we do think of it as like the first exploration vessel that’s been sent out. We are hoping to reassess afterwards and then, in the New Year, do more gigs across the country in care homes.”

“There are,” Pope said, “loads of comedians who have expressed an interest. Sara Pascoe used to do theatre productions for people with dementia in care homes.”

“And there’s David Baddiel,” Ben added. “And Adam Riches – who has a lot of experience in his family of dementia and caring for people. And Phil Nichol. I’m interested to see Phil because, every time I have seen him, he’s got naked on stage and yelled at the audience!”

“Then,” said Pope, “there’s John Kearns. And Deborah Frances-White has been very supportive: she was the one who got David Baddiel interested. And Josie Long has been vital in putting it all together.

“I had done some of Josie’s gigs at the Black Heart. I was trying to figure out a way to incorporate my experiences in the care home into my stand-up act.

“Josie said: I’d love to see you bring your authentic experience of working in the home to your act. I told her: The problem is there’s a bit of dualism there. The way they act is not like the normal way ‘we’ behave. So you love the residents, you’re compassionate, you really care for them, but there is also a day-to-day blackly comic streak that you can’t put on stage because it would just sound horrible: that you are laughing at vulnerable people.

“The first time I done it, it was a bit too nasty, really. I didn’t intend it to be like that, but I hadn’t honed the material and it just came across as a bit mean-spirited. Afterwards, this woman who was apparently a High Court judge was shouting at me about it. It’s sort-of a tight-rope walk.”

“Even more so,” I suggested, “when performing to people with dementia?”

Josie Long said: “I’d love to see you bring your authentic experience to your act.”

“There are so many different types of dementia,” said Pope. “With some, the language centre (in the brain) has really diminished. Some have still got linguistic capacity – really good – they can process it. But still the normal, conventional joke is a bit too convoluted for them. So I always do things like shit gymnastics or shit karate. Anything that’s a minor spectacle they really respond to and laugh at.”

“Surreal,” I said, “rather than verbal.”

“Oh, absolutely,” said Pope. “Anything that is a minor spectacle and visual and silly. If you do wry observational comedy about Donald Trump, it won’t work.”

“Will seeing comedy,” I asked, “actually help them or is it just passing the time?”

“It is definitely better for their welfare,” said Pope, “in that there is a deficit in certain types of stimulation. When it comes to interaction, they don’t want to get up and be physically active, but they do want to be engrossed in something. They do want to sit there and watch something.

“We have told the comedians who are involved that they will have to re-calibrate their idea of what a successful gig is. There ain’t gonna be uproarious laughter. There ain’t gonna be the energy of a comedy club. But, even if the audience are not outwardly laughing, it doesn’t mean they are not stimulated and enjoying what they are watching. They always feel better after they have experienced some kind of entertainment.”

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‘Queer As Jokes’ – The new LGBT comedy night starting this weekend

Simon Caine, begetter of the Queer As Jokes night

Simon Caine, begetter of Queer As Jokes night

So, this Sunday, I am going to a new monthly LGBT comedy night – Queer As Jokes – at Angel Comedy’s Bill Murray venue in London. The evening is being organised by Simon Caine, who runs the comedy industry Facebook group The Comedy Collective and the interview-based Ask The Industry Podcast.

“You are full of ideas and projects,” I told him. “What do you do in your ‘day job’?”

“It is probably,” he told me, “60% or 70% writing jokes for brands for Twitter and Facebook and then 15% I do stuff for clubs and stuff – helping them out with their social media – helping them, basically, build a community around what they’re doing.”

“Do you work from home?” I asked.

“It depends on the job,” he told me, “but I have an office at home. I have psychological problems which mean I am so used to living in one room that I have put the bed in the kitchen along with a cupboard where I keep my stuff in. It’s a one-bedroom flat. So, in the room that is meant to be a bedroom, I have put a desk in the middle and do my work in there.”

“Why?” I asked.

Simon editing his Ask The Industry podcast at home

Simon edits his prestigious Ask The Industry podcast at home

“I just like having all my stuff in one room so, when I cross the corridor, I feel like I am travelling to work. A girl who came there was a little taken aback.

“She asked me Why have you put your bed in the kitchen? and I told her Because I like all my stuff in one room. She asked me: Doesn’t that get confusing? I told her: It’s more comfortable for me. Why would it be confusing?

“Does this one-room thing,” I asked, “go back to your student days?”

“Well,” Simon told me, “I lived at home until I was at university. I lived in one room at uni and then I moved back to my parents’ house and, when I moved in with my girlfriend, we lived in one of the rooms in a one-bedroom flat because her mum was living in the living room… It’s a long story… And then I moved back to my parents’ place and then I moved out and now I just like being in one room. I’m sure I will slowly edge back into having a bedroom separately.”

“Anyway,” I said, “why are you starting an LGBT night? You are not gay. What do you know about such things?”

“I am,” he explained, “running it with Tom Mayhew, the gay comedian. I put myself down as an ally for LGBT stuff but, no, I can’t properly relate to it, cos I’m not in that and never really been in that. For a long time, I was pansexual.”

Simon performing (Photo by Viktoria DeRoy)

“You are attracted to woodland creatures and play a flute?” (Photo by Viktoria DeRoy)

I asked: “You are attracted to woodland creatures and play a flute?”

“No,” Simon said, “you are attracted to someone personality-wise. You can see their sexual attractiveness but you very rarely find them sexually appealing until you’ve got to know them.

“That was how I defined my sexuality for about four or five years but, in the last three months of last year, I met two girls who I immediately found sexually appealing which was weird, because I hadn’t found that for ages. So that was interesting. I am straight, but it’s kinda complicated. I find men attractive, but I’ve never found them sexually appealing. It’s kinda weird like that.”

I asked: “You mean you find men aesthetically attractive?”

“Yeah. Yeah. I dunno. I’ve got a weird relationship with my gender at the moment. I’ve got a lot of polyamorous friends and a lot of kink friends and all of them say regular comedy nights are very heteronormative and very geared towards straight people.”

“So,” I asked, “that is why you’re starting this monthly LGBT night?”

Simon Caine - Buddhism and Cats

Simon’s comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe

“It’s more because I realised I was bored of the comedy circuit. It’s awful at the moment. There are a lot of straight white men talking about Tinder and their failed dating lives. I’ve got a lot of friends who are in LGBT or another minority group who don’t get booked as often as they maybe should. Why not? And does it mean they don’t get to develop as much as other acts who get more stage time?… How many clubs have you been to in the last two weeks where they’ve had a person overtly talking about their sexuality who wasn’t straight? I just thought I would put on a new gig where I would actively look for new voices I had not heard.”

“But,” I suggested, “is having gay people talking about being gay in an LGBT night not restricting them in their own niche pigeonhole?”

“Everyone,” suggested Simon, “gets pigeonholed at some point when they get to a certain level.”

“So,” I said, “you are going to run these Sunday night LGBT shows every month?”

“We are going to do the first four monthly nights as a charity thing and then, after that, depending on how it goes, we would run them as a monthly pro gig (i.e. paying the acts).”

“They are themed?” I asked.

“Yes. The themes we have down for the four shows are… January – New Years… February – Anti-Valentines… March – Anti Steak and Blowjob Day… And, for April, we will probably do April Fools.”

“Anti steak and blowjobs?” I asked.

Simon Caine strikes me as a glass half full man

Simon Caine strikes me as a glass half full man

“Yes,” said Simon. “Some men got together and said they hated Valentine’s Day because it was ‘for women’ and they wanted ‘a day for men’ so they started a steakandblowjobs website for men. Ours would be an Anti Steak & Blowjob Day night.”

“Ah,” I said. “And, given that you are always full of new ideas…beyond the monthly Queer As Jokes nights… any other projects?”

“I have,” said Simon, “briefly talked to a friend of mine – a black comedian – about starting a black gig later in the year. Obviously, I would not be performing in that.”

“You could black up?” I suggested.

“No,” said Simon.

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How to become a comedy promoter? – Tim Rendle stripped for a policewoman

Tim Rendle in London’s Leicester Square

Tim Rendle in London’s Leicester Square, near the Lion’s Den

Last night, I went to the weekly Tuesday night Lion’s Den Comedy Club (aka Comedy Car Crash) in London’s Shaftesbury Avenue, run by Tim Rendle.

How do you become a comedy club promoter?

If Tim Rendle is anything to go by, then fuck knows.

He has been a painter, barman and baby sitter, web designer, magician and spy hole fitter. He has sold windows and doors, installed security systems, flipped burgers, busked with a drum and his first ever self-employed job was as a car washer when he was nine.

There is also a bit of controversy, because the Lion’s Den is a pay-to-play club. Acts have to pay to appear on his comedy night and there is no quality control at all.

“So,” I said when I met him, “pay-to-play. Terrible idea. Why do comics have to pay to perform? Why can’t you just make money from punters paying on the door to get in?”

Comic Johnny Vegas (left) with Tim at the Lion’s Den

Johnny Vegas (left) with Tim at the Den

“It’s really hard,” he told me, “to get an audience for open mic nights. We have an open door policy. We don’t require videos or CDs in advance for acts to perform. I’m happy to have first-timers and, as a result, on the circuit now, some of the biggest names did their teeth-grinding at the Lion’s Den and the Comedy Car Crash.”

“You are getting money out of comedians who can’t afford it,” I said.

“If you want to be a swimmer,” Tim replied, “you go to swimming classes. If you want to be a gymnast, you go to gymnast classes. All of them charge more than we do. It’s a spot. It’s a stage to work material out on. It’s not a bad thing. We’re not… what’s the word…”

“Exploiting?” I suggested.

“Yeah, that’s the word,” said Tim. “We are not exploiting anyone. They can get a spot anywhere else if they want.”

I told him: “I saw an act a few weeks ago at the Lion’s Den and I thought he might be slightly… deluded?”

“Yes,” said Tim, “But he has a right to play, same as anyone else. The club is a massive part of my life. I’ve never been so loyal to any thing or person. I’ve been doing it for ten years now, which is a quarter of my life.”

“You were brought up Amish,” I said.

“Yeah. Amish-ish. The Hutterian Brethren, down in Robertsbridge in East Sussex.”

“There is a community of Amish down there?” I asked.

Hutterian women return from working in the fields at sunset. (Photograph by Rainer Mueller)

Hutterian women return from working in the fields at sunset. (Photograph by Rainer Mueller)

“Yeah. When I was 1½, we moved from Lincoln to this Amish commune where my grandparents lived. My mum was brought up in a different commune in Shropshire. I stayed there until I was five, then came out into the real world, which was an eye-opener.”

“Did the Amish start to your life scar you?”

“No. I think it gave me a really good set of morals. Maybe a bit too unrealistic in the real world.”

“Being too honest?”

“Yeah. It’s just how honest, isn’t it? Knowing when not to be honest. Or knowing when to shut up. It’s the tree that grew inside me, so I do try to be nice and honest.”

“What did you want to be when you were aged 16?”

“I’m not sure. I didn’t have the happiest of family lives. When I was 16, basically, I wanted to get the hell away from home as soon as possible, so I joined the Army. I was accepted by them, but they said I had to do my GCSE exams.

“Then, on the way to sit my second GCSE, I got run over. I was riding my motorbike to school and a car smashed into my leg. That upset the Army. They said: We don’t want you any more. That was a bit sad, because it meant I had to stay around home a bit more.

“Then, a couple of years later, I got run over again. That time, I put my face through a car – the window of a car.”

“Why?”

“Because the driver was an idiot. He signalled left but did a U-turn. I tried to overtake him, he cut me off, so I went through his windscreen. My girlfriend went under the car.”

“She was OK?”

“She bruised her ankle and got a bit of petrol inside her. I ripped my neck open, got 35 stitches plus a few in my chin. I did pass out through lack of blood. That was just the start of it, really. Then the Crohn’s Disease kicked in just after that second crash and I started to think: Why the fuck does God hate me so much?”

“What does Crohn’s Disease do?” I asked.

Tim developed Crohn’s Disease when he was younger

Tim developed Crohn’s Disease when he was younger

“Fucks your life,” replied Tim. “Makes you skinny.”

“So you had accidents and disease rather than a career start?” I asked.

“I don’t think I’ve had a career ever. I wasn’t able to think about the future. Every time I did, I got gazumped by Fate at the last minute.

“We had moved down to Hastings when I was 5 and, when I was about 20, I was being hassled by my mum to get a job. I was getting so much nagging by my mum to get a job and I saw an ad to be a stripogram and my mum said Go on, then! so I did.

“It was the weirdest job interview I’ve ever had – having to take my clothes off and bend over in front of people who then told me: You’re gonna have to shave your arse. Women don’t like it and there are times when you need to bend over.”

“Can you make a good living as a stripogram around Hastings?” I asked.

“At the time – 1994-ish – yeah. £11 per minute.”

“An anecdote?” I asked.

“Loads. I was getting ready in a police station and they had sectioned off a toilet just for me to get ready.”

“This,” I asked, “was to pull a surprise on a police lady?”

“Yeah. I was actually technically sexually assaulted by that woman in front of about 150 police people.”

“Any tricks of the trade?” I asked.

“Basically,” explained Tim, “when male strippers warm up, they have to… eh… punish… erm…”

“Fluff?” I suggested.

“Yeah. Fluff. But, with my bad back from the car crashes, there was no way I’m going to bend down there. So I just had to punish it a bit.”

“A bit of slap and tickle?” I suggested.

In the police station - slap, tickle and elastic bands

The police station – lots of slap, a little tickle and elastic bands

“Yeah. More slap than tickle. And then you get an elastic band and you tie it off. Halfway through doing it in the police station toilet, a policeman opened the door. It was a weird situation with me halfway through slapping myself into position. He asked: Are you going to be long? I told him: I am trying, sir; I’m trying.”

“What’s the elastic band thing?” I asked.

“You tie yourself off,” explained Tim. “Once you have achieved a good… eh… state of being, you tie it off to preserve that state of being.”

“Keeping the blood in…” I said.

“Yeah,” said Tim. “It just makes it took great inside a g-string or banged against a tea towel.”

“But you gave all that glamour up,” I said, “for what?”

“Many years later, I moved to Colchester and did a full-time 2-year engineering course. I wanted to take that further and do industrial design.”

“You were still interested in erections?” I asked.

“No. I wanted to be an inventor, basically, because that’s the way my mind works. I’ve got an engineering mind, but I find engineering very boring – working out how much force a bridge can take is really boring. I wanted to make things and make the world a better place. I did the degree and found out they are just painting the wheel a different colour.

“But, while I was doing the degree, a friend I was staying with suggested I try his job out and that’s when I started working with people who have learning disabilities and in mental health. I became a support assistant.”

“I couldn’t do that,” I said. “Too depressing.”

“No,” Tim said, “not at all. It was one of the best jobs I ever did. I found the learning disabilities not particularly challenging. I tended to veer more towards the challenging behaviour and that led to the mental health work.”

“What do you mean by ‘challenging behaviour’?” I asked.

Where mental health meets kick boxing

Where mental health meets comedy and kick boxing

“Getting beaten up, basically. They were quite angry and violent people. A lot of the job was pacifying behaviour and basically being a target.”

“Trying to avoid them beating you up?”

“Yeah. Which I was pretty good at.”

“Because you are good at psychology?”

“Good at psychology and because I used to do kick boxing. There was nothing that I had not had worse.”

“So,” I said, “you are the ideal comedy promoter. You deal with mad people and can kick them.”

“I’ve had a few hairy situations. We have only ever had two violent incidents in ten years at the Lion’s Den.

“I once walked into a situation where six people were trying to pull an act off an audience member who he was beating the crap out of. They couldn’t get him off. I walked up and just managed to put my hand across his face and pull him backwards, which separated them instantly.”

“What was the problem with the act?”

“It was an act just assassinating every woman in the audience – being really horrible. Nasty. It wasn’t comedy.”

“And is the act still around?”

“I’ve not seen him since and I think he’s lucky, because the police were after him.”

Tim Rendle has had an interesting life, which continues.

There is a video on YouTube of Darius Davies introducing a performance by Sweet Steve at the Lion’s Den.

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What is it like to expose your psychotic hallucinations, live on a comedy stage?

Juliette and I talked at King’s Cross station

Some say you can never be too intrusive when recording…

In the absence of comedy critic Kate Copstick, who is cyber-trapped in Kenya by a malfunctioning computer and an eccentric mobile phone, I recorded our weekly Grouchy Club Podcast in London yesterday with comic performer Juliette Burton at King’s Cross station.

Last month, Juliette started a ‘new material’ comedy club in London – Juliette Burton’s Happy Hour. It is billed as “a night of positivity and happiness guaranteed to leave the audience uplifted”. She is the compere and, in the first show, she described what she saw when, as a teenager, she was sectioned under the Mental Health Act and had psychotic hallucinations.

Although she has mentioned these in this blog, she had never before described them on stage in front of a live audience.

Here is a brief extract from this week’s 39-minute Grouchy Club Podcast:

John
Whenever comedians expose themselves, as it were – psychologically – they feel very nervous about doing it. But I always tell them the person doing it feels empowered and the audience feels uplifted in some way – because someone else has survived something worse that they have experienced. At the first Happy Hour, you did a piece about your hallucinations, didn’t you…

Juliette
Yeah.

John
… and you had never done that before. I think you said you felt nervous about it, didn’t you?

Juliette
I felt terrified.

John
What is it like to, as it were, expose yourself? Because all comedians, by and large, are insecure and there’s nothing more insecure than exposing your actual deep psyche when people may reject you. People may laugh at you rather than with you. So what was it like to expose yourself or know you were going to expose yourself… and then do it?

Juliette
Yeah, I went naked in my last show and this time I’m actually going psychologically naked.

John
When you say you went naked in your last show, that was a magazine thing, wasn’t it?

Juliette
A magazine thing, yeah. I did a body confidence naked shoot for Cosmopolitan magazine.

It (the recent Happy Hour show) was weird. It was the first time ever that I had stood on stage and said: Right, this is what I hallucinated and I’ve spoken to friends about it and actually this whole experience (the hallucinating) was what eventually, I think, led me to comedy. Because I realised, if I wanted to talk about these hallucinations, the only way people would listen was if I could get them to laugh about it – because conversations with laughter last longer.

I was really nervous because they are very ‘out there’. I talk about seeing God and the Devil and these are big words that are terrifying anyway – I don’t know if I even believe in God and I’ve seen him – him/her, whatever.

You are right inasmuch as the audience seemed to really, really like it. I would say that actually it turns out that people want to talk about these things or want to listen about them now. It took me 13 years since the experience to want to stand on stage and talk about it, but it took Society about 300 years to want to listen.

Somebody came up to me after the show saying they, too, had been sectioned. Somebody else e-mailed me saying they, too, have had hallucinations – and that was in a relatively intimate audience. It was a packed-out room, but it’s not a huge room and, out of those people, already two of them had felt able to open up to me about their experiences and they had had similar ones.

I think people want to listen now; it’s just we need to be brave enough to actually stand out there and be more honest and truthful and I think the comedy I like most is the daring stuff – talking about things that people might not want to talk about in everyday conversation. I think it’s the most real and most truthful and the most raw and the most interesting because it’s honest and people respond to honesty.

********

On YouTube, Juliette has started to post a monthly video called BAHH – Backstage At Happy Hour.

In the first, she talked to performers Doug Segal and James Hamilton:

She also posts a weekly blog called TWIL – This Week I Love. The latest is HERE.

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Comic Lewis Schaffer on his time under a psychiatrist in Marilyn Monroe’s clinic

I talked to Lewis Schaffer at five Guys yesterday

I talked to Lewis Schaffer at Five Guys in London yesterday (Photograph by Rose Ives)

Yesterday, comedy critic Kate Copstick was ill in bed with vomiting and dizziness.

Possibly too much detail.

But the result was that she was unavailable for the weekly Grouchy Club Podcast. So I talked to UK-based American comedian Lewis Schaffer, a regular in these blogs.

This is a 4-minute extract from the 27-minute podcast which you can hear in full at Podomatic or iTunes.


John
At what point did you suddenly decide I’m not going to be an advertising person, I’m going to be a stand-up comedian? And why?

Lewis Schaffer
Why? Because it was the early 1990s and I was trying to get a job selling advertising space and no-one wanted me, because they were sensible. They could see the desperation; they could see the insanity. And I was flat broke. I was going to a psychiatrist in New York at the Payne Whitney Clinic, part of New York Hospital.

(NOTE: The US poet Robert Lowell wrote about his hospitalization at the Payne Whitney Clinic, Marilyn Monroe was hospitalized there in early 1961 and Mary McCarthy based her book The Group, on her in-patient experience there.)

I was paying $10 a session – I was going to a discount psychiatrist (he was a trainee) and I couldn’t even afford it. I was paying it on credit cards. I had like twenty or thirty credit cards that I was maxing out.

The psychiatrist said to me: Lewis, you’re depressed and, if you want, I can get you $800-a-month. You just have to go and I will sign the form for you to say you’re depressed. I said: Of course I’m depressed. I’m not working, I have no girlfriend, I have $100,000 in credit card debt and I’m going to be evicted from my flat. Of course I’m depressed!

If that had happened today, I would have said: I wish I had an airplane to fly into the side of a mountain. But I said to him: No. At that moment, I could have been labelled as a depressive.

John
Why were you going to the psychiatrist – apart from the fact you’re an American and all Americans do – if you did not want $800-a-month for being depressive?

Lewis Schaffer
I just wanted someone to talk to.

John
Thus your career talking to audiences…

Lewis Schaffer
Yeah. Well, I wasn’t doing comedy at the time, so I would go and talk to him and I would try to make him laugh. Or I would try to see the inconsistency of his advice – whatever he said – and I would try to drive him crazy. I reached a point where he was so fed up with me that… There was a really pretty girl who was working as a receptionist there. Girl/woman. She was a woman. And I would hit on (i.e. flirt with) her and she made a formal complaint against me because I was flirting with her.

When you are in a psychiatrist’s office and you’re not famous and it’s a discount psychiatrist’s office, women do not like to be flirted-with. Now I can flirt with anybody because – Oh! Lewis Schaffer, the great performer! – but, at that time… That was the lowest I had ever been, when a woman who was a receptionist – There’s nothing wrong with being a receptionist but – this woman made a complaint and the psychiatrist said to me that I should stop that. He got quite angry with me and I thought this was really inappropriate because I’m here for psychiatric help and I’m obviously mental, so he shouldn’t criticise me for acting mental. I’m mental – He treated me like I was a normal person!

I was so low.

I had a friend of mine who I’d met a few years before in real estate school, who was very successful. And he would goad me every single day because I was home during the daytime and he was home trading. I was his friend. He would talk to me every day and he would say to me: What do you wanna do? and he did more good than the psychiatrist, cos he found out that I always wanted to be a stand-up comic but I was afraid that, if I did stand-up comedy and I wasn’t successful, then the one thing I thought I was good at I would not be good at.

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Kevin James Moore: Stand-up comedy, books, drugs, creativity, mental health.

Kevin JamesMoore on Skype two days ago

Kevin James Moore talked to me via Skype two days ago

Occasionally, people suggest blogs to me – like today’s.

A couple of weeks ago, Kevin James Moore contacted me from Greenwich, near New York. He used to be a stand-up comic. Then he gave it up due to drug and mental problems. Recently, he has started the comedy again. And he has written a novel.

Comedy, books, drugs, mental health. How could I resist? So we had a Skype chat on Monday.

“I’m on my third stage name,” he told me. “I started off as ‘Alien Brain’. It was a really secretive thing. I never got into comedy to become famous. I was a 20-year-old college student and I was writing jokes and I didn’t know what to do with them and it was a way to get those thoughts out of my mind.

“When I got more confidence, I performed as Kevin Moore and, when I re-started stand-up comedy last year, I had already published the book under my full name, so now I perform as Kevin James Moore.

Kevin James Moore - Go-Go Girl cover

Great Gatsby and Big Sleep meet Nadja

“Your novel,” I said, “is The Go-Go Girl.”

“Yes, it’s basically about heroin,” he told me, “but I made it a type of crime/adventure novel. It’s about a guy who goes to help an ex-girlfriend who’s a go-go dancer in a club in Rome and she’s stolen a bunch of money and a bunch of heroin and they go on the run across Europe to a few cities.”

“It’s your first novel,” I said. “So it’s bound to be autobiographical?”

“The emotions are real in the book,” explained Kevin, “but the plot I made up. To me, it’s a mix of The Great Gatsby, The Big Sleep and Nadja (by the French surrealist André Breton). I think of it as a kind of surrealist crime novel. I wrote it when I was in rehab and mental hospitals. It was the only outlet I had other than staring out a window.”

“And,” I asked, “your second book is Blue Snow?

Kevin James Moore - Blue Snow cover

A book for kids with learning disabilities

“Well,” said Kevin, “that’s for kids with reading problems and learning disabilities. I did it for a contest. I don’t count that as a novel.”

“But you are writing a second book?”

“Yes. It’s basically about the mental illness, being bi-polar. Again, the emotions and the thoughts will be real, but the plot will be constructed and fiction.”

“When you quit comedy,” I asked, “what did you do?”

“I was in and out of hospitals and was really determined on having a ‘normal’ life. I was going to get a regular job and get on with what you’re supposed to do: wife, kids, job. I was a substitute teacher – you guys call them supply teachers. And I worked at the UN for about a year as a reporter. It’s been like a 4-year process to recover from my low-point and now, every time I get more comfortable, I feel more of an urge to be creative. I really didn’t let myself be creative when I was trying to get better.”

“Why?”

“I dunno. I just didn’t see how the creativity would pay off. I felt it was intertwined with my problems – the bi-polar and the drug problems. I did art therapy when I was in the hospital, but not outside.

“I used to think I had to keep everything separate, like writing and comedy couldn’t mix. Now I try to not dismiss thoughts. A lot of the ideas I have won’t translate to stand-up comedy, but they will translate to small sketches. The stuff on my Funny Or Die pages are things which don’t really fit as stand-up jokes. I used to dismiss a lot of ideas before. Now I don’t stop the idea coming through.

Kevin James Moore's Funny Or Die page

Kevin’s Funny Or Die page

“I guess to be creative you have to have some edge to you whereas, when I was getting better, I was really focussed on being polite and patient and positive and I think that doesn’t translate at all to being a stand-up comic. You CAN go on stage and be positive and polite, but you also need to have that edge to say Fuck off! You have to have that little bit of darkness in you and I think I was afraid to let that back in. Now I kinda have and it feels good.”

“Why did you go back to doing comedy?” I asked.

“My best friend was still in comedy and doing a lot, but she moved to L.A. Then she came back to produce a show in New York early last year and asked me to be on it. And it was like a brand new experience for me that I’d never had before on stage. It felt like I was doing it for a totally different reason.

“My first stretch of comedy – which was for about seven or eight years – was almost selfish. I was doing it for me. But this time, every time I go on stage, I perform for the audience to get laughs. It doesn’t matter how many people are in the audience: I do my best instead of phoning it in.”

“Do you do anything before you go on stage?” I asked.

“Yeah,” laughed Kevin, “I smoke about half a pack of cigarettes.”

“Nicotine?” I asked.

Kevin James Moore - face painted

Kevin bought some paints last year and started with his face

“Yeah. It’s about the only time I smoke any more. It’s not anxiety. For some reason, whenever I’ve gone on stage I’ve always felt comfortable there, even though I was always a shy person – kinda anti-social but somehow, up there… People used to ask me: How come you can look so uncomfortable at a party with eight people, yet you can go up on stage in front of a crowd of 100 or 200 people?

“And your answer was?”

“It’s a totally different experience. At a party, you don’t know what people are thinking about you. On stage, you know right away if they don’t like you: they don’t laugh. I think it’s the honesty of being judged on stage whereas, in a social situation, people are being polite so you never know what they think.

“On stage, you can kinda change their opinion of you but, in a party, you don’t know if there is a problem so, if there is, you can’t correct it… I think… I dunno… I’d have to work this stuff through with a psychologist.”

“You have one?”

“I have an appointment in a couple of hours with my psychiatrist.”

One of Kevin James Moore’s paintings

One of Kevin James Moore’s recent paintings

“A psychiatrist or a psychologist?” I asked.

“The psychiatrist gives you the medicine,” said Kevin. “The psychologist just talks to you.”

“Which one are you seeing?” I asked.

“The psychiatrist, to get the medicine… The worst thing about having a mental illness is you never want to admit to yourself your brain doesn’t work and it’s tough because there’s no tangible, visible evidence of anything, so you deny it a lot.”

“Well,” I said, “it’s not that your brain doesn’t work. It just works in  different way, which is not necessarily a bad thing.”

“Yes,” said Kevin, “but the way they diagnose it is as an illness and every time I’ve gone to the hospital, I’m in there for the same reason everyone else has – because they’ve stopped taking their medication.”

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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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