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OH YES IT IS ! – Matt Roper + the first pantomime in New York for 100 years

(L-R) Jenni Gil as Jack, Michael Lynch as Dame Delancey, and Matt Roper as Silly Simon. (Photograph by Don Spiro)

“So,” I said to British performer Matt Roper in New York, “Have you ever done a pantomime before?”

We were speaking via FaceTime, obviously.

“Years ago,” he told me, “as a 20-year-old I was in Mother Goose at the Theatre Royal, St Helens, with ‘Olive’ from On The Buses. Anna Karen. She was great! What a woman! She was a Soho stripper in the 1960s in London. She was deported from South Africa in the Apartheid years. She was a puppeteer at a theatre in Johannesburg and gave a private puppet show to a bunch of black kids and she was deported.”

“And now,” I said, you’re in Jack and The Beanstalk – New York’s first panto for 100 years,”

“Yes. The first major panto for over a century.”

“How did you get involved?” I asked. “You were just an Englishman in New York?”

Julie Atlas Muz and Mat Fraser (Photograph: Laura Vogel)

Mat Fraser lives in New York now and he wrote it with his wife Julie Atlas Muz. She’s a Ukrainian American. Mat’s English, as you know, and his parents were performers, so he grew up watching a lot of pantos.”

“Julie Atlas Muz,” I said, “is a ‘feminist burlesque star’?”

“Yes,” said Matt.

“OK,” I said.

“Mat and Julie have a long relationship with this theatre – the Abrons Arts Centre,” said Matt. “The last thing they presented here was an adults-only version of Beauty & The Beast – she was Beauty and he was The Beast. Very explicit. Very adults-only. But this time, with the panto, it’s completely 100% family-friendly.”

“The whole concept of panto,” I suggested, “must be next-to-impossible to understand if you haven’t grown up with it.”

“Someone is going to go out right at the top of the show,” explained Matt, “doing a whole warm-up routine, explaining the rules to the kids.”

“Someone?” I asked.

Dirty Martini plays the Good Fairy and Hawthorn Albatross III is – Boo! – villainous Dastardly Dick. (Photo by Don Spiro)

“Me,” said Matt. “I think it will work, because New York audiences are not very quiet audiences. I imagine it will be like an audience full of Scousers – you can’t keep ‘em quiet. There is a villain in the show – Dastardly Dick – so I will tell the kids: Every time you see him, you have to hiss and boo!

“And,” I said, “of course, you have to explain things like Behind you! Panto is just weird. The whole format – Things like the principal boy is played by a girl and the motherly dame is a middle-aged man. Who are you?”

“I’m the comic. I am Jack’s brother, Silly Simon. And Jack is an actress called Jenni Gil. She’s from the Lower East Side, from the projects. It has been adapted for a New York audience. So I think that will help. It’s set in the Lower East Side – in a lost village called StoneyBroke.”

“What about the accent differences? Or are you playing with an American accent?”

“It is set up that we had different fathers. In the story, both my brother – Jack – and my mother are people of colour – African American. It’s a really diverse cast; very New York. Our ‘mother’ is Michael Johnnie Lynch, a big, black, brassy drag queen from the Bronx. Honestly, we couldn’t have wished for a better dame.”

“Surely,” I said, “the dame has to be a male-looking man in a dress as opposed to a drag queen?”

“Michael just nails it in some way,” said Matt. “He’s brilliant.”

“Is he a feminine drag queen, though?” I asked. “You can’t be too feminine as the dame. You have to be knowingly masculine.”

(L-R): Julie Atlas Muz, Jenni Gil, Matt Roper, Michael Lynch in rehearsal in New York (Photograph by Dirty Martini)

“He’s feminine but not in a Danny La Rue type of way,” Matt explained. Occasionally he goes into a deep, husky voice… And we have Dirty Martini as the Good Fairy – a plus-size burlesque legend. She’s done great things for body positivity.”

“Any Trump parallels in the script?” I asked.

“The giant is Giant Rump and he lives up in the clouds.”

“Is the Giant a large actor or do you just have giant feet in the background?”

“All the puppets… there are quite a lot of animals in the show… There is Daisy the Cow, obviously, because Jack has to sell the cow to get the magic beans. There’s the goose and there’s the giant. And they’ve all been designed by a guy called Basil Twist, who has been nominated for Tony Awards on Broadway shows.”

“You don’t have a pantomime cow with two men inside?”

“Yeah, yeah. Of course. There’s actors inside the cow. Of course.”

“You have,” I told him, “done very well over there. How long have you been in New York now? Two years?”

“Just over. It’s tough. Health insurance and all that stuff. No-one gives a shit what you’ve done in the UK; you have to start at the bottom.”

“Certainly if you are the cow,” I said. “But you landed on your feet off-Broadway, playing Chico in the ‘lost’ Marx Brothers revue I’ll Say She Is.”

Top Marx (L-R) Seth Sheldon, Matt Roper, Noah Diamond.

“Yes,” Matt agreed. “The New Yorker said: Matt Roper catches Chico Marx’s unearned belligerence.”

“A Brit pretending to be an Italian-American…” I said.

“Well,” Matt reminded me, “of course, he wasn’t. He was a Jewish guy from the Upper East Side in New York. As a kid, because there were lots of Italian gangs and he was Jewish, he pretended to be Italian to protect himself from getting beaten up.”

“And then,” I said, “you went into that early American play.”

“We just closed it last month,” said Matt. “Androboros: Villain of the State. The earliest-known play published in what is now the US. Based on an investment scandal that happened in the 1700s in the British colony of New York.”

“And you were…”

Matt as Androboros: Villain of the State

“Androboros.”

“What was the appeal to a 2017 audience?”

“They put it on because there were many parallels between Androboros and Trump.”

“So you are surviving,” I said.

Yes,” said Matt. “And I write a column each week for Gorilla Art House, it’s a subsidiary of Lush UK, the ethical cosmetics company. And I have a voice-over agent here in New York.”

“And a residency at The Slipper Room,” I said. “What is the Slipper Room?”

“It’s a burlesque house. They market it as ‘a house of varieties’ – It’s like a new vaudeville.”

“Is it the whole caboodle?” I asked. “Singers, dancers, comedy…”

“And we have sideshows and a little bit of magic and it’s all rigged-up so we can have aerial acts.”

“What does ‘sideshow’ mean in this context?” I asked.

Wondrous Wilfredo performs at The Slipper Room

“People who stick piercings through their eyes and stuff like that. Stuff that makes your stomach turn.”

“And you…?” I asked.

“I open the show sometimes as my character Wilfredo… Wilfredo is more-or-less confined to the Slipper Room, which pleases me.”

“Are you ever ‘Matt Roper’ in the Slipper Room?”

“Yeah. We have in-house shows and some out-of-house guest shows who hire the theatre and I’ve done comedy sketches and stuff like that.”

“There is a man in a gimp mask on your Facebook page…”

Matt Roper (left) and Peaches, who lives underneath the stage

“That’s Peaches, the Slipper Room gimp.”

“The Slipper Room has a resident gimp?”

“He lives underneath the stage and, now-and-then, comes out and performs.”

“Nothing surprises me,” I said.

Jack and The Beanstalk opens at the Abrons Arts Center in New York on Sunday. Previews started yesterday.

“Break a leg on Sunday,” I said to Matt, when we had finished chatting.

“Don’t say that,” he told me. “On the opening night of the Marx Brothers musical, the guy playing the dowager’s butler actually broke his leg. So no broken legs. Especially with the cost of healthcare in this country.”

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Israeli comics: “It’s hard to be pissed-off with someone who makes you laugh.”

In a couple of weeks, on Wednesday 4th October, the annual Comedy International conference and showcase is back in London.

Representing Israel in the showcase are three comics: Yossi Tarablus, Yohay Sponder and Shahar Hason. The night before (Tuesday 3rd October), they are performing a one-off full-length show From Israel With Laughs at the Seven Dials in Covent Garden – “People can see us for an hour and a half rather than just 10 minutes each,” Yossi told me on Skype from Tel Aviv.

Yossi Tarablus

“Will I – a non-Jew – appreciate it?” I asked.

“Sure,” he told me. “Shahar and Yohay have just returned from their Edinburgh Fringe show and from the Asia Comedy Festival in Singapore. It’s not going to be Jewish/Israeli stuff. People who don’t know Israel and who aren’t Jewish can come and still have a blast.

“We will be doing international stuff that works that we have performed all over the world. My show is a lot about family and kids and marriage. A wife is a wife and a child is a child and dating is dating. We are doing adjustments, but we won’t be doing material that we would be testing on the crowd. We respect the crowd. We do our homework.”

“Are the three of you similar in style?” I asked.

“No, we’re very different in style. It’s a great mix of comedians because everyone is at a different stage in life. I am the only one who is married; the other two are single.”

“How,” I asked, “is the comedy scene in Israel?”

Yohay Sponder

“The English-language stand-up scene in Tel Aviv and in Israel has really taken off. In the last five years, when we started this endeavour, we didn’t know how it was going to pan out. We started with an open mic and then expanded to another more professional evening and then another evening in Jerusalem and another evening in Tel Aviv. There was was a time when you could go to see English-language comedy in Israel four times a week. Now you can see it three times a week, which is great.”

“You said,” I pointed out, “when we started this endeavour. What endeavour?”

“We wanted Israel to be a base,” explained Yossi, “a hub for international comedy like there is in Amsterdam and Berlin and, of course, I’m not even talking about Anglo places like London and New York. We want to go out and perform all over the world. And we want international comedians to visit Israel. We have a lot of people who speak English here, a lot of expats from the US and the UK. So we have enough of an audience for weekly shows.”

Shahar Hason

“I presume touring American Jewish comedians already include Israel?” I said.

“The production company that is bringing us to the UK is the one which brought Louis CK and Eddie Izzard and Jim Jefferies to Israel and they’re producing Chris Rock’s upcoming tour in Israel in January. So they bring a lot of A-listers to Israel. And Abi Lieberman brings three comedians with him every six months to do charity shows in Israel. Seinfeld was here a year and a half ago.”

“So how,” I asked, “is Israeli comedy different from New York Jewish comedy?”

“I think,” said Yossi, “that a lot of New York Jewish comics are Woody Allen-esque. Very smart, very sophisticated, very funny and more like Eastern European Jews. They are maybe a little bit more self-deprecating: classic Shtetl Jews.

“Israeli Jews, in their comedy, are a little bit more – as Israelis are – more direct. We appreciate political correctness, but not in comedy. We don’t have a problem laughing at anyone. Laughing at our wars; criticising the other side; criticising ourselves.

“I think being in a country that is constantly in a state of… alarm… makes you less vulnerable to… eh… I mean, what can happen? We are here. We have survived everything. So we don’t care about… I mean, subtleties are fine, but we just want to have people laughing, bursting out laughing, forgetting the news, any tension in the streets or even any economic crisis. People come to comedy clubs to forget. People come to comedy clubs to laugh and have a great hour-and-a-half, to forget all their troubles.

“So we are there to punch you in the stomach and to make you laugh and we want to do that in a way that will make you disconnect from the news. We don’t do a lot of stuff about politics or about current events which might trigger you to something a little bit more traumatic. We don’t want that. We just want you to laugh because your life is pretty-much like ours. Finding a common denominator with the audience is something we look for as much as possible.”

“New York Jewish humour IS self-deprecating,” I said, “whereas I think maybe the superficial image of Israelis is that they are very self-confident.”

“Self confident and less politically correct,” agreed Yossi. “Looking at stuff without any buffers. So – Boom! – in your face. That is the Israeli mentality. Straight talking. If we don’t like this guy, we say we don’t like him. In Israel, we are really afraid to be a hypocrite. If we say we are afraid of Arabs, it’s straight. We are afraid of Arabs because we have a problem with the Arabs. You know? What can you do? It’s not an evening of poetry. It’s an evening of comedy.

“People have asked me about anti-Semitism or anti-Israeli feeling— if we have encountered anything – but, when you do comedy, it’s hard to be pissed-off with someone who makes you laugh. We just want people to have fun.”

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Theatre producer Calvin Wynter died. Here he gives his own view of himself.

Calvin Wynter: no hair, but a big Fringe

Calvin Wynter(1959-2015)

After yesterday’s blog about the death of Calvin Wynter last Thursday, I thought it might be interesting to post his own view of himself. He ran a fringe/off-Broadway theatrical promotion and production company called Inbrook in New York City.

Below is his own description of himself as part of that company.

Below that is an excerpt from a blog I wrote about him three years ago in November 2012 in which, again, he speaks about himself.


INBROOK

As Chairman & CEO of Inbrook, Calvin Wynter seeks to provide effective oversight and management of the company.

Calvin is an accredited promoter for Adelaide Fringe and The Edinburgh Festival Fringe. He is a judge and industry panelist for The Boston Comedy Festival, New York Comedy Competition and The New York Underground Comedy Festival. Calvin is a regular panelist on the Midtown International Theatre Festival symposiums.

His theatre experience includes being Managing Partner & Artistic Director at 45 Bleecker Theatre. His team renovated, owned and operated 45 Bleecker Theatre that included two Off­Broadway Theatres The Green Room Theatre (150 seats), Bleecker Street Theatre (320 seats) with café and art gallery at 45 Bleecker Street in New York City. Calvin was Artistic Director & Managing Partner for The Green Room Venue. His organization restored, owned and operated this landmark 300 year old former church. The Green Room Venue (100 seats, 60 seats and 40 seats with two in performance space bars, café, art gallery and VIP lounge.) was located at 37 Guthrie Street in Edinburgh, Scotland. Calvin as Managing Director renovated and launched commercial productions at Gene Frankel Theatre (72 seats with lounge) at 24 Bond Street in New York City.

Previously, Calvin was a Managing Director of Corporate Finance at Lehman Brothers, a Vice President at Merrill Lynch in Equity Trading, and was Senior Managing Partner at the investment firm Scarborough & Company, Inc.

His social activism is chronicled in Black Corona the non­fiction best­seller. Calvin serves on the board of the Bleecker Street Opera as the Artistic Advisor.

Calvin studied acting with John Strasberg, member of the Strasberg family, well known for coaching such luminaries as Al Pacino and Marilyn Monroe.

Calvin Wynter graduated with an A.B. from Colgate University, was an exchange student at Université de Genève, attended Georgetown University, received a Regents & Bronx High School of Science diploma and graduated from Joseph Pulitzer Middle School Honors Program.


Calvin Wynter (bottom left) looks at the Green Room venue in Edinburgh, 2007

Calvin Wynter (bottom left) looks at the Green Room venue on Edinburgh’s Cowgate in 2007

SO IT GOES BLOG – 27th November 2012

I think I first met US promoter/publicist Calvin Wynter at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2007, when he was involved in opening the new Green Room Venue, but he had been going there since 2004.

Yesterday, he told me: “I went to school in Geneva for a year and I had no idea the Edinburgh Fringe existed. My parents were avid theatre-goers and we were travelling to Europe almost every summer, but they had no idea the Edinburgh Fringe existed. When I was made aware that Edinburgh was the place to go then, in 2004, I went over with five shows. All sold out, were critically-acclaimed and one won the Richard Pryor Award. The following year, Richard Pryor’s daughter went over with us with six other shows.

“Now we’ve taken 135 shows to Edinburgh and we’ve done 250 shows worldwide. We’ve been at 50 festivals worldwide and toured 120 cities.”

And now, through his company Inbrook (of which I am an alleged creative consultant) he is staging his very own Fringe Festival – the Brooklyn Fringe, running 12th-21st July next year in New York.

“Are you getting any money from the local council?” I asked.

“This is the American Dream,” said Calvin. “You go out. You focus on being the best. And you are able to create something that serves the public need. It’s a team of performers and creatives that also – almost all of us – have backgrounds in the financial industry. We do it in such a way that it’s self-sufficient. We can’t depend on government. Arts funding has been cut throughout the United States. We are not dependent on public funding or donations or grants. As we see government and foundation funding evaporate… we just create a business model that works for all.”

“Your background is Wall Street,” I said.

“I retired 12 years ago, when I was 40 years old. I don’t need the money. I want to be creative. I want to help artists to grow.

“I was a performer as a child. Even when I was a baby, I was in a commercial for milk. But, when it came time for career selection, I ended up going to Wall Street and, just before I left Wall Street, I found out that I had – without my knowledge – been hiring actors, dancers, comedians. Every member of my staff was in not only one but the three major unions in the United States. Even in the case of members of staff from Britain, they were in British Equity.

“I had been unconsciously surrounding myself  with performers. So it was natural when one said You should pursue this that I went, in less than 90 days, from taking three acting classes to being in one off-Broadway show, in rehearsals for another, doing indie films at the weekend and setting up a production company that would go on to be nominated for a Drama Desk Award in less than 18 months. I leased a theatre – the Gene Frankel Theatre – renovated it, started putting on productions.”

“You were an actor?” I asked.

“I was an actor, a singer and dancer. I’ve just got back from producing a show in Amsterdam, scouting theatres in Berlin for touring and being taken to Prague to consult on a musical that was in a 1,000 seat theatre.”

“So you are an actor, singer and dancer who turned producer, promoter and publicist?”

“In one instance,” said Calvin, “we were even involved in producing a show in a car. Two actors in the fronts seats, two audience members in the back. Whether it’s an elevator, a boiler room, a toilet or a 1,000 seat theater we want to see Art.”

“And a businessman,” I added.

“Brooklyn Fringe venue registration applications are due by Monday, 28 January 2013,” Calvin told me.

“And a salesman,” I added.

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Six degrees of separation from Lou Reed

Calvin Wynter wearing a yellow rubber glove this morning

Calvin Wynter was getting medical results in yesterday’s blog

Yesterday’s blog ended with New York theatre producer Calvin Wynter saying: “They called me on Friday which means I think I may have cancer. I don’t know. So far, everything that’s thought to have been cancerous was not – like the polyps I got from my colonoscopy. I had three polyps. No cancer. So who knows? Maybe the third time isn’t so good but, y’know look – I’ve had a shaved head before.”

Calvin has now to come back to say: “My jawbone lesion is benign… Yay!”

In a blog during the Edinburgh Fringe, I mentioned rock star Lou Reed, as portrayed  in the show Transformer. The Fringe show was performed as if in Max’s Kansas City club, New York, in the 1970s. I asked him if he had ever seen Lou Reed perform live:

Calvin Wynter in 1977

Calvin Wynter in 1977

“I was a teenager going to Bronx Science,” Calvin told me, “living in Queens and spending most of my waking hours in Manhattan. Max’s Kansas City was always an allure. You could drink at 18 in NYC at the time and I was 17 with a very good fake ID. So, when I heard the musicians’ musician, Lou Reed, was playing that night at Max’s, I thought: School work be damned! and, ID in hand, two subway tokens and a few bucks in my pocket, I went to see live what I had heard on vinyl so many times before that the grooves were worn out and I had had to buy a second album of Transformer.

Lou Reed's Transformer album

Lou Reed’s Transformer album, released 1972

“In performance, Lou Reed was dark and foreboding which captured the energy of New York City of the 1970s. His beat combined with superb lyrics strung together shards of life, glittering dark and sharp. There was very little movement in his performance, but I and the rest of the audience were moved and moving. Lou Reed was simply so good! You were cheek to jowl, but Lou made you feel like you were in your own bubble and only he could pierce it and touch you. By the way, the steak at Max’s Kansas City was great!”

I also, almost inevitably, asked New York-born, UK-based comedian Lewis Schaffer.

Lou Reed in 1986 (Photo Steven Toole

Lou Reed performs in East Rutherford, New Jersey, 1986 (Photograph by Steven Toole)

“No, I missed Lou Reed,” he told me. “One summer I lived around the corner across from Andy Warhol’s studio on Broadway and I went into Max’s once but the Velvet Underground were long gone. Weirdly, the drummer from the Velvets – Billy Yule – lived on the corner of the very leafy street in Great Neck I grew up on… in a run-down house with a small fish pond in the yard which I envied as a child. I thought the place was haunted.”

Six degrees of separation, indeed.

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Pit bull dog attacks Calvin Wynter, theatre producer, in New York City

Calvin Wynter wearing a yellow rubber glove this morning

Calvin Wynter wearing a yellow rubber glove this morning

This morning, I Skyped theatre producer Calvin Wynter in New York City. He used to be an equity trader on Wall Street. We had not chatted for a while. I thought it would be interesting to hear how the comedy business is going in New York.

As is often the case, the conversation got sidetracked.

He had suggested I Skype him at 11.30am, UK time, so I did.

“It’s 6.30am in the morning in New York,” I said.

“I’m up at 6.00am five days of the week,” he told me, “and 4.00am on two days.”

“Why?” I asked.

“This time last year, I went to Vipassana, a Buddhist retreat. We don’t burn incense, we don’t wear flowers, we don’t wear diapers; we just sit in our regular clothes. If you can do the lotus position, fantastic. If you can’t, you sit in a chair.”

“You’re wearing a yellow rubber glove and a sling round your neck,” I observed.

“This is me after wrist and arm surgery.”

“Why?”

“Between Wall Street and now, I spent way too much time on the computer and so I didn’t get carpal tunnel syndrome but I got some sort of pinched nerves. I ended up in hospital last year and a neurosurgeon noticed something, asked me to do a few things and said: Do you need an orthopaed referral? I said: No, as it happens, when I was attacked by the pit-bull, I got a… because, when you get your hands chewed on, they either call in a plastic surgeon or an orth and when you have your hands and leg and thigh bit away – like a 3 or 4 inch piece of my thigh was bitten away, the fat and skin…

“So I told him this and he then brought in a specialist. They did the test and then they ordered me a brace for a month but I went back and said: Look, you give the brace to most people because most people are afraid to go into surgery. You do it for them, they get a little better, it gives you time for them to get to trust you and then you do the surgery. He said: Yes. So I said: Just do the fucking surgery. And, in less than a week, he did the surgery.”

“I think,” I said. “I missed a link there. It was the bit where you said: when I was attacked by the pit-bull.”

“You didn’t know about that?”

“No. I have a shit memory, but even I would have remembered that.”

“OK. Well, this time last year – end of August, beginning of September – at the Vipassana retreat, I decided: Let’s lose a little weight. They feed you three meals a day. You got a choice of vegan and/or vegetarian and they’re delicious. You’re not starving. But I decided, because I was 245 lbs… I went through the three meals and measured out what was the amount of food you’re supposed to eat at the size I wanted to be. And I did hours and hours of walking. You’re in the country: streams, lakes, trees, all that stuff. And you’re doing chores when you’re not doing ten hours a day of meditation. After ten days, I lost 10 lbs. Then I lost another 10 lbs.

“So I lose all this weight, I’m dehydrated and I get the equivalent of the worst migraine I’ve ever had and I’ve never had a migraine – or maybe I’ve got a brain aneurism. So I’m rushed to the hospital. They perform every test possible and send me home thinking it’s a migraine and give me a strong Tylenol.

“When I call my doctor, she says: No, no. I want you to get some Aceterin. The next day, it gets really bad. So I think: If two pills are good, I’m gonna take four. Then six. I overdose. I start hallucinating. I mean, you know like Fantasia? I see a musical that I will create one day that will become the gold standard of musicals.

“But, in New York City, you never tell the doctors in the emergency room that you are hallucinating because they will put you on the psych ward and hold you for 72 hours. And, if they don’t have a psych ward, they will transfer you to one and the No 1 psych ward they like to transfer you to is Bellevue which is essentially like Bedlam in the UK.

“I remember a comedian I knew who won the big award in Edinburgh – he went to the British equivalent because he wrote his name in faeces on his wall. You know who I’m talking about.

“Anyway, I’m back in hospital again. They admit me. For six hours I tell them: I will NOT take any opiates. I was in so much pain they wanted to give me morphine and codeine. Not oxy cotton. No, they were going for like the strongest friggin’ pain pills they could give me. Finally, after six hours, I am told: We will have you committed if you don’t take it, because – you don’t know this, but – you are curled up in a ball in the corner of the bed. You are sweating profusely, you’re shaking, you’re mumbling and, every once in a while, you scream out so loud we can hear you down the hall.”

“And so…?” I asked.

“So I take the damned opiates,” Calvin told me. “And, after three days of taking them, it did lower the pain, but there was still excruciating pain. In the interim, they find my kidneys are now in renal failure and I had a macro pituitary adenoma. In other words, I had a tumour that was 1 centimetre in diameter at the centre of my head, right about where all the nerve endings are for your eyes, pushing back on my pituitary.

“Day Three of all this, I say: Fuck it! I get consciousness for a moment and I meditate solidly for an hour. You just observe and, for some reason, I kept observing one of my teeth up top and I remembered I was told to have the tooth removed but my insurance would not do an implant. Somewhere along the line, I forgot about that.

“So they remove the tooth and the headache is gone. So now they are working on my kidneys. They changed the meds. After ten days, I lose 10 lbs and I go out. So I had lost 10 lbs there and 20 lbs at the Vipassana retreat.

“Fast forward to May. I walk out of my door, I see a 98 lb woman who I later find out is a 28-year-old from Hawaii, half-Japanese, had never owned a dog before, was in New York City for the first time ever and had rescued this dog which was going to be killed the next day because it was too dangerous. She agreed to have a trainer, spent a lot of time with it before she took it home.

“I see that the dog is acting like an idiot. I make a sharp right turn. I meditate to calm my body so the dog doesn’t sense anything. It’s a pit bull. The dog leaps up. I shoot my left hand to block it.

“My cousin had been the national karate champion before Chuck Norris. My cousin was bodyguard to David Bowie, Mick Jagger right around the time hijackings were happening and celebrities were not able to bring their licensed gun-carrying bodyguards on planes with them.

“So I had lived with my cousin for a month. He had told me: If someone threatens you, you can talk to them for a while – you’re good at that – then you can run like the wind and very few people can catch you. The only time you need to fight is if the son-of-a-bitch catches you, which means he has nothing but ill-intent. Which means you have to kill him. One fast fell swoop. I’m going to teach you to kill people and, in the last week, I’m going to teach you how to kill dogs. With dogs, you break their nose; you jam it into their head; it’s a matter of seconds: they’re dead on the floor.

“Thirty years ago, pit bulls were not a problem. People owned German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers. They didn’t have pit bulls. A pit bull’s entire skull is like a biker’s helmet. You can’t break its nose and shove it into its skull.  The one thing you’re supposed to do with pit bulls is you grab them by the balls and you swing them in the air and neuter them. You bang ‘em in the eye, go straight for their balls, lift them and fucking castrate them right then and there. They will be in so much pain, bleeding profusely and you can get away.

“But I had a bitch… a female dog, right? I get a young female dog. So she gets my arm. Thank god I remember: Use the middle finger and the pointer finger of your hand. So I hit her in the eyeballs. She releases. The other thing my cousin had told me was: Run into traffic when you’re attacked by a dog. You will be able to dodge the cars; the dog will get hit.

“I get one lane out into six lanes of traffic and I, for some reason, take a second to look back. The traffic stops. The dog is coming after me. I get to the other side of the boulevard. As I’m putting my left leg onto the kerb, the dog leaps up, was going for my balls but grabs my upper thigh and was about to clamp in for the arteries, the bones and the muscles. Now I’ve got both hands bleeding, several major lacerations on my left hand, which is my dominant hand though I write with my right hand. I use both hands because both hands are free because she’s on my thigh. I blind her in the right eye, I partially blind her in the left.”

“Literally blind her?” I ask.

“Literally. I crack the right eyeball and there’s ooze coming out. I bang the left one, so it’s partially damaged. I break her right leg. And I take all of my body weight, holding my left arm with my right hand so it has maximum power, and I lunge dead-centre at her spine. I damage the spine. She falls to the ground. She has my blood all over her.”

“Now,” I said, “it’s almost 7.30am in New York. Where are you off to now?”

Calvin Wynter: no hair, but a big Fringe

Calvin Wynter: no hair, but big on the Fringe theatre scene

“I’m headed off right now,” Calvin told me, “to have my teeth cleaned and also they did a biopsy on my jawbone. They performed dental surgery, removed the lesion and put it in for biopsy research. They called me on Friday which means I think I may have cancer. I don’t know. So far, everything that’s thought to have been cancerous was not – like the polyps I got from my colonoscopy. I had three polyps. No cancer. So who knows? Maybe the third time isn’t so good but, y’know look – I’ve had a shaved head before. I can have a shaved head again. I’m still Episcopalian, which is like your Church of England, but my philosophy is Buddhist which is essentially: What do we seek? Happiness. What is pain and sorrow? The route to happiness.”

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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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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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