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Lewis Schaffer and Karen O Novak – two American comedians talking cock

David Don’t and Charmian Hughes watch the cake explode

David Don’t and Charmian Hughes watch 50th birthday cake burst into flames last night

Comedian Charmian Hughes is married to magician David Don’t.

Today is David’s 50th birthday. Last night, he had a party in Peckham.

I ended up sitting at a table with London-based American comic Lewis Schaffer.

“How are your flaps?” I asked him.

The last time we met, he was telling me he has sleep apnea and has old-man flappy-flop flaps inside him.

“Flaps are inherently funny,” I said. “They’re like bananas. Flaps and bananas are inherently funny.”

“I’ve been using a mouthpiece,” said Lewis Schaffer. “If you want to see something inherently funny, it’s a 57-year-old man wearing a plastic mouthpiece in bed so he can sleep. It keeps my mouth open.”

“You don’t need an artificial aid,” I told him.

By this time, London-based American comedy force of nature Karen O Novak and her husband Darren had turned up.

And, by this time, the music was very loud.

I could not hear across the table.

I handed Lewis Schaffer my iPhone.

“Just talk to each other,” I told Lewis Schaffer. “I won’t hear what you talk about until tomorrow morning, but it will give me a blog. Keep up the American act.”

Lewis Schaffer took the iPhone. This morning, I transcribed what they said.

Lewis Schaffer and Karen O Novak reminisced last night

Lewis Schaffer & Karen O Novak remembered NYC  last night

KAREN: I’m one of the few people here who actually knows for a fact that Lewis Schaffer is not a caricature of a New York neurotic Jew. I actually fucking knew you in New York when you were just…

We just called you ‘The Neurotic Jew’ at that point.

LEWIS SCHAFFER: Was I mental even for New York, do you think?

KAREN: Yup.

LEWIS SCHAFFER: So was I a character even in New York, do you think? Because you, Karen, you were a character in New York too.

KAREN: I think we’re all characters in the great big…

LEWIS SCHAFFER: No, Karen. You were a memorable person even then. You were over the top. And you weren’t even a Jew. You were like a fake Jew.

KAREN: I’m Jew… ish.

LEWIS SCHAFFER: You gotta come up with a better joke than that.

KAREN: I’m Jew by injection. I kept my first husband’s Jewness. I got it in the divorce.

LEWIS SCHAFFER: What town did you grow up in?

KAREN: Roxbury, Connecticut.

LEWIS SCHAFFER: Where’s that near?

KAREN: It’s near a lot of Jews. Stephen Sondheim lives there.

David Don’t behind unknown woman outside ladies toilets last night

David Don’t in Beatles’ suit, behind an unknown woman, outside Ladies toilet

LEWIS SCHAFFER: Were you like me? People think my family had money when I was growing up, but we never had money.

KAREN: We had money.

LEWIS SCHAFFER: Did you inherit any of it?

KAREN: They’re not dead yet.

LEWIS SCHAFFER: I think your husband Darren loves you even without the money.

KAREN: He would have to.

LEWIS SCHAFFER: Yeah, he would have to, cos you’re very annoying. I say that as a misogynist and a woman-hater.

KAREN: You’re very good at both those things.

LEWIS SCHAFFER: I like the idea of women.

KAREN: You like the shape of them. The curvy squishiness…

LEWIS SCHAFFER: Even that can get on your nerves.

KAREN: … not so much the brainy part.

LEWIS SCHAFFER: A lot of my friends are women. I actually respect women. You know that about me, Karen.

David Don’t tries to remove Lewis Schaffer’s bra (perhaps you had to be there)

David Don’t tries to remove Lewis Schaffer’s bra (Don’t asked)

KAREN: I know that.

LEWIS SCHAFFER: That’s what people can’t believe. I actually spend a lot of time with women talking about how much I hate women.

KAREN: You spend a lot of time with women without your penis out. Probably the women insist on that.

LEWIS SCHAFFER: My penis doesn’t come out. It’s an ‘innie’. How long have you lived in Britain?

KAREN: About 15 years.

LEWIS SCHAFFER: Same as me: 13 years.

KAREN: I don’t have any English children, though.

LEWIS SCHAFFER: John says I’m not allowed to discuss why I’m here on a Saturday night. I was supposed to have the kids tonight, but the mother is punishing me for not loving her.

KAREN: If it was me, I would punish you FOR loving me. You are SO not worthy.

LEWIS SCHAFFER: That’s why you’ve kept Darren around for so long. That’s the key to keeping a man happy. I say to women: “When you make love to a man – right after he reaches orgasm – you should slap him in the face and say: Get off me, you disgusting pervert.”

KAREN: That IS what I do.

Lewis Schaffer asks Darren a question last night

Lewis Schaffer asks Darren a question in Peckham last night

LEWIS SCHAFFER: (TO DARREN) Is that what she does?

DARREN: But I AM a disgusting pervert, so that’s fair enough.

LEWIS SCHAFFER: (TO KAREN) You probably think about going back to New York every day?

KAREN: Never. I like New York. I miss my friends there. But I don’t miss the city. The city itself is a shit hole.

LEWIS SCHAFFER: But you had a lovely apartment. It had a garden.

KAREN: We used to have some great parties in that flat.

LEWIS SCHAFFER: Did he make a good living: your first husband?

KAREN: Why on earth would I have a husband who didn’t make a decent living? I’m not an idiot.

LEWIS SCHAFFER: Are you calling my ex-wife an idiot? Is anyone who has sex with me an idiot?

KAREN: Pretty much, yeah.

LEWIS SCHAFFER: I think so too. I like this. We’re almost having a little relationship here.

KAREN: I think we could do a podcast.

LEWIS SCHAFFER: You were on my radio show.

KAREN: Yeah, but we didn’t get a good rapport going because there were too many other people there. And we weren’t nude.

LEWIS SCHAFFER: That was the early days when the shows weren’t very good. They’ve gotten better now. I’m a more generous host. That’s the key.

KAREN: Are you a generous lover? That’s the key. When you make love to a woman, you have to give and give and give.

LEWIS SCHAFFER: I bring her an extra portion of fish. What does it mean to be generous?

KAREN: Exactly. You don’t even know what it means to be generous in bed.

Lewis Schaffer and Karen discuss something or other

Lewis Schaffer and Karen discussing relative values last night

LEWIS SCHAFFER: I DO know what it means and I AM generous because, the more I give a woman, the less she has to pay attention to me, the less she’ll notice how I don’t care, how I’m unable to get an erection. How, even when I get an erection, it’s not noticeable.

KAREN: You got an ‘innie’?

LEWIS SCHAFFER: I got an ‘innie’.

KAREN: It’s more like a vagina, really, than a penis?

LEWIS SCHAFFER: Yeah. It’s like a penis, only smaller. Is your husband a generous lover?

KAREN: He’s very generous. He gives me his paycheck every month.

LEWIS SCHAFFER: (TO DARREN) How much do…

KAREN: (TO ME) You know what? John Fleming should write his own blog. He just talks to other people and then writes it down.

LEWIS SCHAFFER: That’s what he does. He’s gotten so lazy.

ME: Have you given me a good blog? Have you mentioned Lewis Schaffer’s flaps?

LEWIS SCHAFFER: I’ve got an ‘innie’.

ME: What?

LEWIS SCHAFFER: I’ve got an ‘innie’.

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How German Polly Trope went from Britain into a US mental home and wrote her autobio-novel “Cured Meat”

Yesterday, I talked to writer Polly Trope in Berlin via Skype about her book Cured Meat – Memoirs of a Psychiatric Runaway. It is dedicated:

To those I left behind

She crowdfunded the book. The pitch is still on YouTube.

“Is it a novel or an autobiography?” I asked.

“I always find it amazing that some people actually manage to make up stuff,” she told me. “The things that are interesting in the book are the things that happened rather than the person. But some of them didn’t happen. What I really wanted to do with my book was to characterise lots of people I’ve met. I wanted to write about many many people, not just myself. And, even when I was writing about myself, I was trying to write about how things happened rather than myself. I was interested in capturing what happened like it was some sort of movie: an outside description of things. Some people say an autobiography has to be about the person writing it, but it’s also about lots of other people. Obviously some things are not completely accurate. I’ve tried to pick out things I heard about or happened which I thought were worth writing about.”

“Why didn’t you want to publish a straight autobiography?” I asked.

“The book is based on The Odyssey.”

“The book is based on The Odyssey.”

“People only want to read the autobiographies of celebrities,” said Polly. “I am not famous.”

“How did you decide on the nom de plume Polly Trope?” I asked.

“Brainstorming names. Greek mythological characters whose names could be turned into English. Polytropos was an adjective Homer applied to Odysseus. So Polly Trope.”

Polytropos actually means “having many forms” i.e. having different personalities – or “twisting and turning” i.e. versatile and capable of manoeuvring through a stormy sea.

“The whole book is based on The Odyssey a little bit,” explained Polly, “because that’s what I did for my degree – Ancient Greek & Latin Literature at King’s College, London. I went to London when I was 18.”

“And then you went on to get a PhD in Classics?” I asked.

“I started one,” said Polly. “I didn’t finish it. I went to America to do it.”

“And I know you checked into a mental hospital just two months after arriving,” I said. “Did something happen?”

“No,” said Polly. “I was already a bit depressed when I went there and I expected it would be really exciting to go to America and I would be magically happier when I got there.”

The woman called Polly Trope in her Groucho Marx disguise (Photograph by Joe Palermo)

The woman called Polly Trope in her Groucho Marx disguise (Photograph by Joe Palermo)

“Was this New York?”

“Connecticut.”

“So was it just depression?” I asked.

“Pretty much. I just felt really out of place; I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know anyone there. I tried the therapist and that was a really bad idea because then I went to the mental hospital and then it just really got very difficult.”

“Did they drug you up?” I asked.

“Absolutely,” said Polly. “It just blew everything out of proportion. It became almost unthinkable to stop.”

“I was in a mental hospital when I was 18,” I said. “The first thing they do, of course, is just give you drugs.”

“All the time,” said Polly. “All the time. All the time.”

On YouTube, there is a song Numb Enough written by Polly (with a video shot by her). Her lyrics include the lines:

And are you numb enough, and is your life on hold,
And did you feel the shock when it all fell apart?

“You were in and out of mental hospital for three years,” I said.

“Yes,” said Polly. “I constantly told my psychiatrist I wanted to stop taking the drugs and he would always say: Well, if you can’t understand how much you need them, then I must put you into the hospital so you know how to take your drugs. That’s a simplified version of what happened, but it was me trying to stop taking tablets and the guy telling me: You must.”

“You were still doing your academic stuff through all this?” I asked.

“I was trying to,” said Polly. “I had to go on leave of absence after a couple of years. Eventually I left for six months, then another six months and, at that point, I didn’t want to see psychiatrists any more and, after that, I just went back to Europe.”

Polly Trope: "It started with the psychiatric drugs and then I moved into non-psychiatric drugs.”

Polly Trope: “It started with psychiatric drugs and then I moved into non-psychiatric drugs.”

“When you became addicted to drugs,” I asked, “was that medicinal drugs or heroin or…?”

“Both,” said Polly. “One after the other. It started with the psychiatric drugs and then I moved into non-psychiatric drugs.

“I was prescribed sleeping tablets and benzedrines and those are also sometimes used as recreational drugs and I had those on prescription and then it just kind of moved from there into prescription painkillers and then to completely illegal opium stuff and heroin and… Yeah… And then, at the same time, I moved from America back to London and… Yeah… That was the transition. We’re talking about 2009 here.”

“And then,” I said, “as far as I understand it, you met a guy in a London casino one night. He was involved with brothels; he took you to one, asked you if you wanted to work there and you said Yes.”

“I had really big money problems,” said Polly.

“Did you do it out of desperation or interest or…”

“Both,” said Polly. “Interest not so much. I was never particularly against prostitution. I don’t think I was especially interested in trying it. But it wasn’t something I was particularly scared of or that I thought could be the worst thing that could happen to someone.”

“Were you still supporting a drug habit at that point?”

“Not quite. But it was very fragile. I had only been clean for about a couple of weeks or so. Everything was quite new. I was feeling quite good, but I was also broke. In a house. I had many many problems. It was difficult.”

“So you were sort-of on an up,” I said. “But this would have taken you down?”

“Yeah. Yes. Yes. That’s right.”

“How long did you do the prostitution for?”

Polly Trope

Polly in London: “Then I thought it would be good if…” (Photograph by Joe Palermo)

“April to December of one year. At first, he took all my money. After about three weeks. I kicked him out of the way. He was terrible. I’d been ripped off. I needed the money even more. Many of the women I met didn’t want to do it in the first place then, later, they got organised and stayed in the job because they were already there and it is quite a lot of money. It was a bit like that with me as well, although I didn’t feel I wanted to stay there longer than necessary. I was not trying to make lots of money. I just wanted to fix a few financial problems.”

“I was once told by an ex-criminal,” I said, “that most robbers have no financial target they want to reach, therefore they don’t know at what point they have reached a place they can stop doing it. So it ends badly. Maybe prostitution is like that?”

“And also,” said Polly, “people get used to more money and they increase their standards. I just had a bit of debt which I wanted to pay off.”

“So is that why you came out of it?” I asked. “You paid the debt and that was it?”

“It was only about £3,000,” said Polly. “But that was the beginning. Then I thought it would be good if I could save up for a deposit and some rent and, once you start paying rent, you have to do it every month, so… Then I thought I’m gonna start looking for a job immediately and, as soon as I find a new job I will take it... And that dragged on forever.”

“What sort of job were you looking for?” I asked.

“Stuff to do with writing and books. Things like editorial work or proofreading or translation. I didn’t realise it was not the right thing to look for. I had a degree but not much work experience. Nobody wanted to employ me. I eventually got a job through the Job Centre. I worked in a call centre for about a year and then I came back to Berlin.”

“In your dreams, when you were 14,” I asked, “did you want to be a writer?”

“Yeah,” said Polly. “I think I always wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t think it was a real job; I thought it was something you did on the side and still had to earn money some other way.”

“Sadly, you might be right,” I said. “And now you are…?”

Polly Trope reads her book Cured Meat

Polly: short stories which turned into a novel

“I’m writing little projects,” said Polly. “But I’m not sure yet. Probably something similar. Short stories which turn into a novel if you read them one after the other.”

“Basically,” I said, “your book is a series of chapters which are self-contained short stories but, when you read them one after another, they become a novel.”

“Pretty much that,” said Polly. “I’ve always been really keen on this idea that you could even read it backwards or you could read it in any order. I was really keen on the book being like that. The plot is just the way things happened. Some readers find it reassuring to know one thing comes before another and another thing comes later and they can remember it all. But some readers just want to know what’s going on now.”

“Where are you going now?” I asked.

“I have to get X-rays,” said Polly. “I have a very bad knee which may be broken.”

On YouTube, there is a song Fucking Princess written by Polly (with a video shot and edited by her).

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Old Jewish Jokes and why comedian Ivor Dembina gets hate mail from Jews

I was partly brought up in Ilford in East London and went to school near Gants Hill which was, at the time, extremely Jewish. When there was a Jewish holiday, class numbers were so depleted that teachers at my school tended to abandon the lessons and have general knowledge tests. One of the bonuses of going to my school, though, was that I got endless top-notch Jewish jokes told by Jews.

Ivor played his Palestine show in Washington

Ivor played his Palestine show in Washington

Next week, Wednesday to Saturday, comedian Ivor Dembina is performing his show called Old Jewish Jokes at the Leicester Square Theatre in London.

“It came about because of my previous solo show This Is Not a Suitable Subject For Comedy,” he told me yesterday. “That was a story with jokes about the Israel-Palestine conflict seen through the eyes of a North London Jew.

“Some people complained it was ‘too political’. So I came up with the idea of preceding it with a 20-minute curtain-raiser called Old Jewish Jokes. Then I was going to have an interval and perform This Is Not a Suitable Subject For Comedy.”

In fact, Ivor never did this. Old Jewish Jokes developed into its own one-hour show.

“One day,” he explained to me, “I did a gig at a Jewish venue and, before the show, the organiser asked me: You’re not going to do jokes about the Holocaust, are you? That slightly threw me – not because I actually do jokes about the Holocaust, though I do jokes about the way people use the Holocaust to fit their own agenda – about people appropriating history for their own purposes. I think that’s fair comment for the current comedian.

“But there was something odd about being asked beforehand about material I was not going to do. So I have worked that idea of being told by a venue owner what jokes not to tell into a narrative in which to tell the old Jewish jokes: Jews and Israel, Jews and money, Jews and sex. There ARE lots of jokes, but it’s underpinned by this story of what it’s like being a modern Jewish comedian when you’re given a shopping list of things you’re not allowed to talk about.

“I tested the show out last August at the Edinburgh Fringe – on a small scale at the Free Festival – and it sold out on the second night and then every night throughout the run. What was clear and heartening was that at least 75% of the audience was non-Jewish. So I thought I’d try it in London. The tickets for the Leicester Square Theatre show are selling really well without any great PR. If it works well there, I’ll probably take it back to Edinburgh again this year, maybe in a bigger pay venue.”

“The title is great,” I said. Old Jewish Jokes. You know exactly what you’re going to get.”

“Yes,” said Ivor, “People don’t come to see Ivor Dembina, by and large: they come because of the title.

Ivor Dembina on the pendulum swings of UK comedy

Ivor Dembina: “a typical alternative comedian”?

“I’m just a typical London-based alternative comedian. I’m used to writing stories about myself or whatever. But I’ve found actually standing on stage telling jokes is really hard. You could tell the best jokes in the world for an hour but, about 10 or 15 minutes in, the audience’s enjoyment will start going down. Which is why it’s so important to have the story in there. It gives the audience a breather and an additional level of interest because it becomes not just about the jokes themselves but about ethnic minorities having a fear of people making jokes about them.

“Black people can make jokes with the word ‘nigger’ in. White people can’t. Jews can make jokes about being mean with money and use the word ‘Yid’ but non-Jews can’t. What’s that all about? All those issues are kind of bubbling underneath and I think that’s what makes this quite an interesting show. The old jokes are great. I don’t have to worry about the jokes. But hopefully the audience may go away thinking about acceptability. Why are some jokes acceptable and others not? Why is the same joke OK in a certain context but not in others? It just stirs it up a little and I like that.

“In London, the Jews still have something of a ghettoised mentality; they tend to live in North West London or Ilford. Most Jewish entertainers work the Jewish community – the culture centres, the synagogue halls. Which is fine. But no-one – particularly in comedy – has yet stuck their neck out and consciously decided to try and take Jewish humour of an English kind out of the community and target it fairly and squarely at the ethnically-mixed audience. That’s what I’m trying to do. Instead of Jews just telling these jokes to each other, the whole culture of Jewish jokes could be opened up to a much wider audience.”

Ivo Dembina at Hampstead Comedy Club last night

Ivor Dembina at his Hampstead Comedy Club last week

“But surely ,” I said, “Jews have been telling jokes about Jews forever? There’s that whole New York Jewish thing.”

“Ah,” said Ivor. “That’s America, Over there the whole Jewish schtick is much more widespread.”

“I suppose you’re right,” I said. “There are loads of British comedians who are Jews, but I can’t think of a single famous comedian over here who you could describe as doing his or her act as ‘a Jewish comedian’. Bernard Manning was a bit Jewish. Jerry Sadowitz is a bit Jewish. But you couldn’t describe either of them as being ‘Jewish comedians’ in the genre sense.”

“Mark Maier does a bit about it,” said Ivor, “and there’s David Baddiel, but you wouldn’t say he’s a specifically Jewish comedian. Lenny Henry was the UK’s ‘black comedian’ but there has never been a comic who became Britain’s Jewish Comedian.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

“America’s a much bigger country,” said Ivor, “and they have a predilection for ethnic assertiveness – I’m an American black! – I’m proud! – I’m an American Jew! – I’m proud! – I’m an American Italian! – I’m proud! Jews in America see themselves as American first and Jewish second. In Britain people see themselves as Jews first and British second.”

“Really?” I said, surprised. “I’m not English, but I’m Scottish and British equally.”

“In my opinion,” said Ivor.

“Lewis Schaffer – a Jewish New York comedian,” I said, “surprised me by saying he was brought up to distrust Gentiles.”

“Well,” said Ivor, “I was brought up to fear Gentiles.”

“They are shifty, untrustworthy?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Ivor. “You can’t trust them. That was what I was told. In a way, the reason why Israel is so important to the Jews is because they see it as a bolt hole to go to if anti-Semitism gets too bad.

Ivor’s Edinburgh show with Omid Djalili: The Arab & The Jew

Ivor’s 1996 Edinburgh show with Omid Djalili: The Arab & The Jew

“I think what drives most Jewish behaviour is fear. Because of the experience of our past… I was brought up to think You can’t trust non-Jews. Obviously you find that same mentality in Israel: You can’t trust the Arabs. Shoot first. Ask questions afterwards. And, in the diasporait’s even more so. If anyone begins to raise a dissenting voice within the community, you get labelled as a traitor. I get hate mail just because I’ve dared to question the prevailing ethos through my comedy and through my very low-level political activity.”

“How did Jews react,” I asked, “to your show This Is Not a Suitable Subject For Comedy? It was about you actually going to Palestine and what you saw there. Did you get hassle about being perceived to be pro-Palestinian?”

“I get loads,” Ivor replied. “Hate mail.”

“Even now?” I asked.

“Not so much now,” said Ivor. “What happens is they try to marginalise you. Its main function is to intimidate you. Life would be easier if I kept quiet. Or to provoke you into doing something or saying something outrageous that will make you look stupid or like a villain. To get under your skin, to make you angry. I’m used to it now. I don’t take any notice of it.

The Bethlehem Unwrapped wall

The Bethlehem Unwrapped wall at St James’s in Piccadilly

“I don’t do much. I took part in that Bethlehem Unwrapped thing where they did a replica of the wall separating Palestine from Israel at that church in Piccadilly. I did a comedy show with Mark Steel, Jeremy Hardy and a couple of other Jewish comedians. And there was a line of people outside complaining Ivor Dembina makes jokes about the Holocaust! Which I don’t. But they’re very organised these Zionist people. It’s like banging your head against the wall.”

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Two Jews on the pressures of comedy – or even getting a venue to perform in

Last August, I met New York based comedian Laura Levites when she was performing her show American Girlfriend in Edinburgh and blogged about her in a joint interview with her and London-based American comic Lewis Schaffer titled Two Jews Jabbering About Sex, Drugs and Suicide at The Edinburgh Fringe.

She is very funny. They both are. And they both have their worries.

Yesterday, I got an e-mail from Laura. This is what she said (posted with her permission):

____________________________________________________________

Laura Levites flyers in the Royal Mile yesterday

Laura Levites flyers Edinburgh’s Royal Mile in 2012

I was going to the Fringe again this year. I was told by (Xxxxx venue) that I had a spot, in fact I’m sure I was one of the first to put my application in. Last week (Xxxxx venue) told me I no longer have a spot.

I’m pretty fucking pissed off, because I didn’t put in for anywhere else and I have no idea what to do.

I’m going to be completely honest here. I’m in the throes of finishing my first book, American Girlfriend, ‘the full version’. So, for the past two months, I have been locked in the confines of my head writing… or thinking about writing… which has required me to think about my life a lot and – What do you know? – Bang!… Full-blown depression kicks in…. So I thought about ending it. I’m like Fuck it. I’m done with life…….. and curled up in the fetal position.

Luckily for me, my brother called my shrink and intervened.

Hence, an idea for a new show SelfHelpless.

I had to make a deal with my shrink – He would only see me if I finish my book and not kill myself. So, this week, I’m seeing another new doctor to see if we can get my medication right. And, I kid you not, Friday I start going to a depression support group. Part of my mandated recovery is exercise, so I’m doing the latest in feminine exercise called Physique57, where I stand at a ballet bar in a room with a bunch of angry women and get yelled at to lift my leg higher. I’m actually starting to enjoy the pain of this.

I’m doing this depression right!

But I have been writing and I do have a book – Fuck, writing a book is hard. Hopefully it will be done in the next few weeks and I can start looking ahead instead of behind.

____________________________________________________________

Last night, I also got an e-mail from Lewis Schaffer who is performing his show Lewis Schaffer’s American Guide to England on eight consecutive Sundays at the Leicester Square Theatre, starting this weekend. He has been performing his free show Lewis Schaffer: Free Until Famous twice-weekly at The Source Below in London for the last three years or more. This is what he told me:

____________________________________________________________

The Fringe has reduced comedian Lewis Schaffer to this

Lewis Schaffer is worried about his Leicester Square shows…

My Leicester Square Theatre run starts this weekend and I’m in over my head.

How can I ask for £10? But then again, what is ten quid? Nothing. Bubkis. I am funny!

But, then again, am I asked to do the Old Rope comedy club? Or that Stewart Lee Alternative Comedy TV thing? Or nominated for a Chortle Award? Not even something for Nunhead American Radio. Nothing.

I am not sure who is going to turn up and pay ten quid.

The idea I pitched was Lewis Schaffer’s American Guide to England. 

Does anyone care about England nowadays, especially the English? Do they care about what an American thinks about England? I am not even much of an American, anyway. I am barely a New York Jew. I was weird in New York and I am weird here.

I want to tell the audience that the show they have paid £10 to see has been replaced by The Lewis Schaffer Show. All about me!

Knowing me, I will tell the audience that. Like when I told a Democrats Abroad fundraiser in 2004 that I had voted for George W. Bush. That didn’t go down well. Fact was I hadn’t voted for GWB. I hadn’t voted since 1984. I just couldn’t help saying it.

All I want to do is do what I always do: not be limited to some structure about England or Britain or America. I do need some kind of structure. I should be writing the show, or at least reviewing the stuff I have about Britain, which is probably a lot. Did I tell you I was on stage in Birmingham the other night for maybe two and half hours? Frigging mental!

I know what you’re going to say:

“But you always say you’re not ready and you always say no-one will turn up and it always works out.”

I have struggled in anonymity at the Source Below and, by charging money for my show at the Leicester Square Theatre, the reviewers from The Times and the Guardian will be coming in. I’ll be a total shambles and start panicking on stage and – boom – the work I’ve put in over the past few years will have been wasted.

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Filed under Comedy, Psychology

Wall Street actor/singer/dancer starts the first Brooklyn Fringe Festival

Calvin Wynter. No hair, but a man sporting his own Fringe

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.

“It’s something I’ve been thinking of for about four years,” he told me yesterday.

“In the East Coast, there is no ‘open’ festival. Everything is either juried or curated. It’s either You spend your money but we’re going to tell you if you can get in or We’ll decide whether you get in and we’ll pay for it. But there is nothing on the East Coast that is You find a place, you register with us and you’re now part of the Festival.

“There is a New York Fringe which has been around for over a decade, but it’s juried and they take 2% of your box office gross for the next seven years. I think that’s absurd. If you participate in the New York Fringe, for the next seven years – simply because they provided a place which you paid for for maybe six performances – they then take 2% of your box office gross whether you play in Boise, Indiana or Brighton, England.”

“What will you do instead?” I asked.

“We won’t take a percentage when they’re not in our facilities under our Festival banner,” he told me.

“What,” I said, “if I have a wonderful success at the Brooklyn Fringe and decide to go with a promoter other than you?”

“I worked for 13 years on Wall Street,” said Calvin. “On Wall Street, we don’t have competitors. We have colleagues. We don’t worry about the size of the pie. We’ll all eat. I come from an entirely different mindset than what I’ve experienced in a lot of emerging entertainment areas, which seem to think  that the world is small and that all of us are fierce competitors… It’s unecessary.

“If you go with another promoter, you are still going to tell someone Go to the Brooklyn Festival – and maybe they’ll go on to work with us afterwards. We’re thinking long term. The more the Brooklyn Fringe succeeds, the more our organisation gets a higher profile.

“At this stage, we’re looking for venues. By putting the word out that we’re looking for venues, we will also receive information about participants.”

“What if you don’t get enough venues to make it viable?” I asked.

A new Festival that is definitinely in Brooklyn not New York…

“There’s more than enough venues to make it viable,” Calvin told me. “Brooklyn is so vibrant. There’s a new stadium. The Nets basketball team have moved from New Jersey. A hockey team The Long Islanders are going to move in less that two years. Jay-Z did an intro concert there. The amount of construction is… Let’s put it this way, if Brooklyn were a free-standing city, it would be the fourth largest city in the United States right now, but it’s trending that, in the next few years, it will be the third largest.

“We have no fixed number of venues. The New York Fringe has stopped at around 200 venues. The more the merrier for us. We already have a number of shows that would like to work with us in Brooklyn under any circumstances.”

“So,” I said, “I can come to you and say I’ve got a venue above a bar in Brooklyn and I want to put on a show and then you would put me in the Festival programme?”

“If someone registers a show from that location, then you are now a Festival venue. As long as you do it within Brooklyn, it’s part of the Brooklyn Fringe.”

“And,” I asked, “it will be ‘open’ like the Edinburgh Fringe? You will co-ordinate but not put on any shows yourself?”

“We will put on shows,” said Calvin. “We are going to be ‘open’, juried, curated and ‘pay-what-you-can’.

“If you go see a show that is ‘free’, the reality is that the performer, producer or someone stands there with a bucket or a hat at the end., asking for money. What is that really? It’s pay-what-you-can.

“So we are going to be up-front and say that some shows are pay-what-you-can.”

“So,” I said, “I can come to you either with my own fixed-price show or pay-what-you-can show and venue or I can come to you and you’ll provide the venue and hire it out to me?”

“Yes,” said Calvin. “Or some other entrepreneur will set up a venue and put on a show. It’s every variable. On some shows, if it’s necessary for us to put our own money up and bring our own expertise to it, we’re gonna do that, bringing in the creatives, the crew, the marketing effort.”

“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.”

“So your background is Wall Street?” I asked.

“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.

Calvin Wynter Jnr as a child with his father

“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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Two Jews jabbering about sex, drugs and suicide at the Edinburgh Fringe

(This piece was also published by the Huffington Post and by the Indian news website We Speak News)

Laura Levites and Lewis Schaffer: New York Jews together

At the Edinburgh Fringe, I know comic Lewis Schaffer and bumped into comic Laura Levites. It turns out they were both brought up in Great Neck, New York, but had never met. I suggested we should have a chat for this blog. Two New York Jewish comedians. What was I thinking? I hardly got a word in.

Andy Kaufman was born in Great Neck,” Laura Levites said. “The first line in the movie Man in the Moon is It all started out in Great Neck…”

And Groucho Marx moved there,” added Lewis Schaffer. “And in the movie Miracle on 34th Street, she wants to buy a house in Great Neck. And Alan King moved to Great Neck. And then there’s F.Scott Fitzgerald.”

The Great Gatsby is set in Great Neck,” said Laura Levites. (It is called ‘West Egg’ in the book.)

“You told me Great Neck was full of sad rich, flashy Jews,” I said to Lewis Schaffer.

“And a few Jew failures,” he added.

“My dad wasn’t smart enough to get rich,” said Laura Levites.

I laughed.

“I’m not even joking,” she insisted. “He really wasn’t. And he was an asshole.”

“Did you live in a house?” asked Lewis Schaffer.

“We had a house.”

Lewis Schaffer: his show at Edinburgh Fringe

“Then we must have been poorer than you.”

“My parents didn’t buy the house,” said Laura Levites. “my grandmother gave them money to buy it.”

“Well my grandmother gave my parents money to buy a car,” said Lewis Schaffer. “I hate to talk about them this way cos it makes them seem like losers, my parents.”

“My parents ARE losers,” said Laura Levites. “My dad is dead and my mom is alive.”

“What did your dad do for a living?”

“He was in advertising and then he was just an asshole.”

“Did he divorce your mom?” Lewis Schaffer asked.

“Yes.”

“He moved away?”

“No, he stayed in Great Neck.”

“But the money was spent on another flat?”

“No, the money was spent in a bitter custody battle over me and my brother.”

“How old were you?”

“Ten.”

“So you were a child of divorce,” said Lewis Schaffer. “I sensed that. I sense that. Vulnerable.”

“I’m vulnerable,” said Laura Levites. “I have daddy issues. I’m a mess.”

“Am I old enough to be your daddy?” asked Lewis Schaffer.

“You wanna adopt me?”

“I don’t want to adopt you that way.”

“Yeah, but I mean that in a sexy way. I like to be spanked.”

Enough, already! Enough, already! Enough already!

“You like to be spanked?” laughed Lewis Schaffer. “I like to punch. Well, I would like to punch women, but I haven’t.”

“I can take a punch,” said Laura Levites. “You wouldn’t be the first guy who tried to hit me.”

“So basically.” I interrupted, “we are talking here about two bitter Jews who had a bad upbringing and became comedians.”

“My parents were not in a bitter custody battle,” said Lewis Schaffer, “because they were old school and thought they had to stay together until they or the kids died.”

“Lewis’ comedy,” I told Laura Levites, “is very autobiographical.”

“No,” said Lewis Schaffer. “I wouldn’t say I was autobiographical. I would say I mostly do penis jokes.”

“But,” said Laura Levites, “they’re about your penis.”

“There’s also a lot about his children and ex-wife,” I said.

“But those are substitutes,” explained Lewis Schaffer, “for the core issue that my parents didn’t love me. Let me re-phrase that. My mother didn’t love me. So I focus on my ex-wife.”

Laura Levites’ show at the Edinburgh Fringe

“Does your family feature in your show a lot?” I asked Laura Levites.

“This one, no. But, by virtue of everything they did to me, yes. I mean, I am their fault. Are you going to come see my show?”

“You’re down there somewhere in the list,” I said.

“I’m somewhere in the list? I’m tired of people saying that.”

“So you grew up in the house with your brother,” said Lewis Schaffer. “and you were ten.”

“I was ten or eight. I was not fully-formed.”

“Did you have breasts?”

“I did not have breasts. I don’t have breasts now.”

“Let me be the judge of that,” said Lewis Schaffer.

“I don’t have breasts now,” she repeated. “Look at this! I have nothing! It’s just skin. Who cares? I don’t have boobies. My grandma used to work at Bloomingdales. My grandma, she’s in a nursing home. I went to see her one day. She put both hands on my breasts. She sold underwear: that’s what my grandma did for a living. And she said You have big nipples, but you’ve small breasts. That’s what she said to me. Even my grandma said I got no titties!”

“This is a New York Jew,” said Lewis Schaffer.

“I’m a New York Jew,” said Laura Levites. “What d’ya want?”

“If I were younger,” said Lewis Schaffer, “I’d be getting an erection right now. That’s all I’m saying.”

“I’m losing my shit if you’re not getting an erection.”

“Why is talking about nipples Jewish?” I asked.

“You couldn’t get a conversation like this out of an English girl,” said Laura Levites. “Because they don’t express themselves. They can’t even answer a simple question. It’s like How are you FEELING? Don’t give me the answer you THINK I want to hear. It fucks with your goddam head! I’m not even kidding. The English are fucking mad!”

“Did you see my show?” asked Lewis Schaffer.

“Three-quarters of it,” replied Laura Levites. “I was in the back”

“Did you enjoy it?”

“Yeah. I REALLY enjoyed it. I feel at home with you. I understand everything you say. I relate to everything. I feel the same way you do.”

“I think circumcision should be illegal,” said Lewis Schaffer. “but not for women.”

“You’re cut and I’m sorry about that,” said Laura Levites. “You don’t know what you’re missing. I can teach you how to grow it back. You make this (wanking) motion and you pull every day or you put weights on it. I’m not even joking.”

“But, “ laughed Lewis Schaffer, “I do pull it every day and it hasn’t grown.”

“You haven’t been pulling it the right way. There’s a motion; there’s a technique; I’ll take you to the websites.”

I interrupted: “One thing I like about New York Jews is the pace. Jabber jabber jabber. No time to inhale oxygen. How do you breathe? You have no gaps to breathe in.”

“No no no. Wait! Wait!” said Laura Levites. “Look what’s written on my wrist…”

Laura Levites’ wrist reminds her that she has to BREATHE

She held up her arm to me. Tattooed on her wrist was the single word BREATHE.

“It’s written there,” Laura Levites said, “because I don’t breathe. You’re looking at my arm. You’re going to talk about my cut marks?”

“Suicide?” asked Lewis Schaffer. “They say suicide’s painless, but it’s not painless.”

“Yeah, it is,” said Laura Levites. “I tried to kill myself a bunch of times.”

“I won’t put this in the blog,” I said.

“You see,” Laura Levites said, “that’s so British of you. That’s fucked up. I don’t care. I’m OK with it.”

“You have to think PR,” I said. “Is it in your show?”

“No,” she said. “I don’t mention about trying to kill myself in this show, but I’ll talk about it all the time because I’m not repressed. I take pills and I’ll take ‘em in front of people because I don’t care. Anti-depressants, stuff for ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), sedatives; you name it, I take it. Do you know how many drugs I brought? Because you can’t get shit here.”

“Are these legal?” I asked nervously.

“They’re legal in America,” she said. “They’re not legal here because you guys have terrible drugs.”

“Look at my face!” said Lewis Schaffer. “Look at my face! I’ve become English now.”

“I got bottles,” said Laura Levites.

“I can’t believe you’re saying this,” said Lewis Schaffer.

“I came here with bottles of pills…” Laura Levites continued.

“You said they’re illegal in Britain,” I warned her.

“No, no,” she corrected me. “I can bring them in. I have prescriptions. But, like, my ADD medication isn’t legal in this country.”

“So you can’t get arrested?” I asked warily.

“I’m not going to get arrested EVER,” she replied. “I’m a white girl. No-one’s going to arrest me. Do you know how much shit I’ve gotten away with in my life?”

“You’ve got red hair, pale skin, you’re pretty and you’re American,” I agreed.

“No-one’s going to arrest me,” she said. “And I’ve done some fucked-up shit.”

“Have you really?” asked Lewis Schaffer.

“Yeah.”

“Can I get the video of it?” Lewis Schaffer asked. He paused… “The thing with this girl is you can’t get a rise out of her.”

“Why do you want to make me angry?”

“I love making people angry.”

“You’re not going to make me angry, because I actually agree with what you say in your show.”

“I know. I find that uncomfortable.”

“That I agree with you? That I think women are crazy?”

“Yes.”

“I do think we’re bananas. I know who I am. I have self-awareness. Do you know how much therapy I’ve had?”

“But that doesn’t make you any less crazy,” said Lewis Schaffer.

“I’m aware of my craziness,” she replied. “I don’t have a problem with someone saying that to me.”

“You’re like a wild girl,” said Lewis Schaffer. “It’s like old home week for me. You’re nuts.”

“I’m good nuts,” said Laura Levites.

“Yeah. You’re good nuts,” agreed Lewis Schaffer. “Well, you’re good but you’re not nuts.”

“No, no, I’m not nuts. Well, I mean, like on paper, I actually am. If I wanted to kill someone, I could get away with it.”

“Did it seem like I was funny in my show?” Lewis Schaffer asked.

“You’re naturally funny, yeah,” said Laura Levites. “The Jews and the Blacks are always funny. But American Jews aren’t dominating the comedy scene any more.”

“People are bored with the Jews,” said Lewis Schaffer. “The Holocaust was exciting, but we haven’t done anything interesting in a long time.”

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“Most people in the mainstream film industry are the scum of the earth”

Lloyd Kaufman last night at his movie premiere

I attended a movie premiere in Leicester Square last night. Well, OK, it was just off Leicester Square. But it was still the British premiere – or it might have been the European premiere – of an American movie.

Well, OK, the premiere was of a movie by Troma Entertainment, purveyors of fine B-movie features such as The Toxic Avenger, Surf Nazis Must Die and Tromeo and Juliet. It was at the wonderfully-cultish Prince Charles Cinema.

Last night’s premiere was of Father’s Day (impressively produced, given it cost $10,000 to make), directed by five Canadians calling themselves Astron-6.

The last movie Troma released was Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead in 2006.

Introducing the new Father’s Day film was Troma’s capo di tutti capi Lloyd Kaufman. There was a queue literally round the block to see him. It is rare to see a Troma movie on the big screen in the UK and pretty-much unique to see Kaufman and his lovely wife of 40 years Patricia Swinney Kaufman, currently New York Film Commissioner. They had an announcement:

“We noticed,” said Lloyd Kaufman, “that there are currently a number of £100 million re-makes of movies that originally cost nothing. Well, Troma is going to do a re-make of a movie that cost nothing and we’re going to do the re-make for less than nothing. We’re gonna re-make Class of Nuke ‘Em High this summer and I will have the privilege of directing it. It will be a bit different. In the re-make, the young teenage couple will be a young teenage lesbian couple.”

This announcement by the neatly-suited man and his immaculately-dressed wife was greeted with whoops and cheers by the full-house audience which was dressed as if for a heavy metal rock show.

“Thankyou for supporting independent cinema and art!” Lloyd Kaufman shouted, when the whoops of joy had subsided.

Off-stage (I saw them before the screening), Lloyd Kaufman and his wife appear to be quiet, rather unassuming American tourists of a certain age. They had just flown in from Paris.

On-stage, Lloyd Kaufman turns into Mel Brooks. A loud, very funny New York Jewish salesman.

“I met Astron 6, who made Father’s Day,” he explained, “because they showed some short films at the TromaDance Film Festival. Then I met one of the Astron 6 people on the set of the re-make of Mother’s Day(The original 1980 version was directed by Lloyd Kaufman’s brother Charles)

“I thought it would be amusing if people would think Father’s Day was going to be a cynical attempt to ride the coat-tails of Charles Kaufman’s Mother’s Day which was being re-made as a big-budget movie. But Father’s Day has absolutely nothing to do with Mother’s Day, which I think is hilarious.

“I do believe,” he said, “that Astron-6 are continuing the Troma tradition of making films that come from the heart and are honest expressions of their soul without any thought to commercial success. Father’s Day is another movie that contributes to Troma’s 40 years of failed film-making.”

In fact, Father’s Day won several awards at last year’s Toronto After Dark Film Festival, including Best Film, Best Trailer and Best Poster.

In its heyday, Troma was always known for its posters. They used to think of a title, then design a poster, then sell it to distributors and, only after that, try to think what the script might be.

“I think,” he said, “that you will see a lot more from these Astron-6 guys in the same way as Trey Parker and Matt Stone (the creators of animated TV series South Park, who, like many, had an early involvement with Troma)

Former Troma guy James Gunn, who wrote and directed their Tromeo and Juliet in 1996, went on to direct the more mainstream science fiction horror comedy Slither in 2006. He was said, at one time, to have written a sadly-unproduced Troma movie Schlock & Schlockability: The Revenge of Jane Austen.

“But James Gunn didn’t write that,” Lloyd Kaufman revealed last night. “Another guy did – he was a postman – I can’t remember his name. We never got anywhere with it. We were hoping to get a British partner but, thusfar, we have not been able to get anybody.”

There have also been stories that Troma are to make Toxic Avenger 5: Toxic Twins.

“We have not yet been able to do that yet,” he explained philosophically. “Since nobody goes to our movies, we have no distribution anywhere and we don’t make any money… Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, my best movie, will never break even. We were plucked on that film. So there’s no purpose in making a movie unless we really, really love it.

Father’s Day we really loved, the Astron-6 guys were ready-to-go, so we did it. But, with Toxis Avenger 5, I have not gotten to where I really believe in it. Something I can get behind or, at least, get into my behind, is the Class of Nuke ‘Em High Redux. I think that’s something I can really believe in.

“The re-make of Class of Nuke ‘Em High will be shot on video because, finally, the quality of the digital format exceeds 35mm film. But we were always way ahead of the game, because we knew how to make 35mm look like shitty, unfocused, scratched VHS tape 40 years ago. So we’re just going back to our roots.”

Troma movies influenced directors like Quentin Tarantino and gave early work to people like actor Samuel L.Jackson and director Oliver Stone (as an actor).

“I think,” said Lloyd Kaufman, “that the Atron-6 guys will be accepted in the mainstream in the same way that James Gunn and Tarantino and Eli Roth have been. They were all fans of Troma or worked for Troma and want to make money.

“I don’t want to live in a refrigerated carton and be putting my shit in a paper bag, but I’m not able to make it in the mainstream. James Gunn and Trey Parker and Matt Stone and those guys are great people. Most people in the film industry who are in the mainstream are worse than wankers; they’re scum of the earth. But there are a small number who are sensational. And I’m sure that Astron-6 will be able to go mainstream and stay true to their souls and be honest, good, serious artists.

“I guess my message is just do what you believe in. Don’t listen to people. If idiots like me can survive for 40 years making films with hideously-deformed creatures of super-human size and father’s getting boffed up the behind and hard-bodied lesbians and all that sort of stuff, then anybody can do it. To thine own self be true. That is a phrase coined by one William Shakespeare who wrote the best-selling book 101 Money-Making Screenplay Ideas otherwise known as Hamlet

“Do what you believe in.”

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