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How a comedy night out in London’s Soho led to what some might call this misanthropic anti-Japanese blog

I had been going to write a blog about American comic Lewis Schaffer’s show Free Until Famous which runs in Soho every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

Almost as a joke, he started saying it was the longest-running solo comedy show in London’s West End. Then he realised that, in fact, it probably was.

He’s been performing it in various nightly configurations since October 2008. Initially, he played it Tuesdays and Wednesdays then, because too many people were turning up, he occasionally played it twice-nightly on Tuesdays and Wednesdays – at 8.00pm and 9.30pm. For the last few weeks, he’s been running it every Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday night at 8.00pm.

He successfully brought the model of Edinburgh’s Free Fringe to London. You don’t pay anything as you go into the venue but as you leave at the end, if you liked the show, you pay whatever you think it was worth.

Lewis tells me: “When I started, there were no free shows in London and now there are millions. What makes my show unique is that all the other shows are group shows with maybe one or two acts the punters will like and the rest not to their liking. I am akin to a single malt in a world of blends. If you like it, you love it; if you don’t you won’t; but the ones who like it…”

Whenever I have gone, his audience is always, eclectic and bizarrely international. Last Wednesday, that meant three Saudi women who were coming to his show for the third time. They don’t live in London but, every few months, when they are over here, they make a pilgrimage to Lewis’ comedy show. He doesn’t know why. I don’t know why. Even they probably don’t know why.

I asked Lewis about this after the show.

“They have told me directly We are fans!,” he said, bemused. “But they cover their faces after every joke! Maybe it’s the guilty pleasure of listening to dirty things from a double infidel – I’m an American AND I’m a Jew – plus maybe they find my Semitic look attractive, with my naturally dark hair.”

(Lewis tried not dying his hair the other week; I told him it really wasn’t a success.)

He always moans to me that it’s hard to get people in – moan moan moan these bloody Colonials – but, when I went last Wednesday night, it was a full house – it always is when I wander along – and Lewis was on unusually good form. Normally, he plays a blindingly good first half then loses confidence and tries to persuade the audience they’re not enjoying themselves as much as they think they are. Or he starts the show by saying he’s shit tonight but, by at least halfway through, he’s storming it. Last week, he stormed it for about 95% of the time though, of course, afterwards he was complaining to me that he hadn’t done very well.

Much like Lewis’ rollercoaster shows, it’s always worth any trip to Soho anytime because there are always unexpected and eccentric things happening. Last Wednesday, after the show, my friend and I had to plough through a crowded Brewer Street, which was being used for location shooting of some big-budget Bollywood movie. When I asked one of the crew who the star was, we were told:

“All I know is he’s a mega-star in Bollywood. Their equivalent of Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise combined. I don’t know who the fuck he is.”

O vanitas vanitatum. A good overview of superstardom.

Then, in a doorway, we passed two red-faced drunks sitting on a doorstep between a sex shop and a pub, clutching bottles, almost falling sideways as they slurred a drunken conversation with each other. As we passed, I only heard the words:

“Ave you ‘eard 50 Cent’s latest? It ain’t nowhere near as good as his last one.”

Drunks who follow 50 Cent and the latest music trends. Only in Soho.

So I WAS going to blog about all that but decided not to.

Perhaps I should have mentioned this earlier.

Anyway, during the show, Lewis made a joke about how people gave money to Japan following their triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear ‘accident’. Remember we are talking here about a comic who, to my mind, has the best Holocaust joke(s) I have ever heard.

The audience reaction to Lewis’ Japanese joke was to gasp – possibly because it was a truth spoken openly for the first time – and then to laugh. I won’t tell the full joke as it’s one to be heard live on stage.

But there was a news item yesterday that the owners of the stricken Japanese nuclear power plant say it will take another 6-9 months to sort out the mess.

I have a friend who has worked at Oxfam for many years. So I’m not unsympathetic to disaster-hit countries. She was recently in a country even I had barely heard of.

But people in the UK donating aid and holding charity gigs to raise money to supply aid to Japan? Give me a break.

Japan has the third biggest economy in the world, after the US and China. It has a stronger economy that Germany, France and – in 6th place – the United Kingdom.

Haiti is largely ignored now. It is still an impoverished disaster area. And people have been donating money to Japan? That’s an example of people donating money to charity to make themselves feel better not to make a disastrous situation any better.

Countries in Africa and Asia where babies are routinely living for a few days or hours or being born dead because of the poverty are not as ‘sexy’ as Japan was for a few weeks because the TV pictures were not there on TV screens.

There were 62 tornado reports in North Carolina on Saturday. Communities across Oklahoma and the Carolinas have been devastated.

Do I feel sorry for people in those areas? Am I sad at the deaths? Yes.

Am I going to donate money to the world’s strongest economy to alleviate my own sadness and cheer myself up about the USA’s tragedy? No.

Will I donate money to children in certain parts of Africa? Yes.

If some tragedy occurs in Hampstead or Islington, I would not expect the good people of Haiti to have a whip-round or put on charity gigs to raise money to help.

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Filed under Comedy, Racism, Theatre