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It Might Get Ugly – Karl Schultz loves comic Janey Godley but not milk toast

Karl Schultz

Karl Schultz with his latest haircut & thoughts

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a blog chat with comics Karl Schultz and Joz Norris about their annual charity gig in aid of Karl’s charity. After Joz left, I kept on talking to Karl.

“You’re all about re-invention,” I said. “you’ve had a lot of different haircuts this year.”

“I get bored,” replied Karl. “I’m trying to think of different ways to change Matthew Kelly.”

“Are you still doing that Matthew Kelly character?” I asked. “I thought you had finished with it.”

“I’ve been doing it again recently, after a year of It Might Get Ugly.”

It Might Get Ugly was/is a series of comedy evenings organised by Karl in which performers have to go on stage and tell totally true 15-minute stories about themselves.

“You had Janey Godley on the show at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe,” I said.

“She,” said Karl, “was my favourite thing about Edinburgh. She’s got thousands of just amazing stories. What can you not like about her? I love Janey. She’s a comic who can handle anyone and she won’t be precious. She is so great. I can imagine her being an amazing actor. I fell in love with her the way I fell in love with David Mills when he first did it.”

“Very different comics,” I said. “What were you like when you started performing comedy?”

“When you start,” said Karl, “it comes as a shock. I was about 19 the first time I performed and you’re in this big nervous energetic space. It was like a heightened reality. I was thinking faster. I had different conversations going on in my head – what I was saying and what I was thinking – almost like Eskimo singers.”

“Eskimo singers?” I asked.

“Hitting different octaves,” replied Karl. “Then years go by and, even though you might be constantly surprised, shock doesn’t visit you as much. I believe shock is way more important to growth than something being ‘moving’. A moving gig is either good or bad, but a gig that shocks you has real impact.

“After four years of doing Matthew Kelly, I found that I wasn’t writing as much material as I should have. I had a bit of material but was improvising the whole time and Improv often stands for impoverished as much as improvised.”

“But you are continuing the character?” I asked.

Karl as his character 'Matthew Kelly’ with some Chinese fans

Karl as his character ‘Matthew Kelly’ with some Chinese fans

“Yes,” said Karl. “What I’m enjoying with Matthew Kelly at the moment is playing with biographies. There is the character as himself. There’s Matthew Kelly telling stories about me when I was younger, almost as if Karl Schultz was the character. Then there’s me as Matthew Kelly, talking about experiences I have had as the Matthew Kelly character. And then there’s the sort of philosophy behind the whole thing. But it’s complicated to do that.

“I had this idea a couple of months ago… When you wake up, it takes you a couple of seconds to find yourself and I was obsessing over that and the idea that the day is a parasite and you, in that moment of awakening, are the host. So the parasite of the day lives through you as the host. It’s not comedic in itself, but I thought Matthew Kelly could be the day having fun on someone. It’s like a playful parasite. Even if I don’t communicate it to the audience, that can be what motivates the character.

“In a very American way, I subscribe to the idea of personal growth and the idea that a young artist should be trying to move his brain forward. That’s partly why I do all these different things: as a vehicle to move my personal philosophy forward.”

“What,” I asked, “helps you do that?”

“More than anything,” said Karl, “making mistakes and owning up to them. Nothing undermines something difficult to face up to more than accepting it. If you think: I am going to be visited-upon by dark clouds in my mind… If you can accept that, it completely undermines it.

Karl Schultz deep in thought

Karl Schultz is not going to Switzerland soon

“Two days ago, I had a dark night of the soul on the District Line between Temple and Bow stations and the way I got through that was just by accepting it. All the credence I wanted to give to those imaginings of trips to Switzerland… it was undermined.”

“Trips to Switzerland?” I asked.

“Well,” said Karl, “you know…”

“Oh,” I said, “Exit. So why did you start It Might Turn Ugly?”

“I wondered if I could create a performance space where you are watching someone do something that might move them forward and you are watching that play out. I told people: Fifteen minutes. No ‘material’. Try to be honest. The idea is that you should not be able to do it the next night.”

“What,” I asked, “did you want to be when you were aged 16? A novelist?”

“No. I wanted to be Nick Drake. If I hadn’t been a comedian, I would have been some jazz-inflected folk guitarist. I used to play guitar for about 8 or 10 hours a day.”

“Nick Drake is like Joe Meek,” I suggested. “More of a cult than generally famous.”

“Everyone wants to be a more famous version of their hero,” said Karl.

“So are you trying to fit musical styles into comedy?” I asked.

Karl Schultz: one of his more understated stage performances

Karl Schultz: one of his more understated stage performances

“I think my thing is just the life I had. Being an only child, moving every three years.”

Karl’s father was a Salvation Army officer and moved location throughout the world every three years.

“Having different voices in different groups,” said Karl. “That’s my thing. Having an assimilative personality where I can change my accent. I’ve had many different accents. Negotiating and reconciling.”

“Fitting into things you don’t naturally fit into?” I asked.

“Trying to make things fit,” suggested Karl. “I’m obsessed with reconciliation. If you have an early life like I had, it can be very confusing, so you try to make sense of it, which might lead you towards philosophy, poetry and so on. What is very attractive about prosodic things is finding disparate meanings but bringing them together, making them work. Something like Matthew Kelly is synesthetic – it is supposed to be.”

“You want everything to be ordered?” I asked.

“No. Not at all.”

“You want everything to be ordered even though your act is surrealism and anarchy?” I tried.

“My act is not anarchic,” said Karl. “It’s surreal in the sense of being unreal. I take ‘surreal’ to mean dreamlike and what I’m really obsessed with is that type of hypnagogia.”

“Hypno-what?” I asked.

Karl Schultz tattoo

Karl’s tattoo – a hypnagogic fantasy of a dodo with flamingo’s wings and peacock’s feathers

Hypnagogia,” Karl explained, “is that state between wakefulness and being asleep where, as a child, you can just as easily be talking to your mother as a figure in a dream.”

“And,” I suggested, “you can know you’re dreaming yet think it might be real?”

“Yes. It’s a bizarre state. You only have to read anything Oliver Sacks has ever written about memory to know that you can appropriate memories, which is terrifying.”

“I remember,” I said, “being in a pram in Campbeltown where I was born, but I don’t know if I really remember it or if it’s something my mother told me about.”

“Everything for me,” said Karl, “is like a palette where you just play out ideas and let them run.

“What I’m obsessed with at the moment is neurophilosophy and the idea that, since the advent of cognitive science, our understanding of consciousness has moved on and so the language – the lexicon of philosophy – should catch up. What we know has moved on, but our language hasn’t. I think that’s exactly the same with comedy. It feels like we’re using Saxon language. We end up inventing words like dramady which is horrible.”

“What did you study at university?” I asked.

“Philosophy, but I was a real philosophy student in that I was a drop-out. I went off to become a comedian aged 20.”

“At least you didn’t study comedy,” I said. “I get twitchy when people think they can learn comedy.”

“Someone who’s a writer,” said Karl, “told me the other day: I knew more about writing before I started. Getting a degree in maths means that you are just as aware of how much you don’t know – and that’s the real education.

“When I came into comedy, I thought someone was going to go: Well done. Go to Level 2. I thought there were hierarchies and pyramids. But then you realise: Oh! It’s just a common room! You end up meeting the producers and commissioners and you can either have a really nice time with them or think they are milquetoast.”

“Milk toast?” I asked.

“Milquetoast. A bit cowardly. Not willing to take risks… But someone explained to me that is almost written into their job description.”

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Comedian Jenny Eclair, born in Kuala Lumpur, gets annoyed about Christians

Jenny Eclair, as she wants to be seen on her website

Jenny Eclair, as she wants to be seen, on her website www.jennyeclair.com

I chatted to Jenny Eclair at her home last week. In the first blog that came out of that, she talked about parts of her very varied career. In the second blog, she talked about iconic comedian Malcolm Hardee and that led on, obviously and easily, to his drinking.

“Towards the end, the last couple of years before he died,” I said, “I thought all those years of drinking were taking their toll and were showing.”

“But,” said Jenny, “brains do dry out as well. I have a friend who basically flooded his brain with alcohol but, because he now doesn’t live in London, he’s drying out. It’s like an old carpet. It’s gone a bit but it is repairing.”

“I have a smoker’s cough, but I don’t smoke,” I said. “I have a beer gut but I don’t drink. Sometimes I think I would be in better condition if I had taken heroin. Keith Richards can fall out of a tree with no problem and Dennis Hopper was perfectly lucid in his latter years.”

“Heroin’s better for your skin and it doesn’t make you fat,” suggested Jenny. “But the trouble with coming off heroin is you normally go to something else. Once an addict, always an addict.”

“I suppose someone could come off heroin and get addicted to the Salvation Army or something worse,” I mused.

“They’re just at the bottom of the road,” said Jenny. “The most beautiful building.”

“Yes,” I said, “I saw it coming out of Denmark Hill station.”

The Salvation Army building at Denmark Hill, South London

The Salvation Army building at Denmark Hill, South London

“The Salvation Army are actually quite good,” Jenny added, “because once Geoff (Jenny’s partner) was choking – he had been greedy over a sausage – and I was trying to give him the Heimlich manoeuvre but, because he was too fat, I couldn’t get both my arms round him. I was really struggling and he was about to die and there were two Salvation Army people walking past and they came in and they Heimliched him between them and saved his life. They also come and play Christmas carols round the corner, which is nice.”

“Well,” I said, “Christians, by and large, are OK.”

“They get a lot of stick these days,” said Jenny. “You’re not allowed to slag off any other religion. But you can slag off Christians. That pisses me off. There are too many smart-alecky people around in the media who wouldn’t dare slag off Moslems, who wouldn’t dream of slagging off Jews, but they give Christians a right old kicking and you just think: Hold on! Hold on here!

“I can’t bear the hypocrisy. It really does piss me off. Those people who do all the science stuff and find Christianity an easy target. They show an intolerance about Christians that isn’t allowed about anything else.”

“There’s nothing wrong with religion,” I suggested. “Just organised religion.”

“Or people talking about it to you,” said Jenny. “On the bus.”

“That’s people trying to convert you,” I said.

Jenny with her back to bad weather last week

Jenny with her back to bad weather last week

“No. That’s because I live too close to the Maudsley Hospital. Nutters. A lot of religious nutters… Ooh, look at the weather. It’s horrible…” The rain had started battering on her back windows.

“I’ve got to go to Greenwich to deliver some Ladybird books to my eternally-un-named friend,” I said.

“I love Ladybird books,” said Jenny.

“My eternally-un-named friend,” I said, “was brought up in the RAF and you were an Army child, so you have that in common. You were in…?”

“Kuala Lumpur and Berlin and then Barnard Castle in County Durham,” Jenny replied. “Barnard Castle was tough. I went to a very tough school there.”

“People whose parents wear uniforms – police or armed forces or whatever – sometimes rebel, don’t they?” I asked. “You became a punk poet and comedian. Was that rebelling?”

Jenny Eclair performing at The Tunnel club, London, in 1986 (Photograph by Bill Alford)

Jenny performing at Malcolm Hardee’s Tunnel club in 1986 (Photograph by Bill Alford)

“No. My dad was an Army major, but he wasn’t ‘an army major’, if you see what I mean. He’s very funny. And my mum didn’t work – she was an Army wife – but she was very, very clever. In fact, she should have worked. She was a wasted opportunity.”

“I suppose,” I said, “all that generation of women were wasted.”

“Yeah,” said Jenny. “also, she was a cripple in an old-fashioned sense of the word. She had polio.”

“My mother was born without a left hand,” I said.

“Did she have a hook?” asked Jenny, perking up.

“Just a rounded stump at the end,” I said. “Why did you perk up at the thought of a hook?”

“I do love a hook,” said Jenny. “A hook and a glass eye.”

“You could get them if you wanted,” I suggested, “through the wonders of modern surgery.”

“I don’t want my own,” said Jenny, “but I am very drawn to that sort of thing.”

“Have you done Peter Pan in panto?” I asked.

Robb Harwood as Captain Hook in Peter Pan c 1906

Robb Harwood as Captain Hook in a production of  Peter Pan c 1906

“No,” Jenny replied, “but I do like the look of a pirate.”

“What’s the glass eye got to do with it?” I asked.

“Anything that’s a bit wrong,” Jenny explained, “I’m quite attracted to anything that’s a bit wrong.”

“Was your mother in a wheelchair?” I asked.

“No, Full-length calliper. It’s only one leg. She is really magnificent.”

“My mother only had one hand,” I said, “but she didn’t let it affect her. She seemed to be knitting all the time in my childhood. She used to play tennis when she was younger, which is actually quite difficult – You have to hold the racquet in one hand and have to throw the ball up in the air.”

“My mother was a tennis player,” said Jenny.

“My mother,” I said, “mostly hid the end of her left arm – because her parents had told her she shouldn’t show it.”

“Yes,” said Jenny. “It was slightly shameful. My mother told me that, after she got polio, her father assumed she would never marry.”

“I don’t think my mother expected to marry,” I said, “because she thought Who would marry a one-handed woman?

“And with my mother,” said Jenny, “it was Who would marry somebody with a great big leg iron?

“A pirate, perhaps?” I suggested.

“My dad,” said Jenny. “It was the only romantic thing he ever did. He was abroad when he heard it had happened. He got Compassionate Leave and hitch-hiked his way back from Aden or somewhere like that. She had been his girlfriend and then they’d fallen out. He was in the Army and went off to Aden. She went to a cinema in Blackpool and caught polio there. He heard about it and made his way back to Britain and to Blackpool Infirmary.

“My grandmother was there and said: Derek, you can’t go in and he said Yes, I must and he saw my mother. She said I’ll never walk again and he said Yes you will – when you walk down the aisle to marry me.

“Aaaaaahhhhh…..” I said.

An example of a modern egg poacher

Example of a modern egg poacher, seldom seen as romantic

“I know,” said Jenny. “But he’d used all his romance up in that one sentence. In terms of romance, never anything again. He once bought her an egg-poaching pan for her birthday and said: Go on, June. I’d love some eggs…” They’re both very gung-ho and Northern and good fun. Both from Blackpool.”

“So you feel Blackpudlian?” I asked.

“Not really,” said Jenny.

“The place I feel most at home,” I said, “is Edinburgh, but I’ve never had a home there. I always had relatives there until recently, so I was visiting there every year as a child, probably since I was an embryo.”

“I feel Northern,” said Jenny, “I think it’s more to do with the sense of humour than anything else, I understand that quite graphic, broad, seaside postcardy humour.”

“Blackpool is seasidey,” I said. “Not like Manchester.”

“No,” agreed Jenny. “I went to drama school in Manchester. And Liverpool’s different again. But I wouldn’t leave London now.”

“I met your daughter with you,” I said, “at Glastonbury about… It must have been…”

“Nine years ago,” Jenny told me. “When she was 15. She’s 24 now. She’s a playwright. She’s got the writing gene. She’s working at the Royal Court Theatre at the moment. Then she’s got a play on at Theatre 503 on Monday (that’s tomorrow if you read this blog on the day it’s posted) in a thing of new writing, then she’s got a residency at the old BBC building in Maida Vale… or it might be in Marylebone. It starts with an M anyway.”

“And you?” I asked.

Jenny helped develop the concept of Grumpy Old Women

Grumpy Old Women – touring the UK April to June 2014

Grumpy Old Women on stage,” said Jenny. “We go into rehearsal in March; we tour in April, May, June. And I’m writing a Radio 4 series at the moment for broadcast later this year: six 15-minute monologues. They’re all set in real time.”

“Will you be starring?”

“No. The producer thought we should get better actresses and she’s right, because I’m quite limited and I always sound like me.”

“That’s the sign of star,” I said.

“I wouldn’t live anywhere other than London now” Jenny said again.

“It’s where everything happens,” I said.

“It is,” said Jenny. “I like it when things happen.”

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Christianity and close-up magic tricks at Parliament… followed by naked radio

Radio magic - Lewis Schaffer (left) & Martin Soan (naked)

I had an interesting, if slightly varied, day yesterday.

It started with lunch at the Houses of Parliament and ended with a naked radio chat show near London Bridge.

I had lunch at the Palace of Westminster with Fred Finn (Guinness Record holder as the world’s most-travelled person and blogger for Ukraine International Airlines), Grenville Burn (personal assistant to former Labour Chief Whip Lord Foster of Bishop Auckland) and a barrister who had better remain nameless lest it sound like advertising.

Grenville Burn is a former colonel in the Salvation Army, comes from a family of Salvation Army officers and the only person I have ever met whose opening gambit to me over lunch was “Are you a Christian?” and, when I said, “No,” responded, “Why?”

He is also an intriguingly enterprising man who is involved in the Executives Association of Great Britain and the Mikado Experience which, he tells me, was involved in creating over £70 million of new business last year. He ‘teaches’ Networking – at universities, to directors, for companies. He has some fascinating psychological and schmoozing insights in how to get on in business, something he told me he partially learned by being a Christian preacher… and he is involved in an organisation called BestForBusiness which, he tells me, is already bigger than the Institute of Directors. He is a sophisticated and persuasive man who – perhaps fortunately for me – has not yet started selling double-glazing.

More interesting to me than all that, though, was that he frustratingly told me a couple of extraordinary and totally unpublishable true stories plucked, as they say, from tabloid headlines… and he is a skilled close-up magician – rope tricks, dice, you name it – as well as being impressively fast on the creation of magic squares from any numbers. In years past, he might have been burnt at the stake as the possessor of unearthly powers.

There is no easy way to link from Christianity and magic tricks performed in the environs of the Houses of Parliament to exposed male genitalia in a radio studio near London Bridge, so I will not even attempt it.

I wrote a blog last week titled How I talked myself out of comedian Lewis Schaffer’s naked radio show.

It seems I was over-optimistic.

Last night, after a meal with comedian Martin Soan, I ended up at Resonance FM for their lengthily-titled weekly radio show The Voice of Americans with Lewis Schaffer of Nunhead – a man who could and should never be confused with Lord Foster of Bishop Auckland.

When we arrived at the studio, Lewis Schaffer told Martin: “You can’t take your clothes off. They won’t allow it. Sorry. Apparently OfCom rules say you can’t do naked radio.”

“Well, I’m going to take off my clothes anyway,” replied Martin, “because that’s what I’m doing here.”

“That’s the only reason I’ve come!” piped up my eternally-un-named female friend.

“Do I look good?” asked Lewis Schaffer, stroking his black suit.

“Fuck it,” said Martin. “Being naked is really what it’s all about, isn’t it?. I’m taking my clothes off.”

“Well I’ll take my clothes off too,” said Lewis Schaffer.

“Keep your socks on,” advised Martin, taking his clothes off. “You are never naked with your socks on, man. You are never naked with your socks on.”

Martin had had a few drinks with us before arriving at the studio.

“I don’t want to take my clothes off in front of the young women,” said Lewis Schaffer. “I’ll take my shirt off.”

“I’ve got no microphone,” said Martin.

“I’m so fat. I’m so fat,” said Lewis Schaffer, taking his shirt off. “Am I too fat? I’m too fat. Who can love a man with a… Let’s see your penis…”

“You can see my penis any time you want,” said Martin.

“It’s a lovely-sized penis,” said Lewis Schaffer with warmth in his voice.

“I think I can retain some kind of calm and I will not freak out for this announcement,” said the Resonance FM girl who had to introduce the show on air. “I will not freak out for this announcement.”

“Have I got a microphone?” asked Martin.

“Would I look good naked?” asked Lewis Schaffer. “Am I too fat? Yes I am. Do you understand what I am saying? I am too fat.”

“It’s pointless being naked if I haven’t got a microphone,” said Martin.

“No-one will like me naked,” said Lewis Schaffer. “I dress up nicely. I wear a dark suit. That’s what I wear. A dark suit. Do I look good for my age?” He started to put his shirt back on. He looked at Martin. “He’s got a lovely-sized penis. Me? I’ve gained a bit of waistline; it’s not a sexy look.”

“You’ve got one minute,” said the Resonance FM girl.

“This is just a normal Monday night for me,” said Martin. “Being naked.”

“Take a picture of his penis,” Lewis Schaffer told me.

“You’re listening,” said the Resonance FM girl, “to Resonance 104.4 FM. That was Luscombe’s Choice. Coming up next, Nunhead American Radio with Lewis Schaffer of Nunhead.”

Then the opening music – God Bless America – swelled up, the show started, I coughed a bit and Martin stayed naked and got passionate about funding cuts for the elderly in Nunead. It will probably turn up as a podcast at some point. What can I say?

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