Tag Archives: sociology

Lynn Ruth Miller finds life tough in San Francisco and meets Trump supporters

Lynn Ruth’s view

The last couple of blogs have been by the uniquely multi-talented comic, writer and occasional burlesque performer Lynn Ruth Miller, ruminating on her recent visit back to San Francisco, where she lived for nearly 30 years. Here she rounds off…


I met with Mike Morgin who is my US tax consultant. His stage name is Mike Moto and he was an active part of the American comedy scene.

His heritage is part of his set. He is part Japanese, part Yugoslavian so he always opens with: “I am a Japoslav”.  

The last time I heard him, we were in a tiny theater that holds 20 people and someone in that minute group shouted: “I am, too!” You cannot make these things up.

Six years ago, Mike suffered a severe stroke and the interesting thing about this story is that for six years he has struggled with his rehabilitation and within two years he was managing to go back on stage. His balance is precarious and he walks with a cane. Although his speech is improving, he still is difficult to understand. However, he is determined to master these challenges. He is doing more shows every year. His progress is slow, but he proves the cliché “once a comedian always a comedian”. His set is still solid and, as of just this year, he has been doing longer sets not just for comedy audiences but for people recovering from a stroke.

Since comedy is not the most lucrative profession for those of us that TV has not discovered (yet), Mike is a tax consultant during the day and he has been doing my taxes for about 8 years.

On the Friday, I was booked for Samson Koletar’s room in Oakland.  Samson is from Mumbai and came to Silicon Valley because he got a high-paying job in IT. He moved into a beautiful apartment near San Francisco’s Mission District. He said that, in Mumbai, his parents, his sister and he all lived in a one bedroom flat and the isolation of living alone in his fancy new American home was almost more than he could bear.

Samson started Comedy Oakland several years ago and its growth was very slow; but he persisted.   

The city of San Francisco was the center for sophisticated entertainment. Stand up demands intelligent listening to be enjoyed. Oakland, on the other hand, has a fluctuating population and the income and cultural levels are extremely varied. 

It has some of the most gorgeous and expensive places to live near scenic Lake Merritt. It is also one of the places famous for its drive-by shootings and immense consumption of drugs.

Lynn Ruth Miller alone on stage in Oakland

Sam continued to bring in good comedy to this area because it had no comedy at all and he knew eventually the shows would be accepted and be well attended. He succeeded. This time, Sam scheduled two shows back to back and the place was sold out.

Once again, I am faced with the question of what keeps us at it. Comedy is a thankless, stressful career, at best. At worst, it is the stuff of suicide. It is very stressful to get up on a stage and bare your heart to a bunch of strangers.  

I lived alone with no family and very few friends. Comedy was my lifeline and I hung on to it for dear life. I fed on the laughs no matter how sparse they were when I began.

I went for dinner with my friend, Judy Lawrence. I met her at the Park Movie Theatre when she was the manager there almost 40 years ago. We became fast friends and I saw her through some very difficult times. 

Her favorite nephew got brain cancer and died and Judy was torn apart. She went from one dead-end job to another and, between the ups and downs of her very challenging life, we would meet now and again. At one point when I was in my house in Pacifica, she had dyed her hair a bright green and pierced herself like a pin-cushion with rings everywhere – her tongue, her nose, her eyebrows, her ears. I asked her: “Why do you mutilate yourself like this?”.  

She said: ”Why did you have anorexia?” 

And the penny dropped.

I realized then that the only thing we can control is our bodies and, when life goes off the charts, we turn to our anatomy and force it to do our bidding.  

I starved and stuffed my body because it kept me from facing my many failures and inadequacies. Judy pierced hers trying to come to terms with the unfairness and cruelty of disease and loss.

Owning a house in San Francisco is beyond most of us and to my happy surprise, Judy now has her own little house in a beautiful and safe neighborhood of the city. She has a partner now and her mother lives with her as well and – surprise of all surprises – Judy works for Apple.

Apple in Silicon Valley (Photo: Carles Rabada via UnSplash)

She is now part of that top income level created by the Silicon Valley Greats that people say is destroying the city and erasing the middle class.

These very high-income professionals can pay outrageous prices for what they want and, in America, money is the only power that counts. 

Judy has a brand new car; she dresses in up-to-the-minute fashion. The rings are gone. Her hair is a conventional color. But, underneath, she is the same fun-loving and adventuresome Judy that I bonded with at the Park Theatre.  

Our circumstances change, but those basic impulses: compassion, kindness and adventure… we hang on to them. The difference is that, as we age and as our circumstances change, the way we express those tendencies becomes different, less impulsive and, perhaps, a bit more staid.

That night I had a sleep-over with my long-time friends Alan Schneider and Deidre Laiken. When I met them, they lived in San Francisco’s North Beach. They were originally from New York State and came west as so many of us did because we believed California was a magic place. And indeed it was – over ten years ago – when the two of them became part of that culture: jazz on Sunday afternoons, wild street entertainment every day and idyllic weather, never too hot or too cold.

Gradually, the ambience changed and Deidre tells the story of walking out her front door and being accosted by angry, demanding homeless people who blocked the streets with their sleeping bags and tents. The two decided to do what so many former Californians have done: move away from the city that had originally captured their hearts.  

They chose Folsom, an expanding community nearer to Sacramento than San Francisco. They found a condominium development with every amenity: a gym, a swimming pool, lovely walkways filled with foliage that encouraged birds to nest and a well-equipped clubhouse all at a cost far less than their two-bedroom flat in San Francisco. The weather is more extreme; the culture is just not there; but it is safe to walk outside at any time of the day or night.

To my surprise, both of them are ardent Trump supporters.  Alan explained that, although he has no respect for our president as a person, he believes in the things he has accomplished. Unemployment is down; the economy is up; he says minorities are prospering (?); and Donald Trump is making America greater every day.(???) 

“Donald Trump is making America greater every day (???)” (Image via Pixabay)

“The world is changing,” Alan went on to say. “Families are totally different; we live with our cell phones; we do not eat together; and young people cannot have the same dreams we had. Few of them will be able to buy a home; more of them will have to go to University if they want to earn a living; yet fewer of them can afford tuition; we meet people online instead of face to face. Children are living with their parents longer; they are more concerned about things we never even considered like abusing the environment and the artificial additives we put into food.”

I saw that change he was speaking of when I went out for dinner with another friend, Alan Kahn. This Alan is a teacher and a magician, involved now with a woman ten years his senior, who wants him to move to Oregon, a typical escape haven for people disenchanted with the Bay Area.  

Alan has had custody of his two children since his divorce many years ago. Both are in their twenties and are living at home. They are incensed that their father is charging them rent to live in his home now that they are older.  

He believes he is justified because he says they do nothing to help with the upkeep of the house and are earning enough to pay him for the cost of the utilities and huge taxes that every Californian has to pay. His daughter was so insulted that her father would charge her to live in what she feels is her home, that she has moved out and is paying twice as much rent for the privilege.

Alan is not happy with his job and would like to tour the country in a van performing at magic festivals, but his new partner is not too enthusiastic about that. And he says he cannot even consider such a move until both his son and daughter become self-supporting. Neither of the children have a partner and both of them not only have menial jobs that barely pay enough for food, but also do not have enough education to break into more lucrative professions.

It certainly is a new world. I left home as soon as I graduated from university to take a job my education had prepared me for. After my first divorce, I returned home and it never occurred to me that my parents would charge me to live there. My plan for my future was to marry and have children. The idea that I would not do such a thing – or that I would have to go to work to support myself after I married – would have horrified me.

Today, millennials do not leave home until they have to, marriage is in a steep decline and recreational sex is taken for granted.

Who knew?

… CONTINUED IN LOS ANGELES HERE

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Filed under California, Comedy, Poverty, Psychology, Sociology

The decline and possible fall of San Francisco, as seen by Lynn Ruth Miller

Lynn Ruth Miller back where she once was

The uniquely-talented American comedian and writer Lynn Ruth Miller has been on her travels again. This time she returns (almost) home…


I finally arrived in San Francisco at 10:30 the ‘next’ morning. I had gone more than a day with no sleep but, somehow, as soon as I landed in that familiar airport, I felt in sync with my surroundings.

My first night in the Bay Area is always spent reminding lots of people that I have arrived in the place that was once my home. I never felt very important while I lived here and never believed I made any kind of an impact, even though I had two television shows on their public access TV station and wrote for the local newspaper and a regional magazine.  

California is one of the most liberal states in the Union, yet there is that American sub-context to all that we do: wealthy white men are in charge of us all. Everyone else is a lesser being and when any ordinary bloke earns a job promotion, accolades in his field or even a seat on the bus, he owes it to that hidden aristocracy that is in charge of all we receive and even what we dare to think.

That sense that no-one really matters in the bigger picture except those in the privileged class permeates the culture.  

But, at my friend Leo’s house, I was treated like the most important human being on the planet and, of course, I ate that up.  

Leo, his wife Carol and I always talk about the disintegration of San Francisco, because this once noble city filled with glamorous, sophisticated people has become a dumping ground for the homeless. Tents, sleeping bags, cardboard boxes and even RVs clutter the streets and empty lots. 

San Francisco is no longer a safe city. If you walk alone on its streets you are targets for robbery, bullying, even murder. People are hungry and desperate here. And conditions get worse every time I return.  

A homeless camp in Oakland in May 2017, as reported in the San Francisco Chronicle (Photograph by Santiago Mejia)

According to Leo, the homeless have set up encampments and the city is doing nothing to help them. They have become a scourge on the population and people are moving out of the city in droves. That is hard to believe when I see the traffic that clogs the highways. It seems to be bumper-to-bumper traffic at every hour of the day. So SOME people are still here.

Whenever Leo discusses the multitude of freeloaders who do nothing but take as much as they can from the state and do not want to work or even seek proper shelter even if you offer it to them, I think of my dear friend Brett.  

Brett has miraculously reinvented himself. He has recovered from both drug and alcohol addiction, earned a degree in business in his forties and, with much perseverance, has climbed the employment ladder from the bottom. Now in his early fifties, he has qualified for a middle management job in San Francisco. His salary is right in line with what he should be earning. He had achieved his goal.

Yet he cannot afford to rent a flat of his own. He lives in a 10ft by 10ft room in a house he shares with two other men. The house is an hour’s commute from his work.

If people in well-paying jobs cannot afford decent housing, how on earth can we expect someone who is a clerk in a hardware store or who works in a bakery to be able to take care of his basic needs much less put a roof over his head?  

(Photo: Jp Valery, UnSplash)

Surely, a society as wealthy as this one can manage to give its citizens shelter, food, and a sense of dignity. To me, these are inalienable human rights.

The mayor of San Francisco, London Breed, has been trying to get legislation through that will create affordable housing but has failed. The city’s Board of Supervisors refuse to ease the antiquated regulations that make every building permit outrageously expensive and so complicated that nothing can get done. Hard-working people like Brett are destined to receive salaries that cannot possibly cover their basic cost of living.

Leo also is very disturbed by the deluge of illegal immigrants who come over here and claim medical and housing benefits for themselves and their children, when ordinary hard-working folk have to struggle just to keep a roof over their heads.  

Sound familiar to British readers? It doesn’t seem to be Eastern Europeans milking the system over here. It is Mexicans and pretty much all people of color.   

Leo is talking about a law passed in California that gives low-income adults between the ages of 19 and 25 living in California illegally the right to be included in California’s Medicaid program, the joint state and federal health insurance program for the poor and disabled.

However, these costs to the state are balanced by what is saved in police protection, medical emergencies and jail maintenance.  

Illegal immigrants are people who do work for far less than minimum wage and are excluded from nearly all social services. It is greedy employers who hire these people because they do not want to pay a fair salary for the jobs they want done. They are causing this exploitation of hungry, desperate people willing to work for any wage just to have money for food.

I get the sense that Californians are very angry, especially in the Bay Area.  

They see the prices of everything going up and up; wages going down and down; housing prices and rents soaring sky high; and their streets are littered with homeless colonies where people are defecating in the streets, belligerently demanding money from pedestrians and defacing the neighborhoods residents once all loved.

Those who are comfortably housed and comparatively well-to-do believe that homeless people are either drug addicts or lazy sloths who milk the welfare system when they could easily earn enough money to feed and house themselves.

San Francisco, city of unexpected contrasts (Photograph by Simon Zhu via UnSplash)

Yet every statistic insists that the majority of homeless people living in those tent cities on San Francisco’s streets are there because they lost their job and could not find another or the job they have does not give them enough money for both food and a roof over their heads.

Still, the city of San Francisco has a magic all is own.  

Now that I am a visitor, I do not feel the despair that longtime residents feel.

I understand why tourists love the place. The free jazz on North Beach; the charming cable cars; the ocean and the Bay; the beautiful Victorian homes…

All of it is but a thin façade that hides furious, disillusioned and hopeless people failing to make a comfortable life there.

For way too many of my friends, this magic isn’t enough to offset the cost of living.  So many of them are moving to places like Austin, Texas… Ashville, North Carolina… and even Boise Idaho.  

The beautiful weather and the gorgeous landscape is not enough to make up for the rampant crime on the streets and the outrageous cost of a loaf of bread.

… CONTINUED HERE

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Jewish comic and burlesque performer Lynn Ruth Miller in Berlin and London

Lynn Ruth Miller continues her globe-trotting blogs…


It has been over a year since I visited Berlin. I try to get there every six months. In all the places I visit, I have been fortunate to make good friends and Berlin is no exception but, this past year, it was impossible to schedule anything sooner.

I try to stay with my wonderfully gifted friend Lilli Höch-Corona when I am there because she and I are on the same page in so many ways.

She runs a company that distributes Gefühlsmonsters – wonderful pictures that psychologists and counsellors use to help people identify and deal with their emotions. The pictures were first drawn by her son Christian when he was 13 or 14 years old but, through the years, they have been refined and expanded to cover a gamut of feelings.  

Whenever I am with Lilli we talk about how important it is to identify what you are feeling before you can deal with it sensibly and logically.

She has helped me understand that ‘now’ is all I really have to deal with and if I can manage that, tomorrow will take care of itself.

Lynn Ruth in Berlin with Bryan Schall aka Nana Schewitz

This visit I spent a lot of time with her talking about what life really means.

I had just read an essay about the turbulence and uncertainty of the past decade.

Lilli pointed out that what those writers ignore is how many, many people are now standing up and making themselves heard; people like Greta Thunberg, the women in the #MeToo movement and others demanding equality, recognition and action to remedy the inequalities so prevalent in our world.  

In her Christmas broadcast this year, Queen Elizabeth of Britain reminded us that progress is taken in very small steps and I think it is these steps we should encourage and support. Little by little they will renew stability and encourage reform that will address the major problems of our age.

Lilli and her husband live in East Berlin now but, during the time Berlin was a divided city, they were in the West. Lilli and her family used to visit friends in the Eastern sector and bring them little luxuries because everyone was forced to live meagre, Spartan lives. It was a communist country then and, although everyone had food, a no-frills car and enough to supply their basic needs, their lives were very limited and it was a hard life for them all.

The neighborhood has been tarted-up since it was part of East Berlin and the artists and non-conformists that defined the district’s intriguing subculture in the 1980s and 1990s have been replaced by a young, hip crowd that frequents the many cafes there. Where there were once run-down houses in the shadow of the Berlin Wall, there are now designer shops and varied lovely restaurants.

“The very first comedy club that took me into their heart in Berlin…”

The very first comedy club that took me into their heart in Berlin was Neil Numb’s Cosmic Comedy Club.

Neil is a born entrepreneur and he started this English speaking comedy club in the basement of a hostel called Belushi’s. The club has grown into a successful, professional performance area frequented not just by visitors but by the entire ex-pat community in Berlin. The key guy on stage is Dharmander Singh who not only hosts every night but helps with publicity and is the man who put Cosmic Comedy on the Edinburgh Fringe comedy map.

The beautiful thing about Cosmic Comedy is that, unlike other established comedy clubs, they give everyone a chance to perform. Comedy is a developed skill and you cannot get better unless you do it over and over again. Dhar and Neil offer everyone their moment of fame on stage and I have seen the quality of performance there get better and sharper each time I am there.

However, this time, my first show was not with the boys. It was with Bryan Schall who does a magnificent variety drag show called Jews, Jews, Jews that has travelled all over the world. This was their Chanukah show and Bryan, whose drag name is Nana Schewitz, with his first in command LoIita VaVoom, put on a spectacular show for Jews and non-Jews alike.

Jews, Jews, Jews with (L-R) Gieza Poke, Karma She, George N Roses, Nana Schewitz, Lynn Ruth Miller, Lolita VaVoom, Betty Q and Caitlin Gresham at Monster Ronson’s Ichiban Karaoke

The audience was a mixture of religions and backgrounds and the show was both original and very camp.

All the performers were amazing but the final act was a Polish Burlesque star called Betty-Q.

She knocked our socks off using Chanukah candles to light her performance.

Nana came out as a giant golden menorah.

And Lolita treated us to a potato pancake extravaganza.

I felt like I had entered another world: one filled with magic and wonder, miles away from reality.  

Finally, after all these years, I got a glimpse of the real Berlin kind of cabaret I had heard so much about. This time I managed to get a bigger taste of Berlin than I usually do. Ordinarily I just eat, sleep and run to the comedy club for my performance. 

This time, Friday and Saturday nights, I performed at The Cosmic Comedy Club. 

The second night I did my show I Never Said I Was Nice and, to my surprise, a woman who loved that show in Tokyo was there to see it again. The international comedy scene is far smaller than I thought and we tend to see one another in very unexpected places as we travel from one place to another.

I came home to London on Sunday, ran to perform in A Night in Soho and then packed to go to the Limmud Festival in Birmingham, a Jewish international festival powered by learning. It features hundreds of educational and informative events and caters to thousands of Jews worldwide. Many similar festivals are held all over the world but the UK one in Birmingham is the biggest and people have been attending for at least forty years.

Lynn Ruth Miller and Rachel Creeger at the Limmud Festival

I had the good fortune to do an hour’s comedy show, be part of a showcase, do a talk on optimistic living and then have a discussion with Rachel Creeger on how we got into comedy and what it means to us. Usually, when someone sees me at a gig and likes what they see, they come up to me after the show to find out where I am performing next. This, however, was a Jewish event and people came up to me to invite me to dinner.

When anyone walks into a Jewish home, they are immediately invited for a meal. The lady of the house will rush into her kitchen, swearing there isn’t a morsel of anything in the house, open her refrigerator and it will be so packed that food will tumble to the floor. She will hastily put together a five course feast for whomever is standing in her front hall and then, should there be anything left over after the meal, her eyes will fill with tears and she will say: ”No one ate a thing!”

I assure you huge feasting is not limited to the Jews. I thought only my people ate a lot on their holidays. I was wrong. The British know how to feed you on a holiday and the family I am spending Christmas with do it with a gourmet flair. The three sons are vegetarian and I have been inundated with mushroom and ale pies, beetroot flan and alcohol, alcohol, alcohol.

I am not complaining.

I have taken an antacid and I am ready to welcome 2020.

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Facebook? – One reader says: “Alas the only solution to this is (literal) civil war”

On 25th April this year, I wrote a somewhat tongue-in-cheek blog entitled:

ARE THE FACEBOOK POLICE ABOUT TO BAN ME BECAUSE OF MY SEXUALLY RISQUÉ NAME?

Today it received a reader comment from someone calling himself or herself or ‘they’selves ‘Republican Realism’ which I print in its entirety below.

I am keeping schtum…


(Photograph by Vlad Tchompalov via UnSplash)

Alas the only solution to this is (literal) civil war. In every country. Scorching the earth clean of, firstly, those who believe in copyright – meaning those who believe journalism, music, “design” or any form of “talk” constitutes actual productive “work” (it doesn’t). And secondly those who believe that there is any such thing as an original thought (there isn’t). And war on those who believe in such crimes against logic and reality itself as anti-“hate speech” laws, laws that conflate fiction/hypothesis with fact (not just the “cartoon porn laws” but all laws pertaining to threats and “conspiracies”) and all those who believe that their interpretations of anything anyone “communicates” (sic) invalidate the “communicator”‘s own intentions. Fact: Your feelings exist only in your own head. Therefore they don’t exist and are no-one else’s business. But this cannot be explained to people who are incapable of rational perception. They are an intractable threat to the sane, the competent, And you know what we do to intractable threats. Ownership is inherently abusive, and governance inherently destructive. Alas, governance cannot be transcended. To turn the other cheek is to be complicit.


Schtum. That’s what I am keeping.

 

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“The gendered experience of sexist humour”- New research shows how audiences react to comic Lewis Schaffer

Lewis Schaffer: creating a cult

Lewis Schaffer – a sign of the Thames

London-based American comic Lewis Schaffer puts himself about a bit… Well, he puts himself about a LOT in London. The Independent newspaper recently called him a “London institution”.

Week in/week out, he has been performing five days every week for quite a while now.

Every Monday for the last five years, he has hosted his half hour Resonance FM show Nunhead American Radio with Lewis Schaffer.

Every Tuesday and Wednesday for almost five years, he has been performing his hour-long (or longer) Lewis Schaffer is Free Until Famous show (currently at the Rancho Grill in Mayfair).

Every Thursday, he turns up to perform a spot at the Monkey Business comedy club in Kentish Town.

And, every Sunday for almost two years, he has performed his hour-long Lewis Schaffer: American in London show at the Leicester Square Theatre.

Now he seems to be cornering the market in being analysed by university students.

Liam Lonergan meets a man with answers

Liam Lonergan got First in Schaffer Studies

In February, my blog carried extracts from academic Liam Lonergan’s interview with Lewis Schaffer for his (Liam’s) BA (Hons) course in Creative and Media Writing at the University of Portsmouth

In April, Liam got a 1st for his thesis. I posted part of it.

Then, last Friday, Rose Ives got a 1st in her Sociology BA course at Goldsmiths College. She has been following Lewis around and observing audiences at his gigs for perhaps two years. Below, with her permission, is an extract from her academic piece which examines how audiences react to Lewis Schaffer’s performances.


Rose and Lewis Schaffer in Edinburgh yesterday afternoon

Rose reacts to Lewis Schaffer at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013

From the three pieces of ethnographic data I collected in the field, comparing and contrasting and thematically analysing the three methods of data collection, four key themes emerged.

AWARENESS

When watching the reactions to the six jokes selected, the women in the audience looked around at whoever they were with (this occurred in couples and non-couples) before they performed any of the gestures I had codes for on the Joke Sheet. This did not happen with the male members of the audience who mostly maintained eye contact throughout and laughed openly without looking around.

If the men did look around at other audience members it was whilst laughing or to signal an inside joke. The women looked around at other audience members with caution as though they were seeking approval. When asked about this in the ethnographic interviews, many were surprised that they had done such a thing. They did not deny that they had done it (not in the way they denied the gestures described in Denial of negative reactions) but they offered no explanation for their own actions, although some offered an almost psychological explanation for it, dissociating themselves from the action in the process.

One woman in her late twenties answered me when I asked her about why she looked around before not laughing at a joke about having sex with a transsexual: “I thought it was fucking hilarious but I’m not about to go making a fool of myself and have everyone think I’m some woman who loves dirty cock jokes.”

SEPARATING JOKE FROM COMEDIAN

Lewis Schaffer performing in London last night

Lewis Schaffer performing for no reason without his shirt on

The data from which this theme emerged were the ethnographic interviews I conducted after the show and during the intervals.

The men I spoke to, and this was across all ages and regardless of whether I interviewed them in a couple or as single, spoke about the joke and comedian as a “He” – the joke was “his joke”, their opinion on the show was “he is funny”, “he is crazy” – whilst the women at the show, again this was across all ages but particularly prevalent amongst women under 30 years old, spoke about the jokes, the material and the comedy as a whole as an “it.”

One woman who was in her early twenties and with a group of female friends of a similar age said: “It was certainly interesting. I’ve not seen much stand-up like this, it was funny. He’s sweet. (Referring to the comedian)” and this is a good representation of the shorter conversations I had as some people were eager to leave the venue after the show ended.

The men in the audience talked about the comedian as though he were a friend and therefore spoke about the jokes with forgiveness, as though it were friendly banter in the form of “Informal comedy”(Mulkay, 1988) whereas the women in interviews, many of which were couples with the men, were reluctant to engage personally with the comedian as if to do so would be condoning the sexist jokes.

Most women avoided critical engagement with the jokes when directly asked and used measured terms such as “perhaps you’re right” and “maybe it was because…” whilst the men interpreted my questions as an invitation to critique or praise the comedian in absolute terms – “He’s a pro (professional)”, “He’s a good guy” – which highlights a great contrast in the gendered experience of sexist humour.

DENIAL OF NEGATIVE REACTIONS

Lewis Schaffer on stage in London this week

Lewis Schaffer performing for no reason with his jacket on

If the Approval section was the first step in the process of reacting negatively to a joke, the second stage was the gestures that I had coded on the Joke Sheet.

When reacting to jokes concerning the comedian personally – self-deprecating jokes about the comedian’s age or appearance – the women in the audience covered their mouths whilst laughing (this is one of the symbols on the Joke Sheet) as though they didn’t want to be seen laughing at the comedian. This gesture doubled as embarrassment, especially when coupled with looking away from the stage (also a symbol on the Joke Sheet).

The most interesting aspect of the reaction patterns that came from the Joke Sheets were the explanations that followed in the ethnographic interviews.

When I repeated the jokes I saw them react negatively towards, they denied that they had reacted in such a way, brushing off any words such as “sexist”, “offensive” or “taboo” with laughter and changed the words to “dirty” or “naughty” to articulate their thoughts. This showed how they were both embarrassed and ashamed of the sexist material as well as being embarrassed and ashamed of their reaction to it. This also approves the results of the humour and context work by Gray and Ford (2012).

THE PERSONAL TOUCH

Lewis Schaffer, shoeless man

Comedian Lewis Schaffer, not performing, with his shoes off

Although the focus throughout this research has been the consumption not the production of the comedy, it would do the data an injustice not to discuss the patterns of techniques the comedian uses and their effect on how the women in the audience perform their gender roles.

As a known friend of the comedian, the main obstacle of the interview process was attempting to get the participants to stop asking me questions about Lewis Schaffer. Both men and women (although the majority were women) asked me if many of the jokes he had made about himself were true – if he really was living in a council flat, if he really was a divorcee etc.

“The ironist insincerely states something he does not mean, but through the manner of his statement, rather through its formulation or it’s delivery, or both, he is able to encode and counter proposition its real meaning, which may be interpreted by the attentive listener.” (Nash 1985:52) or, as the comedian Lewis Schaffer explained it, “All jokes are opinion with deniability. If people actually thought I had sex with a horse they wouldn’t be too happy about it. As it happens, I’m not allowed within 50ft of a stable or Camilla Parker-Bowles.”

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Stealing songs from Rodriguez. Stealing words from posh girls on a tube train.

Rodriguez last night at the Hammersmith Apollo

Rodriguez on display last night at the Hammersmith Apollo

I saw a Rodriguez concert at the Hammersmith Apollo last night. I was at the front of the Circle and, looking down on the Stalls it was, at some points during the show, as if people were holding masses of candles aloft. But they were not.

The lights were the screens of phones and cameras.

Occasionally, up in the Circle, Apollo staff would ask individuals to stop videoing the songs, but it was a forlorn and rather out-dated task.

Around ten years ago, I told a comedian he should not allow his act to be videoed by people in the audience because it would affect sales of any videos he himself might release. But that was in another world, before the widespread use of still cameras which shoot videos and mobile phones which shoot photos and videos.

You cannot change technology; you have to change WITH technology.

Especially with an act like Rodriguez, where it is less a music concert and – for people who have seen the documentary Searching For Sugar Man – more a life-enhancing experience like seeing Jesus alive on stage in Galilee.

Rodriguez being helped onto the stage last night

Rodriguez being helped onto the stage last night

Another show had been added at the last minute because this one had totally sold out. Occasionally, last night, people in the depth of the full house would shout out the single word “Rodriguez!” and occasionally “We love you!” The instrumental introductions to his most familiar songs were greeted with an eruption of clapping and whoops and semi-screams worthy of a teen rock band but, when he started singing, the Apollo fell silent.

With Rodriguez, the music is almost irrelevant. People come just to see him standing there, alive on stage: an inspirational  vision of what life can be.

Afterwards, I got a Piccadilly Line tube train back to King’s Cross station.

At the other side of the carriage, two dark-haired girls in their 20s were in an intense conversation. They were talking about their jobs but I think I am becoming a pervert or perhaps it is all that talk in the Guardian and on TV in the last couple of days about GCHQ using the NSA’s Prism surveillance material.

I turned on my iPhone recorder.

I am getting too obsessed by this blog. I need psychological counselling.

“I wanted a ginger Scottish guy,” one of the girls was saying, “but I got second best. I got an Irish guy.”

I could not quite hear every word she was saying, because it was a crowded late-Saturday-night train with standing room only. But her luck must have changed with Scotsmen because, a few seconds later, I heard:

Girls' legs across a crowded carriage in London last night

Girls’ legs across a crowded carriage in London last night

“I just loved his Scottish accent, but I didn’t understand any of what he was saying. Then I met this guy who was small. He said: Don’t get excited. I’m only Welsh. I don’t want to date anyone younger than me. I’m a young soul; I like rock n roll. If I was going to be interested then, maybe like 25-30. Maybe.”

By this time, the tube train had stopped in the tunnel and everyone around me was talking. When I listened to the iPhone recording this morning, the girl’s thoughts were a collection of random words beneath  the hubbub of multiple carriage conversations, but these are the words I could hear – exactly quoted:

“American comedians… The girl I met when I was in Borneo… They’ve bought a house together and she’s had a baby together… massive… We were Skyping loads… loads of drugs from Uni, though…”

At this point, the train’s loudspeaker broke in:

“Apologies for the delay. This is the driver speaking. We have got on the track some type of a smouldering and smoking going on. There are staff on the track. We’re trying to extinguish those smoking and hopefully we should be on the move in a few more minutes. Thankyou very much for your patience.”

“Smouldering on the track?” the girl on the other side of the carriage said, half-laughing, looking across at me. “Might be a little bit on fire.”

“Did I misunderstand that?” a man asked. “Were the staff smouldering on the track?”

The girls continued talking:

“Was it different from your last job, then?… We had a big row in Barcelona… You know what I mean? He’s got a studio in Hackney…”

If I were to be pompous which, of course, I would never dream of being, I would say last night was like life in general.

Intersecting briefly with half-glimpsed sections of other people’s lives.

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Comedy taboos + How British women react differently in comedy audiences

Lewis Schaffer on stage in London last night

Lewis Schaffer on stage in London last night

All through my adult life, I have had an irritating dry cough. My father had the same cough. Eventually, he had to have polyps on the inside of his throat scraped off. His voice was higher afterwards.

For the last week or so, though, I have had a harder, hacking cough. It happens occasionally when I pick up the tail end of other people’s colds.

Having a hard, hacking cough which occasionally drifts into uncontrollable coughing fits is not ideal if you go to see a live comedy show in a small club. But, last night, I went to London’s West End to see Lewis Schaffer’s Free Until Famous show anyway.

Instead of cough sweets, I took a packet of Werther’s Original butterscotch to suck. They are cheaper. I am a Scot who was brought up among Jews. Remember the Werther’s. They become relevant later.

Lewis Schaffer has performed Free Until Famous at the same venue at least twice a week for who knows how long? Maybe three years. He currently performs it every Tuesday and Wednesday. And now he is also performing a £10 show at the Leicester Square Theatre every Sunday.

He tells me that, bizarrely, the twice-a-week free shows do not seem to be affecting audience figures at his Leicester Square pay show. In fact, numbers at his free shows are down and numbers at his Leicester Square show were high from the start and have not dropped. The Leicester Square show was due to end on April 21st but has now been extended to July 28th.

Lewis Schaffer is also being stalked by a sociologist. He introduced her to his audience last night.

“That’s her in the front row,” he said. “She’s following me around. She got the highest grade you can get for a paper she wrote about me. She got a First. She was looking for something to write. She came to my show and she came to a lot of my shows and I thought she was just obsessed by me – it happens. I’m 56, but I’m in great shape. But she wasn’t obsessed by me; she was writing this paper.”

“What was the paper about?” I asked the girl afterwards.

“Comedy taboos,” she told me.

“Why is Lewis Schaffer a taboo?” I asked.

“Well,” she said, “I was looking at taboo material first of all and the real taboo he breaks is that he is not really a comedian. The taboo isn’t in the material, it’s in his performance. The idea that he’s performing but it looks like he doesn’t know what he’s doing. I wrote in my paper that he can say anything he wants because he tells his audiences how shit he is, so no-one really takes his comedy seriously.”

“And your sociology degree was in comedy?” I asked.

“No,” she corrected me. “This is an ethnographic study. The study of people-watching.”

“And now you’re planning to do another one?”

Laughter - according to Wikipedia

Open mouthed male laughter – demonstrated by Wikipedia

“On audience participation. I’m focussing mainly on the audience patterns: what they’re doing. I’m not looking at comedy; I’m looking at people’s interactions. Like Lewis said in tonight’s show that people cover their mouths when they laugh. I’ve noticed more women do that than men. I want to find out why that is. It’s a socially-constructed idea.”

“Women do it and men don’t?” I asked.

“Both genders do it, but women do it a hell of a lot more.”

“Is it because an open mouth is sexual in some way?” I asked.

“I think because an open mouth is unattractive,” she replied. “I wonder if it’s the same idea as covering your mouth when you yawn, because we know certain people do that and certain people don’t.”

“But,” I said, “people open their mouths when they smile, which I’ve never understood. You would think baring their teeth would be an aggressive gesture, but smiling is a friendly gesture.”

“I don’t bare mine,” she told me, “because they’re fucking awful.”

“So…” I said, “what’s the most unexpected thing you’ve found about audiences?”

“In couples,” she told me, “if it’s a man and a woman couple together, the woman will look at her partner for the approval of the laughter.”

“She’ll look before she laughs?”

“Yes. She’ll quickly just glance then start laughing. I’ve only seen this reversed in gender once.”

“What happens if it’s a gay couple?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I’ve not seen many gay couples at Lewis’ shows.”

The sociologist doesn’t want me to name her or her college in case someone steals her idea.

The legs of an anonymous sociologist in Soho

The legs of an anonymous sociologist in Soho

“Someone’s going to nick my idea; I know they are,” she told me last night.

“Well,” I said, “all the more reason you should have your name, university’s name and photo in my blog, so you can prove your idea pre-existed on a specific date.”

“No,” she told me. “You can photograph my leg instead. I don’t even want people to know I’m in a blog. I don’t have Facebook, I don’t have Twitter, I don’t have anything. I only have email, which I give to people I know. I don’t want anyone on the internet knowing anything about me unnecessarily. I think the whole thing is fucking weird. The whole idea that something about me can be seen by anyone freaks me the fuck out.”

At this point, I had a coughing fit and took a Werther’s Original.

“Have one,” I offered.

“No,” she said. “My dad’s allergic to them, so I don’t eat them.”

“Not allergic to other butterscotch? Just Werther’s?”

“Just Werther’s.”

“And you don’t eat them either?” I asked.

“If I ate those,” she said, “and I kissed my dad when I see him tomorrow, his face would swell up. He ate one when he was in his thirties. We were in the car and my mum said Have one of these to suck on. First of all his lips swelled up. Then his face swelled up and then his throat closed up. It came on over a period of about two hours.”

“Any other food problems in the family?”

“My aunt used to be so afraid of tomatoes that she would rather have seen a dead animal carcass in her fridge than a half-eaten tomato.”

“Did some traumatic event involving tomatoes happen to her when she was a kid?”

“It just built up. She used to just not eat them and then, gradually, she got more and more scared of them to the point where, if someone was eating a tomato, she would have to leave the room.”

“And she’s still afraid of tomatoes?”

“No. Because once, when she was sunbathing in the garden, lying out flat, my dad sliced up some tomatoes and put them all over her body. So, when she woke up, she was covered in slices of tomatoes. She screamed the place down and shit herself but was absolutely fine about tomatoes after that.”

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Filed under Allergy, Comedy, Health, Sociology