Tag Archives: Trumpageddon

Simon Jay’s play is not about John Lewis or John Lewis but John Lewis

The things you miss when you do not go to the Edinburgh Fringe…

This year, I missed the extraordinary Simon Jay reprising his highly-praised Trumpageddon show and a new show @JohnLewis: Never Knowingly Undertweeted. The latter is about the American academic and “computer science educator” who owns the @johnlewis Twitter handle and gets mistakenly deluged by enquiries intended for the famed chain of British department stores.

The British store chain’s slogan is Never Knowingly Undersold.

Simon Jay answering my questions

Last night, I went to see@JohnLewis: Never Knowingly Undertweeted – only on at the Drayton Arms Theatre in London until Saturday.

And, this morning, I Skyped Simon Jay for a pre-arranged chat. He overslept  and was barely conscious. 

I always find this is the best way to chat with people for blogs…


JOHN: So what did John Lewis, the American, say when you contacted him?

SIMON: He is very modest and self-deprecating. So he said: “Why would anyone write a play about me?”

JOHN: Modest and self-deprecating? Are you sure he’s an American?

SIMON: Yes. He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

JOHN: He was shocked you wanted to write a play about him?

John Lewis, confusing but not confused

SIMON: (LAUGHS) Humbled. Originally, the play was going to be much more like a Jon Ronson investigation, where I tried to get into his life and how it all came about. He gave his blessing but then said he was incredibly busy. So it turned into a sort of Joyce Grenfell character piece.

JOHN: Did he have to approve everything?

SIMON: No. I mean, I wasn’t going to take the piss. I wasn’t going to betray him. He didn’t even see the script. He said he didn’t have time to read anything, so he just took it all on trust, really. I put updates from our rehearsal on Twitter. I don’t know anything about his mother, but I portrayed her as some kind of religious zealot. I Tweeted a picture of me full-crazy and he said: “Oh! It’s uncanny!”

JOHN: When you quote him saying things in the play, are those quotes he gave you?

SIMON: Well, based on things that he said, yeah. When I interviewed him, I was only able to get a couple of lines on each question I asked him. And he did give a few interviews early on to people like the Daily Telegraph.

JOHN: Has the quirky story been picked up in the US or only in the UK?

US Congressman John Lewis

SIMON: Well, John Lewis, the store, isn’t known in America. In the US, he is confused with Congressman John Lewis.

JOHN: Who you also mention in the play.

SIMON: Yes, he gets a lot of racist abuse on Twitter intended for the Congressman, which I was going to explore. But then I thought it might be a dramatic turning point too far – from a light-hearted show about mistaken identity to the racist underbelly of the US.

JOHN: Why racist abuse?

SIMON: Because the Senator he shares a name with is a black Senator from Georgia, a civil rights campaigner who talks a lot about how racist America is. So lots of people take to Twitter to abuse him (LAUGHS) to prove how right he is!

JOHN: You talked to the John Lewis Partnership – the stores – about the play…

SIMON: Yes. They were a bit bewildered at first. But it’s very much a warm, fluffy thing; John Lewis are hardly going to be offended and sue me. And the story is not about them; it’s about mistaken identity. The fact it is about John Lewis is incidental, really.

JOHN: It’s all good, light-hearted publicity for them.

SIMON: Well, some people genuinely think it’s a conspiracy – that John Lewis have employed someone to pretend to be this man with their name!

JOHN: And the store’s reaction?

John Lewis: amused and bemused

SIMON: They just think: Oh! It’s just an amusing thing that has happened and we don’t really get involved, but we are very grateful for the fact he forwards everything on.

JOHN: He does?

SIMON: He always puts the @JLPartners tag when he answers on Twitter. (They are also @jlandpcustserv)

JOHN: In the play, you have some characters who are John Lewis staff reacting to things, sending him presents and so on.

SIMON: Well, they really did send him a hamper at Christmas and even embroidered his @JohnLewis Twitter handle into a cushion. It’s all fact. That’s all true.

JOHN: The staff in the play are slightly bitchy to each other. Did John Lewis, the store, object?

SIMON: Well, their Regional Marketing Manager came to see a preview. I think they were checking to see it wasn’t libellous. She liked it. I think she just accepted we all know characters like that.

JOHN: Any chance you might be in one of the famous traditional John Lewis Christmas ads on TV?

Never knowingly under-represented online

SIMON: Well, apparently the management did talk to the director of this year’s ad and there was some talk about that and they were looking to get the ‘real’ John Lewis involved and the way to do that was to have lots of different John Lewises in the ad and I would be one of the John Lewises. Maybe they would have had archive footage of the Congressman. But, like all these things, it was probably just an idea on a piece of paper and they will have gone with something much more outlandish.

JOHN: So whither the show now? The West End and Vegas?

SIMON: There’s a thought of taking it on tour, but I think I will have a break.

JOHN: Doing what?

SIMON: Sleeping.


(AND I ADDED THIS BIT ON 19th NOVEMBER 2018…)

Alas, Simon did not appear in the John Lewis Christmas ad on UK television but, today, The Guardian carried a story headlined MAN NAMED JOHN LEWIS STARS IN TWITTER UK’s CHRISTMAS AD. Here is the Twitter ad…

…and here is John Lewis (the department store)’s actual 2018 Christmas ad – starring Elton John…

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Edinburgh Fringe, Day 10: Why I don’t like character comedy + Donald Trump

Simon Jay in character after today’s show

“It has come a long way since you saw it in that basement room in London,” Simon Jay told me this afternoon.

I first met Simon when he staged Mr Twonkey’s play Jennifer’s Robot Arm at the Bread & Roses venue in Clapham in April 2015. But he was talking about his Donald Trump comedy show in 2016, which has now transformed into Trumpageddon and is playing to full houses at the Gilded Balloon in Edinburgh.

It cannot be easy to perform as Donald Trump – part real person, part Timothy Burton living fantasy character – in a scripted show with so much back story Simon has to know and the nightmare of up-dating as the real-life Trump bandwagon careers off in wild new directions every day. The show is, of course, scripted and some of the audience interaction can be prepared, but not all. And yesterday, the previous day’s North Korean lunacy had been incorporated into the narrative.

I tend not to like character comedy but with a caveat.

Simon Jay being made into the leader of the free world

The closer the act is to what might be a real person, the less I like it.

I spent much of my TV life finding bizarre acts and eccentric people. If I see a character act pretending to be an eccentric who could be real, I think: Why am I watching this theatre school performance of someone who is not being themselves pretending to be an interesting person when I could actually be watching the real interesting person?

The less ‘real’ and the more ‘cartoony’ the character is, the more likely I am to appreciate the act.

Charlie Chuck, for example, was/is believable to the point that people would/do ask me: Is he really like that? (No, of course he is not.) But ‘Charlie Chuck’ was/is an OTT cartoon-style character.

The interesting thing about Donald Trump and Trumpageddon is that it is an impression of a totally real person but the real Trump is pretty-much a cartoon character.

Perhaps all this is why stand-up comedy attracts me.

I am interested in people. Real people. Ideally eccentric people.

Sally Beaton – fluently funny, fascinating and real

Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award contender Cally Beaton is a not eccentric, but she is assuredly real. Her show Cally Beaton’s Super Cally Fragile Lipstick is about her autistic son (who agreed to be mentioned on stage after negotiations over a meal at Nando’s), bisexuality and things menopausal. Sounds like a tough comedy show to sell, but Cally is fluently funny, fascinating and manages to pitch herself to Edinburgh Fringe AND Radio 4 audiences. She comes across as a real person chatting to the audience. Which is what the best modern stand-up is.

On stage, modern stand-up comics tend to perform as (slightly heightened versions of) themselves.

Actors pretend to be characters totally different from themselves.

I prefer comics.

A character comedian with caveats and cravat

Which makes Milo McCabe’s show interesting, because he is performing as a character: the slightly anachronistic Terry-Thomas-ish, dressing gown and cravat-wearing Talented Mr Hawke. It sort-of could-be a real, very well-observed person from a slightly early era, but it is also (successfully) a cartoon character.

In reality, the character would be rather sleazy and unlikable. In Milo’s audience-pleasing, fleshed-out character act, he is rather loveable. The audience totally believes in the character. But Milo also cleverly – by reading letters to Mr Hawke from other people – briefly slips in two or three totally different voices which remind the audience (and demonstrate to any agents/promoters present) that they are watching a skilled comic actor who would be equally interesting in other situations.

Frank Carson: If I Didn’t Laugh, I’d Cry

As mentioned in previous blogs, Milo McCabe’s father Mike McCabe is performing at the Fringe as the late comic Frank Carson. That is another genre entirely and my brain is too sleep-deprived and befuddled to go into it.

One reason I tend to see no point in watching comic actors who are performing as fictional characters who are too close to ‘real’ people who could actually exist is that the lives of real people are always wildly more OTT than anything anyone could possibly think up.

Hello Scott Agnew.

Scott Agnew puts the aargh! into ‘explicit’

His show is titled Spunk on My Lady’s Face which is an extreme under-selling of the outrageousness of some of his stories. Scott always puts the aargh! into ‘explicit’.

Tonight he was playing to an audience of what seemed to me to be mostly straight couples and I initially thought: Oh dear, this could go ether way! But they were guffawing-away pretty much all the way through Scott’s wild, true gay stories.

It was a bit like running through the highlights of the Emperor Nero’s excesses during the most decadent days of the Roman Empire. If you think you have heard outrageously excessive stories, you ain’t heard nothing till you have sat through 55 minutes of Scott Agnew.

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Simon Jay on the inauguration thoughts of the OTHER President Donald Trump

Simon Jay - Donald Trump

Simon Jay’s show at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe

Simon was at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe

For about nine months, Simon Jay has been getting noticed for his one-man show Trumpageddon in which he riffs as the esteemed President Elect, who gets inaugurated this Friday.

“Are you doing anything to celebrate?” I asked Simon via Skype this morning.

“I’m going to go on Facebook Live,” he told me, “and, at 5.00pm (UK time), as you watch the inauguration on TV, you’ll be able to hear his thoughts streamed via Facebook Live –  as voiced by me.”

“When you first started doing Trump,” I said, “you must have thought: I want Trump to be elected President because I can get a four-year-long act out of this.”

“I was hoping he would LOSE for two reasons. One, obviously, for the good of the planet. But also because, genuinely, I think he has a very limited shelf-life as effective satire. It will become less effective.”

“Well,” I suggested, “there are three possibilities. One: he will get shot. Two: he will get impeached. Three: he might turn into a good President because you don’t want a nice, principled man as President. Jimmy Carter, apparently nice man: ineffective President. Richard Nixon, a right shit: internationally, a pretty good President.”

“I think that’s a little over-simplistic view of American politics!” laughed Simon.

“That’s my speciality,” I told him. “The trouble is Trump is not a hard, cynical politician. He’s a little schoolboy throwing tantrums and trying to bully people… So do you feel an affinity to him? How do you ‘become’ Trump?”

“Well,” Simon told me, “it’s like drag. You put on the orange make-up, put on the suit and red tie and flop the hair about.”

Simon Jay being made into Donald Trump

“It’s like drag. You put on orange make-up and flop the hair”

“You wear a wig as Trump?” I asked.

“No! It’s my own hair. Unlike him, I actually use my own hair.”

“He wears a wig?” I asked.

“It’s monkey glands,” Simon replied. “Implants, like Elton John. Trump’s hairline goes in two different directions. Half of it grows from one angle and the other half from another angle. It’s like M.C.Escher hair.”

“And his psychology?” I asked.

“He’s so easy to play,” said Simon, “because he thinks everyone loves him. No matter what happens or what I say, I will be loved – so it’s perfect. It’s a wonderful narcissistic power trip.”

“How,” I asked, “do you put yourself inside his mindset?”

“I just go blank,” explained Simon. “It’s a kind of Zen state, because he doesn’t say anything particularly. His verbal mannerisms are just so airy, it’s almost like Beat Poetry – the same couple of phrases and words over and over again. It’s not like thought, is it?”

“He really IS like a school kid stamping his feet,” I said.

“Well,” said Simon, “if you look at his childhood, he used to bite his nannies and attack them. Terrible anger issues.”

“Have you,” I asked, “watched Alec Baldwin do Trump on Saturday Night Live?”

Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump in NBC’s Saturday Night Live

Alec Baldwin in NBC’s Saturday Night Live

“Yes. It is really interesting to see Saturday Night Live go a bit further in its takedown of a politician, but it’s still nowhere near like our satire. We are a lot more horrible to our politicians. Saturday Night Live say: Oh, Trump is obsessed by money and is a bit sexist! On Spitting Image, we had Thatcher as Adolf Hitler, gassing people! They could be a bit tougher. When Tina Fey did Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live, it was still a nod and a wink and the real Sarah Palin actually appeared with her.”

“Trump has gone wrong on the PR,” I suggested, “by attacking Saturday Night Live. Politicians have to be seen to laugh with comedy digs.”

“But maybe Trump is very clever,” Simon replied. “Everyone is reporting: Look at him! He can’t even take a joke! That distracts people from the politics: Look! He’s appointed this cabinet that are going to roll-back so many things. They’re pro-life, anti-gay, racist. People are talking less about that when they’re talking about him and Alec Baldwin.”

“So,” I asked, “how do you differ from Alec Baldwin?”

“I’m nowhere near as famous!” laughed Simon, “and I have nowhere near the same influence.”

“Will you be doing 20-minute spots in comedy clubs as Trump?”

“No, because it’s not an impression; it’s a whole hour-long show. It’s a characterisation in its own surreal world. So seeing it for a few minutes would not work in the same way.”

“Is there a risk,” I asked, “that you get so typed as Trump in the next four years that Simon Jay will lose-out as a performer?”

“Yeah. I’ll do other projects. I want to go to the Edinburgh Fringe and do Trump AND something else. Everyone is advising me against doing two shows again, but I would like to.”

“So your Trump show at this year’s Fringe…?” I prompted.

Orange is the new black in the US Donald Trump Simon Jay

For voters in the USA, it seems orange really is the new black

“The Trump thing has been taken on by a proper producer now – James Seabright – so it will be more packaged and slick though it will still be the same raw, slightly unpalatable truth it was last time.”

“Any reaction so far from the man in the Trump Tower?” I asked.

“No,” said Simon. “Part of the previous show was a bit where I was molesting a rabbit and I got the audience to take pictures of it and said: Can you Tweet the pictures to me? meaning me. But some people sent them to the real Donald Trump. So he maybe has a lot of photos of me looking like him, molesting a rabbit, but I have had no complaint from him yet.”

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