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Lewis Schaffer sees Jackie Mason and explains to me what a Jewish comic is

Jackie Mason show flyer

The Jackie Mason flyer for his London shows

Last night, London-based American Jewish comedian Lewis Schaffer and I went to see legendary American Jewish comedian Jackie Mason at the Adelphi Theatre in London – allegedly his last ever London appearances.

Afterwards, we went to Kentish Town for his regular Thursday night gig at the Monkey Business Comedy Club. Lewis Schaffer’s regular Thursday night gig; not Jackie Mason’s.

At the Adelphi Theatre, the flyer had trumpeted: ALL NEW MATERIAL!

Lewis Schaffer had recognised a Ronald Reagan/Iran Contra joke from the 1980s which Jackie Mason had changed into a Sepp Blatter/FIFA joke for this week.

“That was smart of him to do,” said Lewis Schaffer.

“But then,” I said, “people don’t necessarily go to a Jackie Mason show for new jokes.”

“Yes,” said Lewis Schaffer. “It’s like that old story about the dog. It’s not that the dog can talk well. It’s that he can talk at all. The fact Jackie Mason can do 45 minutes, then a break, then 40 minutes and never for a minute did you think: Oh my, he’s forgotten his act… I mean, I’m 58 years old and I have moments of panic when I think: Shit! what the fuck do I say next? He’s 83 – a full 25 years older than I am.”

“I think,” I said, “he thought he was being more outrageous than he was. He apologised for bad-mouthing Starbucks!”

“I don’t think he thought he was outrageous.” said Lewis Schaffer. “I think that’s just part of his act.”

“His style was slightly similar to yours,” I suggested.

“People have said there’s a similarity between us. But it’s the same thing with Woody Allen. We’re all of a type. There’s a certain tone.”

“I saw some old-style Borscht Belt comedian at Soho Theatre,” I said. “I have never really thought of you as a ‘Jewish’ comedian but, when I saw this guy, I thought: That style, that delivery – pure New York Jewish – it’s pure Lewis Schaffer.

“Well, basically, what a Jewish comedian is…” said Lewis Schaffer, “is that the insult comes at the end after you butter somebody up – as opposed to insulting them at the beginning.”

“Do non-Jewish comedians do that?” I asked.

“Ma-a-y-y-b-e,” replied Lewis Schaffer cautiously. “Was that funny?”

“I’m surprised Jackie Mason didn’t mention you,” I joked.

“Maybe he didn’t know I was there.” laughed Lewis Schaffer. “They’ve forgotten about me in America. Not that they ever knew I was there…

“I thought to myself when I was watching Jackie Mason tonight: Maybe I can take his act when he dies. There were a couple of good jokes in there about being older. I’m getting old. I’ve already talked to Robin Ince and Robin Ince says I can have his followers, his fans, though there was some question about the fact they might not like me.”

“Robin Ince,” I said, “is not happy about the PBH fiasco at the Edinburgh Fringe.”

“He’s lovely and loyal to PBH,” said Lewis Schaffer. “I don’t think he fully understands the severity of what’s been going on.”

“You are,” I prompted, “charging £5 for your Fringe show this year…”

A rare sight last night - Lewis Schaffer writing material

A rare sight last night – Lewis Schaffer writing material (on his way to Monkey Business gig)

“I’m charging £5,” agreed Lewis Schaffer.

“Is the show,” I asked, “still called Free Until Famous?

“Yes; Free Until Famous: £5.”

“You’ll get arrested under the Trade Descriptions Act,” I said.

“It says it right there; Free Until Famous: £5… It doesn’t say that the entry is free. It says I am free.”

“How?” I asked. “Free to roam the grasslands like a gazelle?”

“I’m free most weekends,” said Lewis Schaffer. “I’m free to do other gigs.”

“That’s your good luck in not having a PBH Free Fringe contract,” I replied.

“I’m free most days,” continued Lewis Schaffer. “The Edinburgh show is just an extension of my Free Until Famous tour.”

“This is the tour you are not telling anyone about?” I asked.

“No. I’m not telling anyone. 45 dates. It’s the most amazing thing that has ever been done. I am really proud of myself. On the other hand, I’ve been doing bugger all work in the last six months.”

“But,” I said, “you’re doing a 45-gig tour, your weekly radio show and at least two weekly London gigs – a full show at the Leicester Square Theatre every week and weekly stuff at Monkey Business.”

“I feel,” said Lewis Schaffer, “I should be getting more gigs. That’s how you get successful. It’s not just about doing the gigs but getting the gigs. I’m the hardest-working failure in the comedy business. I’m not doing my weekly shows at the Leicester Square Theatre any more. They’re at the Museum of Comedy.  It’s a much better room. It doesn’t have any pillars blocking the view, so now I can see the empty chairs. The Museum of Comedy is perfect for me because I’m getting old, though I’m not as old as Jackie Mason.

“Jackie Mason is charging £51-£86 for tickets. The reason I’m charging £5 at the Edinburgh Fringe, not doing it for free, is I want to weed out the people who are not insane. My target audience is people who are a bit loopy who will like what I do. Do you think that’s true? I don’t know. I just said it right now. Is it true? Is it funny? The reason I’m charging £5 is because I was just fed up with people walking in and wandering out of my free shows.”

Lewis schaffer performing at Monkey business last night

Lewis Schaffer performing at Monkey Business

“They don’t wander out,” I said. “Well… occasionally someone walks out if you tell a joke about Madeleine McCann or the Holocaust. You may get someone walk out because you’ve offended them, but no-one ever wanders out due to tedium.”

“They don’t wander out,” said Lewis Schaffer, “because they’re intimidated. But they don’t feel committed. That’s the trouble with free shows. My audience is not committed.”

“I suspect some of your audiences have been or will be,” I said.

“They just wander in to see what’s going on,” moped Lewis Schaffer. “I want to be respected. I feel like I’m that character in the Woody Allen movie Broadway Danny Rose, where he wants to be respected as a comedian. I want to be respected and I think it’s a huge mistake I have made to charge £5, because I think no-one is going to come and see me.”

Welcome to the world of Lewis Schaffer, comedian, where every silver lining has a cloud.

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“No, I was not bounced on Bernard Manning’s knee,” says UK performer

Matt Roper with his dad George Roper

Matt Roper (left) with his dad George Roper

You have no idea how I and other people suffer for this blog.

At the moment, I have comedy performer Matt Roper staying in my spare bedroom for the next four weeks. Well, he may emerge occasionally. Matt performs as comedy singing character Wilfredo. His father was stand-up comedian George Roper, who rose to fame on Granada TV’s stand-up series The Comedians in the 1960s, along with Bernard Manning, Frank Carson and others.

“I don’t have a blog today,” I told Matt this afternoon. “You’ll have to give me one. I always tell people that, as a boy, you were bounced on Bernard Manning’s knee and you say you weren’t. There must be a blog in that.”

“I was bounced on Cilla Black’s knee,” said Matt.

“In blog terms,” I said, “Cilla Black is not as sexy as Bernard Manning.”

“We are not talking about Bernard Manning,” said Matt.

“Why,” I asked, “don’t you want to be associated with Manning?”

“It’s just that I didn’t know him that well. I might as well be associated with Hermann Goering.”

“Well, you are,” I said.

Matt introduced me to Hermann Goering’s great-niece for a blog last year.

Les Dawson: not to be confused with Bernard Manning

Les Dawson shared knee-bouncing with Cilla Black?

“Bernard Manning,” I persisted, “kept coming round for Sunday lunch, didn’t he?”

“No,” said Matt. “Les Dawson used to come round for Sunday lunch sometimes.”

“Did he bounce you on his knee?” I asked hopefully.

Matt did not answer.

“There’s a picture of me sitting on Cilla’s knee,” said Matt, “but she might not like me letting you put it online. She’s in a swimming costume. This is not interesting, John.”

“It is,” I insisted. “I WAS NOT BOUNCED ON BERNARD MANNING’S KNEE is the headline, then we talk about something completely different.”

“OK,” said Matt. “But I think Louis Armstrong kissing Molly Parkin is far more interesting.”

“Where did he kiss her?” I asked.

“Do you mean…” Matt started to ask.

“I mean whatever you think I mean,” I said.

“You’ve always got Johnnie Hamp as a blog,” suggested Matt about the legendary Granada TV producer.

“He’s very interesting,” I said, “but he’s up in Cheshire.”

TV producer Johnnie Hamp with The Beatles at their height

TV producer Johnnie Hamp with The Beatles at their height

“Next year,” persisted Matt, “it’s the 50th anniversary of a TV show he produced called The Music of Lennon & McCartney. Brian Epstein (The Beatles’ manager) was very loyal. Not the best businessman, but a very loyal man to people who had given him a helping hand.

“By 1965, The Beatles didn’t really need to do a Granada TV show but Johnnie had been one of the first people to put The Beatles on TV in a regional Granada show Scene at 6.30. It’s on YouTube.

“In 1965, Johnnie had this idea The Music of Lennon & McCartney and there was this huge spectacular in Studio One at Granada TV and he flew people in – Henry Mancini played If I Fell on the piano; Ella Fitzgerald;  Cilla was on it; Peter Sellers reciting A Hard Day’s Night as Richard III. That’s on YouTube.”

“What were Cilla’s knees like?” I asked.

Matt ignored me.

“Johnnie Hamp,” he continued, “brought Woody Allen over to do a TV special – it’s the 50th anniversary of that next year, too. It’s the only television special Woody Allen ever did. Just for Johnnie Hamp at Granada. There’s a clip on YouTube.

“Johnnie told me recently: Back in those days, we didn’t care about ratings; creativity was more important. I mean, The Comedians was interesting because, today, no-one would take a chance on giving twelve unknown comics a primetime TV series.”

“That,” I said, “was why Sidney Bernstein (who owned Granada) was a great man.”

“Was it him or his brother who had a wooden leg?” asked Matt.

“That was Denis Forman,” I said. “It might have been metal.”

“I’ve got a Beatles-related story you could end your blog with,” said Matt.

“Just tell me what Cilla Black’s knees were like,” I told him.

“My dad,” said Matt, ignoring me, “told a story of when all the Beatles’ brothers and uncles in Liverpool – all the men of the family – heard that The Beatles were smoking drugs. What’s all this? they went. They took the train down from Lime Street to Euston to sort the fookin’ whatever’s going on owt. We’ll sort this fookin’ droogs thing owt.

“And the story goes that, three days later, they all got off the train back in Liverpool Lime Street saying: Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it… Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

“I’d better take a photo of you,” I said, “for the blog.”

“Not if you’re going to go on and on about Bernard Manning,” said Matt.

Matt Roper refused to be photographed for this piece

Matt Roper refused to be photographed for this piece

 

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Filed under 1960s, Comedy, Humor, Humour, Music

How Bernard Manning was almost cast in a classic British children’s story…

Comedian and actor Matt Roper is going to the Edinburgh Fringe in August and should have a baptism of fire, as he is performing in two separate productions – as his comedy character Wlfredo in Wilfredo – Erecto! at the Underbelly and as a Satanic and sometimes singing spin doctor in the satire Lucifer: My Part in the New Labour Project (And How I Invented Coalition Government)at The Phoenix.

Matt is the son of George Roper, one of The Comedians in what was at the time the startlingly original and cutting-edge 1970s ITV series which introduced the British Isles to the ‘old school’ likes of Bernard Manning, Frank Carson, Stan Boardman and Jim Bowen.

I went with Matt to Soho last night to see London-based New York comic Lewis Schaffer‘s extraordinary on-going thrice-a-week Free Until Famous show. It was Matt’s third visit. I go to see the show maybe once every month – as Lewis Schaffer says, it is “never the same show twice”.

Matt, though every inch a ‘new-school’ comedian, grew up hanging round the old school comics as a kid.

Granada TV producer Johnnie Hamp was a seminal figure in British comedy of the time – he is also credited with putting The Beatles on TV for the first time. But I did not know until Matt told me last night that Johnnie had also put a young Woody Allen on British TV screens for the first time.

The most surprising story Matt had, though, was that his dad George Roper and Bernard Manning were originally considered for the parts of Tweedledum and Tweedledee in the mega-all-star 1972 movie version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

At the time of the casting read-through in London, George Roper was starring nightly on stage at the Palace Theatre, Manchester. On the day of the read-through, train hold-ups in the North West of England delayed him to such an extent that getting down to London and back up again in time for his appearance on stage in Manchester was going to prove impossible, so he had to cancel his trip.

The ever-exuberant and straight-talking Bernard Manning did make it down to the session, though, striding brashly into the room where Dame Flora Robson, Sir Ralph Richardson, Sir Robert Helpmann, Dennis Price, Peter Bull and other creme de la creme of up-market British theatrical nobility was holding court.

With an outspoken fucking this and a What the fucking hell is that? and a right old fucking load of old fucking bollocks, Bernard soon made his presence felt and…

as a result, neither Bernard Manning nor George Roper were cast in the film.

The parts of Tweedledum and Tweedledee went to the Cox Twins

I can’t help feeling that Bernard Manning and George Roper would have been a casting made in  movie comedy heaven.

_____

More Matt stories Here.

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The funniest British TV sitcoms are actually tragedies and the latest one is neither British nor a sitcom

(This blog later appeared on Chortlethe UK comedy industry website)

Last night, I caught bits-and-pieces of a documentary on the making of the classic and still funny BBC TV series ‘Allo ‘Allo – one of the wonderful ensemble sitcoms produced by David Croft – Are You Being Served?, Dad’s Army, Hi-de-Hi!, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum et al.

One night last year, I sat through an entire evening of BBC3 comedy – four programmes – without a single smile. I think the main problem – especially with sitcoms – is that the writers think the object is to write funny lines for funny characters in inherently comic situations.

But, with the exception of David Croft’s various series, I think the classic British sitcoms are almost all, at heart, tragedies. They are centred on unfunny characters in tragic situations.

From Hancock’s Half Hour through to One Foot in the Grave, the central sitcom characters are not funny people. And the situations are not funny.

The Tony Hancock character is a pompous, insecure, humourless and self-obsessed prat – you wouldn’t want to be stuck in a lift with him. But the series are very funny.

The situation in Steptoe and Son is that both flawed characters are trapped by their suffocating relationship. The (again slightly pompous) son wants to escape to a wider, more exciting world but is trapped by a sad old father terrified of losing his son and being alone.

Till Death Us Do Part featured another suffocating relationship where a racial bigot, bitter at life in a modern world he hates and his long-suffering wife are trapped by poverty with their daughter and loud-mouthed, know-it-all son-in-law in a claustrophobic circle of constant arguments and ego-battles. It’s a near definitive situation of personal hell.

In One Foot in the Grave, a bitter, grumpy old man and his wife are trapped in a childless and almost entirely loveless relationship but have been together so long they have no alternatives left. In one masterful episode, they are in bed in the dark throughout; the camera never leaves the room; it transpires at the end that they once had a child who died – hardly the stuff of cliché, knockabout comedy.

Only Fools and Horses is slightly funnier in its situation and in the way it plays, but still features a rather sad and insecure loser at its heart in what, in reality, would be an unfunny situation.

Even The Office (much over-rated) has an unsympathetic and again very insecure central character you would hate to work for or with.

The American, partly Jewish vaudeville-based tradition of TV sitcoms is to have a high laugh-per-speech count written by large teams of gag writers.

The classic British sitcoms which have lasted the test of time are written by single writers or a pair of writers and, ignoring David Croft’s shows (almost a genre in their own right), they tend to have what would in reality be unsympathetic central characters in tragic situations.

Ironically, the most consistently funny situation comedy currently screening on British television is neither a sitcom nor British. At the time of writing, episodes from three different series of the American show are being screened on three different British channels every week – by ITV1 before lunchtime on Saturdays, by ITV3 on Thursday evenings and it is stripped at breakfast time on Quest.

Monk is, in theory, a US detective/police procedural series about a sad and lonely former detective with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, without friends, unable to function in the everyday world and unable to get over the murder of his wife several years ago. Almost every episode has tear-jerking pathos and almost every episode is more genuinely funny than any number of current British sitcoms where the writers are wrongly attempting to put funny lines in the mouths of inherently funny characters dropped into funny situations.

Although it is clearly NOT a comedy series – it is clearly a detective/mystery/police procedural series – over the years it ran (2002-2009) it won three Emmys and had thirteen other nominations in the Comedy Series category.

If you want to know how to write a sitcom, watch Monk.

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More Third Reich than Lord Reith

This morning was the first time I’d been inside the new and/or still-being-rebuilt BBC Broadcasting House in London. It appears to have an interior colour scheme of red, black and white. Very clean and trendy, though those three colours feel unsettlingly more Third Reich than Lord Reith. It was also slightly unsettling to see a notice at the entrance of the Radio Theatre declaring:

PLEASE NOTE. Strobe lighting and smoke effects are used in this theatre.

I know I’m knocking on a bit and the various media are allegedly rapidly converging, but this seemed going a little far for BBC Radio, even by the surreal standards of the late Director Fuhrer John Birt. Strobe lighting and smoke effects?

I was at the the BBC Radio Theatre to see the recording of a debate entitled on the info sheet I Love…? but listed on the BBC website as The Greatest City on Earth. Basically a set-to on whether London, New York, Mumbai or Istanbul is the best city. No mention of Edinburgh, then?

Professor Laurie Taylor chaired a surprisingly feisty debate which included Jake Arnott, writer of the superb semi-fiction crime books The Long Firm (filmed by the BBC) and He Kills Coppers (filmed by ITV)… and the always surprising American comedian Lewis Schaffer of whom more in the weeks to come.

Watching Lewis is often a rollercoaster ride. He’s more self-destructive than a shower of lemmings and many are the comedy cliffs I have seen him plunge over. He is Bill Bryson with attitude or Woody Allen on acid. But always charming and I am always surprised by his ability to ad-lib well-thought-out punchlines. A natural for factual-based TV and radio shows. Let’s just hope he figures out what his Edinburgh Fringe show is going to be about before August. He has been doing try-outs for it twice weekly in Soho since (I think) last November. He is a potentially great comedian who is already worth the price of admission. Certainly worth tuning in to hear The Greatest City on Earth – Radio 4 next Monday morning, 12th July, at 09.00, with a shortened version broadcast on Radio 4 at 21.30 that same evening.

As far as I am aware, there will be no strobe lighting and no smoke effects during the broadcasts.

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