Great British Memories (Notes from a Return Home) #5
YOU KNOW WHAT’S FUNNY? COMEDY
On my last night in London this March, the only one of just six that hadn’t been planned way in advance, I wanted to do something different. Be like a tourist, perhaps. Daytime appointments had me in the West End, so I asked my friend Jeni to peruse her computer at work and see what options she could find in W1. She came back with a pronounced case of Coals to Newcastle: Lewis Schaffer, a New York comedian. It was too intriguing to turn down, especially once we discovered his show at the Source Below, on Lower John Street in the heart of Soho, was free – or, as he puts it on his handbill, Lewis Schaffer is Free Until Famous. In fact, Schaffer is currently so unfamous (as opposed to infamous) that he greeted us at the door – Jeni and myself, and iJamming! Pub regular Po1ntman – with a clipboard holding a list of expected guests; he appeared astonished that anyone should show up on just a whim.
Schaffer, it turns out, is an exiled American living in London (or Nunhead, if that counts). His status allows him to poke constant fun at the British – “you’ve had the same weather for millions of years, yet you still moan about it every day,” – yet he’s smart enough to put down his home country just as frequently, lest the hecklers (and there’s always one) seize on their inherent (and, frankly, tiresome) anti-Americanism. He was also smart enough to place a couple of American visitors right in front of him for moral support.
At various times across a lengthy set, Schaffer claimed to be married, divorced, and gay, over 50, a failure, a professional, a Jew, and a joke. He was at his funniest when relentless harboring on about his inherited countrymen, and especially the women, whose permissiveness he wryly parodied right down to the way they hold their drinks and cigarettes. I made note of his comment that “English girls smile like they’re gay German Nazis,” though I can’t remember if it was connected to his running gag on the rivalry between England and Germany, which means that anything the Germans do, the English most certainly do not. For example: “the Germans practice penalties…”
It’s a cheap shot perhaps, but a good one for an American to endear himself with, and no cheaper than taking the piss out of the British getting pissed. In a downstairs bar, early on a Wednesday night in March, where people were drinking heavily for what was largely the familiarity of it, you couldn’t really argue with the observation that, “English people only eat to maintain their weight for drinking.” Being a foreigner also allowed him to get away with pontificating on the “C” Word, but not with telling a seriously bad-taste Holocaust joke. As you can see from my YouTube video, (sorry for the fact it’s sideways, I have no idea how to correct that), the audience of politically correct Londoners audibly winced at the idea of Holocaust humor. The fact that Schaffer, as a loud New York Jew, follows the first rule of comedy – nothing is sacred, especially where it concerns your own creed – appeared to have passed over their heads.
But then Schaffer was not always funny; like any good comedian, there were moments where he seemed more intent on alienating us than entertaining us. To that end, I’d go along with Time Out (New York)’s observation that “he can insult you and love you in the same sentence,” and highly recommend him. Schaffer also has a show on Resonance FM, London’s “arts” radio station. I have a feeling he’d like it to be along the lines of Ricky Gervais’ Podcasts, but let’s be fair: his side-kick Chris Dixon may have taken Schaffer along to Selhurst Park to turn him on to the Palace, but he’s no Karl Pilkington. You can listen to Schaffer’s Resonance show here – but you’re better off going to catch him at the Source Below, on any number of nights where he typically performs twice. The show, in case you need reminding, is Free. At least until he’s famous. You can tip Schaffer on the way out.
On a not dis-similar note, at the start of my trip I’d enjoyed the company of my old Apocalypse band-mate Kevin Bagnall. Kevin, a South Londoner who has lived in Manchester more or less as long as I’ve lived in the States, has recently embarked on his own secondary career as a stand-up comic, under the name AFC Baggy. Like Lewis Schaffer, much of his material is based on his status – in his case, as an exiled cockney in the north. When we met up and he shared a few of his gags, I laughed out of what I thought might have been a sense of duty. But when he sent me an MP3 of a recent 15-minute set, I found myself laughing out loud uncontrollably. I especially loved the following, which is worthy of Steven Wright: “My dad’s a man of few words. He used to say to me, ‘Son’…”