Cult comedian Lewis Schaffer is currently performing to audiences around the country – and charging absolutely nothing for the privilege.
Jay Richardson caught up with the thoroughly unconventional American to discover the method in the madness, his love of gigs that teeter on the edge of disaster, and why he considers himself a “true alternative comedian”.
“Sometimes I think I’m a comedy fucking genius,” Lewis Schaffer suggests, with momentary lack of qualm. “But most of the time, I don’t think that.”
Described as ‘the logical conclusion of all stand-up comedy’ by Daniel Kitson, the fatalistic 58-year-old is a performer without peer.
Certainly, no other comedian is currently performing to audiences of hundreds in theatres and arts centres for free.
“Sometimes I’m getting a lot of people and other times I’m not getting anybody,” he clarifies of his Free Until Famous tour. An extraordinary extension of his marathon ongoing London residencies and Edinburgh Fringe runs, stretching to December and perhaps beyond, punters hand over what they reckon the show is worth at the end, and the venues pocket the bar take.
If Schaffer can’t always coax you to laughter, he can at least drive you to drink.
A brash, wheedling “New York Jew … [which] gives a level of confidence to the audience I undermine”, he’s reliably mercurial, displaying quicksilver wit one second, finding the laughs elusive and poisoning the mood the next.
Some of his jokes he’s told for more than two decades, but perversely, he tells them slightly differently on any given night.
“People have said what I do is like jazz. But that sounds really pretentious. And I hate jazz.”
An insult comic with chronic insecurity then, Schaffer’s “desperate” vulnerability – “doing this so long and nothing, sitting here waiting for someone to call me and put me on TV” – prompts him to liken himself to the Black Knight in Monty Python and The Holy Grail.
“Arms and legs cut off but still fighting, still insulting.”
Ironically, his self-destructive instinct would mean that you couldn’t take your eyes off him if he ever appeared on the slick, sanitised Live At The Apollo, presumably after every other UK comic had perished in a nuclear apocalypse. With the contrariness of someone who outwardly pursues fame but worries about publicising free shows lest they’re commercialised, his gigs evoke a strong sensation of Stockholm Syndrome.
Arguing that people increasingly share fewer communal experiences and cultural touchstones, he personally introduces himself to audience members at the door and returns to individuals throughout the show.
“I want them to see they’re dealing with a human being,” he explains. “I’m trying to see who my enemy is. I’m trying to get them to like me beforehand. I’m shaking their hands, letting them know that it’s going to be personal. ‘Don’t fuck me up’.
“It’s almost like a hostage situation. And they all know the hostage taker. So for an hour and a half they’re experiencing something together, even if it’s just making fun of the hostage taker.”
Despite the modest expectations that can accompany a free show, Schaffer argues that the crowd has still invested time.
“They’ve made the effort to come and they think, ‘we have to stay, we can’t leave’,” he reasons. “And at the end there’s invariably relief as they realise: ‘well, this wasn’t as bad as we thought it was going to be. We kind of enjoyed it.'”
His own reward doesn’t come from delivering straightforwardly enjoyable comedy. Rather, it’s the exhilaration of finding himself dying but managing to rescue the situation.
“That feeling that I’ve not been funny for so long, I’m not going to walk out of here alive.
“I like to feel the plane rumbling. The audience wants to feel the plane rumbling, to feel like ‘oh my God, we’re going to crash’.
“Most comedians don’t want dips. But that’s boring. With me, the risk is real. Which is more than stand-up comedy. But not quite art. My shows are reckless, they’re chancy. They can go wrong and die a completely horrible death. Or they can go wrong and just be funny. That’s what makes me a truly alternative comedian.”
He says his unlikely take on touring wouldn’t work for most comedians:
“Because it won’t work for anybody really. Most comedians aren’t interesting enough to pull this off. Is that horrible to say? Because if you’re funny enough to hold an audience for an hour and a half at a high level, why would you give it away? This is killing me.
“The dream, which I’ll probably never accomplish, is to achieve that with artifice, produce some kind of work that is planned, scripted and calibrated, that has the same consistent effect as what I’m occasionally managing now.”
Ever since he started doing stand-up in New York more than 20 years ago, sharing stages with the likes of Louis CK and Dave Chappelle, Schaffer has struggled with the “duplicatability” that a successful stand-up career demands. A polished, consistent short set that would gain him slots on television.
“I don’t want to do that five minutes. And that’s bad for business.”
So it’s with Schafferian inconsistency that after six years of performing free shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, this year he’s charging £5 entry. He wants to try something different and “a nicer room”. But he’s already experiencing doubt about abandoning the free approach that has made him such a cult.
“I think there are certain people that love me,” he reflects. “But will they pay to see me? Will they queue around the block?”
Analysing just what exactly he’s doing on stage seems doomed to failure, not least because of Schaffer’s compelling but maddening contradictions and an abiding feeling that it’s better not to probe too deeply. Equivocal about being the subject of several academic studies and a short documentary, he sighs:
“I think I’m onto something. Maybe I’m doing something that’s so different and radical…maybe not, I don’t know.
“I think some really intelligent people enjoy seeing me crumble because they know that my shows are interesting. It’s: ‘Let’s see how Lewis Schaffer gets out of this one!’ Most comedians might put themselves in that position for one joke. But you won’t ever see them on their knees, pleading with an audience not to leave.”
Still, he retains a belief that everything is going to be alright.
“I didn’t always. That comes from doing this hundreds and hundreds of times. No-one’s had as many bad shows as I’ve had bad shows. And I’m still standing.
“I realise that, you know what, I love bad shows. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.”
Lewis Schaffer is touring the UK now, and throughout the year. Find shows near you on his official site
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