Brooklyn-born comedian Lewis Schaffer has adopted Nunhead as his very own and, prior to his trip to Edinburgh Fringe, he’s been busy campaigning to save Southwark Woods

Words: Victoria Purcell

Arranging to meet a stranger in a graveyard is not standard practice when conducting an interview for the magazine. But then Lewis Schaffer and I have met once before – we met at the Dogstar, Brixton, in 2009 at a photo shoot for Living South. Then, as now, we were highlighting south London comedians heading to the Edinburgh Fringe comedy festival (we also interviewed Brixton resident Rosie Wilby and Crystal Palace’s Paul Sinha). So I figured, just this once, I’d meet a stranger in a graveyard.

But this is no ordinary graveyard. Camberwell Old and New cemeteries are at the centre of the Save Southwark Woods campaign. Lewis – a Brooklyn-born comedian who lives in Nunhead – has been giving the issue a good airing on his Resonance FM radio show, Nunhead American Radio with Lewis Schaffer.

We meet at the gates of Camberwell Old Cemetery, on a beautifully sunny June day, and wander around the perfectly manicured, formal Victorian graves, before swerving off the path and into the lush, green, overgrown woodlands that have grown up around the old headstones. A dirt track disappears into the distance, but we veer off it into the undergrowth, where huge oak trees, bushes and long grasses create a jungle-like oasis of complete stillness.

‘We’ve got more than 8,000 signatures [on the petition to Save Southwark Woods]. People say that’s a lot but it doesn’t seem a lot to me, for this, it’s just so spectacular. We’ve been here for 15 minutes and we’ve not seen a single person – in the midst of London!’

Camberwell Old and New cemeteries are full, so Southwark Council is looking to develop the woodlands to create 4,800 new burial plots. A straightforward solution, it seems, but this would involve chopping down hundreds of trees and displacing wildlife. Save Southwark Woods proposes that the council invests in land at Kemnal Park cemetery in Bromley instead and declares Southwark Woods a Memorial Park Nature Reserve.

‘I think the old way of thinking was to have Victorian gardens with everything manicured and neat rows of graves,’ says Lewis. ‘But I think people today want to be able to say to their kids, go into the woods and get lost, I’ll see you in 15 years… I mean 15 minutes!’ he laughs.

And herein lies the nature of the comic. The jokes are never far away, but he’s clearly passionate about the cause.

It takes me quite some time to steer him back to the real reason I wanted to speak to him – Edinburgh Fringe. Lewis is taking his show, Free Until Famous – London’s longest running free stand-up show – to the world’s most famous comedy festival this year. Controversially, he’s charging a fiver to see it. Does this mean that he’s famous now?

‘I’ve just entered the Least Famous category of the Famous Comedians,’ he says. ‘You have the Most Famous of the Most Famous, like Michael McIntyre, then you have the Most Famous of the Least Famous, like Daniel Kitson and Stewart Lee. I’m right at the bottom of that, I think. The next category is Complete Nobodies. I could be at the top of the Complete Nobody category, but the most well-known of the Complete Nobodies. The Least Biggest Loser.’

I caught his Sunday evening show, Lewis Schaffer: International Man of Mystery at the Museum of Comedy in Holborn, and the vulnerability, self-deprecation and sense of complete failure is what his act pivots around. Not that he’d call it an ‘act’ – it’s pretty free-fall stuff: ‘Was that horrible? Should I start again?’ He asks at one point.

But this charitable comedian isn’t short of accolades, even if he isn’t really famous. He won the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award in 2009 for the best Edinburgh Fringe publicity stunt when he announced that he would be the new sponsor of the Perrier awards. And in 2010, he was nominated for the Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality.


Lewis Schaffer (photo by Robert Timothy)

‘Sometimes I think I’m really happening. Do you think I’m happening? I’m on tour, I’ve got a regular show in London, I’ve got a radio show, I’m going to Edinburgh, I’ve got kids…’. He’s also the face of Save Southwark Woods and has reintroduced the ancient English tradition of Beating the Bounds to Nunhead. I’d say he’s pretty happening.

See Free until Famous at Edinburgh Fringe from 6-30 August. Tickets £5 from edfringe.com

Catching up with Rosie Wilby & Paul Sinha

Rosie Wilby
Since we last spoke, the former Peckham, now Brixton, resident has also toured three solo shows (How (not) to make it in Britpop, Is Monogamy Dead and Nineties Woman), written a memoir, and regularly presents Resonance FMs LGBT show Out In South London. She returns to Edinburgh with her revamped The Science of Sex show at Sneaky Pete’s, Cowgate from 8-15 August. Free.

Paul Sinha
The Crystal Palace comic was heading up to Edinburgh with 39 years of Solitude last time we spoke. This year marks his first trip to Edinburgh since 2011, and has since written and performed a number of shows for Radio 4 and has toured the UK with Paul Sinha is a Stand-up Comedian. His new Edinburgh show, Postcards from the Z List, is at The Stand Comedy Club from 7-30 August. Tickets £10.