The word 'phenomenon' is bandied about with curious abandon these days, given that it's so hard to say, and usually in regards to some fly-by-night young sportsperson or entertainer. You want a genuine phenom? You want Lynn Ruth Miller.
Not only is the Ohio-born octogenarian "the oldest performing stand-up female comedian on both sides of the Atlantic," according to her website, but she only began when most people have already retired, and does it in some far-flung locations.
Lynn Ruth is "currently based in London but I schedule frequent tours throughout Europe, mainly Germany, Ireland and The Netherlands - and Southeast Asia," she says. "I am currently in China and will be in Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia later in the year."
Yep, she's mailing us from Shanghai, but will be back in the UK on November 5th for Pope's Addiction Clinic - which is always good for a few fireworks. It's an increasingly popular night where comedians open up about their obsessive predilections: a bit like an AA meeting, but public and potentially about anything.
Miller will be opening up to Brendon Burns, Trevor Lock, Grainne Maguire, Mae Martin and Davina Bentley - some juicy histories in that line-up. And if you can't make that, there's another on November 27, with Jordan Brookes and Thanyia Moore among those comedy-confessing.
Now, let's pop over to Frisco, 14 years ago.
April 2004 at Cobb's Comedy Club in San Francisco. It was part of the composite performance of graduates of the San Francisco Comedy College. The other performers were in their late teens and very early twenties so I had a huge advantage. I was 70 years old. It was a full house because we all brought our friends. I was a huge success to my complete surprise. I can still recall how amazed I was at the laughter and how intoxicating it was. After all, I was 70 years old and had never performed on a stage alone before.
Favourite show, ever?
I truly love them all. Perhaps the best one was not a gig at all. I was telling jokes to the husband of a woman in a coma right after a storytelling gig at an old-age home, and after several jokes, the woman started to laugh. It was the first sound she had made in over a week and it showed me that laughter is indeed a powerful medicine.
It was in Palo Alto California to a group of male PHD candidates and I had decided to do my classic strip number. I got all tangled in the microphone wire while I was singing and trying to remove my clothes, and the silence was actually deafening. The worst part was trying to untangle myself and exit as gracefully as I could. It's a shame the #metoo movement wasn't going on. I could have accused those men of severe emotional abuse.
The weirdest live experience?
At Harbin Hot Springs in Northern California. Nudity is optional there and most of the performers and the audience were in the altogether. I have led a very sheltered life. I have never even seen myself naked before and all those bare bodies were an immense shock to my aesthetic sense. Those statues of Venus or Apollo are nothing like the real thing.
All that hair!!!
It was very difficult to concentrate on delivering a punchline when I was seeing what to me was living pornography. I kept trying to concentrate on the audience's FACES but I assure you, it wasn't easy. That was when I learned that true beauty is REALLY in the eyes of the beholder.
Who's the most disagreeable person you've come across in the business?
It was a booker named Stephen back in 2004 whose last name escapes me (lucky for him). He courted me and wanted to represent me. He got me a couple bookings and I did not get the laughs he expected (Nor did anyone that night).
The final time I had to work for him was in a golf club in Essex where all of us bombed; but when I got up to the stage it felt like everyone was asleep during the whole agonizing 30 minutes. At the end of the set, a lone woman came up to me, hugged me and told me what a huge inspiration I was. I said, "Thank you so much, but why didn't you wake up the others at your table?"
To make matters worse, I never got the full amount he promised to pay me because I am very polite and never count the cash when they hand it to me. When I got home the pay was £20-£30 short each time.
He later had a nervous breakdown which was totally deserved.
Is there one routine/gag you loved, that audiences inexplicably didn't?
It is a new one that no-one laughs at and I think is such an important observation. It goes like this: "Why is my vagina such a filthy word? 'Cunt'. It doesn't force itself in places where it isn't wanted. It doesn't give you a golden shower. And it isn't a status symbol..."
To get the laugh I go on: "That is why old men have such big tummies... so they cannot see that they have nothing to be proud of anymore." However, that first statement is such a powerful one to me... and is a question that still doesn't have a satisfactory answer.
Would you say it's better to start stand-up later in life?
Stand-up is like any profession and needs to be treated that way. It is a step-by-step procedure and since I started so late, I must smash many more glass walls than those who begin so much younger than I: sexism and ageism is far more prevalent than anyone realises and much of my rejection is actually no response at all.
Old men are never treated with as much condescension as old women and all older people are essentially invisible and often a discomfort to deal with. Most of us really do not need to have you hold our elbow or have you do our texting for us. All too often you think you are being kind and considerate when in reality you are stifling people my age. We need to keep doing as much as we possibly can, and once we stop we no longer can. Do not coddle us into senility.
However, the real point is that whenever you begin stand-up, you must address it as a learned talent. You can be a funny person and have a good sense of humour but you still have to pay your dues. When I began opening at The Punchline in San Francisco (that is the lowest paid position in the US) I asked Molly Schmincke, the booker there, when I could graduate to doing a feature spot - 20 minutes instead of 10 - and she said "Not until you have been doing this for at least 20 years."
Well, at that time I was 75. So I said, "Fine, Molly. When I am 95 come to my grave with a Ouija board. I will tell you a joke."
Now that I have been doing this for 15 years, I get what she means because the most consistent, relaxed and self-assured comedians I know have been at this for well over 20 years. I am getting there... and taking vitamins, doing crossword puzzles and lifting weights to do it.
The most memorable review, heckle or post-gig reaction?
It was Kate Copstick's review in The Scotsman. I was at [Edinburgh venue] Espionage for a free fringe event and I had about 10 people in the audience including one unidentified woman who was getting all the jokes.
I felt a complete failure because the idea is you have to sprint to the door before the punters leave to get money in the basket and I was no spring chicken. So I got nothing in the basket. But what I did get was a rave review from Kate (who was that laughing woman). We have been fast friends ever since. She gets my humour and I am honoured and delighted that she does.
How do you feel about where your career is at, right now?
I am on a roll. I have been headlining in my southeast Asia gigs and I also headline in smaller pubs in the UK. I still am not recognized as anything but a gimmick in places like The Comedy Store and Just The Tonic and in the middle-sized clubs like Hot Water and Angel I am still only a feature. I am destined to always be the 'cute old lady' that the big guys do not think can hold an audience for more than ten minutes. I am not the audience, so I cannot make a call on that.
I know that I get standing ovations in Manila, Bangkok and the United States for 45-60 minute performances. But perhaps those people haven't figured out what is funny and the bigger London clubs have. The bottom line is getting bums in seats. People will pay to see a TV star but they only call on Granny to bring her biscuits.
The bottom line is that I am having great fun and that is what it is all about, isn't it? I am 85 years old and every day is a huge and exciting adventure for me. What on earth could be better than that?