Roy Smiles’ new play SCHMUCKS will have the US premiere at the Wilma in Philadelphia. He writes scabrous comic and political plays, but, at the beginning of his career, was not so successful as a stand-up comic. The play pits an up and coming commedian, about to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, against comic legends Groucho Marx and Lenny Bruce when he meets them in a NY diner during the infamous 1965 blackout. A comic pissing contest ensues, with fried egos on the side.
This is excerpted from an email interview with Smiles from his home in England for Edge Mag.
Lew: What did they mean to you creatively, as a comic writer?
RS: I am certainly influenced by their iconoclastic view of a repressive society: they mocked patriotism, conservatism, racism, nationalism, name it. Which is as refreshing today as it was then. If I have any purpose it is to mock the staid notions of smug and self-satisfied societies. Particularly in England, the most anal nation on earth. We mock Americans going to therapy whilst we start soccer riots and are drunks to a man. Hey, we’re so superior…
L: Groucho got away with murder with sexual innuendo. Compared to British comics, was Groucho as popular in England as he was here?
RS: Huge, Particularly in the North of England, Scotland and Ireland, where they tend to be anti-government and officialdom anyway. They’re certainly sexually obsessed – as was Groucho in real life and on screen. The Marx Brothers were the most popular American comics of the 1930s in the UK to a considerable degree. With the working classes as well as the highbrows.
L: -Lenny changed the landscape for everybody. Did Bruce have the same impact in England?
RS: Lenny had an impact in England because Peter Cook brought him to the Establishment Club in ‘62 where he caused a sensation to such a degree that when Cook tried to get him back in ’63 for the Edinburgh Festival the Home Secretary barred him from the UK – forever!
The Beyond The Fringe team never stopped raving about him in interviews of the time. Jonathan Miller signed the petition in his support when he began to be busted. Having said that though, save amongst comics, he’s sadly forgotten in the UK today.
L: Lenny Bruce was one of the first comics to talk about gay life. When you look at Bruce, especially after the trials, he relentlessly tried to break taboos and sexual barriers.
RS: Lenny was sympathetic to gays and had many gay friends. Which didn’t stop him mocking them of course. Lenny tended to side with any group that was being persecuted or being judged by the conservative values of Eisenhower/McCarthy America.
Famously suggesting the Lone Ranger wanted sexual knowledge of Tonto, got him into all kinds of trouble. The Catholic Church and the Catholic-Irish police (particularly in Chicago) were rabid in their pursuit of bringing him down/arresting him as much as possible for his use of language.
L: How difficult is it to write dialogue for Lenny Bruce & Groucho Marx? Are you intimidated by these icons?
RS: I’m intimidated by Sean Connery, Mahatma Gandhi and Jesus; anyone else is fair game, mate! No, I find writing Groucho and Lenny speech patterns quite natural as I’ve been listening to their albums or watching their movies since I was a kid, so it’s ingrained in the Old Noggin to a degree.
L: Do you enjoy the pubs in Philly?
RS: Being part Scots-Irish it feels like coming home. The pubs are God-like. London pubs are overcrowded and unfriendly so it’s great coming to a city where you can get a seat and the bar staff actually smile…
L: Because of their legendary status in the US, Schmucks could be a huge hit or a big risk in its premiere here. Any predictions?
RS: Yes, a huge risk! Who’s this big nosed English fool, coming over here, writing about our famous comedy Jewish Gods…he’s a Protestant atheist for crying out loud, how dare the Limey swine! No, I just hope the American public recognize that the play is written with love and sympathy for two guys who, though far from perfect personally, were trying to tear down the walls of hypocrisy …that surrounded them.