Written by Joanne Lau

Voices

Awesome Old Lady of the Week: Lynn Ruth Miller

This week Joanne Lau talked to 81 year-old Lynn Ruth Miller, who was so infectiously fun and vivacious that complete strangers started joining in on the conversation. In London. She’s just that awesome.

Lynn Ruth MillerLynn Ruth Miller is a writer, former professor, cabaret artist, and is currently the oldest performing stand up comedian on both sides of the Atlantic. She’s written 15 books, has two Masters degrees (including one from Stanford), and made Simon Cowell laugh on Britain’s Got Talent.

So is it Lynn or Lynn Ruth?

Most people call me Lynn. The only people who’ve called me Lynn Ruth were my late mother and people I know from the comedy circuit. Lynn’s both a boy’s and girl’s name and when I was born, you couldn’t predict the baby’s due date as accurately as you can nowadays. I wasn’t born till weeks after my due date and during the weeks my mother was waiting, she said, “I don’t care what this kid is, I’m naming it Lynn.” When I was born a girl, she added Ruth so I became Lynn Ruth.

Where are you from?

I was born in Toledo, Ohio, and lived there on and off for 47 years. I hate it! There’s nothing there. During the times I did manage to escape, I lived in Boston, New York, Michigan, Indiana, San Francisco. One year I moved cities nine times. I currently live in Brighton.

What is/was your profession?

I’ve done other things, but I’ve always been a writer. I wanted to write, but I also knew I had to support myself, so I chose journalism. I did a Masters in Communication at Stanford and savoured every moment of it. Unfortunately, when I graduated, they were introducing equal pay for equal work, so here I was with a Masters degree and no one could afford to pay me for an entry level job. In those days, you grew up, got married and had children. That was the goal.

I’d been divorced twice by the time I was 30 and both times were so traumatic, I just didn’t want to be in a relationship again. I was all on my own and needed an income and the world just wasn’t designed for a single woman then. Our options were secretary, librarian, or prostitute and out of those three, I think I’d rather do the latter!

I had to move back to Toledo. I eventually got a job teaching at the college as a professor in education, which is what my other Masters was in. I really liked it. I’m passionate about whatever I do, and I loved teaching. I kept writing and eventually, I moved out to Pacifica, California, and started a regular column in the Pacifica Tribune, Thoughts While Walking the Dog. The columns were published as a book in 1991 and became such a success that we did a second one: More Thoughts While Walking the Dog. I also wrote an autobiographical novel which is still available on Amazon, Starving Hearts, and my latest book The Late Bloomer was published in 2005.

When did you get into comedy and cabaret?

I was 71. During my book tours, I’d tell jokes that would get a laugh and touring around the same venues I realised I was running out of material! I don’t believe you can teach someone to be funny, but I enrolled on a comedy course and for the final exam you had to do a gig. Well, I was amazing. Best one on the bill. And the fuss people made coming up to me after was just intoxicating. I’ve never been bad at anything, but I’ve never been particularly good either. I’ve always felt like I’ve never really succeeded, so that initial success with comedy was wonderful. It made me realise it’s never too late to do anything.

I’ve been going for 10 years now and it hasn’t always been easy. I mean, I’m talking to generations 20, 30, 40 years younger. I guess they still connect with what I’m saying though.

“I wouldn’t want to be young now because every year for me has been the best year of my life. Some times they’ve started out bad and end great and some of them started great and ended bad, but they’ve all been good.”

What is the biggest risk you’ve taken that you feel has paid off?

At the age of 80, I was given a job offer in the UK so I sold my house in California, packed my bags and moved over here to Brighton. I’m not sure it’s paid off yet, but I’m 81 now and it’s been one of the most exciting years of my life.

A job offer at 80? How did that happen?

I was doing a double bill with Carol Cleveland (of Monty Python fame) at The Latest Music Bar in 2011. After I got to the top 100 of Britain’s Got Talent, I was helped to finance a show called Granny’s Gone Wild.

The show won Best Cabaret of The Edinburgh Fringe in 2013, and I did a two-week run at the Soho Theatre. Off the back of this success, I was offered a visa and a job in the UK.

So, then what happened?

I moved here a year ago. I started noticing things weren’t right when the people who offered me the job told me they’d found a flat for me, but kept stalling. When I finally got into the flat, it wasn’t what I’d been promised. I was almost hysterical because, by that time, I’d sold my home in California and I had nowhere to go.

The visa and the job also didn’t materialise either. I was really upset, but decided to keep quiet and bide my time.

How are things now?

Now I am on my own. My visa can be extended until November, but then I will have to leave this country and I have no place to go. I cannot return to the States. I have no options unless I stay in an old age home. The rents in San Francisco for seniors are more than three times my pension. In addition, I have no family to help me and no partner or children to help out.

That’s awful!

You know, after all of this, I still say I enjoy being in the UK. It’s a country I’ve really grown to respect. I love the people, the benevolent Government, the English attitude and most of all I adore the British sense of humour.

How do you manage to stay so positive about all this?

Well, the thing I’m most proud of is my optimism and my zest for life. It’s a huge adventure! I’ve never been blasé. I appreciate life. I adore people. I cherish it all.

What are some of the things you enjoy in life?

Having dinner with friends and a glass of wine is always delightful. I enjoy reading. One of the things that’s good about England is that I take trains here and it gives me time to read. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy – it’s the best book ever. I’ve read it three times. I’m always reading something.

What advice would you give your 30-year old self?

I’d say to myself, don’t waste time on regrets. At 30, I’d been divorced twice and I had no one. I had to find a way to support myself. I couldn’t fuss around, I had to pay the rent. I started my Masters at Stanford and didn’t waste time. I got a two-and-half year degree in 14 months. I loved Stanford. I was away from Toledo and learning new things. Don’t tell life what to give you. Take what life gives you and try to make it work.

Would you like to be a young woman in the 21st century?

No. I don’t like sexting. Plus, there’s no private life – all this social media. I’m not a fan of publicising things like “today I walked the dog.” I don’t like how Facebook publicises who you are without knowing who you are. I also don’t like the emphasis on TV stars and how people idolise and pattern their lives after them.

I wouldn’t want to be young now because every year for me has been the best year of my life. Some times they’ve started out bad and end great and some of them started great and ended bad, but they’ve all been good.

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Written by Joanne Lau

Joanne Lau is that tired-looking Chinese-Canadian girl on the tube scribbling in her notebook and staring into space a lot.