Lynn Ruth Miller was a late starter. She was born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression – four months after Joan Rivers, to whom she has been compared. But while Rivers first picked up a mic in the late Fifties, Miller waited until the start of the 21st century.
Now 86, she says she is the oldest performing comedian in the world, and has just published her memoir, Getting the Last Laugh.
She had left it until 71 to sign up for a beginners’ comedy class. For her final exam, and first gig, she spoke about “the horrors of the mammogram”, and loved the buzz and adulation that followed.
“All of a sudden, you do something where it all comes together,” she tells me on the phone from her Jewish sheltered accommodation in east London. “I would imagine it is like a mutual orgasm – I have never had one, so I don’t know.”
Miller is not so much a product of her time as a flamboyant rejoinder to it. “They call women from the Forties and Fifties – and that’s me – the walking wounded,” she says. “We were owned by our husbands. Our value was determined by how we looked. I don’t know when you last saw me but I want you to know I’m no centrefold and I never was.”
Miller grew up in a middle-class household, but had a childhood “riddled with fear”, growing up with “an angry, insecure mother, a vindictive sister and a father too busy to know I existed”.
She graduated top of her class at Stanford where she studied journalism, but her plan to write for The New York Times came to nought. Instead she worked as a teacher and tried – and generally failed – to sell her self-published books out of a suitcase.
Certainly Miller’s life has yielded a lot of material. By the age of 29, she had two doomed marriages behind her (the first husband hit her, the second turned out to be gay) and she later overcame what she calls her “litany”.
She suffered with alternating anorexia and bulimia from the age of 16. She attempted suicide several times in her 20s and 30s, and later nearly died in a car crash.
She lived in poverty for much of her adult life (“I was trailer trash”) and lost her house after the 2008 financial crash. Everything, though, changed at that comedy class. “Lynn Ruth is the only member of our troupe who might die on stage,” announced her teacher blithely. “But the truth is I did not die,” she says. “Instead, I began to live.”
Indeed, she goes as far as saying stand-up cured her eating disorders. “Comedy cut it off. Because I needed to be able to remember my lines. I wanted to be a comedian more than I wanted to starve myself.”
At 80, she crossed the Atlantic on the promise, from a TV director, of a visa, “a good life, a beautiful home and a wonderful salary”. The abode was a dingy flat above a Brighton fish and chip shop and the visa never transpired. But Miller simply ploughed on. Her first UK performance was at the Edinburgh Fringe, and she quickly found: “I can do the more intelligent comedy here. British people like eccentric old ladies. I walk out on that stage and I don’t want to tell you how many times I’ve completely messed it up. They don’t care! ‘Look at that, she’s breathing and she’s moving, we love her’.”
However, the octogenarian would hate to think she gets laughs just because of her age, declaring: “I’m not a gimmick.” She also dreads to imagine what she would have been like as a stand-up without her life of slings and arrows. “Oh God, I would have been so boring if I would have gotten all the dreams I wanted. I wanted to have children, really a lot of children.”
Comedy provided not just a liberation but a social life for Miller, who has lived alone, and as “a loner”, since she was 29. She should now be in Edinburgh – in shows such as Best of Burlesque and Comedy in the Dark – but is sanguine about the festival’s cancellation.
“The Fringe was established to help new, young artists and they’re priced out [by the price hike for accommodation and eating out that occurs in August]. Because I was so broke for so many, many years, I don’t like rich kids getting privileges.
“So, you know something, it really is a good thing that they didn’t have the show this year because maybe they’ll revamp and make it more affordable.”
Rather, her concerns lie with the tiny comedy clubs in which she has built her career. “I don’t like the TV comedians because I find they’re very homogenised. That’s the other thing [coronavirus] has done – it’s taken away those little small venues where you can just be outrageous and people don’t get upset. “You can’t do that on TV and that’s terribly sad because it makes people think. Comedy is anger.”
Certainly, there is a mild element of the outré to Miller’s comedy. One of her shows was called Granny’s Gone Wild and she does a (rather chaste) striptease.
However, she says that her “moral base” is locked into the early 20th century. “In short, I am a prude.” When it comes to romance, Miller is still optimistic. “I’m still looking for love,” she says wistfully. As well as Britain’s Got Talent (she made a brief appearance after a scout for the ITV show saw her at Edinburgh), she has been on Channel 4’s First Dates, telling the waiter: “The nice thing about dating at my age is you don’t have to meet their parents.”
Before the pandemic, Miller was performing everywhere from Harrogate to Hanoi. She caught the virus but, on account of having “the immune system of an elephant”, soon recovered. She is still bristling at the blanket rules for over-70s during lockdown (she performed her “Senior Lament” on YouTube, with the refrain: “Don’t lock me down!”) and when I foolishly assume that Covid-19 will have forced her to give up any ideas of international touring, she sets me straight. “I’m going to go to Kuala Lumpur. Then I’m going to France at the end of August.” In the book, she blasts: “I still have plans. Big ones.” A PhD in theatre arts, focusing on the exclusion of older creatives, is just one of them.
“I wasn’t this way,” she adds. “I wasn’t this strong, until I started doing comedy.” How often does death come into view? “Death is part of life, honey,” she says. “It’s going to happen. Hopefully, it’ll happen at a gig and what I have done is: I’m scheduled. I am planning to die October 11 2033 [her 100th birthday] in Leicester.” I laugh.
“No, it’s in [Geoff Rowe’s] diary! He runs the Leicester Comedy Festival. I think it’s at 8pm. The ghosts of my two ex-husbands are going to be there so I can give them the finger. And all the people that refused to make me a headliner, so I can throw a diaper right at them. And I am going to do a grand finale, bow and everyone is going to stand up, in awe, and I am going to drop dead. We haven’t picked the music yet.”
She pauses. “Be sure to come.”
Getting the Last Laugh: The Inspirational True Story of the World’s Oldest Performing Comedienne (Excentrix Press) is out now