Who dares wins
The ‘comedy terrorist’ who gatecrashed Prince William’s 21st birthday party may have zero talent for jokes or impersonation. But there’s one quality Aaron Barschak possesses in spades – chutzpah. And that, writes Simon Hattenstone, can get you a very long way
Simon Hattenstone and Isabelle Chevallot Wednesday June 25, 2003 The Guardian
He may be a rank failure on the comedy circuit, he may be a loser in life and love, he may belong to the great unwashed, he may even have hooked up with a former stripper, but Aaron Barschak possesses something most of us haven’t got. Not only did he climb three walls and two gates to gatecrash Prince William’s 21st birthday party, he did so dressed as Osama bin Laden (though he actually looked more like Michael Jackson), performed a comedy routine, kissed William on both cheeks, left to wild applause and headed off for the champagne bar. That’s when he got arrested.
Barschak doesn’t care. The Crown is unlikely to press charges against him, he has become a national treasure and front-page news. Despite his transparent lack of talent, he has achieved his ambition to become famous. Undeterred by decades of failure (he wanted to be an actor, but ended up as a removal man and waiter), he has carried on in the face of his own lack of ability, finally winning our admiration by doing something most of us would never have dared do. In short, Barschak has proved his chutzpah.
What is chutzpah? And how do you pronounce it? Well, last things first. It is pronounced Khoots-pah: imagine you are clearing your throat, preparing yourself for a really good spit (think Paul Mariner on Match of the Day, if you’re old enough). That’s the “ch”, and the rest spells itself. It is a Yiddish word, with no English equivalent, and there is no better way to express audacity, daring and presumption.
Perhaps the best way of understanding it is to examine the people who have it in spades: Eddie the Eagle (a hopelessly talentless skier, but that didn’t deter him); Bill Clinton (his redefining of “sexual relations” was truly audacious); Karl Power (prankster extraordinaire, who managed to get himself into the Manchester United team picture, played on centre court at Wimbledon and went out to bat for England); Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf (Iraq’s minister of information, who insisted on television “There are no American infidels in Baghdad. Never!” when we could see them in the backdrop); the whole of Britart (“Believe me, my unmade bed really is as good as any Vermeer”); Ruby Wax (rifling her way through Imelda Marcos’s shoe closet), and Christine Hamilton (simply for being Christine Hamilton).
Michael Winner, who knows more about chutzpah than most, is keen to help us out. “Chutzpah is two things. It can be cheek and insolence. But it can also be used to describe a derisory act, for example, someone who is selling something could say: ‘What Chaime offered me was a chutzpah!'”
Hats off to Barschak, says Winner. “It had all the elements of chutzpah: the impertinence of intruding on a class way above your own; the expertise of finding the way of doing it; and it also had the ludicrousness of pitting the east- european immigrant, albeit one generation removed, against the royal family. I think he should be thoroughly applauded.”
Why do we associate Winner with chutzpah? “Ah, I excel in it. I’m always doing impertinent things. For example, when I was 14 I befriended the publisher Paul Hamlyn, who was an old boy at my school who had gone on to publish film books. So I phoned all the film studios and said ‘I’m writing a book called Film-Making From the Children’s Angle’, and all the studios welcomed me and I met the stars and that’s how I got to see how films were made. I went back time and again and always ate for free. Eventually, Paul phoned me and said ‘I hear you’re going round saying you’re writing a book for me. Give it a rest, would you?’ We remained friends till he died.”
The author Leo Rosten defines chutzpah as follows: a man kills both his parents and then throws himself at the court’s mercy on the grounds that he is an orphan. There is also an old Jewish joke that illustrates chutzpah. A Jewish grandmother is sitting on the beach with her beloved grandson when a freak wave sweeps him out to sea, where he is instantly devoured by the ocean. The distraught woman sinks to her knees, wailing, pleading with God to spare the child’s life. Suddenly, there is a celestial thunderclap and her prayers are answered. Another wave gathers the boy up from the depths and plonks him safely, miraculously, beside the old lady, at which she turns her eyes heavenwards, and says: “His cap’s missing.”
Barschak’s brand of chutzpah is more than an attitude, it has an element of performance art to it. Indeed, this will almost certainly turn out to be his greatest performance. (At 36, he is not thought to have a promising future as a stand-up – indeed, a close observer of the comedy circuit told me: “As a stand-up comic, never in his wildest dreams could Barschak aspire to mediocrity.”) As with most chutzperians, Barschak’s act was not an end in itself – his performance at Prince William’s party ended with him advertising his live gigs at the Edinburgh festival later this year.
The political activist Peter Tatchell also employs chutzpah as a means to an end. For example, earlier this year he stopped Tony Blair’s motorcade by running out, suffragette-style, in front of his limousine, ending up under the wheels. It was a way of drawing attention to his protest against the invasion of Iraq. Last year, he twice attempted a citizen’s arrest on Robert Mugabe, and got himself beaten up into the bargain.
I ring him to tell him he’s been voted a top chutzperian in the Guardian’s (admittedly unofficial) survey. For once, he’s speechless. But I think he’s pleased. Why does he think that we think he’s got chutzpah? “Well, I guess I’m rather reluctant to show deference where many people think it is due, especially if there’s an issue of injustice involved.”
Does he have any chutzpah role models? “Oh yes. Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Sylvia Pankhurst. They didn’t play politics by orthodox rules. They were fearless in confronting the forces of oppression. I’ve tried to adapt their methods of non-violent direct action to the contemporary campaign for human rights.”
George Galloway also features prominently in our list of great chutzperians. He is delighted when I pass on the good news. “I strongly approve of chutzpah,” says the controversial politician, currently suspended from the Labour party after making anti-war comments on television. What does chutzpah mean to him? “It means audacity. I’ve always followed the motto of the French revolutionary Danton – l’audace, encore l’audace, toujours l’audace . And in my line of work, elan can make the difference. I do venture into the lion’s den. Sometimes I’m bitten, but so far so good – I keep getting up again.”
I tell him what I think makes him a great chutzperian – how he can smoke the fattest Cuban cigars and wear the most expensive designer suits, proclaim his socialism and not appear to be a hypocrite. “Others do things behind closed doors,” he replies. “I prefer to openly acknowledge my belief that the devil should not possess all the best suits, and that if one has honestly earned the wherewithal to buy tobacco one should buy the best Havanas.”
With magnificent chutzpah, Christine Hamilton has made a living from milking her infamy. I’m in the fortunate position of being able to tell her that she is one of the Guardian’s top chutzperians. She squeals with delight. “Oh yes, everything I do displays chutzpah,” she says. “It means you’ve got balls and joie de vivre and a bit of cheek. Oh, yes – I’ve been the narrator in the Rocky Horror Show, bossy battleaxe in Jack and the Beanstalk, I’ve even had a bath in strawberry jam for the British Heart Foundation. The rumours that I drink to excess, by the way, are ridiculous. I do everything to excess. I drink with chutzpah. I do everything with chutzpah.”
One of the great things about people with chutzpah is that they like to talk about it. Of course they do. They love talking about themselves, their nerve, their excesses, their presumption, their amazing ability to achieve a great deal (often with very little obvious talent).
With one obvious exception. Reading about Barschak reminds me of a group of people with unequalled chutzpah – each year they take Â£35m off us without a word of thanks, they have filched some of the world’s greatest paintings for their own private collections, are a law unto themselves and they act as if they own the bloody country.
But the Royal Family were, as ever, unavailable for comment.