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FEBRUARY 6, 2013 8:06AM

Berlin, Europe's surprising comedy capital

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An interview with stand-up artist James Harris

 James Harris comedy

English stand-up comedian James Harris moved to Berlin in 2004 and is a rising star in the city’s English-language comedy scene. I caught up with him a while back at the Café Chagall near my office in central Berlin to talk about what makes people laugh – and how to get them to do it.

James, what are the differences between British, American, and German humor?

Oh, so you’re starting with an easy question, are you now? Well, it’s probably best to start with the differences between the traditions of German, British, and American humor. On a very basic level, what you’ve got in America and Britain on the one hand and then Germany on the other are entirely different forms. Germany has more of a tradition of doing Kabarett, which would be a long evening of comedy with a mixture of songs, and this would be designed so people would be doing like three, four or even more hours of material which would have a bit of music, a bit of political stuff.

Isn’t that rather like the English music hall tradition?

Yeah, it’s more like music hall but more politically motivated and more satirical than music hall was – music hall very much in the past tense, mind you. Now in America the great indigenous American comedian form is stand-up, and stand-up is a totally American thing which has been imported to Britain successfully. In the 1990s the first comedy club opened in Berlin doing stand-up. That was the Quatsch Comedy Club which is located on Friedrichstraße.

I’m not entirely sure what you could describe as a totally British form of comedy. The sitcom is very British and we have a lot of sketch comedy. So it’s kind of a mixture of different things. So I’d say that because you’ve got different forms, you’ve got different types of comedy, which has evolved. What I don’t believe is that there is any essential difference. I think the same things are probably funny in all cultures but they are presented in different ways.

But why is it that – in my experience, at least – British humor is usually funny, American humor is sometimes funny, and German humor is almost never funny?

Yeah, well, that’s a compliment, isn’t it? I think there is a difference between how humor is used in everyday life in these countries. In Britain there’s a lot of prestige placed on being funny. There’s the British sitcom “The Office,” which was remade into the American sitcom “The Office,” and then stolen by the Germans and made into an unfunny series called “Stromberg,” for which they ended up having to pay Ricky Gervais quite a bit of money. In the original, the lead character’s principal anxiety is that he’s not considered funny by his colleagues. Now that would be impossible to translate into a German context. You couldn’t have a figure of a boss in a German firm who was worried about not being funny. It would be entirely the opposite. They would be worried that their employees would find them ridiculous or make jokes about them. So in Germany humor is much more reserved for a specific context. German people make jokes but it’s fair to say they certainly don’t do it to the constant extent you find in British everyday life.

Why would that be?

I think the language has a got a lot to do with it because we have so many homonyms and homophones so you have constant potential for puns and linguistic comedy. I mean, I have been living here for eight years and when I came here I acted very much like I did in Britain, making jokes all the time. My German was pretty rudimentary at the time, but I would still try and make jokes and, whether it was because my German was really bad or the jokes weren’t very good, it would just confuse people. Maybe people thought I was literally crazy for talking like that. Whereas in Britain, not to have that constant joking element is actually seen as like, oh well, he’s not got much sense of fun. I really don’t know what it’s like in America. In my visits to the States I got the feeling that in official life, like when you’re dealing with police officers or people on public transportation or going to an office, you could make a few more jokes in everyday life.

 Scheinbar VarietÒÂÃÒÒÂÒÂÃÒÂÃÒÒÂÃÒÒÂÒÂÃÒÒÂÃÒÂÒé

The Scheinbar Varieté is a popular Berlin comedy venue

I’m intrigued about the difference between British jokes and German jokes. Because there is a very definite difference.

A very big part of it is this kind of German culture of organization, to which the society owed its original cohesion and greatness, and then, during and after the World Wars, its very survival. It’s very inappropriate to be funny here in any kind of formal setting. How can you take somebody like a “Verkehrspolizist,” i.e. traffic cop, seriously if he’s going to come up to you with a silly voice or you know, say something ridiculous? Now, if you are trying to be all serious and official, that’s kind of the last thing you want to do. You can’t really take the system seriously then, and most people here still respect order and authority, whereas in Britain we find that jokes make it easier to get through the day and get along with one another.

But beyond these structural reasons, British humor uses more puns. The English language has roots coming from three principal sources: Old French, Norse, and then Anglo-Saxon. We’ve got these words that sound the same so we constantly have the opportunity to make all these kinds of puns. Sexual innuendo as well. I don’t see many Germans making sexual innuendo in everyday life, whereas in Britain that would be happening constantly. Like the concept of a “stiff drink” – you know, you kind of lose track of how often you hear: “Oh wow, I’ll bring you a stiff one then,” that kind of stuff. I think also that that kind of humor is very Freudian, meaning what Freud postulated about a return to childhood, and it’s that letting out of the child. Many people in Germany are afraid to go there.

So how did you get into stand-up yourself?

I did the compèring for the senior citizens party at my school when I was eleven years old and the electrical equipment broke down so I had to come on stage in a blackout. I told a joke about a horse which worked very well. I can still remember the joke. It was really not worth telling…

Oh, pretty please?

Okay, it was about a guy who had a horse, a religious horse which was only activated by saying “Praise the Lord” and then you had to say “Amen” to make the horse stop. And he forgot the code words to get the horse to stop and was coming over to a cliff and survived by remembering the word “Amen” at the last moment. Then he looked up to his savior and said “Praise the Lord.” So that’s the joke. It was a fairly simple gag but it had to be clean for the seniors.

I entered a stand-up comedy competition when I was eighteen years old, and I went to the semifinals of the “So you think you’re funny?” competition, which is one of the bigger stand-up competitions in England. Later I went up to the Edinburgh Festival and performed there and then I was doing stand-up and sketch comedy all the way through my time at university until I had a bit of burnout with it, so I took a few years off. Then I had written on my CV that I had performed stand-up comedy and I started teaching English here in Berlin and my school that I was working for noticed that I did stand-up. It happened that one of the people who worked in the school owned a club and so they offered me to perform there. It’s called the Dodohaus and is owned by some people who had grown up on Mauritius and had all these images of dodos. I think the gig at the Dodohaus must have been in 2005, the year after I arrived. That was just a few comedy nights in English because I principally perform in English and since then every year the English comedy scene in Berlin has got bigger and now there’s the potential to perform in English in Berlin three or four times a week. At the moment I’m doing that and then I’m planning to move to London quite imminently to pursue comedy and to perform in a truly gigantic comedy scene.

So how do you actually do it? How does one get up on stage and start being funny?

I think first of all you should check that you really are funny and if you find that you aren’t then you probably should give the stage a miss. But even if you’re not sure, it will show pretty quickly. I don’t understand what other stand-ups mean when they talk about “writing” stand-up comedy. I find it impossible to sit down and write stand-up comedy. I think of it as performance in form which means getting the material together. It is exclusively based on meeting up with friends, going around, observing things, thinking about things, reading and then from all that it’s the observation of that which then you can turn into a joke. But I can only really generate the humor by having an idea going onto the stage and playing around with the idea. Let’s say for every five minutes of stuff I come up with on the stage there's 2.5 minutes I’ll be able to use. It’s a very slow process to generate material that is compact and funny. It’s quite easy to just kind of go up there and provide loads of stuff, but a bad percentage of that actually works. And then you need to find some way to do it. That’s again a social thing. Just going out. Meeting people. Asking them to be able to perform.

 Comedy Club Kookaburra

The Comedy Club Kookaburra in Berlin-Mitte has a regular English-language program

So what’s special about the English-speaking comedy scene in Berlin?

I think it’s unique. I’ve been in it for quite a long time now so I would be one of the more experienced comedians. There’s a guy called David Deery. The legend is that we moved to Berlin on the same day in 2004 and he would also be one of the more experienced comedians, but then there’s been a wave since then of about two or three generations of comedians. David does a show under the name “Motherfuckin' David Deery.” Then there’s a guy called Paul Salamone. He set up a night called “Comedy in SIN,” which is the first Thursday of every month in Kreuzberg – obviously I can’t mention everybody who’s involved in the scene. But considering this is not an English-speaking country, it is unique as a scene because there are so many opportunities to perform and so many either very good people, people becoming good, or people just having the opportunity to start out. I would say the two things which are unique about it is in terms of its content and the second one is in terms of what it’s like to actually be in the scene.

First, in regards to content, it’s a unique position to be a commentator as a foreigner in Germany. I think it’s a country which probably, because of some of the things we’ve talked about – the fact that Germans have a reputation for being very serious – provides an instant comic stereotype which you can do huge amounts with. A lot of my material is just about Germans not understanding my jokes or the different ways that Germans tell jokes. I mean, one of the things I was told by a German once was: “Every time you tell a joke in Germany you’ve got to smile afterwards,” which I think is very sinister. It sounds like you’ve got some kind of dark secret. Like some literary character: “He said such-and-such and gave a malevolent smile...” There’s a lot of comedy potential right there, if you do it right.

So there’s a lot of stereotypes and within those stereotypes there is also history. Germany has a very troubled and complex twentieth century history and taboos are just so great for comedy. Now I have not seen many comedians successfully talk about German history, but because of the fact that there are these stereotypes there’s a kind of vulnerability in German culture itself, like we haven’t been able to laugh at ourselves. So again: Endless comedy potential.

The second thing I think is unique about it is that comedians are terribly competitive generally and the Berlin comedy scene is not very competitive. We support each other. We are all kind of pretty marginal. None of us can live off of doing comedy. We do get audiences, but a lot of us are doing it just because we love being in this city and we also love doing comedy, so there’s a collaborative aspect. You want to do my show? Come and help me out, we want to do this or that – which is evidenced by the fact that when Paul Salamone got into difficulties with the tax office we did a benefit gig for him, a benefit roast. Now I mean I’m sure other comedians in other countries would do this too, but it is supportive and we do give each other quite a lot of honest feedback.

You mentioned history. Taboos are the staple of comedy of all kinds, but are there any limits on taboos? Are there certain limits you can’t go past?

That is quite a good question. I am quite interested to know what you think in that context.

Well, certainly in Germany there’s a minefield of taboos. Anything having to do with Nazis. Now there are some Hitler jokes out there, a couple are actually funny, and yet there is a fine legal line between legitimate humor and things that will put you in the headlines, if not in jail.

Absolutely. I think the whole subject of the Third Reich is extremely hard to get right for a comic. It’s like the top level of competitive diving or something like that. Like the triple summersault and then the flip at the end. But if you can get it right, the rewards are very great. Now I have seen German comedians doing things about Hitler which I thought were very funny. I have a friend called Burkhard Behring. I saw him doing a routine about Adolf Hitler ordering a falafel. There’s a falafel queue and he does this Hitler march to the front of the queue and he goes, in this classic Hitler voice, “Ich möchte ein Falafel haben,” {“I’d like a falafel”} to which the cook responds: “Welche Soße?” {“With what kind of sauce?”}, Hitler says: “Mit scharfer Soße,” {“With hot sauce”}, and then he goes marching off with his falafel. Now, believe it or not, I think that is actually very funny here in Berlin because it’s not serious, it’s just ridiculous. What you’re doing is cutting Hitler down to size, having him queue up like the rest of us for falafel, but you’re also removing this kind of tension surrounding talking about Hitler at all, which can get absolutely hysterical in Germany. I mean, you remember that business about Eva Hermann…

…the rightward-leaning German TV journalist and author who got into hot water a few years back for seeming to defend certain superficial accomplishments of the Nazi regime…

Exactly. She basically said, “Well you know, if we don’t want to think about the Nazis, then we’d better stop using the Autobahn network, because the Nazis built it,” and there was an actual hysteria about that. And that was just a factual statement. Hey, if you can’t make a factual statement, I mean, if people are going to get hysterical because you say “Hitler was a short guy,” which was also true, you know then you have to find a way to move ahead.

 Comedy Club Kookaburra

But getting back to our falafel joke, what’s interesting in terms of our discussion is that it’s entirely different when a German gets up and tells a joke about Hitler and when an American or an English person or a Spaniard who lives in Berlin gets up and tells a joke. Now what’s interesting I think is this question, and I’m not sure what the answer to this is: Are people more likely to laugh because a foreigner gets up and basically says: “Hey Germany, come on, were really not mad about you and the Holocaust”? I saw an Israeli comic doing stuff about the Holocaust in Berlin and he said: “You know, to be honest, you Germans, I’m really glad that you did the Holocaust ‘cause otherwise I would still have to live in the Ukraine and the weather is terrible there. I mean, I live on the beach in Tel Aviv, so thanks for the Holocaust, but don’t do it again.” I thought that was a great bit of comedy, but don’t forget that’s an Israeli in Berlin speaking English to Germans. There’s a definite difference.

So what about British comedy culture? What is the no-go zone for you as a British comic?

Well, there are no no-go zones for me as such, there’s just things I find more and less funny. I think it’s just so dependent on the joke – racist humor is not funny to me, but a joke which makes a point about race can be worthwhile. I think the borderlines between these things are difficult to define.

But is it okay to make a joke about the firebombing of Dresden, for example?

I’ve always wanted to go onto the stage in Dresden. My name is Harris, and it was Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris who bombed Dresden, so I have always wanted to go down there and say: “Oh, that was my uncle,” which isn’t true, but I’ve never had the opportunity to do that. Yes, I think it is okay to do that, but it might not be that funny. But you only find out by going there.

 Arthur Harris

Not amused: Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Travers Harris (1892-1984) 

So how do you deal with current events? For example, last summer in America a comedian called Dane Cook made a joke about the so-called “Batman Massacre” in Aurora, Colorado, and ended up having to apologize for it. As a comedian, how do you deal with current events of that kind? Terrible things that happened that are in the headlines and that you really have to address somehow because that’s what everyone is talking and thinking about.

Yeah, that’s kind of the point, as you say. One aspect of comedy is an instantaneous commentary. I’m just not the kind of person who, when I hear about something terrible, will instinctively tell a joke about it. So I would just not go there at all. But I know a lot of the comedians within the scene would indeed go there and they would take a shot at it. If it didn’t work, you would hear the phrase “too soon, too soon.” You see, we’re not really going to get offended by a joke about the firebombing of Dresden, but that’s because everyone who experienced it is either dead or now dying off. So what do you do? You can make a joke about everything eventually, but you have to be a particular type of comedian to handle these issues.

Stand-up can be pretty risky for one’s ego. What is the most awkward situation you have experienced onstage here in Berlin?

Berlin has been gentler than England in a lot of respects. I once had a gig for about ten minutes and I thought I was really good, but they didn’t laugh at all and I ended the gig by saying: “I was fantastic… but you were shit, goodnight.” I probably wouldn’t do that today, but it was how I felt at the time. The most demoralizing experience I ever had as a comedian was quite early on when I was performing in Edinburgh and I did about five minutes and I didn’t get a single laugh. And then I did one joke at the end of the set and it hit and then I went, “Well that’s great, maybe we can start again,” and somebody shouted out from the back: “Don’t bother!” One has to go through these things, I suppose.

Have you found it a challenge to perform in German?

Yeah, both in Germany and in German. I used to perform quite a bit in German, but this was a few years ago. It was kind of my idea that I would develop this kind of unique German-English act which I still have to a certain extent. I think about eighty percent of my stuff is in English, about twenty percent in German, and a lot of the time I am playing little German characters who generally don’t understand the joke which is being told. I’ll give an example. I have a joke where I talk about self-deprecating humor, which doesn’t really work in German, so I won’t try it here. But you know, when we make a mistake in England, we often say: “Oh sorry, I’m an idiot,” and we just laugh it off. But if you say that in Germany, people literally think you are an idiot. Like “Sorry, ich bin ein Idiot,” and they start nodding.

 Trabi stork

The nation that launched a million jokes: East Germany

Yes, I can easily picture that scenario.

Precisely. So I’ve found performing in German as a whole rather difficult. Because I think first of all you lose the ability to improvise and you can’t feed off the audience quickly enough, and secondly you are so focused on getting the language right that you lose the distinctiveness, I think. One comedian who does this is Mark Britton. He does a kind of Denglish {i.e., hybrid German-English language} routine, but there are people who kind of made a successful career out of representing their foreignness in German comedy.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out in this business?

That’s a tall order, but I can tell you bits of advice which have helped me. For instance, don’t judge yourself until you’ve done a hundred gigs, which sounds like a lot when you’re just starting out, but it really isn’t if you perform like twice a week. Then you have a hundred gigs in a year. And twice a week is not a lot to perform. And remember: Everyone is awful at the beginning. Everyone without exception. You’re terrible. So not to stress about every little thing getting a laugh, that’s also important. I think that’s something that Germany has helped me with a lot. You’re not going to get up on a stage at any point in your career and talk and every single thing you get will absolutely be greeted by hilarious applause. You wouldn’t be a comedian if that was the response you were getting to your work. So bear in mind that if somebody gets up on stage and is talking, and what they’re saying is interesting, it really doesn’t matter if the laughs aren’t constant. As long as they’re interested and engaged with what you are saying, and it is funny to you, then you can pretty much do anything with stand-up that you want.

So speaking of funny, what’s the funniest joke you’ve heard recently?

Well, you being an old Berliner, you might like this one. I thought it was pretty stupid but it did make me laugh. It’s an East German joke about stupid Russian peasants, which is a recurring motif in Russian comedy. Anyway, these two Russian peasants turn up at a train station in the middle of nowhere, and the first peasant says to the conductor: “Excuse me, will this train take me to Moscow?” and the train conductor says “No,” so the second peasant asks: “Well, what about me?”

James, thanks for this discussion.

 

 


James Harris is performing a solo show at the Comedy Club Kookaburra on March 3. For more information, go to his website:  http://jamesharrisstandup.com

For more on Berlin’s vibrant English-language comedy scene, check out http://comedyinenglish.de/.

 

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Ah, Wolfgang of the Wehrmacht - now that's a blast from the past...
This should be in a magazine! It's downright academic and VERY enlightening. Zumapick. R.
Interesting article Alan. My German was never very good but I thought that writers like Heinrich Heine were supposed to be quite witty. And in The Lives of Others, which I know you didn't much like, there's the scene where one of the East German Stasi staffers tells the joke about Honecker and the sun being in the west. It gave me the impression that joking around about the high and mighty wasn't foreign to the culture.
Very true, Abrawang, but as James says, it all depends on the context. Recall that in The Lives of Others, the young staffer gets demoted to steaming open private letters in the Stasi basement...
Thanks, zumalicious! I'm honored!
[r] Hah!!! All I could think of in the middle of this terrific interview was "Springtime for Hitler" moment in the Producers with a darkened audience looking shocked with their mouths hanging open in horror. It takes a lot of courage to be a comic. And a comic in another country??? And I love hearing about the differences in sensibilities. I once had lousy directions in a cab in Munich decades ago and I said "Ich bin dummkopf" as charmingly as I could to the driver, trying to flirt my way to more helpfulness from him. He glowered and nodded. Well, that sure didn't work. Self-deprecation sure didn't work. There's a great book by an American living in England and I am blanking on the funny name, darn. But she compares her Americanism to the Brits culture. She is married to one. She talks about sexual repression which ends up in out there sex humor as a release in England, a bit obsessive. She talks about how Brits don't wash the soap off dishes enough, maybe cuz during the war less water? She hates cricket. It's a great read. Will come back and leave the name once it returns. best, libby
I think that's very true, Libby: Different countries, different obsessions. Americans have plenty of their own!
Alan, Brit book I enjoyed was autobiography called "The Anglo Files" by Sarah Lyall. best, libby