After watching three German comics perform odd character bits with no punchlines, Alex Upatov didn't have high hopes for the Berlin standup comedy scene. He'd popped into the open mic a year and a half ago. He was visiting Berlin from his home in Hanover, where comedy was even less popular. No one seemed to share his passion for the American standup videos he'd been watching online since he was a teenager. So when he noticed the show's host had a Louis CK t-shirt on, Upatov got excited.
"I just thought, 'I've got to talk to this guy,'" Upatov said. Within minutes, the host was driving Upatov to a mic at The Buzz Club, where a bunch of English-speaking comics were cracking jokes between music sets. He was hooked. "The English comedy scene is very young and vibrant. They're all very excited about it. I don't think you have that in the German scene." The experience inspired his recent move to Berlin, where he's transitioned into performing almost exclusively in English. It's his third language — Upatov's family moved to Germany from Russia when he was eight.
By the time Upatov moved to Berlin in April, the English standup scene was booming. There is a show nearly every night of the week. Of the 30-50 regular comics on the circuit, about a quarter are non-native English speakers. The rest are expats representing several Anglophone countries. Audiences are similarly diverse — at any given English comedy show, comics can expect about half the attendees to be German locals, and the other half to be a mish-mash of tourists and foreigners living in Berlin.
Paul Salamone, nicknamed "the Godfather" for his role in founding the English scene, moved to Berlin in 2007. He cared about more than just jokes — he cared about the Berlin comedy community. "My philosophy was that this scene was so small that we really couldn't be too critical. It's just important to get everyone in the room performing together and hope everyone grows together," Salamone said. The strategy paid off — comics have gotten better, and interest in English comedy in the city is at an all-time high.
Although the concept of standup comedy is gradually gaining traction in Germany, the city's German-language scene remains underdeveloped. Stereotypically, Germans are a serious bunch. "For them, this American sense of humor is really revolutionary, and they love it. So there's this demand and encouragement from the audience," explained Bay Area native Nate Blanchard. He produces a packed monthly showcase at the Myxa Cafe in the region of Neukolln, an area of Berlin known for its international character. About 40% of the neighborhood is foreign-born.
The Myxa Cafe could hold its own in a game of Brooklyn Bingo: it's got ass-battered vintage sofas, a menu written in precious calligraphy across chalk boards, and walls of exposed brick. When I came through to do an opening set on the show in May, the place was so crowded that several audience members squeezed into seats on the edge of the stage itself. The audience included people from places like Ireland, India, Poland, and Italy. The line-up's seven comics hailed from five different countries.
I felt more nervous before the show than I had in a while. I've done plenty of shows in cities like New York, Chicago, and Washington, DC — but this was my first time performing abroad. What if my set too American? What could I expect of the audience?
"You have to watch out," Blanchard said. "If I talk about, say, Lindsay Lohan. They're not going to know who that is. Same goes for anything about politics. But these are smart, liberal people. They're intellectual."
Onstage, I felt things out as I went along. I made a Game of Thrones reference, which worked, but a Weekend at Bernie's tag got less of a laugh than usual. In one joke, I mention Hot Pockets — but in Berlin, I changed them to pizza. For the joke to work, it wasn't enough that the audience be able to merely identify the food. I wanted them to understand that the food has slightly sad-sack, lazy connotations.
Issues related to nuances in language and meaning are common. Upatov has a joke about how strange it was to move to Germany and see so many adults riding bicycles, which in Russia are considered more of a children's toy. And they do it wearing protective helmets! The old version went like this: "When did Germans go from, 'We're going to conquer the world!!!' to, 'We're going to fuck up bike riding!'" But Salamone pointed out that the sentence might make it sound like the guy in the bit was talking about fucking up the concept of bike riding, not the actual act itself. So Upatov changed the tag to a sarcastic, "Bike riding is dangerous!" Sometimes, a language blip gets a bigger laugh than the proper punchline. Upatov once heard a comic from Afghanistan tell a story about corporal punishment in schools — and accidentally said that a teacher gave his classmate 'the clap.'
Comics like Upatov amaze me. Before I got my start in comedy, I spent my early 20s learning Russian, and lived for a few years in Russia and Ukraine. Even though I now speak it fluently, I can't imagine performing standup in my adopted language. As any language learner will attest, humor is one of the hardest things to translate. To hit, a joke requires familiarity and speed. You must be highly aware of the cultural context you're joking in. You need both the knowledge and critical authority to pinpoint exactly what's funny about it. To top it off, you need to do it fast, to keep the joke fresh. But when I speak Russian, I lose my wit. The Russian word for 'witty' literally means 'sharp-minded' — and when filtered through a foreign tongue, aren't all our thoughts a little duller?
But for some comics, like Carmen Chraim, the challenges of performing in English are outweighed by its comedic advantages. Until she moved to Berlin in 2010 from her native Beiruit, Lebanon, Chraim had never seen standup. For months, she came to shows and wrote her own bits before finally taking the stage for the first time about a year ago. Chraim spoke Arabic and French before English, and uses German at her day job at an engineering firm. Although English does present difficulties — Chraim prefers memorization to riffing, and must work hard to annunciate — she still sees English as the best language for joke writing. In German, for example, verbs always come at the end of a sentence, which can bury punch lines.
English comedy also fosters an international community. "I used to have so many problems at work, and getting acclimated to German culture," Chraim said. "And instead of crying about it, it was easier to make jokes about it. I got it out of my system by making other people laugh." While Chraim started off by cracking on stereotypes about Arabs — no, she didn't ride here on a camel — her sets now hinge on personal stories about being an outsider in Berlin. Overwhelmingly, this is the dominant theme of the city's English comedy shows.
The scene's unique character is practically defined by the comics' foreignness. "I like the different cultures rubbing shoulders," Salamone said. "Even just weird things, like picking up slang from people from Scotland. I think it's exciting — there's this clashing of cultures, and mutations happen." Some comics even have bilingual sets, whose punchlines cater specifically to a multicultural hodgepodge of people laughing together.
Such internationalism is especially poignant in Berlin, a one-time epicenter of nationalism and hate. Walking around the city, you are constantly struck by the past. Public memorials to Holocaust victims span several city blocks. Bronze plaques in the ground mark the former homes of deported Jews. An art installation at the Bebelplatz — the site of the infamous 1933 Nazi book burning — reminds passers-by of what can happen when a plurality of voices are silenced. That's what's so special about English comedy shows in Berlin. At places like the Myxa Cafe, diversity isn't silenced — it's amped up by a microphone.
Laughter is different than applause. Applause is deliberate — laughter is not. Laughter requires an invisible intimacy between the speaker and the listener, because it is sparked by the identification of a shared human experience. Some of those experiences are silly, like watching Game of Thrones. Others, like struggling to understand each other in an unfamiliar place, go a little deeper. A good comic pinpoints these little intersections of our lives. At Berlin's English comedy shows, good jokes hurdle national, linguistic and cultural barriers. And when they get a laugh, it comes from the part of all of us that's the same.
Natalie Shure is a writer, graduate student and standup comedian in New York. Follow her on Twitter.