I. GERMANY BOMBSActually, Hans Thalhammer's laughter had already passed. In Germany in 2016, he finds nothing corresponding with his taste in terms of humour: carnival delivers the ever same carnival speeches, the artists of the Kabarett, a typical German mix of comedy, politic criticism and small regional idiosyncrasies, deliver the ever same admonitions, and on television the ever same comedy staff has been doing the same work for years. But then Thalhammer grows a funny bone.
At the time he's got time and some money on his side. Thalhammer is 33, trained carpenter, he has worked here and there and just dissolved his own company. He sits around at home in Munich and watches video clips of stand-up comedians. Especially in English. via Youtube or Netflix, he gets the Americans and Englishmen into his own apartment. One, two, many. For a year, he says, he stayed in bed with a laptop as his sole companion.
A funny bone, then. The expression needs no explanation in the USA, whereas Germans are still rather unfamiliar with the concept. Thalhammer sees and analyzes. Why do viewers laugh at one joke and not at another? He develops a feeling for jokes. He discovers entertainment that challenges him, that frightens him off. It's a new world, and Thalhammer wants to be part of it.
A narrow cellar in Munich's Maxvorstadt quarter, one and a half years later. Thalhammer stands on the stage of the Holzkranich, a pedestal rather than a stage. He has constructed it in the corner himself, not a square metre in size. Opposite a small counter with a bartender. 50 people sit crowded in the dark. Ja&Weiter is the name of the show, a translation of the English comedy expression Yes, and.... Thalhammer has been the presenter on stage: once, twice, fifty times.
Also at the fiftieth time he explains the principle: Everyone is allowed on stage for seven minutes. Experienced comedians who want to hone their gags. Or people who try it for the first time. Thalhammer takes the microphone off the stand and swings the cable. “Great careers have already begun here. And some careers were already over after a gig here. “ He gets the first laughs. “You'll see: Sometimes everything works out just fine. And sometimes it just doesn't. But please: You still give the comedians all the applause and respect for that they dare to do what they're doing.“
The whole evening is one lucky bag. The audience doesn't know whether they will laugh or will have to remain awkwardly silent. No matter what the answer will be: the audience has something to tell their friends.
One year ago, Ja&Weiter was one of very few occasions for comedians to perform in Munich. Today there are plenty more, almost every day of the week. This is not only the case in the other big cities, Hamburg, Cologne and Berlin. A network of shows covers the country, and there are also events in cities like Leipzig, Bamberg, Mannheim or not-even-cities like Plettenberg in the Sauerland.
Where the scene's gaze goes is clear: to the USA. In May 2019 the German Netflix had 207 comedy specials in its program, most of them by American artists like Bill Burr, Amy Schumer or Dave Chapelle. If that's not enough for you, you can watch the comedians live. There was a time when they used to avoid Germany on their tours. Meanwhile they fill the halls.
On a journey of discovery through the country, one notices that stand-up comedy changes how people laugh in Germany. What does this mean for the humour in the country?
Stand-up is art. And philosophy.That such a development does not happen overnight, and that it can be painful, can be observed in the cellar of the Holzkranich. Thalhammer has handed over the microphone to a courageous 17-year-old who now has to learn one of the iron laws of stand-up comedy: Everybody bombs. Everyone can and will fail on stage. Everyone will throw bad jokes like bombs over the audience so that they would crave for shelter, would love to hide in a bunker.
And a craft that everyone can learn
And a craft that everyone can learn
The ventilation is humming quietly and every cough, every clearing of a throat can be heard. The guy on stage gets tangled up in his notes on the smartphone, then in his thoughts. Those who are sensitive to moods gradually get a dull feeling in their stomach. Frowning, irritated side glances in the audience. The jokes may ignite among the buddies at the schoolyard. Not here.
What the young man delivers can be called embarrassing. But you have to admit: That's also damn courageous.
Sometime seven long minutes are over, the comedian goes off. Polite applause. It's hard to say who is more relieved – the artist or the audience. Stepping down from the stage the 17-year-old hands over the microphone to Thalhammer.
„First show“, says Thalhammer into the microphone. „Well then, now tell us: What was the problem?“
Yeah, what was the problem, actually? In retrospect, that's hard to answer – and why think about it at all? All bombing comedians are alike, every good comedian is good in his own way.
The young comedian has meanwhile disappeared into the darkness of the cellar. From somewhere one can hear a restrained voice: „I should have looked at the material more often, should have prepared better...“
„Stand-up is difficult, preparation is indeed not wrong“, says Thalhammer. „But let me tell you something, people want to laugh. Nobody here cares about your feelings.“ Now the presenter gets the laughs.
Also Bill Burr wasn't born a master, of course. You have to leave the comfort zone, try something and perhaps fail. Where else should the experience come from?
Germany has a long history of humour, but also a difficult relationship to it. Before you laugh, you first have to clarify what you're talking about. Is it comedy? Or Kabarett? Only then do you think about whether you find something really funny. This busy contemplating, it can turn out quite difficult not to forget the laugh.
It used to be easier to be funnyIn recent years, a third category has been added: satirical debate. There is hardly any humour in Germany without a package insert, without an accompanying debate in the arts and culture section of your newspaper. Is it allowed to make jokes about women with hyphenated surnames? Is it allowed to run for parliament if you're a satire project like „Die PARTEI“? Is it allowed to joke about the leader of the far right wing party AfD (Alternative for Germany) whose clothes were stolen while he was taking a swim in a lake? And, in the end, why is joking always a question of permission in Germany? It used to be easier to be funny.
Humor is usually no longer to be had as humor, but as self-affirmation and demarcation. On the one hand: jokes about the AfD, about Donald Trump or East Germans. On the other: Gutmenschen (a pejoratively used expression for „good people“), „Lügenpresse“ („lying press“) and social justice warriors. One would think that the political jokes of the Kabarett would blossom in such politically heated times. But this thought is deceptive.
CONTINUE TO CHAPTER 2
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© Bernhard Hiergeist
© Bernhard Hiergeist