The Sunday Herald, December 20 2015
Scots have been the punchline of jokes in Germany for decades thanks to the tired old tight-fisted stereotype.
But a raft of Scottish comedians are now giving Germans something else to laugh about as they lead the way in the growing English language comedy scene.
In the last six years the English language comedy scene in the German capital Berlin has exploded. It has grown from one club night a week to having up to three shows a night, fostering new talent and attracting big names such as Josie Long.
The success of the fizzing underground comedy scene is down to hard graft by a handful of dedicated funnymen and women. Chief among them is a collective of Scots, who are at the forefront of the movement and hope to launch a comedy festival modelled on the Edinburgh Fringe in Berlin next year.
Germany attracts a huge number of British ex-pats – an estimated103,000 – and 13,500 in Berlin alone.
But it is not only Brits who are in the front row at the shows. The gigs are popular with nationalities across the world – not least native Germans. In the UK, the only equivalent would be the successful German stand-up Henning Wehn, though he performs in English.
It is a damp Monday night and Edinburgh-born Neil Numb, along with his promoting partner Dharmander Singh, from Birmingham, are setting up in the basement bar of a hostel in Mitte.
Cosmic Comedy is a fast-paced stand-up night, which lets wannabes take to the stage along with a few established names.
So how do you transform an underground bunker-like club into a hotbed of comedy talent? Easy it seems. You turn it into a kitchen at a party in Scotland.
That’s no joke, according to Numb who is explaining how to deliver a successful performance here in the capital of Germany.
The hosts give out free pizza and shots which adds to the kitchen party vibe.
“It just feels like you’re at an after party talking to your mates,” says Numb, 42. “You need to deliver it like you’re standing in a kitchen in Scotland.“
Numb, who says he is always the last person to leave a party, can’t remember exactly when he came to Berlin.
It was “more than four years ago and less than seven“.
But he did the same thing as everyone else. “You forget to go home. Especially if you’re Scottish,“ he adds.
He says his first ever experience of the city was being able to buy a beer from a shop after 11pm and drink it on the street. “I’m home,“ he thought.
Numb was born in Stockbridge, grew up in the Borders and moved back to Edinburgh when he was 21. A born entertainer, Numb was a house and techno DJ for 13 years.
He began dabbling in comedy a few years ago. Once he got on stage there was no going back.
Numb prefers not to take cheap pops at Germans, although they can be an easy target.
One joke that’s guaranteed a laugh is asking who in the audience is German.
“The Germans stick their hands up quietly while every other nationality would shout about it,“ says Numb.
“I don’t talk about the war,“ he adds. “I like talking about real stuff, I like talking about my mum on stage.
“I’ve not been disowned as yet.”
Such is the success of English language stand-up that there is even a trend at the moment for native Germans, such as Vincent Pfafflin, performing comedy in English themselves.
“There’s something about writing jokes in English that just really works for comedy,” says Numb.
Singh, 41, who has boundless energy, is host for the night.
There are four young Swedish women in the front row, who bear the brunt of a lot of jokes – and take it gracefully.
An Indian man and his four female friends have tears in their eyes from laughter. A young German couple are singled out in almost every performance. They take it in good jest.
The audience is typical of most shows in Berlin – there are no hecklers, people genuinely want to be entertained.
The performers – there are about 10 from countries including Scotland, England, Australia, the USA and Italy – are given five or seven minutes.
Perry Filippeos, 33, is taking to the stage tonight. He is from Dumfries but lived in Glasgow for six years before moving to Greece. He came to Berlin eight and a half years ago.
Comedy was always on his radar. “I knew I wanted to do stand up someday but fate would have it that there was going to be a comedy scene exploding in Berlin when I arrived so I performed here for the first time,“ he says.
He makes some money from comedy but also teaches tennis in summer and stays at youth camps to teach English.
“I like to work really hard for a few months then have time to do whatever I want,” he says.
Maybe that is the secret to the flourishing scene. In Berlin it is not essential to have a full time job because living costs are lower.
Many people work three or four times a week and use the rest of the time to work on creative side projects, be that comedy, art or songwriting. Filippeos says time is valued over money for most people in Berlin.
“A lot of people in their 20s and 30s would also value time over money but the system in Scotland doesn’t allow you to work that way,“ Filippeos adds. “A part time job just isn’t going to cut it to have any kind of life.“
Chris Davis is at a canal-side restaurant in Berlin’s southern Neukolln district we meet Chris Davis. His routine is full of sharp social observations and energetic storytelling.
Davis moved to Berlin more than eight years ago. He was doing freelance journalism and working in an Irish bar but decided to try stand up after watching Fileppeos perform to see if he could get more laughs.
Davis, 30, uses everyday experiences – similar to the style of Kevin Bridges – on stage.
He jokes about visiting Berlin’s saunas. “Have you ever been told by a German man to get naked? It’s the most psychologically disturbing thing ever,” says Davis, who has not lost his west of Scotland accent.
Another popular topic is food shopping. “In German supermarkets everything is super fast,“ Davis says.
“The only thing that slows the checkout staff down is loose veggies. I like to put a kiwi and potato in the one bag to give me time to pack.”
The Germans love these kinds of jokes, Davis says.
“There’s this notion that the Germans are properly tense and strict but they’re totally up for laughing at themselves.”
The international audience in Berlin is a good stage. Davis says Berlin is similar to Edinburgh’s Fringe because there are so many different nationalities.
As well as the Fringe, he has performed in Melbourne, New York and the Glasgow Comedy Festival.
Being Scottish plays a big role in Davis’ comedy.
“Scots have a bit of a charm about them,“ he says. “A lot of people find my accent funny. People in the audience snigger even when I’m not telling a joke. There’s an element of sympathy that comes from being Scottish.”
Like the other performers, Davis enjoys the low-cost lifestyle in Berlin. Along with comedy he works in a restaurant and runs a pop-up cocktail business. “I’ve got so much freedom here,“ he says.
West Lothian-born comic Stephen Carlin, who has toured with Stewart Lee and is friends with German comedian Henning Wenn, is based in London. He says Germany is a magnet for Scots.
“There are a lot of linguistic connections between Scotland and Germany,“ he says. “Like a lot of the old Scottish slang is similar to German – like ‘nicht’ for night. There’s even a similar word in German for ‘ken’ (the verb kennen or to know). I’m obviously drawn by some deep historical artistic connection.”
Carlin performed in Berlin for the first time in the summer and is returning this month.
He says the scene has got the “spirit of the early days of alternative comedy”.
He adds: “I think it’s my favourite English speaking scene in Europe. I’ve been raving about it to other comedians to go out there.“
Carlin says he was surprised at the number of Scots he came across in Berlin when he visited. “Scots have gone all over the world and pioneered stuff and that’s continuing,“ he adds.
The scene is continuing to grow. A recent addition to Neukolln is Berlin Comedy Cafe, which fits in alongside established club nights such as We Are Not Gemused and Fishbowl.
The aim now is too keep the standard of quality high. There are plans to launch a Berlin Comedy Festival next year, inspired by the Edinburgh Fringe, with big names and local comics.
Back at the bunker-turned-comedy venue, Filippeos says no jokes are off limits.
“Making fun of the Germans about Hitler works well,“ he says. “You get mixed responses. I like hitting people hard on the face with truth.“
Tonight, after warming up the crowd he’s decided to tell a dark tale about the consequences of being drunk in his friend’s bedroom in Glasgow. He has the audience in the palm of his hand and Filippeos is happy with his performance.
“There’s no better feeling than knowing you’ve made an entire room laugh at your own nonsense,” he says.
Filippeos sympathises with budding comedians in Scotland who might not get the chance to perform as much as Scots in Berlin do. But his advice to struggling comics is to “absolutely not” come to Germany.
“They’ll be taking stage time away from me. Don’t come to Berlin to do stand up comedy. It’s a nightmare,” he jokes.
Scottish jokes the Germans like
Chris Davis: Whenever an American comes across a Scot in Berlin the first thing they say to you is: “Oh my god say something!”
Whatever you say they’re disappointed.
They say: “I don’t mean to be rude but you don’t sound like one of the guys off Trainspotting.”
What, a junkie?
Neil Numb – You have to love Scottish politics. Before the referendum it was basically a load of guys in a room drinking whisky, watching Mel Gibson films.
Neil Numb – Scotland was recently voted the manliest place on earth. Obviously they were thinking of the girls.
Why Celts’ gallows humour tickles the Germanic funny bone
THERE is a German word which sums up why Scottish people are funny, according to a leading comedian.
Christian Schulz-Loh, who performs in his native country of Germany as well as the UK, says Scots have ‘galgenhumor‘ or gallows humour.
“Galgen is a German word for the gallows, when you are being hanged,“ says Schulz-Loh, 36.
“Galgenhumor means when you are in a life or death situation or a horrible situation where there is no way out you come up with the best jokes.
“There’s a lot of Galgenhumor in Scotland in everyday life. In Germany it is only used in certain situations.
“But everyday situations in Scotland will always promote a good joke.
“It goes back many generations. If you have a more troubled economy, a more troubled weather system you develop a great sense of humour.“
Schulz-Low reguarly performs at the Edinburgh Fringe and the Glasgow Comedy Festival.
He also hosts an English speaking stand up night at Quatsch, Berlin’s biggest comedy club.
Schulz-Low is not surprised by the Scots throwing themselves into the growing English speaking comedy scene in Germany.
He says: “Scottish people have a great sense of humour. I think the taxi drivers in Scotland are funnier than the comedians in some countries.
“There’s a natural funniness in the Scots – and the Irish – which makes them natural comedians. I think wherever you find an English speaking language scene there’s always going to be Scottish – and Irish – comics because they’re just naturally funny.“
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