Category Archives: Germany

Jewish comic Lynn Ruth Miller on Hanukkah in Germany and #MeToo

London-based American comedian Lynn Ruth Miller continues to guest-blog here as she tours the world. Last week, she was in Germany…


Manuel Wolff invited Lynn Ruth to his Boing Club in Cologne

I flew to Cologne to perform at Manuel Wolff’s Boing Comedy Club.

75 years ago, to say the very name ‘Germany’ made my family cringe.

Now, in 2018. I was celebrating my version of Chanukah in that very country and loving it. It is a new world isn’t it?

Lisa, Manuel’s assistant, and I walked the lovely, clean streets sparkling with holiday lights… December in Cologne is alight with Christmas though, to my surprise, I didn’t see a menorah anywhere. Are the Jews still in hiding there?

Since Lisa and I are liberated, modern women, our conversation crept to the big issue women are facing today: the #metoo movement. Our concerns were women’s status in the arts and how we can achieve a level playing field in our professions. Our conversation was especially interesting to me because Cologne was the start of the outrage that blossomed into #metoo. Remember?

New Year’s Eve 2016 in this city, hordes of North African men assaulted white women who were out on the town, celebrating. The press blamed it on the discrepancy between western cultural mores and those in Africa.

“The relationship with a woman, so fundamental to Western modernity, will long remain incomprehensible to the average [refugee or migrant] man,” declared Algerian author Kamel Daoud in Le Monde.

But the #metoo movement has confirmed that it isn’t men of color or rich men or poor men; it is MEN who use women as toys. And that sweeping statement is the root of everyone’s uncertainty about the validity of this plethora of women who have accused men of sexual assault in their past. Every rational person knows that it is only the attitudes of  SOME men, but certainly not ALL of them.

“The fact that sixty years separate us made no difference”

Lisa and I discussed the opportunities for woman to achieve prestige and affluence as easily and quickly as men in Germany and the UK. Both of us are in fields where inequality of opportunity is most apparent. The fact that sixty years separate us made no difference. We two were fighting the same anger. We both have experienced gross injustice in the system, limiting the progress we were trying to make in our careers.

I often wonder if these glass ceilings are more excuses we make for people simply not appreciating our talents. The answer is that it is impossible to be sure.

Statistics certainly support the theory that women have less of a chance to progress in any field or earn as much income for the same work. To me, just being aware of this and talking about the insult that creates is a huge step forward. In my day, this dichotomy was simply accepted. It was a man’s world.

After we finished trying to fix society, I went to my hotel, took a nap and tarted-up for my headline performance at Manuel’s Boing Comedy Club.

The show Manuel creates is fast-paced, professional and funny. He is a superb host and knows just how much to involve his audience, who are mostly German but fluent in English with a mixture of English-speaking students and a smattering of people from all over the globe. The comedians made a point of coming up to me and introducing themselves to me. The audience loved to laugh and the comedian who preceded me was so professional I was terrified to have to follow him His name was David Deeblew. He finished his act by juggling plastic bags in the air while he spoke. I am someone who can barely walk in a straight line when I am sober. You can imagine how intimidated I felt.

Headlining at a show with two intervals means that I must amuse a pretty drunk and very tired audience. Thank goodness it worked and everyone laughed (or I THINK they did. My hearing is definitely NOT what it used to be).

The best part of the evening, though, was afterwards.  

Lynn Ruth and the godfather of stand-up comedy in Germany

All the comedians stayed afterwards to drink and talk about anything and everything. One of the people who stayed was Johnny ‘Hollywood’ Rotnem, an American who is the so-called godfather of English stand-up comedy in Germany. He was the one who started the clubs that are now all over the country. Comedy in German has really taken off here despite the fact that everyone thinks Germans do not have a sense of humor. The number of successful clubs in the country proves that stereotype wrong.

I will be back in Germany soon to do Andy Valvur’s club at Fiddlers Pub in Bonn. Andy is a former San Francisco comedian who knows all the people who were the big names in comedy when I was there.  

We had a place called The Holy City Zoo where Robin Williams among many others cut their teeth on stand-up comedy. Famous people like Will Durst, Johnny Steele, Larry Bubbles Brown, Michael Meehan… all of them began there.

Andy came to my show at Boing Comedy and I felt like I was experiencing a bit of comedic history when I spoke to him about how comedy has expanded, improved and changed.  

Comedians today no longer stick to the rigid set-up/punch-line formula.  I think that is a mistake. Too many words spoil the joke just as too many cooks spoil the broth.

The next morning, I had to get up early to catch the plane to Frankfurt for my two-day comedy workshop and show.

After I arrived in Frankfurt, I crashed until 3.00 pm, then set out for the comedy class. This was a group of ten people who had tried comedy before and wanted a boot-camp kind of refresher. They were from a variety of countries and only two of them spoke English as their first language.  

It must be unbelievably difficult to do humor in a different language from your own, but these people were up for it and all their jokes had huge potential. The two hour class actually lasted four hours but I am satisfied that we gave everyone the personal attention they needed.  

The next day, their assignment was to bring in five minutes of material to practice for a show that night. I thought these people had huge potential and I was very excited to see what the result would be of our intensive joke analysis.

Four of the students joined me for dinner after the show and I got to know them a bit better.  

“It felt like a meeting of the United Nations all drinking beer”

In the group was Tom from Finland, Pedro from Portugal, Julian from Germany, Clem, a lovely woman from France, Kirthy from India and me from America. It felt like a meeting of the United Nations all drinking beer together and talking about comedy as a profession even though all of the others work at other jobs. We drank a lot of alcohol. It helped.

The next day was our final class and then the show. We all critiqued each other and, to my delight, all the criticisms incorporated what I had taught: short set ups, strong punches, direct sentences.

The group not only had to master language differences but they had to let go of material they loved that wasn’t working well. They did it and the show was great.  We all went out for dinner afterwards to celebrate.

I had a 7.00am flight back to London and had to battle the German version of Ryanair. For some unknown reason, my backpack registered something lethal and not only did they keep me standing for a half hour waiting for the police to come but, when the officious inspector went through the backpack, he just tossed everything in a pile and let me put everything back together. Of course, there was nothing in the bag but a notebook of jokes, a lot of tissues (just in case) and an American passport.

That might have been what set the detector off. America is not popular these days.

The incident was truly minor, but I was terribly upset and couldn’t seem to regain my equilibrium.

I suspect this is why psychological warfare is so effective. I had done nothing but was made to feel like a dangerous criminal.  

The good news is that the rest of the trip home was lovely and I managed to get through UK passport control relatively quickly and home to bed because I had to get to Top Secret Comedy Club that night.

Which I did.

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Lynn Ruth Miller – “Comedy is a skill that is far more than the jokes you tell”


In the past few weeks, globetrotting UK-based American comic Lynn Ruth Miller – physical age 84; mental age 24 – has sent me pieces about her trips to Prague and Dublin.

Next week, she has a week of performances in Paris. But last week, she was in Berlin for six days. 

This is (some of) what happened…


The Ryanair flight was ONE HOUR late landing, so we didn’t get the bugle call to tell us we were on time but my hearing aid gave me a little whistle which was much nicer and didn’t disturb anyone else.    

I had made friends with a lovely break dancer who was telling me how he had mutilated his body and had even begun losing his hair because of the extreme physical demands of his profession and I thought to myself: “It is a good thing I only do the Lindy Hop half time. I certainly cannot afford to lose any more hair than I already have.”

Bald is only beautiful on a baby’s butt and I am definitely beyond that.

I think, in a strange way, Berlin is very much like Brighton (although Brighton is wildly expensive and Berlin is amazingly affordable).

Ex-Brighton resident Lynn Ruth in Berlin

The similarity is that anything goes in both places and everyone loves everyone… no homophobia of any kind. But, although everyone feels at home and loved in both places, it is really hard to earn a living. Everyone has a unique talent they cannot market and they are so dedicated to that talent that they will do it anywhere and everywhere just to have the opportunity to express themselves to others.

No-one needs to pay them for what they do. So you cannot earn a living; you cannot progress in whatever field you happen to be in; and yet… and yet… both are such FUN places to be, everyone hates to leave.

Berlin is a place you need to experience rather than describe. There is an atmosphere of politeness and concern that is really comforting. It has been one of the most welcoming of places for me with people anxious and eager to help. I often wonder what happened to this national sensibility when my ancestors were here being converted into soap and lampshades.

We run away from our roots, don’t we? I certainly have: across a vast country, across an ocean. And the strange truth is that the clarification and validation I sought was inside me all that time.

That first evening in Berlin last week, I was intending to meet Kenny (a guitarist I met last trip) to go open air dancing but – alas – he was too tired (story of my life).

Instead, we took a little walk and talked about him. He is finding the glow that is Berlin fading and he is thinking about finding vibrancy somewhere else. The low cost of living and wonderfully hopeful atmosphere is tarnished. Kenny has been here 11 years. The problem of living in a low cost area is that salaries are also low, so no-one can get his or her head above water.

The second night – Wednesday – I was blessed with a comp ticket to Quatsch Comedy, THE upscale comedy club that does one English show every couple of months. The MC is Christian Schulte-Loh who is amazing because, although English is his second language, he has the English subtext down pat. He is an excellent host, never dominating the stage and always priming the audience for what is to come, welcoming them and getting them set up for laughter.

The headliner was John Moloney and I was amazed and delighted at his ability to give us one punch-line after another, never slowing his pace and never descending to cheap shocking material. He is an artist and he is the reason I struggle to perfect my set… What he does is where I want to be (before I die? Fat chance). The entire show taught me that I have a long way to go to be that smooth and that professional.

After the show, I went to Bombay – an Indian restaurant across the street – to have dinner and met two vegan women from Amsterdam who were in Berlin for a conference that was cancelled. Both are writing a vegan cookbook. The son of the owner of the restaurant fell in love with all three of us and plied us with shots until we were all bloopy. Evidently alcohol is fine on a vegan diet.  It is just cheese and eggs that are verboten.

“I am more than an old lady to them…”

Thursday was my first night at Cosmic Comedy and it was a delight. The audience is receptive and happy, filled as they are with pizza and free shots. I truly love doing my sets there because the owners and the audience always get my humor. I am more than an old lady to them. I am a funny comedian. Eat your heart out Joan Rivers. I didn’t have to have a face lift to do this.

Friday night was a showcase night and I headlined. The audience was small because of the Big Game (football over here is a way of life) but they were responsive and I did my usual routine. The interesting thing was that usually my audiences in Berlin are all expats, but this time the majority was German. English is their second and sometimes their third language. They got the jokes all right but slowly.

This highlights my theory that standup comedy is a skill that is far more than the jokes you tell. You are paid to make the audience laugh no matter what the demographic. That means adjusting your material to their response. Not easy, but definitely part of the job.

Saturday was my big show and I did one of my compilations of songs and stories. My friend Kenny Stanger accompanied me on a guitar. Since I cannot carry a tune anyway, it really doesn’t matter what the musician accompanying me plays.

When I looked at the list of musical numbers I realized that nine out of the ten were about my looking for love, loving men, wanting to find a guy and bemoaning my obvious failures. I was fairly sure this topic would be boring and out of date for the modern expat generation in progressive Berlin, but I was wrong. Even though I did my usual stumbling over words, tunes and melodies, the audiences was captivated and simply could not get enough of me. The show was a great success.

They clustered around me after the show just to assure themselves that all the stories I tell of my failed attempt at romance were really true (as they are) and several said they had never seen a show like this one and of course they were right. No-one in the world has stumbled and fallen so indecorously or made such a mess of a performance. I suspect the charm of this performance was that everyone thought: “If that old hag can make a fool of herself on stage, I would be a star.”

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In London soon: a little-seen Saxon comedian with a chicken on his head

Martin Soan, master maker of stage genitalia

Martin Soan – long stalked a Saxon comedian

I was in bed all of yesterday, trying to throw off the remnants of a cold which had turned my voice into a rivett-rivetting impression of a frog.

The only real interruption to my sleep was a Skype video call from comic Martin Soan, who was wondering if I was going to his Pull The Other One comedy club show in Nunhead on 29th January.

Wild hoarseness would not stop me, because it is my first chance to see live The Short Man In Long Socks – I always thought he was called The Short Man With Long Socks, but I stand – or, given my cold, lie – corrected. I presume it is a variable translation from his actual German stage name: Der kleine Mann mit langen Socken.

Martin tells me it is Der kleine Mann mit langen Socken’s first live UK appearance. I think I may have seen him back in the 1980s when London Weekend Television’s Entertainment Dept had a tape with video excerpts of Vier gegen Willi a German peaktime TV show which was co-presented by a hamster. I think LWT was considering doing a British TV version but might have been put off by the fear of complaints by animal lovers. In Germany, they had to have multiple Willi doppelgängers on standby because the eponymous hamster tended to die under the hot studio lights.

There is currently a clip of Vier gegen Willi on YouTube, though the star rodent does not appear until 26 mins 16 secs into the clip.

Martin told me yesterday: “I first saw Der kleine Mann mit langen Socken 15 years ago in Leipzig, at Jim Whiting’s club Bimbo Town – the best club I’ve ever been to. It’s full of automata, installations, art, music and performance and is what us Londoners call ‘immersive’ – everything is out of this world and challenging. It’s a funfair of surreal proportions in a disused factory and it is VAST… Jim is a magnetic force and artists of all descriptions gravitate to him. Some aren’t even artists but genius just the same.

“Anyway one such act featured that night I went to Bimbo Town was Der kleine Mann mit langen Socken, I really, really was impressed, It was the most pointless and ridiculous act I have ever seen, but one of the best. There are three sections to the routine. Him getting ready to ‘go out’… Him ready to go out… And then him out. That doesn’t really explain his act, but… “

“I seem to remember,” I told Martin, “that, in Vier gegen Willi, he had a live chicken on his head.”

...a chicken...

…a chicken…

“Oh yes,” said Martin. “I forgot about that.”

“Is he possibly,” I suggested, “ever-so slightly bonkers?”

“Depends how you define it,” said Martin. “When I met him, he didn’t think any of it was mad at all. I had the feeling it was maybe a little cathartic for him.”

“Why cathartic?” I asked.

“No idea, “replied Martin. “He told me he very rarely did the act.”

“Possibly,” I suggested, “because of a lack of willing or well-balanced chickens.”

“It was just a thing he felt he had to do,” Martin explained.

“And they say,” I mused, “that Germans have no sense of humour…”

“He is fiercely not German,” Martin told me. “He is very definite that he is a Saxon not a German. Apparently he earns a very good living as an optician in Plagwitz (a suburb of Leipzig). He told me Saxons love designer glasses. He invited me around to his flat for kuchen (cake). We got on really well and he showed me his etchings. Very dark, they were – the subjects. Lots of eagles and women wearing horns. Angst is a good word isn’t it?”

“I do,” I agreed, “always enjoy hearing it said out loud.”

Too poster - Phil Kay

Kay fan: Der kleine Mann mit langen Socken

“When I was back in England,” Martin continued, “I contacted him regularly to try and entice him over. I have actually booked him three times and three times he has cancelled and I got resigned to never getting him over for the club. But he’s making it on the 29th of this month because there is some opticians’ convention in London and because Phil Kay is on the bill at Pull The Other One. He has seen Phil Kay perform abroad and he’s a big fan. So he wants to perform with him.”

“Who else is on the bill?” I asked.

“Darren Walsh and a nun.”

“I’m not going to ask,” I told Martin. “Some things are best left to the imagination.”

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Polly Trope organising a book fair in a fluffy booth at the back of a bar in Berlin

Polly Trope (Photograph by Joe Palermo)

indieberlin’s Polly has bridged cultural gaps in London
(Photograph by Joe Palermo)

Polly Trope is literary editor of the German online arts magazine indieberlin.de and author of the autobio-novel Cured Meat: Memoirs of a Psychiatric Runaway – a Guardian Best First Book Award nominee last year.

I blogged about her in April last year.

She lives in Berlin but occasionally turns up at Il Puma Londinese‘s Italian-language comedy shows in London. I have no idea if she understands Italian.

A couple of days ago, I got an email from her saying:

We are organizing an indie book fair and meetup for authors in Berlin. Since some authors are abroad and can’t join us we thought of having them phone-in like a radio show. But then we came up with… The Literophone!

We were partly inspired by an iOS app which lets you be phoned-up by a random stranger by way of an alarm clock every morning.

At the book fair, we will set aside a little soundproof cubicle for one-on-one readings. But also, now, it will be the private booth where guests can call up poets and get a poem read to them down the phone.

So, obviously, yesterday I Skyped her in Berlin.

“When exactly is the indie book fair?” I asked.

“Next Saturday – 7th November,” she told me. “It starts at 1.00pm (German time) and goes into the night. We are doing the Literophone roughly between 5 and 8.”

“Where?” I asked.

“In Neukölln, the trendy part of town, where everything is going on. It’s the Shoreditch of Berlin.”

“Why are you doing a book fair?” I asked.

Polly Trope - rotary phones and a mini-Socrates cast upon the background of a Tanguy painting poster.

Polly Trope sent me her photograph of rotary phones and a mini-Socrates bust set against the background of an Yves Tanguy painting poster.

“Because there are so many young people who come to Berlin, who end up staying here for no reason and then they become authors. They’re all very fashionable and cool and they’ve written a chat book or a collection of three stories but none of them have a venue to do their thing in.

“So we’re working with them and also have some of the cool older guys like the Berlin faction of the punk scene from the past… indieberlin is not mainstream. It’s a lot of cool types and we just want to have this party with readings. So many people are going to be doing readings, it’s crazy.”

“Are you telling me,” I said, “that Berlin at the moment is like Paris in the 1920s? Loads of literary people roaming around being creative.”

“Yes,” said Polly, “though I dunno if it’s gonna go down in history like that. But it’s trying to be that.”

“What’s the object of the book fair?” I asked.

“The object?” Polly replied, sounding slightly surprised. “A weird and wonderful experience of poetry and stories and flash fiction. There are gonna be talks in the afternoon but it’s mostly gonna be a party.”

“So it’s not a literary fair at all?” I asked. “It’s a piss-up.?”

“Yeah, with lots of literary types. We call it a networking event.”

“So basically,” I said, “you are going to have a literary piss-up with drunken authors and invite people to phone in from foreign countries who can’t be there to drink with you.”

“Well,” Polly suggested, “they can get drunk on the phone or on Facebook.”

”So what is the Literophone exactly?” I asked.

“A fluffy booth located in the back of the bar.”

“The bar?” I asked.

“The bar where we are doing it: one of these rock ’n’ roll venues. They have a little soundproof cubicle in the back where they can do stuff without disturbing the neighbours.

“At first the thought was we would have one-on-one readings where authors who want to can read their work to just one person in an intimate booth setting. Then it evolved. We thought: Oh! All these poets want to come and they can’t make, so maybe we can have them phone in. So we’re gonna phone them from the fluffy booth. Members of the audience can step in and phone a poet, who will read a poem down the phone to them. We will pay for the phone call.”

“How,” I asked, “are you going to make the booth fluffy?”

Polly Trope on fluffy bedspread (Photo by Iain McKell; fox mask by Cecilia Lundqvist

Polly Trope sitting on fluffy bedspread (Photograph by Iain McKell, with a fox mask designed by Cecilia Lundqvist)

“With blankets and fur coats and other furry things. My mum has a very beautiful fake fur bedspread which I’ve stolen. You know when you go to a London phone booth and you can see all these cards for ‘escorts’? It’s going to be a bit like that, except it’s going to be fluffy and it’s not going to be escorts, it’s going to be the names of poets. I’m going to get a rotary telephone and stick my iPhone in it.”

“Who is taking part?” I asked.

“Loads of people,” said Polly. There’s Penny Goring…”

“Not another of Hermann Göring’s relatives?” I said. “I had a blog chat with his very interesting great niece Bettina two years ago.”

“No,” said Polly. “Not Göring with an umlaut. Just with an O. This is a London Goring. And there’s Lucy Furlong: she’s a fantastic poet. I mostly asked poets if they wanted to do it – though there are storytellers of all kinds. We have so many people from America, England, Israel, all over, all going to be available for a couple of hours. I think it’s gonna be awesome.”

“Only Americans can be awesome,” I told Polly. “British people can’t be awesome.”

“But British people can be soo-perb,” she suggested.

“What would Germans be?” I asked.

“Super,” said Polly. “but with a soft S – szuper. Would you like to go into one of those fluffy poet phones if you could?

“I don’t know what I would say.”

“You don’t say anything. You phone up a writer or a poet and they say the things. But you would have to be in Berlin.”

“Someone in Berlin,” I suggested, “could phone me up and I could read one of my blogs to the person sitting in your fluffy booth in Berlin. I could read the Polly Trope blog to him or her.”

“Indeed you could,” said Polly. “I could put your card up in the booth. Will you send me one?”

“Yes. Is there any sequel to Cured Meat on the horizon?”

“I’m finished with Cured Meat,” said Polly. “I’ve run out of copies. I’m doing a new book now.”

“About?” I asked.

“It looks like it’s going to be a set of inter-connected short stories about smoking and ageing.”

Looks like?” I said.

Polly Trope (Pt=hoto by Joe Palermo)

Polly Trope with cigarette (Photograph by Joe Palermo)

“Something like that,” said Polly. Stories about smokers and bars and womanhood and ageing and the quest for eternal youth. It starts with a smoking lounge that I used to go to and the people I met in there.”

Polly’s blog gives a hint of what the book may be like.

“What is a smoking lounge?” I asked.

“Just a part of a bar or a cafe where you can smoke.”

“Over here,” I said, “you can’t smoke indoors in public places. You have to go outside. In Scotland, all the smokers will slowly be killed off by hypothermia.”

“Berlin is very lenient for cigarette smokers,” said Polly.

There is a video promo on YouTube for the indie book fair.

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Teaching the Germans British humour?

Martin promoting tonight's show in Leipzig

Martin promoting a previous Leipzig show

Last night, before this month’s ever-original Pull The Other One comedy show in South London, I talked to Martin Soan who organises both it and the Pull The Other One shows in Germany. He and his wife Vivienne have so far staged three in Leipzig this year.

“What’s next?” I asked.

“A lecture in Leipzig,” Martin told me.

“On what?” I asked.

“British comedy.”

“To whom?” I asked.

“Leipzigians,” said Martin.

“In general?” I asked.

“What we’re going to aim for,” explained Martin, “is the working class. The history of comedy in Germany is very interesting.”

“Is it?” I asked. “The British cliché is that the Germans have no sense of humour.”

“Yeah, but that’s total bollocks,” said Martin. “What IS true is that, traditionally, they have not had anybody entertaining the working class. Traditionally, the working classes were just supposed to work. Their thing was sausages and beer not comedy and cabaret, which was for the middle class.

“Before the First World War, Leipzig had about 20 dedicated cabaret and comedy theatres – variety, kabaret and comedy – which were frequented by the intelligentsia and the middle classes. Some of them still exist today – there are two or three in the middle of town. The acts they have are very skilled and crafted acts – magicians and stuff like that.

“Me and Vivienne met some elderly Leipzigians and they told us that, traditionally, the working class have never had their version of music halls or comedy clubs.”

“They didn’t,” I asked, “have any equivalent of our music halls in the late-19th century?”

“No,” said Martin. “Now, obviously they have television, but their heritage was not live entertainment. So we are going to try and reinvent ourselves for the working classes of Leipzig.”

“How?” I asked.

Vivienne Soan even promoted the show to statues

Vivienne Soan promoting a previous comedy show in Leipzig

“We’ve opened up a show in the Louisiana bar, which is a working class bar and we are going to do our next Pull The Other One show there in December. We’re going to go away from all the students, away from all the middle classes.”

“And,” I asked, “you are going to do a lecture on British comedy in the pub?”

“An education in British humour,” said Martin. “Yes. Just me and Vivienne. We are basically just going to do a show, but Vivienne is going to have a lectern, notes and it starts off with her talking about how we have always had to import everything into Britain and we did actually, at one point, import humour.”

“We did?” I asked.

“Well, Mr Punch came from Italy. That’s where we start and then we’ll go through gags, a description of each different genre of comedy and I’ll upstage her, then I’ll do a bit at the lectern and she’ll upstage me. That’s the show, basically, but it’s gonna be very low-key because we don’t wanna put on a show-show because we don’t want to frighten them off.”

“It sounds like an excuse for a piss-up,” I said.

“Yes,” said Martin, “but with entertainment. Even the working classes over there are very, very academic. And, for me, it will be a break from the comedy scene here, which is getting a bit claggy.”

“Claggy?” I asked.

Soiree in a Cemetery

After the success of cemetery comedy, underground comedy

“It’s stagnating a bit. There must be something different out there. That’s why I enjoyed doing our Soirée in a Cemetery the other week. It was different. The next one’s at the end of November.”

“In a cemetery again?” I asked.

“No.”

“Where’s the next one?’

“Subterranean.”

“Where?” I asked.

“It’s a secret,” said Martin. “It’s underground.”

“It certainly is,” I said.

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The dead ITV variety show, the revived Greatest Show on Legs and grave laughs

The Greatest Show on Legs in the Fringe Programme

Greatest Show on Legs’ balloon dance – original and still best (from left to right: Malcolm Hardee, ‘Sir Ralph’, Martin Soan)

Last night, ITV tried and failed to revive legendary, classic and once classy variety show Sunday Night at The London Palladium under the inexplicably shortened title Sunday Night at The Palladium.

If Simon Cowell had produced it, the show could have retained some class. Instead, ITV transformed class into crass and the result was somewhere between a reality show produced by Endemol on an off night and Saturday Night at Butlins for Essex Man.

Stephen Mulhern presented it like an edition of Big Brother’s Bit On The Side and it came complete with what looked very much like an audience plant towards the start of the show.

To compound the felony of failing to revive an old classic rather than thinking up a new idea – and rather than have highly original variety acts – they went for Cirque du Soleil performers Les Beaux Freres who nicked the idea of the Greatest Show On Legs’ classic 1982 Naked Balloon Dance and replaced the balloons with towels.

They performed perfectly serviceably and at least, unlike many acts, they changed the music and the objects. But original it most certainly was not.

Sunday Night at The London Palladium used to go out live. It did not last night. It went out dead.

By coincidence last night, the latest incarnation of the Greatest Show On Legs were performing live in Leipzig for a second consecutive night.

The Feinkost venue in Leipzig before the show

The Feinkost venue in Leipzig before the Saturday night show

On Saturday, the new Legs line-up (Martin Soan, Matt Roper and Adam Taffler) had performed together for the first ever time at the Pull The Other One show at Feinkost in Leipzig.

“It’s this big old East German canning factory,” Adam told me via Skype this morning, “which is now a communal arts hub.”

“It’s a huge Hof,” added Martin, “covered in glass. It was probably where all the lorries loaded up the cans and I managed to get a set up, but our stage curtains got totally soaked.”

“How?” I asked.

“We made a mess in the crowd games.”

“Crowd games?” I asked.

“There were two sections to the show. There was Vivienne (Martin’s wife) doing her laughter yoga to warm them up. And then we played some games – egg tossing and stuff like that.”

“Without,” I asked in some shock, “supervision by the increasingly prestigious World Egg Throwing Federation?”

“Yes,” said Martin. “Then we got on with the main Pull The Other One comedy show. But we had made a mess in the crowd games and the Germans, with their efficiency, immediately sloshed disinfectant all over the floor and started scrubbing the concrete. Our curtains got wet at the bottom.”

“Steve Rawlings,” I said, “remembers being told about you and Boothby Graffoe being in Germany years ago. You were running around naked in the audience spraying them with a fire extinguisher and Boothby told Steve it was around this point he thought: They’re just not ready for us yet.

Martin Soan on Saturday – This time the Germans were ready

Martin on Saturday – The Germans were ready

“That was a number of years ago,” remembered Martin. “We did a freeform existentialist theatre piece. The climax of it was me climbing up the central marquee pole bullock naked with a John Major mask on – so that time dates it a bit. Boothby and I did two shows at that festival. The first one was absolutely brilliant. We did a tribute to Christo who wrapped the Reichstag in polypropylene.

“There must have been a thousand people at that first show and they adored Boothby and me.

“Then we were booked to do a second show in a marquee very late at night. There were 800 people when we started and 4 people when we finished. We scared them all off. But the four people who stayed came up afterwards and said: That was just the best piece of existentialist theatre we’ve ever seen.”

“Define existentialist,” I said.

“I dunno,” said Martin. “I didn’t understand it, really. But, once we saw them leaving in groups of twenties and thirties, me and Boothby started really, really experimenting. It was great, great fun. Steve Best was there too and he performed with Boothby while I improvised with props and my body.”

“Improvised with your body?” I asked, suspiciously.

“Yeah. Doing a bit of modern dance around people, dressed-up as John Major. Posing every now and again. I hid from the audience in various places and just picked up various objects and improvised with them. Nothing sexual; I was naked, that was all.”

“But this time,” I said, “the Germans were ready for you?”

Pull The Other One act Wilfredo (left) with Adam Taffler on Skype this morning

Pull The Other One act Wilfredo (left) with Adam Taffler talked to me via Skype from Leipzig this morning

“I think they really, really enjoyed it,” replied Martin.

“They really did enjoy it,” agreed Adam. “They want so much to open up and we opened them a bit. They’re ready for a lot more of this type of style of humour.”

”What type of humour is that?” I asked. “Surrealist anarchy? When they saw Candy Gigi perform at Pull The Other One in Leipzig, they enjoyed it but mostly reacted with open-mouthed amazement: they hadn’t seen anything like her.”

“I think,” laughed Martin, “that it’s the supreme professionalism we bring to it that gobsmacks them.”

“What is it like now with Adam and Matt as the other two members of the Legs?” I asked.

New Legs (left to right) Adam Taffler, Matt Roper, Martin Soan use sanitised rubber bands

The new Legs (left to right) Adam Taffler, Matt Roper, Martin Soan now use sanitised rubber bands in their Thriller routine

“Well,” said Martin, “my two new members have got a thing about personal hygiene which I’ve never experienced with other Legs members before. They don’t want the balloons being in other people’s mouths. Nor their rubber bands. They sanitised their rubber bands before they went on. They were also rehearsing a bit too much for my liking. They may be a bit too polished for Legs purposes; but I will persist with them.”

“Saturday was our first show together,” said Adam.

“But not the last?” I asked.

“No,” said Martin. “Absolutely not the last.”

At this point, Vivienne Soan arrived on Skype.

“I’ve been in the bath with a mud pack on,” she said.

“What is next?” I asked.

On 4th October,” said Adam, “an irreverent variety night in a secret Victorian cemetery in London… with Stewart Lee, shadow puppetry and the British Humanist Choir.”

Soiree in a Cemetery

Soiree in a Cemetery – the location is kept secret until the day

“What happens if it rains?” I asked.

“People will bring umbrellas,” said Adam. “And we’ll have covered areas.”

“Like tombs?” I asked.

“Like awnings,” said Adam. “It will be cosy.”

The Greatest Show on Legs’ 1982 Balloon Dance is on YouTube.

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In Leipzig, a bizarre British comedy club succeeds and a Dresden voice impresses

Vivienne Soan even promoted the show to statues

Vivienne Soan even flyered the PTOO show to local statues

Pull The Other One’s brand of bizarre British comedy cabaret club seems to have transferred successfully to Germany on its first attempt. Last night, the doors opened at 8.30pm for their 9.00pm first show in Leipzig and, with pre-bookings and people turning up on the night, the house was totally full by 8.45pm and a large number of people had to be turned away.

On the bill were (in order of appearance) Vivienne and Martin Soan, Dickie Richards (one third of the Greatest Show On Legs), eye-opening Berlin cabaret act Bartuschka (who did her act partly in English), stand-up Nick Revell (who did his act partly in German) and Candy Gigi who successfully did her act on some other planet much to the open-mouthed appreciative shock of the local audience.

Dickie Richards last night pondering his opening

Dickie Richards last night pondering openings

There was much talk before the show about whether the locals would 100% understand English, but this seemed to be no problem. And Dickie Richards (who is part Polish) resolved his artistic crisis of “Shall I start with How Poland started the Second World War or shall I do the fart material?” by choosing the latter. It was a successful choice, though I suspect Option 1 might have worked too.

That was last night.

This afternoon, local Leipzig film maker Kali took Martin Soan and me to see Dresden-based singer Anna Maria Scholz aka Annamateur interviewed and perform on live radio show MDR Figaro-Cafe

I cannot speak nor read a word of German, so a 90 minute show mostly comprising chat was an interesting experience, mostly involving me listening carefully to the cadences of the words in the abstract. But, then, I used to enjoy listening to the abstract splendour of BBC Radio 4’s late-night Offshore Shipping Forecast and, in years long gone by, a BBC announcer reading the day’s Stock Market prices.

Anna Maria Scholz, as promoted by MDR Figaro-Cafe

Anna Maria Scholz aka Annamateur, as shown by Figaro-Cafe

I am glad I went, though, because it meant I heard and saw Anna Maria Scholz perform.

I may not understand German words, but I know an astonishingly talented and varied voice when I hear one. Every song different and a showcase in itself.

Martin & Vivienne Soan’s Pull The Other One is set to return to Leipzig in April and, after that, with luck, the German version of their club will be monthly.

There is a 2012 video of Anna Maria Scholz on YouTube.

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My egg throwing goes into a new text book and financial provocateur Max Keiser launches his own currency

My blog yesterday was about giving a speech at comedian Chris Luby’s funeral.

An earlier choice for speaker had been juggler Steve Rawlings, who toured the UK with Chris. But it turned out he was in Berlin. He had got scouted by Cirque du Soleil, gone out to meet them and become part of their artist list.

Last night (still in Berlin) he told me:

“One of my favourite memories of Chris was when he was struggling to get gigs and I’d got him one in a club down in the South of England and had picked him up at his house and taken him to the gig.

“He did a great show, of course, and afterwards went off to the bar to celebrate while I went off to do my act.

Chris Luby R.I.P

Chris Luby recreated movie Zulu in the UK

“At the end of the night, after the gig, I found him at the bar totally drunk doing his impersonation of the songs and chants of the Zulu army – as in the movie Zulu – when they attacked Rorke’s Drift, complete with spear and shield motions.

“He was performing this to two very large and very angry-looking black guys.

“I managed to drag him away before someone killed him, but the funny thing was – being Chris – all the sounds and words of the chants would have been 100% accurate and it would never have occurred to him that sharing this knowledge with two big black guys would have caused offence.”

Steve also remembered: “Playing Trivial Pursuits with Chris was a bit pointless as he knew all the answers and would only stop going around the board when he got one wrong on purpose so you would keep playing with him”.

If you are reading this blog on the day it was posted, there is a high likelihood I will still be making my own way to Germany. I am travelling to Leipzig with comedian Nick Revell (unless something goes wrong with the trains) for the first gig at Vivienne and Martin Soan’s new Leipzig club – a sort of Pull The Other One East – at Noch Besser Leben (which translates as Still Better Living). Obviously, Nick is performing and I am not. Martin and Vivienne are not that experimental nor mental.

Going to Leipzig seemed like a good idea when it was first suggested and still seems a fairly good idea despite the fact it is a 12-hour train trip.

When this blog’s occasional Canadian correspondent Anna Smith heard I was going to Leipzig, her reaction was: “Not Leipzig, Saskatchewan, I hope!”

“Why?” I asked. So far, there has been no response.

The wonderful world of sexist, slobbering Wilfredo

The wonderful world of sexist, slobbering Wilfredo

Comedian Matt Roper’s response was: “I’m in San Francisco, showering them with spittle tonight (as his character Wilfredo), then off to Los Angeles tomorrow. Nothing really much to write about here, except that I finally managed to make it coast to coast across the US without flying!”

This seemed mildly eccentric – and then I opened three bizarre e-mails one-after-the-other.

The first was from publishers Pearson Education, asking if they could use 79 words from one of my 2012 blogs about the World Egg Throwing Championships in a new educational textbook they are producing titled Skills For Writing. They said: “We would like to request permission to include the material, within the electronic components of our publication.”

I have no idea what this really means nor why they want to use 79 words from the blog, versions of which were re-published both in the UK edition of the Huffington Post and by the Indian news site WSN (We Speak News).

John Ward smashes the losing egg on his forehead

John Ward loses to me as he smashes an egg on his forehead

The blog’s headline was World Egg Throwing Championships: Cheaper and Funnier Than the Olympics and the words Pearson want to use are:

I triumphed in the Russian Egg Roulette heats in face-offs with two small children, who seemed to be the only children in the contest. I faced John Ward in the semi-final. I triumphed again.

In the grand final, I unfortunately faced a large man called Jerry Cullen, dressed in black and wearing sunglasses. The first four of the six eggs we smashed on our foreheads were hard-boiled, leaving only two more eggs – one for each of us…

The fact that Pearson Education wanted to use this in a textbook entitled Skills For Writing was a little surprising. But not as surprising as the next e-mail I opened, which told me that Max Keiser – whom I like to describe as an American financial provocateur who appears on Russian and Iranian TV and who has occasionally appeared in my blog… was launching his own currency last night, not totally dissimilar to Bitcoin. It is being called Maxcoin.

Max, in Paris, gives his opinions to Al Jazeera English

Max, in Paris, gives his opinions to Al Jazeera English channel

I asked Max to tell me more. He sent me an e-mail saying:

“Maxcoin is being developed at the University of Bristol which has some of the best crypto talent in the world. Anybody looking to get into a fast growing industry that pays incredibly well should look into their programs.”

This doesn’t help me much, but then he sent me an even more jaw-dropping e-mail detailing something that I am not allowed to talk about for another couple of weeks.

We live in interesting times, but then we always have.

Ashley Storrie, the daughter of my chum Janey Godley, has been nominated as Best New Scottish Comedian by Capital FM. The awards are being announced on 22nd March and you can vote here.

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Lest we forget: West Berlin in 1985 and the Belsen concentration camp in 1945

Sonny Hayes

British entertainer Sonny Hayes lives in Berlin

In yesterday’s blogI quoted London-based Dutch comedian Jorik Mol on Wagner.

I received a comment from Berlin-based British entertainer Sonny Hayes saying:

“I love his take on Tristan und Isolde, “…it is like coitus interruptus without the coitus. This chord is never released – never”. We did an event in the 1970s where, for background, we combined bits of finales from Wagner, Richard Strauss et al, where the last note began the next finale and then we looped it – a never-arriving climax and very loud. It worked well, was very uncomfortable and one woman had a hysteric breakdown.”

In 1997, Sonny married Russian magician Galina and formed a professional partnership that still continues.

I Skyped Sonny in Berlin at the weekend.

“Anything glamorous coming up?” I asked.

“At the end of January, we go to Hawaii for ten months…”

“Lucky bastard,” I said.

“…which we’ve just found out is very radioactive,” continued Sonny. “The after-effect of the nuclear power plant exploding in Japan. It’s not safe to eat fish, which I was looking forward to.

“We’ve been working for some time on a solo theatre show called One For The Road which we premiered in Germany last month and we’ll be touring that after we finish our variety shows in Hawaii.”

“When did you move to Berlin?” I asked.

“In 2009, we came to work for a year at Friedrichstadt-Palast, a revue theatre, in a show called QI which was extended for a second year and then we decided we liked it here. Before that, we were living further south in Hessen.”

During the Cold War, Germany was divided into West and East Germany and Berlin was divided into West and East Berlin. The problem was that Berlin was deep within East Germany. So, to drive from West Germany proper to West Berlin, you had to travel along designated roads.

A publicity picture from around the time of Sonny’s first Berlin visit

A publicity picture around the time of Sonny’s first Berlin visit

“I remember the first time I came to Berlin in the mid-1980s,” Sonny told me. “I was working for CSE (Combined Services Entertainment).”

“We played in Helmstadt, the military police headquarters for policing the Berlin Corridor. The senior officer there was a Brigadier Gerrard, who was very impressive. I later saw him in the World at War TV series. He gave us a briefing about what to expect when we went through. And everything he said did happen.

“He told me: A Russian guard will salute you, then walk round your car then salute you again. That did happen and I gave the guard a Boy Scout salute.

“The brigadier said: At the time of night you go through, they’re going to want to do some black marketing with you. Under no circumstances are you to involve yourself in this kind of thing… But, as he was saying this, he had his thumbs in his belt and I could see he was wearing a Russian belt.

A tale of two cities - and of two countries - in the Cold War

A tale of two cities – and of two countries – in the Cold War

“You weren’t allowed to speak to anybody or to have any contact with anyone from East Germany. If you were in an accident, you weren’t allowed to get into a Russian or East German ambulance and you weren’t allowed to deal with the police.

“We were given a loose-leaf folder to take with us. If the police stopped you, you had to close the windows of your car, lock the doors and sit with your arms folded until they got really annoyed. Then you opened your folder on the first page and there was a Union Jack printed on it.

“Then you waited until they got really annoyed again and you turned to the second page where there was a smaller Union Jack and, written round it in three languages was We don’t accept you as a country. We don’t accept your authority – basically it said You don’t exist for us. We were told: You don’t speak to them unless they get a Russian officer and, unless you’ve killed someone, they are not going to get a Russian officer.”

“Did you have any problems?”

An East German GDR border scout apparently photographing grass along the border

An East German GDR border scout

“Not really. They did want to exchange bits of military gear – badges and emblems and things – for Western goods. I think I traded some chocolate for some badges. They unscrewed light bulbs and there were things inside the lightbulbs and in the hems of the curtains.

“You had to go to a hut to hand your passport in for checking. There was a small hatch and a hand came out and you could see there was an East German uniform on the arm, but you couldn’t see any more than that.

“They gave you two hours to drive through to Berlin. You didn’t drive too fast because that would mean you were speeding and you didn’t drive too slow. If you didn’t arrive within two hours, they sent a convoy out to look for you.

“Brigadier Gerrard was a super interesting guy; just a regular kind of hero of that generation. I liked him very much. He just did things his way and only followed the rules he wanted to follow. He spent a lot of time with the Russian officers drinking. They would bring vodka and he would bring whisky, which they much preferred.”

“All this happened in the mid-1980s,” I said. “Maybe 1985 – and the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 – so it was quite near the end.”

“Yes” said Sonny. “I was there in 1990 with Circus Roncali and you still needed a passport to go through the wall from West Berlin to East Berlin. Circus fans would have a minibus and take a bunch of us out from the show and treat us to dinner in the East. It was very cheap to pay for things with West German marks.”

“Brigadier Gerrard sounds like a real character,” I said.

“Yes,” said Sonny. “He was in a tank regiment and drove his tank through the wire at Belsen.”

I saw the film footage of Belsen when I was about 11 years old: an impressionable age. I hope it remains the worst thing I ever see in my life. I think, in other concentrations camps, the film cameras did not go in with the first troops; they went in slightly later, so the scenes are slightly less horrific. At Belsen they filmed what the first troops first saw. I remember a pile of corpses like skeletons. Then one of them got up – just a skeleton with thin skin stretched between the bones – and started to stagger around like a newly-born zombie foal.

Former guards are made to load the bodies of dead prisoners onto a truck for burial, April 17–18, 1945

Former guards are made to load the bodies of dead prisoners onto a truck for burial after the liberation of Belsen in 1945

“We’d done a deal with the guards,” said Sonny, “that the guards would leave before the Brits came and took over the camp, though there were still a few people there: mostly Hitler Youth, as I understand it. Brigadier Gerrard had to shoot at least one of them.

“He said they didn’t really know what to do; they just contained the situation. Later the Americans came and they reacted a bit more emotionally. I think they released some of the remaining guards at the same time that they released the women and I believe the prisoners just tore the guards apart.

Nazi doctor. Fritz Klein stands amongst corpses in Mass Grave 3 at Belsen

Nazi doctor Fritz Klein stands knee-deep in corpses at Mass Grave Number 3 in Belsen

“Brigadier Gerrard said they released some Poles who had been prisoners of war in the camp and they went out and started killing Germans at random so, in the end, he had to send out a detail to round them up.

“He told me that, on Friday nights, British soldiers used to go down and smash every window in the town. Every week they smashed the windows; every week they were repaired; the following week they were smashed again. By this time, Brigadier Gerrard was the High Sheriff of Bergen-Belsen and he said he found out about what was happening by accident so he called the mayor in and asked Why didn’t you tell me about this before? and the mayor just shrugged.

“It was extraordinary meeting someone who had been there and experienced history.”

Indeed.

Lest we forget.

So it goes.

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Why do Germans laugh at an arguably tragic film about comic Lewis Schaffer?

Lewis Schaffer behind the Source Below door yesterday

Lewis Schaffer hides behind the Source Below door yesterday

What is happening to me?

Yesterday’s blog was about me failing to record a Skyped call with someone in Germany. I claimed a recording snafu had happened on only one other occasion. Then, last night in London, I buggered-up a recording of a post-Lewis Schaffer Soho solo show conversation.

This was the last of Lewis Schaffer’s Tuesday/Wednesday night Free Until Famous shows at Soho’s Source Below for 2013. He is back in January, after the venue allows space for Christmas parties, karaoke nights and the like.

We ended up after his show at a well-lit restaurant in London’s glamorous West End.

To be exact, upstairs at the Kentucky Fried Chicken just off Leicester Square.

Marina, Alex and Lewis last night

Marina Dulepina, Alex Mason and Lewis Schaffer last night

The ‘We’ were Lewis Schaffer, two of his entourage – Heather Stevens and Alex Mason – and Marina Dulepina who was heavily involved in the production of director Jonathan Schwab’s short film titled Lewis Schaffer is Free Until Famous.

“In Britain,” Lewis Schaffer explained, “the film wasn’t considered a comedy. It was considered to be very serious here. But, when they showed it in Germany, they thought it was hysterically funny. The bits where British and American people are in tears over the plight of Lewis Schaffer’s tragic life, the Germans see as a moral victory of the oppressed worker over…”

“What?” I asked.

“I dunno,” laughed Lewis Schaffer. “I’m making this up. But, in Germany, people did laugh at me.”

“You’re a Jew,” I said.

“They laugh at Jews in trouble,” said Lewis Schaffer. “Did people not laugh, Marina? It’s considered a comedy in Germany. Here, it’s considered a tragedy. The tragedy of Lewis Schaffer.”

“Why is it considered a comedy in Germany?” I asked.

“Ask Marina,” said Lewis Schaffer.

Marina was both shy and Latvian

Marina Dulepina was shy and Latvian last night

“She’s too shy to tell me,” I replied.

“That’s because she comes from Latvia,” explained Lewis Schaffer. “She comes from Russian parents and the Latvians are racist against the Russians because of forced colonisation after the War and…”

“Back to the Germans,” I said, “and don’t mention the War.”

“The reasons the Germans liked it are…” said Lewis Schaffer. “Why was the film funny, Alex?”

“It wasn’t!” said Alex Mason.

After this point, although my iPhone claimed it was recording, it did not.

Basically, from then on, Lewis Schaffer talked about what people thought of him… Marina coyly explained about the situation in Latvia… Alex Mason made some highly intelligent observations none of which I can remember… Lewis Schaffer talked about what other people thought of him… Heather mentioned she had been recognised by someone she didn’t know because he had seen her photo in my blog… and Lewis Schaffer talked some more about what other people thought of him.

Entourage member Heather reacts to another Schafferism

Entourage member Heather reacts to yet another Schafferism

Marina then explained that the original idea had been to make a film about a boxer.

I was not clear how this had changed into a film about a comedian, but thought it more interesting not to ask.

Then Lewis Schaffer talked about what people really thought of him and Heather buried her head in her arms.

It seems that Jonathan Schwab and Marina Dulepina had realised after first seeing Lewis Schaffer’s show that the more interesting film story was about Lewis Schaffer himself rather than about a stand-up comedian.

Lewis Schaffer was insistent – with some justification – that he is interesting because he is no different on-stage and off-stage and then talked about what people really think of him.

“People laughed in Germany,” he told me. “Did people laugh in Germany, Marina?”

Heather buried her head in her arms on the table.

I left after about an hour, at which point Alex Mason was explaining to Lewis Schaffer how bitcoins are created. Marina Dulepina appeared to be about to nod off and Heather had her head buried in her arms on the table. Lewis Schaffer was admirably continuing to maintain his American accent. It’s amazing how he does it.

It is a pity I failed to record what was said. There was a good blog in there.

This man could snore for the United Kingdom

This man could snore for the United Kingdom

But, on the other hand, I would have had to transcribe it.

Swings and roundabouts.

On my way home in the train, a large young man was fast asleep and snoring like an earth-boring machine tunnelling from Brownhills, in north Birmingham, to Alice Springs in Australia. Or possibly somewhere else.

Life is a trial.

Jonathan Schwab’s 10-minute film about Lewis Schaffer is online.

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