Tag Archives: World War II

At the Edinburgh Fringe, Paco Erhard is a German comic, not a comic German

(A version of this blog was published in the November 2011 edition of Mensa Magazine)

Paco Erhard is performing a comedy show at the Edinburgh Fringe called 5-Step Guide to Being German. We drank English breakfast tea at Fringe Central this week.

“There is an English obsession with Germany,” he told me, “but I think it’s getting less and less. It’s more or less the media who keep it going.”

When I met him, he had just got his first review for his show – a 4-star review – but, the previous day, he told me his show had not been successful –

“I didn’t do as well as I could.

“I am a German. Germany has got an inferiority/superiority complex. We basically have this feeling that nobody likes us and we have to stick together but we are better than everybody thinks we are. So, out of that inferiority complex comes a feeling of superiority and we have had that for too long. Germany has to change.

“As a kid, you don’t know what or who you are,” he told me. “Germany is a baby nation. Our country was just pieced together in 1871 and we don’t know who we are.

“The English are like the Germans. They no longer know who they are – the British Empire has gone; they can’t define who they are. The Scots are like the Bavarians. The Scots know very well who they are, what their traditions are and I would love Scottish-type patriotism for Germany. It’s a positive, very inviting patriotism.

“I like Scotland. I like America – I like how positive they are.

“I studied Literature and Philosophy at the German equivalent of the Open University, so I could travel. I lived in America when I was 17 and loved it – North Carolina – very friendly people and I watched lots of stand-up comedy on TV. That is where it started for me. I think it was more or less the year Bill Hicks died.

“I tried to be a writer for a long time but that meant I just stayed in trying to write and never went out meeting people I could write about. I was not quite normal. I got wrapped up in what I wanted the writing to mean rather than just telling a story.

“I did the whole writing thing until I was in Valencia when I saw an ad for a hotel entertainer in Magaluf and thought, Fuck it. That’s what I’m going to do.

“When I was in Majorca, I realised I liked being on stage and met my girlfriend of the time who was British. She had lived in Tenerife and persuaded me to do some compering and comedy there for British audiences there who were not, on average, all that clever. Wonderful people and I really enjoyed compering for them but, whenever I tried my stand-up, if I made any reference to anything that was outside Jordan and The X-Factor, they did not get very much out of it.

“If you add in a lot of racism and a bit of sexism, then you have a good comedy act for Tenerife. And insult people all the time.”

So did he add in racism and sexism?

“Well,” he told me, “I went to borderline things where I thought, I can still live with saying this and feel morally OK with it and not hate myself. But there was some stuff I could never have done with a clean conscience. It was not that terrible, but I would not like doing it for a long period.”

And did he get a lot of stick from predominantly English audiences for being German?

“Oh yeah, plenty! Sometimes I would say to someone in the front row: Don’t worry. Being German is not contagious: it’s not like you’re going to wake up at five in the morning with an incredible urge to invade Poland…

But, often, if I said that, the audience just sat there puzzled because, as my girlfriend explained to me, they had no idea what Poland had to do with anything. These were not 18 year-olds; they were all older people but, to them, the Second World War was just England v Germany and England won 5-1.

“I had lots of material I could never do and so, just over two years ago, I came to London to do ‘proper’ comedy. And, of course, my selling-point in Britain is that I am a German.

“There came a point when I came back from America when I saw my country from the outside for the first time and I started to not want to be German at all. I felt I was German but different. I was born in Munich but moved eight or nine times as a kid, so I saw how various parts of Germany are so different from each other.

“We do have a sense of humour but there’s a much bigger internal division between the different states and between people’s behaviour in public and in private than in any other country I know of. There is the personality you have in private and the face you show to the outside world. In the workplace, there’s no place for humour or screwing around. In private, you can be a completely different person.

“In Germany, there’s a lot you can hate and love at the same time, like the whole order thing. The precision is great, but sometimes you think Just relax. Let go.

“I was at a wedding in Hamburg a few months back – my girlfriend’s friends – and the father of the bride was told I was a comedian and he tensed up. He thought I would go round later making jokes about it and anarchistically destroy everything that he saw as beautiful.

“I think in Germany, there’s a fear of chaos. Humour is great, but it has its place; it is dangerous if there is too much because it might just corrode everything.

“That’s what I love about Britain. Things are more relaxed.

“Here in Britain, I want to be a comedian first and a German second. I do not want to be a comic German. I want German to be the adjective and the noun to be Comic.

A few days after our chat, Paco got a second review for his show – there had been a reviewer in the day before our chat – he had seen the show which Paco knew had not worked well – the show in which, Paco told me, “I didn’t do as well as I could.”

The Broadway Baby reviewer gave Paco Erhard’s 5-Step Guide to Being German a 5-star review.

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Filed under Comedy, Germany, Racism, Scotland

Two more tales of racism and xenophobia at ITV – both of them perfectly understandable in the circumstances

Following on from my recent blog about sex and Jewish stereotypes at Granada Television in Manchester during the 1980s, are two stories about executive perks and free cars.

I worked at ITV when money was swilling about.

After recordings of entertainment shows Game For a Laugh and Surprise! Surprise! at London Weekend Television, Mercedes-Benz cars would queue up late night, waiting to take participants off home or to their hotels – the mini-cab company used by LWT drove only Merecedes-Benz.

That was fair enough.

Always treat your programme participants well – especially on ‘real people’ shows.

But I heard interesting stories at two of the other ITV companies I worked for – about the cars which top executives were given as part of their pay packages.

At Anglia TV, two of the top men at the company had been imprisoned by the Japanese during World War II. So top executives were allowed to choose any car they liked within a certain price range provided it was not a Japanese car. For understandable reasons.

Granada TV was founded and run by the Jewish entrepreneur Sidney Bernstein. I was told that, in the early days of the company, top executives – as at Anglia – were given cars as part of their salary package, but they could only have non-German cars. Granada would not buy, rent or lease any German car. Again for obvious reasons. Though, by the time I worked there, this rule had been changed and executives could have German cars because, it was said, Sidney had been shown that using German cars made economic sense.

Perhaps that was an urban myth, though I suspect it was true.

Granada nourished myths.

But it is ironic that it was BBC TV not ITV which popularised the saying: “Don’t mention the War!”

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Painting a New York fart, Tony Blair and Jo Brand

Yesterday, in response to my blog mentioning farteur Mr Methane, Jackie Hunter, former features editor of The Scotsman newspaper, reminded me that early 20th-century artist Maxfield Parrish painted a fart into a mural that now adorns the famous King Cole Bar in New York’s St Regis hotel. I have to agree with her that painting a fart is quite an achievement.

Yesterday was a funny old mixture of a day because British comedians are now planning for the Edinburgh Fringe in August. Going to the Fringe, like having a baby, is a nine-month project involving a lot of nausea, pain and uncertain results.

Charlie Chuck phoned me about his planned return to Edinburgh which sounds suitably unusual and the extraordinarily multi-talented Janey Godley, not planning to play the Edinburgh Fringe this year but just about to go to the Adelaide Fringe, told me about two possibilities she has been unexpectedly offered in two totally different media. From Janey, the unexpected comes as no surprise.

In the afternoon, I had to take a friend to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich which, for reasons I can’t begin to fathom, is surrounded by a high Grade A security fence which makes it look more like a Stalag Luft Queen Elizabeth II escape-proof prison camp in World War II or a Ministry of Defence site in the Cold War.

In the evening, I went to Vivienne & Martin Soan’s monthly Pull The Other One comedy club at the beleaguered and now closed Ivy House pub in Nunhead. The venue was re-opened specially for the night to stage Pull The Other One with this month’s headliner Jo Brand.

Vivienne & Martin now have their next six shows arranged but with no definite venue and are looking round, although they would prefer to stay at the warmly ornate and atmospheric mirrored ‘golden room’ behind the Ivy House bar. One local alternative might be The Old Waiting Room at Peckham Rye Station.

Comedian and novelist Dominic Holland, making his second appearance at Pull The Other One called it “the weirdest gig that exists,” which it surely is. The format is about two hours of variety acts and two stand-up comics. Unusually, nowadays, the bizarre variety acts – far be it from me to name-drop Bob Slayer and Holly Burn – are as important to the feel of the shows as the stand-ups.

Afterwards, Dominic told me that his 14-year-old son Tom Holland, recently on stage as Billy Elliot in the West End, is currently in Thailand filming a lead role in major Hollywood blockbuster The Impossible. I thought Dominic was probably ‘talking up’ this film out of fatherly pride until I looked it up on IMDB Pro and found it is a big-budget tsunami disaster movie “starring Ewan McGregor and Tom Holland” and is one of the “most anticipated films of 2011”.

Other shocks of the evening were that the much talked-about cult comedian Dr Brown has got an entirely new character act in which he actually moves and talks semi-coherently. And I heard that legendary ‘open spot’ act Jimbo – he seems to have been doing open spots as long as Cilla Black has been acting-out the role of ordinary woman next door – is now getting paid gigs, has allegedly changed into a (different) character act and is perhaps going to the Edinburgh Fringe. If he won an award as Best Newcomer at the Fringe it would be very funny and would be a triumph for Brian Damage of Pear Shaped, who has long championed Jimbo and other – even by my standards – very, very bizarre acts.

A very funny night at Pull The Other One ended very entertainingly but totally unsurprisingly with nudity. There were even some calls for The Naked Balloon Dance of fond memory.

Meanwhile, out in the real world, Tunisia continued to stumble around like a blinded meerkat towards potential anarchic chaos and tanks were rolling around Cairo to prevent what threatened to be a popular uprising.

Is it my imagination or have things deteriorated badly in that area since the United Nations, evidently an organisation with no sense of irony, appointed Tony Blair as Middle East Peace Envoy and why is it I never actually see any pictures of him in the Middle East?

Could it be he’s just too busy talking to God and this week, according to The Times, signing a six-figure deal to make four speeches for a hedge fund which made around £100 million by betting on the collapse of the Northern Rock bank in the UK?

This was shortly after the Daily Mail reported that he got £300,000 for making one speech for banking giant Goldman Sachs, while he had a £2.5 million deal as “advisor”  to JP Morgan, who, according to London’s Evening Standard, won a contract to set up an Iraqi bank in the wake of the US-led invasion.

Which gets us back to the subject of Mr Methane and farting around the world and brings up the possibly pertinent question:

What is the difference between being a comedian and taking the piss?

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UFOs, toad-vomiting, the KGB, the CIA and Saddam Hussein’s gay marriage

I went to the first day of the Fortean Times‘ UnConvention at the University of Westminster today to see comedian Helen Keen’s hour long show It Is Rocket Science! which blends science, comedy and bizarre facts and unusually sat among even more bizarre fare. She was wildly enthusiastic, even by her high standards.

Fortean Times is the self-proclaimed ‘Journal of Strange Phenomena’ which non-readers assume concocts loony stories of crop circles, UFOs and conspiracy theories but which regular readers know casts a sceptical eye on anything strange and apparently inexplicable.

Presentations in today’s UnConvention included Ian Ridpath comprehensively demolishing the so-called Rendelesham Forest UFO Incident by going back to the original sources – US Air Force reports, UK police records and audio tapes actually recorded at the time – to reveal rational and arguably even mundane explanations of allegedly alien events which have escalated into OTT UFO myth – basically, he convincingly argued that the alleged ‘alien craft’ was a combination of a known falling fireball that night and a local lighthouse’s flashing light. It was an interesting dissection of how a myth gathers momentum.

As was Jan Bondeson’s talk on “The Bosom Serpent” – hundreds of years of stories of snakes, frogs and even a hen lurking inside people’s bodies. Jan, a senior lecturer and consultant rheumatologist at Cardiff University by day, came over as a cross between Dr Strangelove and Jimmy Carr with a droll line in dry humour. I was particularly impressed with his telling of the true tale of Catharina Geisslerin, the so-called Toad-Vomiting Woman of Altenburg, and how the cure for another historical figure’s frog-vomiting was to drink three pints of horse urine. Well, I guess that would cure you of complaining about anything else although the alternative remedies of luring snakes out of their lair in people’s stomachs by enticing them with sweet-smelling milk or cheese or even using an improvised fishing rod seem a tad easier.

Then there was Mark Pilkington on myth-making by the world’s Intelligence services and tales of how a Chinese lantern can become a time-travelling Nazi flying saucer and how Communist insurgents in the Philippines were routed by the CIA’s leaked fictional rumours of a winged vampire (something only topped by Helen Keen’s revelation in It Is Rocket Science! of American plans in World War II to attack mainland Japan using thousands of bats with miniature bombs attached to them).

Aside from Mark Pilkington’s tales of the KGB’s First Directorate and their successful plot to spread a false rumour that AIDs resulted from CIA plans to develop a genetic and/or ethnic weapon… and the Rand Corporation’s 1950 paper by Jean M.Hungerford on “The Exploitation of Superstitions for Purposes of Psychological Warfare”, I was particularly interested to hear that the US Government’s short-lived Psychological Strategy Board as long ago as the early 1950s had suggested using existing respected cultural organisations to spread stories.

In the 1990s, I knew a Western European who, during the Cold War, had been a deep cover sleeper agent for the Soviets. He had been ‘run’ via the East Germans. When he was caught by the Americans in Germany, they debriefed him in Washington, but not in any CIA or Defense Department building. He was instead debriefed by the CIA in the offices of a major international cultural magazine.

The most fascinating thing I learnt during today’s UnConvention, though, was about Generoso Pope Jnr, a man I had never heard of before. Formerly employed by the CIA’s psychological warfare unit and with links to the Mafia (his son’s godfather was mob boss Frank Costello), Generoso Pope Jnr bought the New York Enquirer in 1952 (allegedly with money from Costello) and re-named it the National Enquirer, spawning future stories which not only claimed that the existence of the Mafia was a myth concocted by the Communists but also, via its sister paper the Weekly World News, publishing stories of an alien face on the Moon, the dead Elvis Presley seen working in local grocery stores and a gay marriage between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden with the happy couple adopting a shaved ape baby named Robert, who posed as a human child.

Now THAT’s what I CALL a conspiracy theory!

And who would have thought either the Mafia or the CIA had a sense of humour?

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