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Culture

Bridging the Transatlantic Comedy Divide

One of Germany's most promising new comedy talents isn't German at all--he's American. John Doyle has been working to make Germans laugh for eight years. His efforts have paid off and he's achieved national recognition.

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John Doyle, funny guy.

John Doyle has been through more than a few trying times in his eight-year relationship with stand-up comedy. He remembers his first solo show in Cologne, where he had to perform for 90 minutes. He got exactly two laughs.

"And even then the audience wasn't laughing at my jokes, but at my one-year-old son who'd decided to take a stroll across the stage," he told Deutsche Welle.

Then there was the time at a rock music festival when he followed a music act. One minute into his routine and the beer bottles and curses started flying. Five minutes later, he literally ran for his life from the stage.

"I almost needed therapy after that," he said.

How times change. Last month, Doyle stood on stage at Star Search, a televised talent show of sorts, and performed to an audience of 3.1 million. They loved him. He moved steadily ahead in the competition, leaving his native-born competitors in the dust. During the final, some 5.5 million tuned in.

Those flying beer bottles are but a distant memory, since today its contracts and acclaim that are hurtling his way. While he didn't win the Star Search final, he did mightily impress Germany's comedy community.

"That's the best that I've seen in a long time," said Hugo Egon Balder, one of Germany's leading comedy promoters and a Star Search jury members.

Now Doyle has now been asked to be one of the headliners for Blue Monday, a show on German television which features up-and-coming talent. Two days later there's a comedy festival and back to back gigs. All of the sudden, the once struggling American comedian who almost begged for bookings at Rotary Club meetings is having to turn down offers.

Masochistic tendencies?

John Doyle

John Doyle

Doyle admits doing comedy in Germany, in German, is not the easiest job in the world, and not what he thought he would be doing when he came to Germany twelve years ago for a language course. He stayed, married a German and had a child. Still, some aspects of life here were hard to get used to.

"Germany is more serious than America in some ways, especially in daily life," he said. "I needed some levity, so I started to make jokes about life here, basically using comedy as a way of dealing with my reality."

As his command of the language improved, he decided to go public with his jokes, which often deal with being caught somewhere in the middle of Germany and America. He says he feels like something of an outsider to both cultures, a condition that might lead to low-level psychic trauma at times, but puts him in an ideal place to make droll observations about the absurdities in both societies.

"I mean, if I see someone standing at a deserted street corner at 2:00 a.m. waiting for the light to change before he crosses the street, I'm going to grab that, because an American wouldn't do that," he said. "A German probably wouldn't pick up on the humor in that picture."

Not that different

While the cliché of the humourless German might still be alive and kicking, Doyle says it's not that much harder to get Germans to laugh than it is to get Americans to bust a gut. Both audiences are demanding, he said, and want clever material that they can relate to in some way. The trick, he said, is simple in theory and extremely difficult in practice: figuring out what they find funny.

There are some differences though. While topics around sex are often good for a laugh, German audiences won't go as far as their American counterparts. Doyle says there are still taboos in Germany that have mostly faded in the U.S. and if a comedian ventures too far, accusations of being crude and hitting below the belt are quick to fly.

On the other hand, since Germans can have a more relaxed attitude towards sex over all than the average American, jokes that a U.S. audience would find risqué and therefore funny can fall flat in Germany.

"The response is sometimes like--so what?" Doyle said.

The funny American

Being known primarily as "that funny American guy" has been both good and bad for Doyle's comedy career. His foreignness has given him more license to try out material that Germans might not get away with. He says because he's not German, he isn't under the same constraints.

"You're not breaking rules, because the rules don't apply to you," he said. "People just laugh and think, look at John, that weird American."

At the same time, there are downsides. He lacks some of the common frames of reference that his German colleagues share with their audiences. And since he is so strongly identified as an American, he is limited to stand-up gigs. Sketch comedy, popular on German television right now, is not an option for him. He couldn't just play a taxi driver or the henpecked husband because the audience wouldn't accept it.

But he can live with that. Stand-up is his love and he's hoping it's going to take him to his own show one of these days. Right now he's basking in the attention his Star Search success has brought him and relishing the hard-won recognition. "I always felt that there was something big inside me and it was disappointing since no one seemed to know it except for me and my wife," Doyle laughed. "It's exciting to know that I wasn't completely deluding myself all those years."

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