Germans are not famous for their sense of humor. But Bavarian stand-up comic Michael Mittermeier is hoping to change this. Having already won over audiences in his homeland, he took his show to South Africa.
Michael Mittermeier has been a stand-up comic for 23 years
The upcoming the soccer World Cup has focused all eyes on South Africa. For one German stand-up comedian, it was also an excuse to find out more about the comedy circuit in Cape Town. What Bavarian Michael Mittermeier found was so intriguing, that he decided to film a documentary about it. That film, "Mittermeier in Cape Town," aired Wednesday evening on German television.
Mittermeier may fill stadiums at his shows in his homeland, but South African audiences were another challenge altogether. At the Cape Town comedy festival in 2009, Mittermeier had to perform his material in front of an unfamiliar audience, and in English.
"For me the mother language of stand-up comedy is English, it's not German!" Mittermeier told Deutsche Welle. "My biggest heroes in comedy, Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks, they taught me a lot from their stand-up routines."
Mittermeier had to rework all his material for Cape Town.
One of the aspects of the trip that inspired him was that the passion for comedy in South Africa was still very fresh.
"Every country is different," he said. "In South Africa, democracy was only established in 1994, and it was not until around 2000 that people started to get into comedy."
As part of his tour of Cape Town, Mittermeier visited the new soccer stadium
"Now there are a lot of young comedians, wannabe comedians in the clubs and a lot of comedy now going on in South Africa."
Confronting the past
One up-and-coming South African comedian is Loyiso Bola, who Mittermeier met during his stay in Cape Town. Much of Bola's humor comes from challenging audiences to accept some of the darker elements of South African history. The comedy revolution took a long time, Bola says in Mittermeier's documentary.
"It really started out in 2000. People understood poetry and theater, but comedy, they just asked: "What? He's just going to stand up there and talk?" said Bola.
In Mittermeier's own routine, there are parallels between the jokes he makes about the Nazis and the South African jokes about apartheid. He says comedy helps people talk or laugh about things that are painful.
"Humor is a release for when you feel dark or have bad times," Mittermeier said. "Humor can be a method of dealing with bad stuff.
Those organizing comedy shows and festivals in Cape Town say that learning to laugh together is the first step towards better relations. For his documentary, Mittermeier met with politicians who are proud of their flourishing comedy scene. Cape Town Premier Helen Zille thinks that comedy brings the city together.
"At the comedy festival I love looking at the crowd as much as I like looking at the comedians," she said. "Because we have a South African sense of humor now."
Taking to the stage
Mittermeier had to tap into this South African sense of humor to adapt his sets for a new audience. It is not just a case of translating his jokes into English; he also had to find topics that worked for international audiences.
Soccer, like comedy, unites people
Part of the exhilaration of Cape Town for Mittermeier was working as a completely unknown comedian. Despite the crowd not knowing him, he said the people were "open" and "loved to laugh."
"If you go to a new country and they don't know you - you have no credit. So when they laugh, you know that it is because it is funny. They don't care that I have a name in Germany. I like this. I like the risk."
His sets in Cape Town seemed to hit the mark with his audience. Now the next challenge for his English language tour is taking him to Montreal, for the Just for Laughs festival in July.
The growing comedy scene is just one way that South Africa challenges the preconceptions that many people in Europe may have of the country.
Mittermeier argues that the German media are "very negative" about the country and dwell on the "crime rate, HIV and corruption." He said he wanted his documentary to show a different side to the country.
"For sure there is a dark side in South Africa - but we Germans are always talking about dark sides," he said.
Cape Town has experienced new investment due to the World Cup
His viewpoint is echoed by one of his South African friends, comedian Kurt Schoonraad, who Mittermeier interviewed in the documentary. Schoonraad grew up in Cape Town and says the country has changed.
"Fifteen years ago, we had a lot less than we have today, and I'm not talking about the stadiums and buildings going up," Schoonraad said. "You were not allowed to go to certain parts of town, or certain beaches because you were the wrong color."
"We've overcome all these things. Now we can sit in the theater together and laugh about the same things."
Author: Catherine Bolsover
Editor: Chuck Penfold