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Scene in Berlin

Not just for laughs: English comedy is essential comfort blanket in Berlin

Anglophone comedy is now a bona fide "scene" in Berlin, thanks mainly to a bar called SIN. Driven by desperate attempts to fit in, and jokes about shelf toilets, insecure Anglo-Saxons have finally found a bolt-hole.

Scene in Berlin

It was bound to happen. There were so many sexually desperate English speakers hanging around in Berlin, lacking motivation to learn German (because most Germans would rather miss a grill party than an opportunity to practice their English), that it was only a matter of time before enough of them coalesced in a small bar and turned it into a comedy club - at least once a month.

That bar is called SIN, and the night is Comedy in SIN. There were other English comedy nights in Berlin before - but they always took place on foreign ground, one way or another. Either they happened as a token Sunday-night experiment in places like the Kookaburra, a wood-panelled German comedy establishment that peddles the refined wit of sketch-shows, or they were one-off performances in the English Theater Berlin. Theaters are no good for comedians - comedians need the smell of spilled beer, the comfort of alcohol, and the remote chance of sex that only a bar provides.

So Comedy in SIN is where something resembling "a scene" was first born about a year ago. A scene usually means more than one night in one bar, but it is a successful night (the dilapidated sofas are severely tested) in exactly the right kind of bar - small, dark, financially unstable, and run by a middle-aged American rock musician. You get a lot for your three euros entry - some whisky, for a start, and about 10 acts ranging from beginners to slight geniuses, with a lot of patchy in-between states of tarnished brilliance, artistic ambition, insecurity, vanity, anger and misplaced talent. Every psychological flaw gets a chance.

A leisurely rat-race

If you think you're funny, this is where you find out. Except you don't, because the audience - a balanced mix of English speakers and Germans - is very friendly, and your peers, also grateful to have found a place they belong, are not critical enough. Everyone knows each other too well - the "scene," if that's what this collection of lonely souls amounts to, is still in a vulnerable new-born phase.

SIN's regular co-founder and host Paul Salamone once articulated the problem perfectly in his blog: "It's hard to tell your friends when they suck without stinking up the room, and yet that's the only way a scene can progress in lieu of a larger comedy milieu. (...) Nevertheless, these statements need to be made. Gingerly."

"Let's face it," the prolific and ambitious Paul admitted, "Real English-speaking comedians will probably need to eventually work in London, New York, or LA (or if they do improv, Chicago) if they ever hope to succeed." But Berlin is a slower rat-race, where the rats don't mind sitting in their jogging pants all day, cheerily encouraging each other's hopeless artistic ambitions.

But all these English-speaking Berlin comics, as comfortable as they might seem, still have a fire in them that compels them to wrestle their demons on stage. And that fire is fueled by Germany. It turns out that being an insecure Anglo-Saxon embedded in German culture is a seam of comedy gold that reaches deep.

Shelf toilets, traffic lights and nudism

The jokes about Germany are almost readymade; like Dadaist objects, they are right there on the streets. Take pedestrian crossings, for example. No German-based English comic has not mastered a routine about how Germans obey the red man and the green man too much. Then there are "shelf," or "landing pad" toilets - the mysterious Teutonic insistence on keeping poo dry for a moment longer leads to infinite hilarious speculations. Ditto the German affection for nudist culture. All these jokes tap into the received understanding of the German national character - and it helps that laughing at Germans is a well-honed Anglo-American tradition since - well - since the war. There, I mentioned it.

But, as Paul said, "Those jokes are like training wheels - everyone uses them in the beginning to get some cheap laughs and confidence up, but then the goal is either a) to start approaching those hackneyed topics in a very creative way, or b) to find weirder, more obscure stuff to talk about. This is hard, because everyone in the audience knows about the traffic lights, the nudity, and World War II, but not a lot know that, for instance, Wilhelm II had a withered arm or that the round poles everyone puts their posters on are called dicke Damen ["fat ladies"]."

But however obvious or obscure these jokes are, however stupid or sophisticated, the main point is that you need them, and your audience needs them. They define the English comedy "scene." They have become what binds Anglophones together after a hard day of trying not to be treated like a tourist. No, damn it, we actually live here! We really like it!

Ben Knight has performed at SIN, the Kookaburra, and English Theater Berlin. He hopes he's got it out of his system now.

Editor: Kate Bowen

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