Of all things, he is an English standup comedian in Berlin since 2004. For S2S our American correspondent Mike Trupiano discusses with Harris the trials and tribulations of trying to make Berliners laugh.
S2S: So, you’re from Nottingham, England and you perform English standup comedy in Berlin. How are German audiences? Rowdy?
James Harris: Unlike in Britain, I’ve certainly never encountered a very drunk German crowd. There’s the guy in every audience in Britain who think’s he’s funnier than the comedian and wants to impress his date by proving that. This person is not present in Germany generally. I find German audiences generally very respectful and, I have to say, sometimes a little bit too respectful.
S2S: Are you moving to London this summer?
JH: Yes. I want the challenge of that scene. That’s the next step. I also speak German, French and a little Russian so I’m excited by the multilingual possibilities of the European circuit. I currently also have an act entirely in German.
S2S: Is your family back home behind you in your comedic endeavors?
JH: Yeah. Considering some of my other ideas of things I could do, standup probably sounds pretty reasonable.
JH: Freelance poet.
S2S: Have you been in Berlin for a long time?
JH: Yes. I’m one of those typical Berliners who’ve been on the verge of leaving for years and years. One of the reasons, as a relative beginner, that I’ve stayed in Berlin so long is this accessibility of getting a lot of performance time.
S2s: Not too much competition?
JH: Definitely. I would recommend any young comedian who’s tired of begging for stage time in London or New York or wherever to come to Berlin. There’s opportunities to perform in English virtually every night of the week and it’s a great place to train. There’s not enough of an audience to do English comedy full time but the scene is great. It’s pretty tight knit because you’ve got this mutual isolation as foreigners kind of clumped together and supporting each other.
S2S: Standup comedy in general seems an English-speaking ‘thing’.
JH: I think it’s fair to say that English is the dominant language of standup comedy. The models, which are now springing up all over the place, are all derived from the English-speaking world. So, that means English comedy has a certain cultural cache. It’s like sort of French wine or Italian clothes. English comedy – it’s a concept which exists for people.
S2S: I laughed out loud at your bit about being in a bar with German friends and silently flirting German style.
JH: Sitting in silence feeling oppressed by the weight of history.
S2S: Germans like that joke?
JH: They grudgingly laugh.
S2S: Let’s segue into the weight of that history. You do a bit about the Holocaust the way, to me, a joke like that needs to be done – putting down your own country so that the joke is more about English incompetency and actually praising German know-how. Part of it goes – ‘We could never do the Holocaust in England because everything is fucked. Nothing works. The trains would break down before they got to the camps.’
JH: Absolutely. You’d have all the Jews waiting for a replacement bus, which, of course, never arrives. To soften the bite of a joke about such sensitive material, you have to dish it out in both directions. My mother is half-Jewish, by the way, so I do have some family ties to that history.
S2S: There seems like so much comedic potential in talking about the war but are you allowed to do it much as a foreigner?
JH: It’s a good question. If you do it as a foreigner, it’s different than a native German because Germans have this shared guilt, which you as a foreigner don’t share. So, I think it’s – as you say – I think it’s very, very rich territory. You have to realize there’s just this huge burden Germans have of never letting the mask drop that they’re all very, very sorry about all this stuff.
S2S: You have to honor that as a comedian.
JH: If you as a comedian take it all too lightly, then I think an audience feels like it’s getting away from this culpability. So, that’s not great for comedy. I really would love to talk more about this stuff, but I just palpably feel this moment when I start doing material about Nazis and they just tense up.
S2S: For outsiders to come in and probe such a loaded history seems fraught with peril.
JH: But that is comedy, isn’t it? And the fact that there’s this enormous uptightness about it means as a comic that you naturally gravitate toward that place. We all want to explore the taboo places – sex, death, etc – but there’s also, at a basic level, this idea of being a guest in Germany and to talk about those things does sometimes feel a bit like bad manners. So, there’s resistance from the audience and also an internal resistance. But you still want to go there.
S2S: As standup comedy’s popularity grows, what of the German reputation of loving paperwork, documentation and certificates? In other words, can you show the objective proof that you are indeed a comedian?
JH: At the moment, officially, no. You’ll have to trust me and just come to a show where I promise I’ll prove it. In the future, however, as the scene grows, I do foresee in Germany a state-sponsored standup comedy diploma. If at a show the audience is not laughing, you can pull out the certification that you are indeed funny and they must laugh. Laugh or at the least smile.