He is a very funny man and if you went to our Launch Party this summer at Emerson Gallery Berlin, you have encountered James Harris live and know why. But did you know that Harris is also a very entertaining fiction writer? Here is his latest story called Trivia.
Nobody knew how he did it. We had been watching intently for months, our eyes spotlighting him from the aisles of the cellar, as he performed his act. Even when we elected not to watch he would appear upstairs, where we were waiting, with such a grin that we knew immediately he had pulled it off, or rather out, again. Nobody knew how he did it.
I would go down quickly and observe the crowd, storing up who was clapping particularly assertively – more so than during my set, anyway and who was reserved; the reactions of comedians to each others’ sets were a matter as intricate as 17th-century court politics. We judged each other. In the audience’s mind there may have been the possibility that two different acts could work but not in mine. It was either/or, success for Axel – or success for me.
‘Axel, das ist ein Kerl, der sehr begabt ist,’ I said, pulling on my rum and cola in the upstairs room. ‘Auch ich gönne ihm das.’
The men stood around me, their eyes were quite hollow, tired from the loading and maintenance of equipment, not paid to hear this crap. In the evening, the room would be stripped, apart from me, looking to figure out how he did it, and not just that; how he kept an audience in the palm of his hand.
We were stepping out in a cabaret bar, on a tiny stage with no wings and the audience right up our noses. Night after night the acts would head out there to pull grimaces and tumble through the dusty air. The show ran backstage, too, the older pros discussing the reception, the young contenders soaking it up, and all this then taken back out on stage again, as in Kurt Brubeck’s frequent opening sally ‘Es wird heftig über dieses Publikum diskutiert’, everybody is talking about this crowd, because, like he said, audiences liked to be flattered.
Sometimes I sat in the dressing room, other times upstairs at the bar with Corey, the unpaid Praktikantin. I talked, often extensively, into her features square and hale which had something relentlessly wholesome about them. That night, I remember, Brubeck came up first, a beard sprouting man with a huge belly hanging over his tracksuit bottoms – and all the fat contrived, too. Brubeck would be seen, after another bludgeoning, wobbling assault on his audience, propped up against the frame of the dressing room, talking it up regardless of the perceived success or otherwise of his performance that evening. Younger comedians such as myself in particular received regular edicts from this self-appointed comic grandee who in reality had little except success and money to his name.
Now he was here, whisky and cola in his hand, snarling, talking miss-stressed American English with over-eager leadenness. He was telling me about German TV, which he had got himself into, checking sporadically to flirt with Corey behind the bar. He had got an offer from no less than the Harald Schmidt show and ‘the money, the money is enorm’. But what would he talk about? ‘It’s not about that – it’s about market presence.’ He took a swig at his whiskey. ‘Harald and I are good friends.’
What I understood least was where Brubeck got his encouragement from. Everyone in Bar Berri – apart from certain impressionable young females – loathed him and many nights he did next to nothing up there, died on his great fat ass. Sure, he always had some backers in the crowd, and not just friends; I had the feeling these were often executives making sure to laugh convincingly, scouts and movers who clubbing together to sponsor Brubeck, convincing themselves what they were seeing was verkannte Genie, unrecognized genius, as opposed to total crap – the latter being my opinion. And now Brubeck was telling me how it is.
‘And Barrymore says to me then – ‘Listen, Kurt – don’t you worry. The best comedian on the world could not make that audience laugh’. Know why? Because, he says, that’s a clapping audience, not a laughing audience. You go stick your head outside that stage door now. So I do and what do I hear?’
Then he mimed a tiny but steady clapping with both hands. At this moment Axel came up from downstairs. He went past Brubeck, ordered a gin and tonic, and drank a mouthful before Kurt intervened.
‘Scheint Dir gut gelungen zu sein.’
‘Naja – obwohl das, wie du ganz sicher bemerkt hast, eher ein Klatschpublikum ist.’
‘Haste nicht gesagt?’
‘Ja – Das habe ich gesagt.’
While Axel had spoken with his attention focused entirely on the drink, Kurt had monitored his reactions finely. ‘I gotta speak to his agent!’ he said with a look over to me, continuing ‘Muss gehen. Ich muss mich morgen noch auf einen Fernsehauftritt vorbereiten.’
‘Viel Erfolg,’ said Axel, and continued his gin.
A moment’s pause; then Kurt said ‘Gotta speak to his agent!’, and paced out of the door to his adjacent carshare.
After a pause, Axel said; ‘Wie gehts, junger Mann?’
‘Nicht so jung,’ I said. ‘Fast 27.’ Almost 27.
‘Fast 27!’ he said. ‘Hast Du irgendeine Idee, wie lange es her ist, als ich in Deinem Alter war?’, meaning, do you have any idea how long it was since I was your age?
‘No idea, sir,’ I said respectfully.
Let me tell you for him. Axel Kaiserschnitt had been working the club and theatre scene of Berlin for upwards of twenty years and was closing in on forty-six. He had this thin brown hair, a wide nasal bridge and sadly crumbled teeth, from behind which a fine, discriminating Hochdeutsch glode. With his height, which reached to almost two metres, coupled with his slenderness, in his hunting jacket, which he sometimes wore in the changing room, even blowing distractingly into a duck-caller in response to other comedian’s comebacks, for he was a man of the outdoors, was Axel; in all these features together that lent him an air of unalloyed grand masculinity he leant towards me on that Berlin night. Did he smoke? Yes, he did, blowing small rings out from backstage. Was he talkative? Sure he was, always happy to deprecate himself or detail the way of life of the former GDR.
The great mystery with Axel was how he hadn’t made it and it had come to be my opinion that this was largely his choice. I mean, he had made it to the extent that almost every turn he did was begun to huge applause and followed by a steady chorus of ‘Zu–ga–BE!’, but not in the sense that he was underexposed, without agent and, as it was then suggested, had been a sometime Harz IV Empfänger.
His living conditions amounted to a small flat furnished for one and it was there that I ended up that evening, to drink brandy coffee with him and hear him describe his craft. I didn’t speak much German then – I wasn’t allowed to – but in case of my relationship with Axel it was definitely preferable to speak than his English, he still reaping the benefits of compulsory Russian classes at his East German school.
‘Junger Mann, es funktionert so -’ Young man, it’s like this – I translate only reluctantly, knowing how much is lost, how absolutely of his culture Axel was – ‘that the public want to feel special. They are not a public but the public. You must make them feel unique, treasured, loved. In this case there is something of a sexual dynamic to performance.
It took me a great many years to become merely adept. I toured small venues across the GDR. There was heavy censorship. Performer and audience developed a complex set of relations – we were all in it together. You could suggest a political intrigue just by your choice of fruit: to slip on a banana skin, for example, carried with it certain connotations in East Germany. One couldn’t just sing or make a Trabby joke; for many people, the Trabant was an esteemed car and the day you received one was a cause for rejoicing.’
He took a sip from his mug. ‘You know I never lost the sense that I’m one of the crowd. Following my own argument, maybe what I want is to make love with myself! But that’s the only way to keep free of getting dislocated. What I mean is – standing there making the same joke or trick. Laughter but cold inside. I try – you should try – to steer clear of that. If you’re bored of your jokes write new ones; or improvise, or juggle, or clown.’ He sipped again. ‘Audiences love nothing more than the thing which only they get.’
Before leaving I asked for his number, but he didn’t even own a mobile phone, and said that the one business card he had got designed had been so mocked by his friends – shell-suited men on social security – that he instead wrote his details out on other people’s cards and handed them back to them. As for said flat, it consisted, as far as I could see, of chipped plastic furniture, white walls and a linoleum floor. The whole place could not have been larger than the average flower-stall.
You might also not be surprised to learn that one of the few clusters of color enlivening the space were the labels of vodka bottles on the kitchen shelf and within the cupboard. Axel drank and came from a culture that drank but he was by no means an alcoholic; he would have been disgusted at the thought of ever performing under the influence of drink. Indeed looking at his face now it brought to mind an ageing angel. This is not to say he had anything of an angel’s elevation. Heaven knows he was good at what he did, cutting and capering about that air night after night, but there was nothing essentially transcendent about him. Besides, he could have reached out for the money at any time.
The gigs kept coming and I kept working at them. And before I left him that night, Axel made me an offer.
‘Next Sunday I have the misfortune to be playing a little place called Hennigsdorf, forty minutes north of Berlin. I wondered if you wanted to warm them up…’
I accepted, flattered at the offer, and resolved inwardly to be good. Because even now, years later, there is nothing to compare to an audience rocking with laughter. It’s a thing not to be analyzed or quantified, it just happens. Going up there was like stepping into a secret room and the more you got up there the more it became just another room you lived in. But it also became, at certain times, a room with a hidden trapdoor which led to a very dark place.
There was a lot of laughter in those days. It happens when you’re growing and gigging at the same time. When it is going well people start to notice and one night when I came off stage Brubeck stood before the exit door. He leant forward, blue tracksuit, white T-Shirt hammocking a rotund belly.
He said, ‘Very OK, young man. You’re quite good.’
‘Danke schön,’ I replied, in my usual subtle attempt to change the language of discourse to German. Too subtle for Brubeck, who said, ‘You maybe wanna grab a beer later?’
The light of the dressing room glimmered behind him. ‘Weiβt Du Kurt… Ich bin so müde…’
‘Oh man! – Because I wanted to talk to you maybe about a TV slot.’
‘Yesss. A week Sunday…’
As soon as he made the offer the figure of Axel came in to my mind, and our prior engagement. But still Brubeck went on; ‘At Unfug.’
‘Unfug?’ This was a semi-legendary Berlin comedy club, the second established in the city after the Wall fell. Playing there would have been the zenith of my infant career, an honor normally reserved for such comic greats as Russell Brand and Germans who dressed up as ethnic minorities. It was an offer impossible to refuse, and yet –
‘I’ll think about it,’ I said.
‘I need an answer now,’ said Brubeck, pressing gum into his mouth.
‘Yes,’ I said.
What was I supposed to do? Often in those days I thought success was just one phone-call or judiciously placed business card away. I knew I was letting Axel down – and I didn’t think he would understand why.
‘Axel, ich kann es am Samstag nicht machen. Brubeck offered me a TV slot.’
‘Thank you for the truth,’ said Axel, and then hung up with a click.
Needless to say, I didn’t see him in the following days, as I wove, cut and spliced my act into shape; some nights it went well and some nights not (as it always does) and I never could tell the difference between them. What I loved about performance that it was happening now; no-one needed to tell you, either, if it had gone well or badly for you or any other act at any given time. The audience always made the verdict clear. In some respects comedy was like boxing; a game for blinkered idiots, looking to top each other in their self-abasements – like the girl at Bar Berri who would throw sauces over herself and shriek abuse at a dildo placed centre stage, all the while removing more clothes; at the same time, it was the last refuge of attention seekers – see also that girl.
After such work, you need a drink, and it was while heading for the bar in a week later that I saw Corey sitting there. She had a sturdy plainness about her on this, her day off; nonetheless she was sympathetic to Ausländer and never unwelcome, an industrious little wing of humanity. She sat at the bar drinking a vodka tonic.
‘You’re not smoking?’ I said, in German.
‘I gave it up,’ she answered, in English. ‘Nice work tonight. The joke about the Kiezfest…’
‘Do you think it’s working better?’
‘To be honest, no.’
‘Thanks for the vote of confidence. Große Apfelschorle, bitte.’
I sat next to Carey and got talking about Axel. ‘How is he?’
‘He’s drinking more, he’s very low. Social services have given him a TV which I really don’t think helps.’
‘What can you do?’
‘Stick by him.’
‘You’re referring to my pulling out of the gig. Well,’ I said, and I remember this clearly, ‘I like money. I like capital. I don’t want to be stuck in the Bar Berri at forty-two pulling flowers out of my ass.’
Carey looked at me. ‘You’ve changed, Harry, and you haven’t even had any success yet. Just remember you’re nobody in New York.’
‘I’ve never been to New York.’
‘Exactly.’ And on that she clipped her handbag and officiously left. There were other women in the bar, and I soon got talking to them too, joking, pushing my little wage to its limits. I remember when I got back to the house there being a message from Axel that I knew was him just from the way he breathed and after a pause, put the receiver down.
On the day of the big show I woke up on the sofa. A good luck card together with a tin of shoe polish had arrived that morning from home; they sat before me as I chose out my outfit. Look: savvy trousers, white open neck and gleaming shoes; smart for a German but not for a comedian. Snow flakes were falling outside the window; in the yard, a jackdaw perched on a dustbin – it cawed. It looked up at the window of the room as if the window-ledge was a stage.
‘That is a clapping audience,’ Brubeck had once told me, and that would likely be the public I would get, people without any particular affection for comedy, often only there because of free tickets or the chance to be filmed in rows. I pulled at a thread out my trousers. And I too was novelty for them, an American battling with the complexities of German, exploiting thematic and cultural stereotypes to lever me home. Home had been Shotput, Nebraska, a gravel mining town where car wrecks rusted outside huge convenience stores. The kids made snowmen with cigarettes stuck out in their mouths; black, twisted mouths out of found debris. No wonder I’d wanted to leave, for all that Berlin was no great shock after Shotput, Nebraska.
‘Do you know I’m a Yale man?’ I said to the mirror, but it wasn’t true, I just said these things to give ‘em the character they wanted; I’d give ‘em anything they wanted. I sprayed aftershave under my armpits.
The phone rang – Brubeck. ‘Oh, Harry,’ he said, as if I’d rung him, ‘About the payment for tonight -’ the number dropped out of his mouth – ‘is that OK?’
‘That’s OK,’ I said, and turned him off to dance around the room.
As I traveled, the doubts got louder in my head, whispering messages that pulled me one way and the other and sneered visions of my mortality, ‘You’re going to die…’ It was normal, it was the gauntlet that had to be to run.
The club was located in the middle of bleak industrial space. Over there in the dark, the gated, one storey building had the look of a hospital. A man of Turkish ancestry and a blonde woman were outside, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes.
‘Entschuldigung Sie bitte – ich suche den Eingang zum -’
‘Oh, the British guy!’ said the dark man, leaning over a touch with his cigarette outstretched.
‘It’s super cool to see you,’ said the woman. ‘Kurt’s told us so much about you – he really likes you.’
‘Does he?’ I said, feeling ever dirtier, as if I had sold my soul and that at a bargain rate.
The club was full of unruly wires and stationed lights. People crossed the floor, uniformed men and officious women, a vision of excessive thoroughness, saying: ‘Wohin?’ ‘Womit?’ ‘Worauf?’ ‘Wozu?’ Odd interludes of techno came out of speakers and were replaced by other music just as quickly.
Brubeck was standing on the stage, talking to a suited gentleman, a petite man with a goatee. As I approached them Brubeck’s mobile rang and I saw him rummage his shell-suit to retrieve the object. By the time I got on the stage I had to wait along with the suited man, nodding politely at him while Brubeck slurred German Flirtchat into his miniature mobile phone.
‘Sorry, Harry,’ said Brubeck, and then, in a shrill accentual fusion of Cockney and Oxford English, ‘’ow you doing, Guv’na?’
‘Fine Kurt. Yourself?’
‘Not bad Guv’na! This is Gustav from the network – and this is Harry, a real American gentleman!’
‘You take tea every day at 5.00 clock, or?’ said Gustav.
‘Who told you?’ I said.
‘I like it!’ replied Gustav. ‘I like it very much!’
I looked at him; Kurt interrupted with, ‘Why don’t you go back to the dressing room? There’s some beers there.’
I nodded and turned away; Gustav called, ‘Break your neck!’
The small dressing room, showing a far wall of mirrors, with fairy lights wound along them, had laid the glove of happiness on my heart. There was a pot plant on the table, and next to it, a little card. Seated, calmed, I recall opening it, reading the small neat hand of the message inside. ‘Nichts für Ungut. Alles Gute für Dich’; No hard feelings, all the best for you. Honestly, this moved me – it made me feel far from alone in that little room. And I picked up my phone and dialed him.
After a while the dark-skinned man I had seen came in. ‘Would you like a line of coke?’ he said breezily.
‘I’d like a piece of cake,’ I replied.
There was a pause. ‘We don’t have any cakes,’ he said, and left; but just after he did his head retreated through the door – ‘There’s someone here to see you; a Herr. Caesarian.’
Axel came into the room a few moments later, apologizing for the surprise, noting that he had missed my call, and, having been in the area, had decided to say a quick hello; he noticed too, surely, my lack of surprise. There were blotches on his face and his jeans were coarse; he’d been drinking and, judging by the bottle-shaped wrapping beneath his glove, intended to continue. It was just, he said, apologizing in his customary pristine German, he hadn’t wanted to see me off without a drink.
‘I would be performing any minute now,’ he replied with a glance to his watch. ‘Vodka – sehr gut.’
So we poured out two little tumblers and held them up to the hard artificial light. We stared into each other’s eyes. Clink, went the glasses connecting, gulp, how it burned in our throats. My eyes were leaking, from the vodka of course; but up in my mind, my plan was already resolved. When I looked up again at Axel he posed that most international and multifarious of questions – ‘OK?’
‘Yes,’ it was that; I knew exactly what I, or rather we, had to do.
Brubeck was on stage and it seemed to be going pretty well for him, bantering with the crowd, beery, his belly wiggling as he swilled from a water glass. Altogether he looked like a distended oil drum, hair matted forward to hide his bloodshot eyes, nostrils twitching like a bloodhound. Acts had been and gone – Rudy Garber, the Great Helmut, some broad with a banjo and now – introduced in mock American accent of course – ‘all the way from ‘die Ivy-Liga’ – a real New England gentleman – Harry Shotput!’
But onstage came not Harry Shotput but Axel Kaiserschnitt, stumbling on in fact by the evidence of the small monitor I watched in the dressing room. I squinted to make out the face of my friend, took up the rest of the vodka, and laughed.
‘Meine Damen und Herren,’ said Axel, a close up on his sweating face, ‘Ich bin kein New England Gentleman. Ich bin eher der sächsischer Zimmermann.’ The audience, keen to display their Denglish savvy, laughed demonstratively at that. On he went. ‘Ich vertrete heute Abend meinen Freund und Auftraggeber Harry Sh – Sh -’ Axel launched here into one of his favorite tricks, a stammering tic and fall which eventually resulted in his eyes rolling away from each other, ears spasming in sync and him stumbling about as if on a collapsing ship’s deck – at which, while he picked himself up laughing, the screen went black.
Cut! Shit! Reacting to that, I ran through the door to the stage. It was a long, nondescript corridor, the only sound the reverberation of the distant laughter the performer had achieved. I ran on, moving through people now, technicians and performers, all hooked in by the act on the stage.
‘Sie dürfen hier nicht rein!’ said a security man at the last but therein I went, past the last onlookers toward the outskirts of the stage. The scene enfolding there was a real grotesquerie. There was Brubeck, remonstrating with Gustav and, behind him, another guard – while Axel stole the show in front of his very eyes. The cameras were back in action there were all trained on the slight man at work, shooting him, molding him into a star.
As for Axel, he was well into the number, and as usual it was gaining in response as it increased in alacrity. Put simply, he was pulling flowers out of his ass. He was producing a seemingly endless stream of flowers, tulips, roses, even a begonia here and there, from his rear, and scattering them into the audience. It was his greatest routine. Now he was nearing the piece de resistance; the sunflower. From seemingly deep in his behind Axel, face grimace-torn but somewhere – I could see it on the monitor above, in the grains of his eyes – in great triumph winced, spluttered, and yanked out a bursting bunch of sunflowers from his posterior; upon which, after handing them to an audience member adjudged sufficiently pretty, he exited to cascading applause.
In cold sunshine a few weeks later, the air crisp with the stringent Berlin winter, I waited at Friedrichstraβe for a train. There was coffee in my hand and croissant grease on my lips, a cap upon my head. In my bag were two contracts.
Axel came across the platform now. He was dressed in boots and a battered anorak; possibly he had the air of the philosopher Wittgenstein, without the thought. Sure, there had been thinking once and often in that angelic head, but Axel was now a made man and had become simultaneously more relaxed and impulsive. There was a cigar in his top pocket.
Greeting each other with a handshake, we trundled inside the train-car departing, the S1, terminating Potsdam. Axel was talking excitedly about opportunities already. I let him get on with it, to find my eyes slipping between the view outside and the reflection in the glass before it. We were soon bursting over the flatland and away from the city and around us ‘the trees were in their autumn beauty,’ I remember that.
‘Und Brubeck? Where do we meet us?’
We had arranged to meet him at a small Tabak-Laden near Grunewald. Axel was talking now excitedly about ‘closing a peace’ with him and the new opportunities attendant upon this and about ‘my new Handy – do you like it?’; he spoke English with me now.
At the station Brubeck was waiting for us, mouth flinching, looking, as usual, like a sort of terrified balloon – perhaps even more than usual. He watched from across the platform as our train drew in.
‘Hallo – Was ist denn los?’ And Brubeck now in German; everything was all mixed up today. Of course, Kurt knew the score just like Axel; that I viewed feuding as unpleasant, that I wanted to broker a deal, that I wished, in future, to represent them both.
‘Looks like it’s going to rain,’ said Axel, passing a bottle of water to Brubeck, who silently nodded. ‘Let’s go in the woods,’ he said.
For a while as we walked under the trees the only sound was the trudge of shoes and far-off traffic, plus the occasional rasp of Brubeck’s breath. ‘Wie lange noch?’ he asked.
Now we walked down to the Teufelsee lake. Down by the waters I began detailing my vision, in my scruff German, though neither of them seemed to take that badly. Indeed both nodded and asked questions. The idea was that ‘Getrennt sind wir schwach, zusammen aber stark. Warum streiten wir uns? You Guys seid ein Team.’ I would be happy to represent them in society and would demand very little in return, at least at first; besides I was happy to take a more backstage role. ‘Why wait any longer?’ A proposal for a TV program could be put together quickly and sold… And then, fame. Riches. More. I let my ideas trail off and brought my eyes to rest on the unemployed bathers.
‘I like it,’ said Axel. ‘I think there’s a possibility. I’m tired to live in my small apartment in little Friedl’hain – always I am hitting my knees on the table! I want to go up!’
Brubeck nodded, almost droopily, interchanging mineral water and cigarette. ‘Und die Gage?’ The dough?
United by our mutual desire for money, we picked our way on into the woods, into the deeper undergrowths. It all seemed to be easy, that afternoon, as if life was a computer game set a level too low for we three players. Brubeck spoke now; tours, Hamburg, a chat with Harald. He wouldn’t mind getting into shape, too, the discipline of it: he had slept with a call girl – that was the word he used, the American – recently and as he had walked to the bathroom to pee she had laughed at him, at his gut, which, as he recalled, he cupped miserably.
Axel had never slept with a call girl. ‘I know some numbers,’ said Brubeck, and grinned.
We were nearly there, then. The only issue remaining was the name. We entered a clearing; a crow rawked.
Brubeck paused. ‘Ich möchte Hauptdarstellerstatus. Wisst ihr, kein Stress, aber ich habe mehr Ruhm als ihr beide zusammen.’
Axel kept his smile firm. ‘He’s right, Axel,’ I said to him after all.
‘No prob-lem-o,’ said Axel at last.
The air smelt of pines.
‘Und der Name?’
‘You need a name,’ I said.
‘Brubeck und Kaiser,’ said Brubeck.
‘Klingt doof,’ said Axel; sounds stupid.
‘Got a better suggestion?’
‘Wie ist es mit ‘’Ossi ‘n’ Wessi?’’
‘Klingt total frickin’ doof!’ said Brubeck with a pull on his cigarette. ‘How is it with you are an alcoholic retard?’
‘Nya!’ and now Axel snapped, his face twisting itself incensed. ‘Jetzt halt mal die Klappe Du blödes Schwein!’
‘Oh yeah?’ said Kurt. ‘Oh yeah?’
‘Oh yeah!’ said Axel who, with a lurch forward like a cresting surfer, clawed up a stone and hurled it at Brubeck.
There was a pause; very slowly, the stone bounced down the base of a tree stump, scuffing up little pieces of wood as it did. Brubeck just stood there, blanched, right across from an Axel paused, as if in anticipation of the inevitable imminent blow.
Brubeck’s screams, his torrents and torrents of evil German, were about to ring the air. Axel might have wept or even grabbed him in his bare hands. They might have killed each other. For myself, I was through with them, through with the contracts, and, as would soon become clear, through with the business of comedy. I was through. I turned and began walking back to the main path, giving one final glance over my shoulder to say the words, ‘I’ll see you back in Berlin.’
Born in Nottingham in 1982, James Harris studied English Literature at Oxford University before moving to Berlin, where he lived from 2005-2013. He works as a translator, tour guide and comedian, as well as writing poetry and prose in English and German.
More information about James at www.shoeleatherexpress.org