Interview with Michael Mittermeier

Photo: Sven Bänziger

R: Hello, Michael.

M: Hello!

R: So you just finished a busy month-long run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Are you happy to be home from Edinburgh? Did you like Scotland?

M: I'm happy to be home, but not because I'm happy to be away from Scotland. It's more that four weeks is enough. It's a tough job for everyone at the Fringe. But for me, I think that the first cut was the deepest. English is a second language for me. So you have to work a lot harder than an English comedian or someone who is just going to see a show there.

R: You did a show at the Pleasance, how was that? What about other venues?

M: I was at the Pleasance. I also did some mixed shows, like Best of the Fest at the Assembly Rooms and also shows at the Gilded Balloon, which are usually late night and also an improv show. It was my first improv show in English! (laughs) "Setlist" was the name of that show, and that's a great show to do. It's an improvised stand up show where comics are given the topics of their set randomly and have to make up a routine from nothing on the spot. The guy who runs it said to me, "Please, you have to come, all the comedians, even the really well-known ones in England just love to do it."

R: Sounds like a trap?

M: Exactly! So I said, "Yes!" And then I got there and it was like, "No!" (laughs) This is not working because my language is good, but that kind of work requires mastery, I have to say. I was thinking, 'People, I don't understand the words you have on the wall.' It's funny to do the bit "The German doesn't know the words," but it's not funny if you have to do it four or five times. But even so, it was great fun.

R: Your comedy presence resembles the American model more than Kabarett. What influenced you to go in that direction?

M: I think it was my influences. I would actually say I am in between Kabarett and stand up. In the 80s, which seems like a long time ago, because it was, there was only Kabarett, the Kleine Kunst Szene, like these little black boxes, stages where you could do spoken word or satire or sing songs or poetry whatever. And while I was greatly influenced by contemporary German comics, I also liked English or American stand up comedy. Especially the American. I have been more influenced by American stand up comedy than by the English stand up comedy, I have to say. My big hero would be Lenny Bruce, my biggest idol ever. And I think it was a mixture out of Germanness and looking across the border. I wasn't an old guy in a rumpled sport coat going on stage and telling, I don't know, political commentary about what was in the newspaper. But I wasn't ignorant, and I cared about the issues as well. I was in between. I liked both, I was interested in both, so I did both. I did politics and crazy stuff. If you look at stand up comedy, a lot of the best comics are doing both. I think in the meantime it's become a little bit different. You have a greater divide, now there are just funny ones and just political ones.

R: What about your peers from when you started?

M: I saw a lot of stand up comedians in the 90s in NYC. I was there many times and they did the wacky comedy and political satire together. John Stewart, for example. I think I saw him at least 10 or 15 times in NYC and he was not only doing satire. For me, I was always interested in never having a limit. Got a funny a story about shitting dogs? Tell it. Global warming? Then do it about Global warming. I am like a white sheet of paper, I see it or think it, then I just go for it. Whatever happens, happens.

R: So your show "A German on Safari," is it mostly translated from your other routines?

M: I have to say that translation really does not work out well. There are some routines in the work, that we translated from older routines, which I have done and it was necessary, but it was exhausting to do this. Because you can't just sit down and say, "I did 25 years of comedy in German and now I am writing a new show in English." It's not working that way either. I had a previous show called "Safari" and Eddie (Izzard) and Mick (Perrin), the guys who promoted me liked the title and the idea of a German going around the world, and so we wrote a new show from that. Some old material found its way into the show, that's natural. But it often got turned around and used completely differently. I finally got to use my, I had you know, Dramturgie, I don't know the word for Dramaturgie is in English.

R: Same word in English. Dramaturgy.

M: Good! So, from this plot that you have in this routine, we just started writing news stuff. And so I started to create routines, which work also work out in English. It's a very long exhausting voyage. I have to say that my English is okay, it's technically good. I know every American and English guy says to me, "Well, my German is worse," and they are very kind. But the problem is that doing comedy you have to be master of the language.

R: Are you there yet?

M: I am only half mastering it. There is a lot of... I can't just go on stage and say, "Yep, let's do 10 minutes off the cuff." Sometimes that works, when it's in between and I'm improvising. For example, when people come late or the old standby of asking, "Where are you from?" and what not, but I can't just go on stage and say, "Hmmm, I have three topics and I'll just start talking." There will be a point where that will be possible. This is where I want to go. My aim of doing this is to be as nearly as good in English as in German. It will never be 100%, but I will say that I want to get as close as I can.

R: Second Language speakers often revert to the first under stress. Do you have problems with hecklers, then?

M: This time it was okay. It was funny. When I did the improv show. They told me, "Don't use your old routines. Even if you have a routine that fits, just don't do it." They can sense that the audience (at Setlist) appreciates that the comedians on stage are fighting against themselves, to create a new routine just out of the moment. So they said, "The audience is sitting there and they are not going to just heckle you and they know you have really to create a new routine."

R: Sounds like a trap.

M: Exactly! I went on stage, I spoke three lines, "Yeah, I'm German (Charlie Brown voice), whaugh waugh waguh" and a guy in the front row heckled me. (laughs)

R: What did you do?

M: I was really angry. I was yelling at him, "You heckling me? Are you heckling me? Are you heckling a German comedian?! You ----er!" And then I got loud and drew him in, "Do you know what will happen to guys who heckle a German comedian in Germany?!!" And he was looking at me in silence and his eyes got really big like saucers, and he said, "I don't know" in a small voice and I said, "Nothing." And the audience lost it. And that was the win. He looked like an idiot. When I get heckled, English or German, I always go full throttle. Because it doesn't work any other way. If the audience smells your fear then you are done. They will eat you. That's the thing in England, it's a lot harder, a lot more dangerous than in Germany.

R: You've been around the world now. Who do you like? Who do like to play for the most?

M: I would not compare the different audiences. It's fun in every country. I like it when it's tough but I don't like it when it gets destructive. Sometimes you have hecklers, who are just drunken ----heads. I did previews in London and I had one night with two guys who were so drunk they didn't even know that they were in a comedy club. That wasn't fun because you can't actually work with that. But it can be fun, it can also be a bit dangerous. I had an English guy threaten me in Capetown, South Africa years ago. He threatened to take me out and beat me up because I did a routine about ugly English guys. He was standing up from his seat, and he was big and ugly. And I was yelling at him, but it looked like it might end badly. And then he made a huge mistake because he was just about to punch me in the face but then... He tried then to be funnier than me. And the audience turned on him and that was the end. He sat down and got very quiet. There are really good comics out there, don't get me wrong. But in 25 years, no heckler, ever, has been funnier than me.

R: You should definitely not fight the guy with the microphone. You aren't going to win.

M: Not with jokes you aren't. I am a professional.

R: So you did the Fringe in English. How is your overall reaction? Any surprises?

M: I was surprised in England that no one in the press gave me the credit of doing it in a second language. This I think really says something. It really tells a story about the awareness of the non-English speaking world. When I was in Canada, the reaction was, "Oh wow, you are doing this in a second language. That must be hard." Or the Americans say, "Wow, that's great, we appreciate the fact that you are really going on stage and doing this in a second language." In England, they don't care. It's a lot tougher.

R: You had 4 four star reviews. The Telegraph gave four stars and Broadway baby also gave you four stars. The Guardian and Fest both gave two stars, but they are pretty much the same paper.

M: The Guardian review... I was talking with Al Murray. He's a well-known comedian in England and Ireland. He said, "You know, this is just mean, where's the review?" You have to look at the source and what the review said. It's more than just the stars. You can really say, "This isn't good or fresh" but you can't say that it's not funny when the audience is laughing so hard that their face is hurting. (That's a quote from another reviewer, and this reporter can back it up as well.) You cannot accuse a German guy who is going on stage and doing an autobiographical show about "talking about Germans." This was old school colonial imperial snobbery. When he's saying that these things are the UK standard, that everybody talks about world cup football and the war, and ha ha the Germans this and that. Maybe the material is known. But every English comedian is telling the same stories, only from their perspective! But I am a fucking German! When I tell the stories, I am the original. Please listen to MY perspective. That's part of the nuance and no other papers got. I discussed this with Trevor Noah (a very well-loved and respected South African Comic). No one would accuse Trevor Noah of being unadventurous for telling stories about South Africa. So Why?! Why! Whatever. I am talking about real life. And the clichés are part of that. I have to talk about the clichés, what do the critics want? It's a bit hard to deal with. Like I said, the Guardian is a bit of a weird review. There were more good ones that were good but constructive. They pointed out the routine parts they really liked, like the Trojan war, global warming, British Politeness at traffic light - honest, but constructive. "Okay, we didn't like this but this was good."

(long pause)

M: But even they didn't appreciate that there is a guy doing this in a second language. It wasn't easy. I did learn a lot from the reviews. And the next reviews were all good.

R: Weirdest review experience?

M: The bad ones this year. The Guardian was just a personal attack. And did you read the reviewer who accused me of being nationalistic? I was reading this, and I was like, "Excuse me, you can always say it's not good, you could say I am a shitty comedian, even if it wouldn't be true. But you cannot go out of my show and say, "Obviously a nationalist, oh well, he's a Nazi." I mean, what the fuck?

R: One of the purposes of a review is to tell the people if they will like it so they can go. So a review that says they laughed so much but gives an unfavourable rating because they "thought it wasn't risky enough" is a bit self-contradicting.

M: Yes! The point is this - we do comedy for the people. And the audience liked it. A lot. Okay, I did have rough nights, but that's the art form. But there was no night where people didn't like the show. And it got better as we went along. So I would say that after two or three weeks in the end it really came together and it was not just a good show but a great show. I am now ready to go to London in October.

R: So will you go back? Are you going to do the Fringe again?

M: Definitely. That decision was made on première night. I said to Mick, "I come back next year. I know the people like it." I said to myself that I will do a good show at the Fringe. And it was a good show. But there is another way to go for me. There is a next step for me.

R: Like die Antwoord says, "Take it to another level."

M: Exactly. And that was not possible this year. I needed to find my feet first. I think in a long term way. I started out experimenting with English stand up in 2003. In that time, never ever had a German gone on stage outside of Germany and tried it in English. Henning (Wehn) was starting at around that time in London and I was in New York City. There was the cliché that we are not funny and no one wanted to have us (Germans) in their night. That was tough ground to break. I like that more Germans are out here now. I don't want to be the exclusive German guy. I am not the exclusive German guy. As I mentioned Henning Wehn is doing this for years and Otto Kuhnle as well, and I like their work and I like that more Germans are coming and performing in English. But I have to say I would love it if more Germans from Germany would come to the festival to see the shows. It's a very different experience if you live in a country and speak the language fluently than to be a German and go abroad and struggle with the language.

R: Are you worried that if you start thinking in English too much that it might hurt your work in German?

M: Actually, no. I think it's also really useful for the German routines. I also have routines that I wrote in English and then later on I will translate it into German. It's actually easier this way, I have to say. And so it will be interesting. There are many routines you write in English that are only for the English-speaking market. Word play, puns, I don't know, the story I tell about the different meanings of life or phrases like, "Bob's your uncle" and things like that. That would simply not work in German. How could it? Most of us don't have uncles named Bob. Or, if you tell stories about the South African now-now time versus German punctuality it will be a bit difficult.

R: Let's talk about your characters, the vampires and the cockroaches. You do them both in English and in German (although they are Spanish). Do you have a lot of characters like that? Where you do them both in both languages?

M: The cockroaches were written in English in NYC. Then they came to Germany and I redid them in German. So they were written in English. The vampires and the translation... That's a good example for how hard it is to translate a German routine. In the end, from the whole vampire routine I do in German, there is a page or more but maybe four lines were translated. It's not just the joke, it's the sound of the language. That's part of the nuance of comedy. You have a sound and a style to the way you are speaking and it's funny as a package. It's not actually translatable. The vampire bit broke down to two or three jokes out of the whole routine. And then I put another part in it in the Fringe about the V and W because really I always mix it up. We Germans do this. Especially we Bavarians. I don't know the difference between the vampire and the "wampire." And so, sometimes people look at me and say, "What are you talking about?" And so, it's funny. And from the attempt to translate, now a new part came into the vampire routine talking about Christopher Lee trying to rule the world. This was written in English and not in the German routine. You translate only three jokes and add more jokes in English and then you have a routine. Never ever has a full routine worked as a direct translation.

R: What about Munich? The kids from Berlin said that you can see an English-speaking show every single night there.

M: I wonder how big the scene really is. I know Berlin has great potential. When I was doing the tryouts in Berlin the promoters found it was really hard to get people in to an English show. For example, take a country like Switzerland and it's actually a lot easier there. Because their English is better. They watch their movies and TV in English. The problem in Germany is that we are a bit behind. There are no English comedians touring Germany. Germany is one of the only countries, with Austria, where the English are not really touring. I talked to Dylan Moran and he said I would love to play in Berlin in Germany. And also Mick Perrin said there was no link to Germany because it's so hard to get the audience to come out. They might say, "Yeah, English is great! And we watch all the OV movies in English." But then you have a show in English, they don't show up. This was the general consensus among all the promoters I met in the UK. But it will change: next year Mick Perrin and the Quatsch Comedy Club will present Eddie Izzard live in Berlin!

R: What further challenges do we have here in contrast to the UK?

M: With the British scene, I did so many mixed shows, either with just for laughs, at the Fringe, and the line ups, man! When they say, "Okay, we put our best people on." They mean it! You really have to struggle in between these comics to get the audience's attention because the quality of the acts are so high. You have to bring quality with you or you drown... But, it's a learning process, isn't it? I will be better in the future, I am sure. These things take time. There will be English comedians touring in the big cities in Germany. It's a problem for the promoters because they lose money because there's not enough audience. And it's not like you can say, "Hey, I'll double the price or triple the price," either. You could do that if you were a sensation, but you can't do it if you are a working comic. If Bill Bailey performed in Germany, how many people would show up? He's an excellent comic, one of the best ones, legend, but, every promoter would lose money doing this. That's the problem. Not just the promoters, but the audience also. We'll get there though.

R: What a great interview. On behalf of the Eye, I can only say thank you very much.

M: You are very, very welcome. &

Further English shows and a tour are in the works and in the spring of 2013 Michael will be on tour with his new German show "Blackout."

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