We have ways of making you laugh

Who says that the Germans don't have a sense of humour? Imre Karacs goes to the Cologne Comedy School, where they are being taught the serious business of stand-up comedy
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The Independent Culture

Back in his native New Zealand, John Hudson is a famous comedian. Whenever he goes home, people stop him in the streets to ask what he has been up to lately. "I tell them that I'm teaching comedy to Germans," Hudson says. "And they laugh."

But he is not kidding. Germany is in the midst of a social revolution: the so-called "comedy boom". Young audiences are crying out for jokes, but there is a sad shortage of Teutonic talent. So Hudson has been hired to train the country's most promising comedians as they embark on their world conquest. The Germans have already started exporting their humour – first to Poland – and now they have their sights trained on Britain.

They still have some way to go, of course, but the latest intake at the Cologne Comedy School looks promising. On the stage of a tiny theatre, 12 young funny persons are learning "improvisation", the course being taught by the 40-year old New Zealander. The students were selected from among 400 applicants. They have already graduated from "Role Play" and "Humour Analysis" with flying colours. Today they are trying to master spontaneity and timing.

The teacher sends them on to the stage in groups of three. Each is given a role and a genre: for instance three people waiting at a bus in a soap opera. They have to take it from there. He calls this "three-way genre replay". Some of the ensuing scenes are hilarious, some just plain silly. Because stand-up comedy is an imported art, the goings-on are clearly inspired by English-language videos, and one in particular.

"Monty Python was the dawn of my comic thinking," confesses Hennes Bender, the oldest student in the group. The Pythonesque influence is not hard to spot. Hennes and his friends are playing a troupe of monkeys. As the impromptu sketch approaches its anarchic climax, Hudson cuts it short with a loud clap, just as the "monkeys" are about to start mating with one another. Many other scenes are brought similarly to a premature end by a New Zealand voice shouting "Stop".

Still, they are making progress. "Germans are fast learners," Hudson says. "They are very good at analysis. I think they're trained differently at school."

This particular school is run by Cologne's Comedy Festival, an annual orgy of laughter that claims to be among the largest events of its kind in the world. The festival is now in its 11th year, while the school, brought into life when the festival's organisers became painfully aware of the dearth of local talent, has been running for three years.

What little there is, must be lovingly nurtured, says the School's director, Renate Kampmann. "You cannot bring up people to make jokes," she admits. "Comedy is an artistic calling, like music. If you have talent, it's best to develop it at an early age." Hennes and the 11 other wannabe funny persons obviously have talent.

All of them are already working at least part time as comedians, and some are about to make a leap into a lucrative professional career. The school is financed by television companies, and the ideal graduation present for the ones that can make television bosses chuckle is a contract on one of their shows.

Their chances are very good. "Germans are lightening up," says Ingo Nowak, head of comedy at RTL, Europe's largest commercial television network. When audience researchers discovered the "fun generation" some time in the mid-Nineties, they rubbed their eyes in disbelief. But they exist, they seem to be multiplying, and they are lapping up any decent attempt at comedy. Tired of imports from British or American suburbia, Germans are now demanding homegrown comedy. And since so few of the country's established entertainers have the necessary light touch, the television moguls come to the workshop at Cologne's Living Room Theatre in search of the next stars.

Mr Nowak is one of three Cologne-based television company executives who are funding the Comedy School, at an annual cost of DM60,000 (£19,000) each. The students pay no fees, in return for their outlay, producers cherry-pick the brightest wits of the new generation. So quickly has the national taste in humour changed, that only the youngest native performers are capable of delivering the new lines.

Ralf Günther, another television executive who makes his living peddling jokes, was among the first to spot the trend, but the explosion of comic appetite took even him by surprise. The 39-year-old founder of Brainpool, and one of the most successful German producers of the genre, was once himself a comedian. At the outset of his career, however, he could only get gigs by posing as a performer of "cabaret" – the traditional heavy-footed form of parody, which takes gentle, respectful swipes at public figures, mainly politicians. As he began his stand-up routine, half the audience would regularly walk out.

That seems aeons ago now. Comedy on and off the screen is big business, prime-time slots are bursting with imported and domestic formats, but something is still lacking. As the bosses of German television openly admit, few of the German programmes are as funny as, say, Smack the Pony, which is to be shown here soon. And next week, programme-makers begin shooting Fawlty Towers, set on the Baltic holiday island of Sylt, and starring, instead of the Spaniard Manuel, a hapless waiter from Kazakhstan.

"Although we are a nation of 80 million people, there aren't many comedians," Ralf Günther laments. "It's not so hard to find good authors, because there are several television programmes that have been churning them out for five years. We have the gags, but what we need are the people who can actually stand up and deliver them." Brainpool has not done badly with what it's got. The company produces some of the top comedies, including TV Total, fronted by the legendary Stefan Raab.

Though the student comedians of the Cologne school are yet to be convinced that Raab is more than just a clever packaging of other people's jokes, millions of viewers are tuning in four times a week to see his show. Industry insiders are convinced that he represents the turning point in German culture, after the 20-year-long "Comedy Gap" and the 50 grim years that followed the Second World War.

"With Stefan Raab, German humour has been emancipated, thank God," says the Comedy School's Renate Kampmann. Raab's secret is that he is irreverent, something that did not come easy to previous generations. Or, to put it in Hudson's idiom: "Raab's the first one here to take the Mickey." No longer do Germans have to kow-tow to Britain and the US. So good is this latest brand of German humour that Raab's show has already been sold to Poland, Latvia, Hungary and Switzerland, and a deal is imminent in France.

The market Brainpool would really likely to crack is Britain, but its London subsidiary, alas, has so far had no success. The company did, however, pick up two Golden Rose awards at this year's Montreux Festival, the world's most important showcase for television comedy.

For Germany this was an unprecedented honour. "We noticed at this year's Montreux that the English were looking at our products," Günther says, with a look of wonderment in his eyes.

So does this mean the Germans are about to achieve with their humour what they have already accomplished on the football pitch, not to mention the car factory? Are they preparing to knock Britain off its perch, and subvert British society with German jokes, just as one Monty Python sketch predicted?

RTL's Nowak thinks this may happen one day, but not just yet. Audiences and performers alike are on a steep learning curve, and subtlety is still not one of the strong suits. Some of the German audience are still a bit slow on the uptake, so they must also evolve before the new generation of comedians can really let loose. Nowak explains the current rules: "We have to give the audience an impulse: 'now it's getting funny, people'. You have to make a stupid face in the camera, to say to the audience: 'Here comes the joke'."

But if Hudson, who describes himself as "the missionary of humour in Germany", is right, German dedication and hard work will soon bear fruit. "We are still developing," Nowak says. "Maybe in two or three years we'll be there." Achtung, world – German joke approaching.

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