Unlike in London or New York, good stand-up comedy is quite a rarity to be found in Berlin. Thankfully, for those who are after an authentic, genuine small-theatre experience the Comedy Café Berlin in Neukölln, not only has that low-key, friendly atmosphere you just can’t get in big venues but offer a selection of shows in German & English which make them attractive for expats too. Set up by comedian Noah Telson and siblings Nina & Dino Spiri in 2015, the venue doesn’t focus solely on stand-up, but hosts improv shows & comedy workshops too… and even dubs Tatort into English! We caught up with Noah to find out how the venue came to be and what we can expect from the place this year…
The Comedy Café was crowdfunded. How did the idea start, develop and then turn into reality?
The idea for crowdfunding was a no-brainer. Any project built independent of big donors or bank loans will need the support of the community, not just financially but also to raise awareness about the project. The Kickstarter was just as much a PR campaign as it was a fundraiser. Thankfully, the comedy community in Berlin are hardworking, talented and hilarious and helped make it as successful as it was.
Did you always have your eye on Neukölln and if so, why?
Yes, though not exclusively. We looked in Kreuzberg and Wedding as well. Ultimately, we settled on the Neukölln location because it was closest to our networks and to the heart of our comedy community. Many of the comedians who perform there live in the neighborhood or within a close enough radius to make the trek less of a drag. Same goes for our audiences. The area is already exploding with young English speaking/international Germans and immigrants. It makes sense to go to them.
What was your design vision for the interior and how difficult was the construction process?
We wanted to create a comfortable space for people whether a show was happening or not. We understood that the place would not survive solely as a theatre but needed the bar and café space to exist. We set out to find someone with a creative vision that was capable of creating the warmth we love in Berlin cafes while still providing the functionality of a theatre.
Dino eventually found our project designer/builder, Adrian by happenchance after stumbling into his own cafe in the Schillerkiez. He was immediately struck by the abundant use of wood and blend of angles to create illusions of curves and other forms. You see this in our bar with the beehive above and the panelled counter.
The construction process was very stressful. It is almost certain that a renovation/construction project will run overdue and over budget. Though we were not surprised by any of this, it still pushed us to our limits trying to manage the project in a timely manner. Considering none of us had experience with something of this scale or type, it felt at times like we were in way over our heads. But we managed to open with our second projected opening date!
(c) Kalle Kuikkaniemi
Lots of your shows are in English. How do you feel comedy in English is different to German?
This debate is discussed ad nauseum. What is the key difference between German and English comedy? To answer it literally, it’s the language.
However, I think the question is sometimes misleading. It’s often discussed in terms of “what’s better?” Or really “Why is German comedy so bad?” But it’s not that German comedy is bad or that English/American comedy is good. It’s that Germany has a much stronger tradition of a specific kind of comedy that we’re all fed. And yes, that cabaret style comedy is often derided (rightfully so) as unenlightened, misogynistic, sexist, racist OR corny, uninspired, bizarre and ungrounded etc etc. but at the end of the day it’s not something we’re not really interested in.
We want to give space for more honest, self-reflective grounded humor, whether it’s stand-up, improv or sketch and regardless of whether it’s in English or German.
Have you received any negativity from anyone for hosting a fair portion of your comedy shows in English, rather than all in German?
Nothing blaringly obvious yet. There have been some locals wandering in eerily reminiscing about the bar that occupied the space before us and their “far right” clientele.
Noah, you and your brother Josh collaborate on some funny video sketches on Youtube as well as on stage. How important has the rise of online video platforms been for increasing awareness of comedians like yourself?
It’s very difficult to say. We don’t produce enough online content to make a big splash.
We do get fans mentioning videos every now and then but I think they know us more from our live shows then stumbling into us online. In fact, I’d wager that more people know about our videos from seeing us live than the other way around.
We LOVE the fact that in addition to stand-up comedy, you even host Tatort voiceovers. Tell us more about this!
Yes, in addition to regular stand-up and improv shows we have special ‘bit shows’ like Tatort auf Englisch. TaE started as sort of a one off gag show that wasn’t really supposed to go anywhere. As it turns out it had a massive response so we continued to do it. It was an idea that we were playing around with for a while that pushed all the right buttons – horrible overdubbing (synchroniseren), exposing Tatort’s predictably terrible writing/plot lines, revenge for German dubbing of films and, of course, making fun of Germans.
(c) Kalle Kuikkaniemi
Your improv workshops and lessons sound really interesting, how does a standard workshop operate?
We offer several different 8 week courses.
Most students will start with beginner level courses where they learn the fundamentals like agreement and support and how to make a scene work on stage. From there, they follow a course trajectory that brings them through some more specific comedic theory like “Game”, grounded play and discovery and finally to more advanced levels like learning specific improv formats such as the “Harold”.
Every class brings students through warm-ups, exercises and actual stage play, all building towards specific goals for the week. All courses end with a student showcase so they can exercise everything they’ve learned in front of an audience.
Many international touring acts don’t tend to visit Berlin due to a lack of audience, so how difficult is it to secure them to come to Berlin, and especially the Comedy Café considering its (awesome) small size of 70 seats?
Big stadium filling comedians do tend to skip over Berlin, though lately it seems more are coming through. We won’t be able to cater to their needs obviously and honestly why would we?
We do, however, get some really great international comedians coming through our doors, most notably improvisers from Upright Citizens Brigade and various award winning, 4 and 5 star reviewed acts from London.
Sure, they’re not going to be pasted across all the headlines in every newspaper but they are arguably the funniest people in the business. Additionally, many comedians enjoy more intimate settings, where they can interact and see the audience. Our theatre is perfect for that.
(c) Kalle Kuikkaniemi
What have been the main challenges in running the business to this point?
After a stressful construction and opening period (as mentioned above), one of the biggest challenges was settling in and being accepted to the neighborhood! We’ve had considerable issues with some neighbors in the building. Their complaints about noise is legitimate but is also a sign of resistance to the changing area of Neukölln and a fear of the usual ‘hipster-invasion’ here.
It took us months of stress with the Ordnungsamt, Bauamt and sometimes the police, several meetings and sit-downs with them and a lot of patience to get to a point where we’re tolerated and now some neighbors even seem to like it!
Aside from that, just the usual burglary attempts, routine water damage, Baugerüste and other random stuff that happens when you own a bar 🙂
What can we expect at the Comedy Café in the next 12 months?
We’re continuing to grow the business as responsibly as possible. This includes expanding the program, hosting festivals and most likely another crowdfunding campaign to raise cash for some much needed ventilation.
Noah, as a fellow expat, what do you find the strangest /funniest thing about living in Berlin?
Not being able to buy groceries on a Sunday.
Where do you like to eat, drink and relax in Berlin?
Papilles (breakfast, lunch and dinner)
Complete the following sentence “For me, Berlin is…”
…the really talented, forgotten stepchild who’s just now starting to be recognized and stands at the precipice of fate; will it let itself be taken by praise and adoration and forget its ways or hold onto its values and forge a path with grace and virtue? This is a long winded metaphor for “Berlin’s a cool city but could very well turn into another shithole” 😀
Whether you’re up for a good laugh or want to try yourself on stand-up or improv, make sure to pop down to Comedy Cafe Berlin in Neukölln soon!