Laugh? They nearly did
What happened when comedian Arnold Brown did a gig on the subject of ‘prejudice’ - in Germany
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Arnold Brown: risky comedy in the German capital
Since I began my stand-up career on the opening night of the Comedy Store in May 1979, I have chalked up countless gigs both here and abroad.
However, my appearance at the recent English comedy night held at Berlin’s Kookaburra club ranked as the most unusual I have ever done. This was my first-ever visit to Germany, and I decided before the gig to go on successive days to the city’s Jewish Museum and Holocaust Memorial. My mind was filled afterwards with haunting images.
On the evening of the performance I was surprised to discover that the majority of the audience was a coach party of about 100 German teenagers, who had apparently been brought there to improve their English. In the capacity crowd of about 120 there were only a small number of adults, including a handful of British tourists.
The resident compere was Kim, a breezy Australian woman — which accounted for the name of the club. Belting out satirical songs at the piano, she had a stream of crowd-pleasing topical gags. The other performers on the bill went down well with their mainly mainstream material.
As the time for my act approached, I realised that I wanted to go home. The impact of my laid-back, surreal, laconic style would almost certainly be lost in translation. On a sudden impulse, I decided instead just to talk on the subject of prejudice. This seemed to me to be appropriate in the context of the successes of the far right across Europe in 2009, culminating in the election of the BNP MEPs Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons.
However, the question in the back of my mind was would this be acceptable on a night of stand-up comedy. As I walked on stage to polite applause, I began with the revelation that I was Jewish. I felt a collective intake of teenage breath… or was I just being paranoid? Not a very hilarious opening, I grant you, but it was my way of dealing with the elephant in the room. I then told them that I didn’t like too much applause at the start, “because that’s how fascism began.” I added that because they were so young maybe they hadn’t even heard of fascism. There was a little nervous laughter, but unfortunately it came from me.
However, I felt they were now at least beginning to listen to what I was trying to tell them. And so I began my discourse on the evils and the disastrous results of prejudice, as seen through the eyes of my Uncle Harry character.
“A remarkable man… 99 and he’s still got all his own prejudices intact.”
I explained that Harry had always resented the German habit of being first down on the beach in the mornings, “particularly during the Second World War”. I went on to underline how irrational prejudice could be — it was illogical, for example, to blame the Spanish today for the crimes carried out by the Spanish Inquisition. “It’s like blaming Enrique Iglesias for these atrocities. I just detest him for what he is doing now,” I told the audience.
Next was the touchy subject of the Christian antipathy towards the Jews for the killing of Christ. “It would have been far better for us Jews if we’d just roughed him up a little,” I suggested.
All in all, I admit, the reaction to this serious stuff was certainly not ecstatic, but I knew I had managed to inject a thought-provoking dimension to the show that evening. I wound down with a final example of my Uncle Harry’s irrational prejudices.
“The other week,” I began, “Harry was standing outside the Tower of London when he heard a German accent. He rushed up to this tourist and started shouting at him: ‘Why!? For God sake’s why!?’
“The tourist broke down in tears and ran back to his mother.
“That’s what Uncle Harry always said: ‘You have got to nip fascism in the bud. Get them before they grow up’.”
The evening before I returned home to London, my hosts took me to see The Producers, Mel Brooks’s outrageous satire of the Nazis. All the swastikas were replaced on stage by pretzels. In the circumstances, it seemed the best way to say goodbye to Berlin — with pretzels.