The pandemic has turned Berlin into the world’s stand-up comedy capital – by default. So how are comedians tackling Corona, and is it okay to joke about the virus?
Have you heard the joke about Corona? Which one, you might ask? The one about virtual dating, or the one about 5G, or perhaps even the one about the pandemic farmworkers? Well, if you’ve been to a comedy show in Berlin over the past couple of months, chances are you’ve heard at least one. While COVID-19 has turned daily life upside down, it has also shaken up the global comedy landscape, with Berlin emerging as an increasingly important city. Meanwhile, for comedians, the pandemic has raised interesting questions ever since they’ve returned to the city’s socially distanced stages in early June.
How should they approach Corona? And should they even be making jokes about it at all? “I think it’d be weird to not acknowledge it,” says Toby Arsalan, a Berlin-based German-Pakistani comedian who has been gracing the city’s stages for the past six years. “There are 20 people in the room instead of 60, and they had to write their names and addresses down at the beginning so they could be registered, so you kind of have to address it.” It’s a sentiment shared by German comedian Annick Adelle. “In comedy, if you don’t address the elephant in the room, it’s not going to be a good show.”
So, with Corona too big to ignore, just what exactly have they been joking about? “These days, a lot of it starts like, ‘Oh, it’s Corona and I’m in my house with my housemates…’ Or, ‘I can’t date, I can’t go on Tinder, I can’t do anything,…’” says comic Dragos Cristian, 30. But with many comedians treading over similar territory, the key has been to try and put an interesting spin on it. “Everyone has at least one Corona joke,” says German-Brazilian comedian Gino Christofaro. “But it’s just really hard to make it sound original.”
For Cristian, originally from Romania, he looked at what was going on back home, namely the travel exemption given to Romanian farmworkers who came to Germany to pick Spargel during the pandemic. “So Romania got together three airplanes full of elite asparagus pickers, sent them over to pick Germany’s most precious resource – white asparagus – and they saved the German economy. Half of them died, but the most important thing is that we’ve learned the value of human life in kilos of asparagus,” he said. “It’s 3.5 kilos, in case you were wondering. I just can’t wait for strawberry season to come round!”
It was a similar inspiration for Polish comedian Kat Geborys, 32, who goes by the stage name KatNip. “I was so sick of quarantine, and I’m so so glad to be back. There were no shows, there was no travel and there was absolutely nothing in the shops. It was just like the good old communist days in Poland!” Arsalan, who hosts a show at Neukölln’s Comedy Café Berlin, which has been hosting stand-up, improv and sketch shows five nights a week since 2015, says the government’s decision on who could and couldn’t go to work during the peak of the pandemic provided some fodder. “I talked about how it made me question my life choices becoming a comedian when the government told me that I was non-essential during a time of crisis. I was like, ‘I’m here to help, what can I do?’ And they were like, ‘You? Um, you can just stay home. Here’s some money, go buy some drugs. We’ll talk to you in half a year.’”
How far is too far?
For the most part, the humour has focused on the lighter aspects of Corona and isolation life, with few comics willing to cut too close to the bone. “I think the darkest I’ve seen is people coughing at shows. Coughing and then saying, ‘How are you guys?’ And everyone thinks, ‘Ahh, stop!’” says Adelle. Christofaro has also witnessed people going too far. “We heard a few jokes about how we should die and the world is overpopulated,” says the 25-year-old comedian, who along- side his own slots hosts a Tuesday night sign-up show with Geborys at Friedrichshain comedy club The Wall. “A few people got grumpy about that.”
Meanwhile, after making the mistake himself of going “too dark and too heavy” on his initial return to the stage with jokes about elderly neighbours dying off one by one, Cristian soon got a better feel for what the audience was willing to laugh at. “Once you start mentioning people getting sick or dying, then people tend to clench up. Is it ok? Is it too soon to make Corona jokes? I don’t know. All I know is I can do Corona jokes because my dad died of Corona,” the 30-year-old says. “No, just kidding, he didn’t.”
However, just because most have shied away from some of the more controversial aspects of the topic, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a taboo about tackling death and the virus itself. “I really don’t think there is a taboo on any subject in comedy per se,” says Nico Böhm, manager of Prenzlauer Berg’s Mad Monkey Room comedy club, which since opening in the summer of 2017 has turned into one of the leading German-language comedy venues with nightly stand-up shows.
“The issue is, the darker the subject, the more precise and better the joke has to be, because the chance of failing and insulting people is so great.” Adelle agrees: “There’s a rule in comedy that says if you make jokes about something really tragic, then you better have an extra good joke. So maybe the reason we didn’t go there is because we haven’t had any really good jokes about death!”
Death-related virus jokes or not, some have noticed a definite shift in the post- lockdown reaction of crowds, which due to social distancing restrictions are running at about 30-40 percent capacity. “The climate has changed a little. You’ve got to really watch what you say, because of Corona and because of Black Lives Matter,” says Christofaro. “People are ready to get triggered – very easily. So I don’t do a lot of jokes that I used to do anymore. I never thought they were offensive per se, but I just play it a little safer than usual.”
But for many the problem was less about causing offence and more about the topic simply getting boring. After months of dominating our lives during lockdown, there was a real sense of Corona overload shortly after comedians hit the stage in June. “When you go on a line-up and everyone is doing Corona material, then it gets old really fast,” says Cristian. “A lot of comedians started doing that in the first few weeks back and it was a fucking nightmare, so a lot of people pulled back from it. Now I don’t see many people doing Corona material.”
Berlin, comedy central
Although the pandemic is by definition a global phenomenon, the challenge of navigating the Corona comedy minefield is in many ways specific to Berlin comedians. While many of the city’s comedy venues have reopened, the situation in most other major comedy cities remains very different. “For the past couple of months Berlin has technically been the stand-up comedy capital of the world – by default,” says Cristian, who normally earns a living by touring his comedy around Europe. “New York has been shut down, LA has been shut down, London has been shut down, so the only place in the world where you can do shows is Berlin.” As a result, some comics from abroad have even tried to move to Berlin just for stage time. One of those to make the jump is Adelle.
Although German, the 38-year-old has been based in the US for the past six years, and made the decision to head home to Germany at the end of April after witnessing the spread of the virus in America. “I always wanted to do stand-up in German, because I’ve only ever done it in English. So before Corona, I had always thought, ‘Oh, I’ll come here sometime.’ But then Corona hit and I thought, ‘Oh, I’m definitely coming to Berlin,’” she says. “That was definitely one motivator. The other one is that I didn’t have health insurance in America!”
The move seems to have well and truly paid off. While regular comedy clubs remain closed in her former homes of LA and San Francisco, Adelle has done around 150 spots since June, making some of her American friends green with envy. “I’ve had people tell me, ‘I want to marry you, because fuck America, I want to be performing.’” As Berlin’s comedy scene flies the flag globally, there are whispers it could even overtake the city’s main cultural industry. “There’s no clubbing going on and people wanna have fun,” says Cristian. “So I’ve been going around saying this: comedy is the new clubbing!”