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It's Berlin!

Daniel-Ryan Spaulding: Seriously funny

He may be one of the city’s most successful comedians, but Daniel-Ryan Spaulding isn’t joking about leaving Berlin.

Photo: Makar Artemev

Daniel-Ryan Spaulding is at the height of a 15-year career making people laugh. The Canadian comic is internationally known, both on stage and onscreen, for humour he describes as “bitchy”, “sassy” and “very gay and very satirical”.

His cultural and social observations are sharp, relatable and prescient, and he’s a master of locational parody. Spaulding’s viral-bait YouTube series It’s Berlin! mercilessly takes the piss out of the city’s hipsters, and he’s more than adept at satirising the daft cultural traits of the other places he’s spent a lot of time in, including Croatia, the Netherlands and Norway. Spaulding’s gigging schedule is relentless, with numerous dates across Europe and in the US and regular festival appearances. His most-watched upload, ‘If Gay Guys Said The Shit Straight People Say’, has racked up more than 2 million views.

In Berlin, where he’s lived for five years now, Spaulding has become something of a local celebrity. In the more than 130 videos in the It’s Berlin! series, his character stands in front of a rotating background of graffitied walls and iconic landmarks (sometimes while holding a Club-Mate), saying things like “Some people keep warm by buying a heater, I have group sex” and “I can’t wait to barbecue at Tempelhof with my ketamine friends” and following everything up with a cheeky, “That’s so Berlin!” His self-produced comedy special, So Berlin, launched in December. He’s also appeared on late-night television, poking fun at the CDU through political election parody on ZDF’s Magazin Royale, Germany’s leading satirical show.

Photo: Makar Artemev

Berlin may be the city of many of his career highs, but it’s also the place where Spaulding was at his personal lowest. In 2022, after wrestling with substance abuse, depression and obesity, he made the decision to overhaul his lifestyle: he got sober, underwent a gastric sleeve surgery, and travelled to Istanbul for a hair transplant.

Fans familiar with his It’s Berlin character, the fictional hipster DaNiel, might barely recognise his glowing new likeness. But for all the external changes, there’s been an even bigger shift in how Spaulding understands himself and his place in the world. His final life adjustment in the name of personal transformation is a partial relocation to – spoiler alert – New York City. In the next few months, Spaulding plans to take his keen observational wit to the Big Apple, a continental decision that has him grappling with exactly how he got here, where he’s going, and what it means to leave a place where you’re already beloved.

Wanderlust Bites

Photo: Makar Artemev

Spaulding’s journey to the German capital was a roundabout one. Hailing from Burnaby, a suburban city overshadowed by nearby Vancouver, he developed a thirst for travel and theatrics at a young age. Speaking of his youth in the Canadian countryside, he reveals that he’s “not a nature person. I don’t care about forests or trees. And I tried. I would go hiking, I would kayak, and I’d pretend to like it. I didn’t like it. I just want to be in bars with cute boys talking about life, and oh my god, be swept up in the moment”. One day he would be in bars talking to boys, but it would require some persistence.

I like to have a rapport with the audience, like they’re one of my friends and we’re talking shit and having fun

The youngest of six children, Spaulding began putting on shows in drama class, developing a thirst for acting and writing stories. He won the coveted Michael J. Fox scholarship and attended Queen’s University in Kingston, where he studied drama. Although fruitful in terms of artistic development, he regrets his choice of school. “I think it would’ve been better for me to have gone to a bigger city like Montreal, because I was a bit of a late bloomer. It took me a while to feel comfortable with my body and being gay.”

Coming of age around the turn of the millennium, Spaulding consumed a diet of sitcoms – Sex and the City, Seinfeld, Friends – and dreamed of the New York lifestyle, where gays weren’t just accepted but celebrated. “My dad was really homophobic and quite abusive,” Spaulding says. “I knew that I was gay, but I just had never met any gay people, so I didn’t know how or where I would fit into society.”

He eventually made it to the bigger city, moving to Vancouver in 2006, where he started worked as a server and gravitated toward the gay bars in the West End. Although still dreaming of becoming a professional actor, Spaulding was frustrated at trying to break into the mainstream.

Photo: Makar Artemev

“There weren’t a lot of roles in comedy in Vancouver. Mostly sci-fi would be shot in Vancouver, and therefore to be a young person and heavy, there’s not a lot of roles. Most of the roles for 23-year-old guys are for heartthrobs, you know? So I knew that I eventually would come back to acting later in life.” Citing comedians like Margaret Cho, Sandra Bernhard and Kathy Griffin as inspiration, Spaulding decided to cut his chops on the stand-up circuit. This was the mid-2000s, well before #MeToo.

“It was like being in a locker room or a frat house. The things that people would joke about 15 years ago – it was awful. Straight men would joke about date-raping women, racist things, lots of misogyny.” It was also a time when there were fewer queer comedians in the public eye. “To be an openly gay guy in that space was hard as well,” Spaulding says. “I would feel so self-conscious. I would have to look at my set and only talk about being gay for three out of ten minutes, because I felt like I had to be able to defend myself that my act wasn’t just about being gay.” It’s a sadly familiar story of queer artists being forced to minimise their existence for the sake of heteronormative audiences. “Back then it was different – there was a bullying macho context to comedy clubs. But I wish I had just gone for it, because what’s the point in trying to impress a bunch of hetero plebs?” he jokes.

Growing bored of Canada and still needing to scratch the itch of travelling overseas, Spaulding bought a one-way ticket to Australia with the hope of making ends meet down under. “I was 25 and I figured, worst case scenario I would just go to Australia for a couple of weeks and if I got totally broke, I would beg my mother to lend me some money to fly me back.” He never made the call.

Not long after, Spaulding was booked to perform at a small arts festival in Melbourne. Then Hannah Gatsby, who would later become internationally known for her 2018 Netflix special, told Spaulding that the Sydney Comedy Store was looking for new acts for the Mardi Gras season. Going from the small, mainly hetero-dominated clubs of Vancouver to the glittering and campy Sydney circuit felt like a homecoming, Spaulding says. “I definitely felt like the audience got me. It takes time to learn how to manoeuvre different audiences. Now I can handle any audience you give me, but definitely a gay audience is more receptive to a gay sensibility. My comedy has a gay sensibility”.

Photo: Makar Artemev

It’s Berlin!

On tour, Spaulding – quick to jump onto the emergence of new platforms like YouTube – began recording and uploading his gigs to secure more bookings. For six years, he bounced from one show to the next, living out of a suitcase and taking temporary sublets wherever he landed around the globe. His ability as a performer strengthened by the day, but that didn’t mean it became easy. “Stand up is not just about writing jokes. There is so much that goes into it, people don’t realise how hard it is,” he explains. “I always try to be as much of myself as I can, and that’s one thing I’ve really come to realise: I’m a very bad liar.” He relies on conversational instincts to build his repertoire of jokes. “When I notice something or something happens, and I think, oh, I really want to tell a friend about this, then I know it’s going to go in my act.”

Berlin is a very easy place to develop a drinking problem

Spaulding’s honest, stare-into-your-soul approach to comedy has unsurprisingly resonated with people; he seems to have an innate ability to make the mundane magical, and to connect. “I like to have a rapport with the audience, like they’re one of my friends and we’re talking shit and having fun, you know, we’re not taking ourselves too seriously. Because being polite and being civil all the time gets boring. We need to be able to have a space where we can really reveal ourselves and our prejudices and our biases and the things that frustrate us and get us angry.”

He settled briefly in Norway, then Amsterdam, before arriving in Berlin in 2018. The city quickly became the inspiration for, his It’s Berlin! series. “I was constantly meeting these people that were so detached from empathy for others and were just sort of living this existence that was all about partying and being cool and drinking. I just found it so comical,” he says of its creative inspiration.

His character DaNiel is a jaded exaggeration of many people who wash up in Berlin, either supported by trust funds or somehow existing on sawdust. At times it makes for painful viewing; we’ve all had that friend of a friend who crawled out of Cocktail d’Amore in a K-hole and woke up in Görli two days later. Spaulding, or rather DaNiel, effortlessly brings lightness to the dark underbelly of the city. “I like characters that are bad people,” Spaulding adds.

He explains that he sourced material for sketches by eavesdropping on people’s conversations in bars, picking up on cultural references or discussing navigating Berlin’s bureaucracy. The web shorts reflect an astute perspective of the city – but this intuitive, almost eerily-accurate perspective of Berlin that resonated with so many would later be the success that precipitated his darkest moments.

Lockdown But Not Out

I couldn’t walk. I was in so much pain, and I was drinking so much. It was horrible.

For the next two years, the popularity of It’s Berlin and his other web shorts gave Spaulding the opportunity to expand his fanbase and travel extensively. But the onset of the pandemic scuppered his plans, and like many performers, his livelihood was taken away from him. Trying to make the best out of this dire situation, Spaulding continued being creative and started making videos of DaNiel experiencing lockdown.

With more people spending time online, his work was exposed to a wider audience. But for the first time, reception was mixed; his character was often taken out of context. “People didn’t realise it was scripted and thought I was an unstable person filming themselves. I would get lots of hate messages from people. That created a lot of stress and confusion in my life.” He identifies a mainly German demographic for whom, he says, television and movies are different from what people do online. “They don’t really understand the idea of a web series, people just believe what they see.”

In a bid to cope with the stress, Spaulding changed course and started to make videos as himself. The hate and negativity didn’t disappear. The hurtful comments lodged in his brain, collectively taking up space. During the pandemic, he recounts, people felt justified to say what they wanted, protected behind their devices, without considering the potential implications to others. Feeling exposed and vulnerable, he turned to alcohol to ease his disease. “I was under really bad circumstances, and I coped with it the best way I could,” he says.

Photo: Makar Artemev

When the first lockdown was over and restrictions were loosened, the feedback went offline. “People would recognise me, and sometimes they would ruin my nights intentionally. They would come up to the table and say, ‘Oh, it’s so Berlin’. Or I would be on a walk with friends, and someone would come up and want to talk to me. And you have to be nice, you can’t tell someone to just fuck off.” He even caught people taking sneaky pictures of him riding the U-Bahn. Becoming public property, and with the trappings of notoriety, created even more confusion. He slipped back into isolation – this time self-imposed – and began drinking up to three bottles of Prosecco a night. Spaulding began to gain weight, and his mental health deteriorated.

“Berlin is a very easy place to develop a drinking problem. You can find people that will drink a lot with you, and no one is really checking in on each other. People don’t want to seem judgmental. And also, we don’t really know each other that well. You might have friends that you’ve known for a couple of years, but that’s very different than a family member or someone that’s been friends with you since you were a child. A lot of these relationships are just based on living in the same neighbourhood, going to the same bars, going to the same parties or doing the same drugs.”

In a bid to escape this vicious cycle of daily drinking and negative thinking, Spaulding decided to ditch the Berlin winter and flew to Argentina. While there, he tripped over on an uneven part of the street and fractured his ankle – and, with his mobility compromised, he gained even more weight. On his return to Berlin, he realised his ankle wasn’t healing, and he describes an agonising few months.

“When I came back to Berlin and they saw the fracture, they put me in an orthopaedic boot. But then dealing with German doctors was just so stressful. They were so mean and hard. I was in this boot for like four months and had to inject blood thinners into my stomach. My stomach was just purple with bruises, and I couldn’t walk. I was in so much pain, and I was drinking so much. It was horrible.”

This was it: rock bottom. Anyone with an addiction problem will know it permeates every aspect of your life, keeping you confined to its power. One very, very bad hangover later, Spaulding finally decided to quit drinking and take back control of his life, making the decision to have gastric sleeve surgery, then the hair transplant.

In October, doctors removed 80% of his stomach. “It’s now the size of a banana and can only hold around 90 to 100g of food,” he explains, taking a bite from a protein bar. He’s not shy about speaking candidly about the transformation, which marked a turning point in Spaulding’s life, both privately and publicly, significantly changing the way he navigates the world and how people perceive him.

“I’ve always been heavier, but since I’ve lost so much weight, I realise now how much people judge each other based on the way they look,” he says of his experience as a bigger person, which was coloured by discrimination and fatphobia. “Now I see how differently I’m treated in public spaces, especially in terms of how customer service people treat you, how waiters and waitresses treat you, how people treat you on public transport or flights.”

Spaulding now weighs in at just over 100 kilograms, having lost 90 – a weight loss impossible without medical intervention. His only regret is not doing it sooner, and although he recently described his body as looking like a “melted candle”, it’s clear how much happier he is in his own skin.

He’s also happier with his scalp. Still recovering from the transplant, Spaulding has the start of fuzzy regrowth on top of his head. It’s a far cry from his former receding hairline. “I don’t really enjoy looking at photos of myself where my hair is exposed, but it’s just thick enough now, that from certain angles you can’t really see how thinning it is,” he says. Spaulding looks refreshed and youthful, despite the fact that he’s just had five thousand hairs taken from the back on his head and replanted into the front.

When asked if he feels pressure from the entertainment industry to maintain a certain image, he dismisses the question, “No, I don’t feel pressure. I just didn’t realise how far my hairline had receded. I don’t want to be the sort of guy who, you know, turns forty and is like, (in a goofy voice) ‘oh well, guess I’m old. My dad was bald and I guess I’ll be bald too’. Our grandparents are living to be a hundred, we could be easily living to a hundred and twenty, considering technology and everything.” He’s joking, although he probably would if he could. Only thirty eight, Spaulding shows no signs of slowing down.

Photo: Makar Artemev

Ciao For Now

When he talks about the city that saw him through this metamorphosis, Spaulding doesn’t hold back his distaste. “The truth is, if you’re white, thin, quiet, obedient and speak German, you’re going to enjoy life here. But if you’re not any of those, it’s going to be hard for you at some point. It can suck you in, in a way where you lose perspective of yourself and the world, and this is not an accurate reflection of what the world is. As much as we like to think that it’s a cosmopolitan city, it’s not. It’s cosmopolitan for Germany, but not for the world. I have had a lot of very bad experiences here with the government, with healthcare, with doctors, with bartenders and bouncers that have shaped my opinion of Berlin.”

When asked to pinpoint an exact reason as to why Berlin can feel so draining, he gives this example, “That mean man at dm who says something rude to you at the checkout in this really piercing German way that just cuts you down – no one else in any other country would ever be that mean. The patience and the energy and the compassion that you have to have to hold in the anger, that extra energy that it takes to overcome the negativity, is energy that I could be putting towards something positive in a space that’s positive.”

Photo: Makar Artemev

With a working visa for the US in hand, Spaulding will now split his time between New York City and Berlin. The move also marks a change to (some) of his content. In a YouTube video from March titled, ‘Birthday & New Beginnings After Gastric Sleeve Surgery!’ Spaulding announced that in addition to his “fun little sassy gay videos”, he’ll be making some serious content on health and wellness, using his platform to share his journey. “This is one of the first birthdays in a while where I really, really, really feel like I’m in a good place in my life,” he says to the camera. Onscreen, a video of Spaulding from March 2022 appears, providing a stark juxtaposition. “It’s amazing that within eight months – within less than a year – you can really change your life.”

“I am a firm believer in the fact that this is the only life we get,” he says in another video labelled ‘Comedian gets DHI Hair Transplant in Turkey!’. “Whatever you want to do to look good and feel good, do it.”

He’ll continue to share himself with the people in his community – but that community will soon include the people of New York, where his goal is to have an off-Broadway one-man show. “I want to have a cute little apartment and a vacation home. I want to travel, I want to have beautiful friends, I want to have dinner parties, I want to go to art shows and I want to go to the theatre. I see this big life that I’m already living, but I want to live it on a bigger scale.”

He’s also ready to live a life where being in the public eye doesn’t get to him. “The biggest thing for me is, I’ve really realised how much people’s opinions don’t matter. People, for the most part, are just projecting all of their bullshit onto other people all the time,” he explains. “To look the best that you personally feel comfortable with, and to do things that make you feel good about the way that you look and to keep that within your judgement is great. I don’t have any fears or anxieties… I don’t feel the judgement of others telling me what I should look like. I’m going to look the way I want to look.” 

As he always has, Spaulding will use his recent life experience as a conduit for his comedy – but with authenticity and thoughtfulness. “They say ‘Talk about your scars, not your wounds’. It’s important to make sure that if you’re sharing something about your life, that you’ve processed it and that you can make it funny so that it doesn’t feel like you’re going to therapy with a public audience and holding them captive in your therapy session.” Ultimately, he says, comedy is an empathetic art form.

“I see the value in sharing your story with people, because a lot of people have difficult lives and they suffer in silence. Knowing that someone else has processed difficult things can be really helpful to people, and if you can sort of mask that with a lot of laughter and a lot of fun, with that underlying message of wanting to let people know how you can get through difficult times, I think that’s amazing.”

  • Keep up to date with Daniel at @danielryanspaulding and get tickets for his ‘Power Gay’ German tour this September at danielryanspaulding.com