• Stage
  • Comedy legend Thomas Hermanns: “I often don’t feel very German”

Stage

Comedy legend Thomas Hermanns: “I often don’t feel very German”

The reigning king of German comedy Thomas Hermanns on his new trilingual musical, 'Berlin Non Stop'.

Thomas Hermanns. Photo: Makar Artemev

To say that Thomas Hermanns is a mainstay of German comedy wouldn’t be an understatement. Over 30 years ago, he imported the stand-up comedy format from New York, where he lived for a time, founding the Quatsch Comedy Club and its long-running show in Hamburg in 1992. 

The now-61-year-old hosted the show for three decades, turning it into one of the most important comedy hubs in the country; over the years, almost every well-known German comedian performed there. 

Since 2002 – the year Hermanns moved to Berlin – the basement of Friedrichstadt Palast has been the main venue for the club. The show is also broadcast on national television, to be seen on ProSieben, Sky Showcase and Sky One. 

Hermanns, a Bochum native, also wrote the books for several musicals, including Kein Pardon (2011) and Bussi – Das Munical. His new multilingual production, Berlin Non Stop – featuring 70% English, 29% German, 11% Berlin dialect and 1% Spanish – centres around the queer Berlin nightlife of 2010 and debuts on July 16 at Pfefferberg Theater. 

Ahead of the premiere, we spoke with Hermanns about funny small-town names, sex with tourists, longing for New York, and his favourite version of Berlin.

In 2010, former mayor Klaus Wowereit promised that BER airport was about to open, Tempelhofer Feld actually did open, and Bar 25 closed. What do you associate with Berlin back then?

It was funny trying to explain Möbel Olfe to someone in New York.

My favourite Berlin era! I arrived here in 2002. Looking back, the Klaus Wowereit era was the most stylish we had. Berlin suddenly appeared on the international map. Everyone wanted to come here to experience those famous Berlin nights, just like the three main characters in our musical. The sense of excitement, the glamour that became important back then – we need to get back to that.

Your new multilingual musical Berlin Non Stop features three young tourists in Berlin during the summer of 2010 searching for fun, sex, culture and love. They come from Birmingham, Barcelona and Bad Bevensen. Is 2010 far enough in the past to evoke a feeling of nostalgia?

For me, yes. A lot has happened since then. After Klaus, we had several mayors, some of whom have been completely forgotten. The show is also an ode to the people who work in nightlife or go out. And the attitude towards tourists has changed. In 2010, people were still happy when easyJet brought them all here.

But in the early 2010s, “Touristen fisten” (“punch the tourists”) graffiti appeared on buildings in Kreuzberg…

Exactly – at some point, it turned. In our play, three true Berliners who really live here have to figure out: how do you fall in love with a tourist? They all have it tattooed on their foreheads: Sex, yes, but falling in love, no way. Is Berlin even a city where you can find love? Berlin is a romantic city, but in its own way. Not like Parisian romance or the romance of walking through Rome at night.

A rowdy romance?

It’s rowdier, full of ruptures, full of things that don’t work.

What kind of night owl were you back then: theatre or bar?

Everything in succession. I started with the theatre at eight, then went to a restaurant for dinner, then to bar one, bar two, bar three, and if I managed it, I definitely wasn’t home before six. I went to the cool places, but I also went to the [queer club] Busche. I was out and about between Kreuzberg, Neukölln, Mitte. Sometimes at Ku’damm, at Big Eden, where they had a gay rock party, the SqueezeBOX party. You either spent a lot of time in taxis or had someone sober drive you through the city. One day, I want a gravestone from the taxi guild!

What locations are featured in the play?

Möbel Olfe, Rauschgold, Berghain of course, especially the garden at Berghain. But also the Charité emergency room and Christopher Isherwood’s apartment at Nollendorfplatz.

Crew and cast of Berlin Non Stop. Photo: TH Entertainment

What was it like to work with the acclaimed composer Thomas Zaufke? You’ve collaborated with him before, when you were writing your first musical, Kein Pardon, in 2011, based on the film by comedian Hape Kerkeling.

We work quickly. We continuously inspire each other. And I think this piece is seamless, also in terms of humour. He understands my lyrics. I love his melodies. And what would Mr Zaufke be without his ballads?

When did you begin working on Berlin Non Stop?

Eight years ago. This project is the only one we started without a commission – without a producer, without a theatre. We did a workshop in London and in New York. Does Berlin work for the international market? It was funny trying to explain Möbel Olfe to someone in New York.

It’s your first Berlin musical. Why did Munich get Bussi – Das Munical in 2015?

I do it biographically because I studied in Munich. Hamburg hasn’t gotten one yet. Maybe it’s also because of Hamburg itself.

You lived in New York before Hamburg…

New York is always an option! Thomas already made it, having composed the music for Shooting Star, which was performed in Brooklyn – the first German composer since Kurt Weill!

Two years ago, you received the German Comedy Award for lifetime achievement. You weren’t even 60. How did that feel?

If I could manage it, I definitely wasn’t home before six.

Oh, it felt great at that moment because I had just handed over the TV hosting of Quatsch Comedy Club after 30 years. Sometimes you get the lifetime achievement award too early and wonder: why, I still want to keep going? Or it never comes, and you’re still working.

Speaking of work: at the end of June, you’re in Regensburg in the Rocky Horror Picture Show as the narrator…

Unfortunately! I want to say again that I see myself as Janet in the Rocky universe, but no one listened to me! So, I have to play the narrator. At least I get to say the iconic “Time Warp” lines.

Berlin Non Stop starts in Berlin in mid-July, and at the end of the year, your Howard Carpendale musical Hello! Again? premieres in Leipzig. Slowing down isn’t your thing, is it?

I planned to do less this year. Then our Quatsch Comedy show came along. The Carpendale show was a sure thing. Berlin Non Stop really came at the last minute. Thank goodness, because now we can get it on stage here.

Why did you stay in Berlin? It can’t have been the good manners of Berliners…

Certainly not! When I saw the first French person in my neighbourhood who moved here from Paris, I thought: I would never expect this of any other German city, for someone to do that. Or a New Yorker, a Londoner. I’m in Berlin mainly because of the many foreigners who really mix things up, see things differently. I often don’t feel very German. That’s why I always do things that aren’t top-tier in Germany: karaoke, comedy, musicals.

At 61, do you still go out as much?

I always say, at my age, you have to force yourself to go out, but you have to do it. And it requires very precise planning. Especially the days after have to be cleared. The hangover used to last a day. Now it’s three.

  • Berlin Non Stop, Pfefferberg Theater, Schönhauser Allee, Prenzlauer Berg. Premiere: July 16, 20:00, 15 more dates between July 17 and Aug 3, tickets from €31.50, available here.