Jokes Aside | Vienna’s International Comedy Scene

Austria’s comedy scene gets some international flair as English language stand-up grows in Vienna

Downstairs, the room is cozy but packed, the bare brick walls bathed in warm, yellow light. Excited chatter comes from an array of mismatched seats as friendly faces squeeze in together like a few too many guests at a generous dinner party; it’s tight, but that’s ok, since everyone is welcome.

The Tunnel hosts a variety of events, from jazz concerts to poetry readings and tonight, with a tall black stool and a slender microphone stand, it’s another “open mic.” From suits to jeans, bankers to teenagers, brave rookies all take their shot at stand-up comedy. The usual suspects are in attendance: veterans Reginald Bärris and Okello Dunkley, charged with laughter in the third degree. The crowd is having a good time, even though the latter of the two was told Austria isn’t the place for stand-up comedy. “When I got here, I was like, where are the comedy clubs? And I realized there weren’t any and I thought: ‘don’t you guys laugh?’” says Dunkley, founder of Vienna’s Funniest Stand Up Comedy, which hosts bito tri-monthly shows at the Tunnel. He readily switches his deep voice to do impressions, with suitable gestures and an expressive look on his face. “I just assumed there’d be some, but when I saw there wasn’t, I was like, ‘ok, we gotta fix that!’ Now we fixed it, we just gotta make sure people know.” The American photographer and comedian moved to Vienna in 2015 and established his show the following year. The limited prevalence of English-language stand-up, combined with a handful of ambitious comics, resulted in an ever-growing comedy scene. “I thought: If I want more stage time, I’ll have to do it myself,” tells Bärris, who initiated Vienna Chuckles in 2016. The sentiment is shared by Dunkley: “For me, it wasn’t enough ’cos it’s like a sport, you have to practice it to get better.”

Unlike the long-standing local tradition of Kabarett, the Viennese stand-up scene is only in its infancy; both Vienna’s Funniest Stand Up and Vienna Chuckles celebrated their second anniversaries this year. However, there are more contrasts than commonalities between the two forms. “[Standup and Kabarett] are thoroughly different, even though they look the same,” says Bärris. Aside from being less musical, “comedy is about the jokes, Kabarett is about what you have to say.”

The English comedian and fellow expat Patrick Lamb agrees: “According to the rules of stand-up, one needs to get three laughs from the audience per minute. Introduce it, set it up, punchline, intro, set up, punchline… It’s like a gag machine gun. [It’s] rhythmic, staccato, kind-of dum-dum buff, dumdum buff …” Vienna-based for about 20 years, Lamb is well aware of regional peculiarites. “Some of the Austrians that came to watch me perform asked me what was the Rote Faden (the plot)? Is there a theme running through the work? Because the Austrian Kabarettisten and Kabarettistinnen, they seem to have a theme that underlines what they do … [in British stand-up], there’s no thread going through that I’ve seen. It’s just a series of insights, funny stories… your personality is the glue.” Kabarett artists also tend to apply narrative aspects in their sets. The award-winning Nadja Maleh, for example, has developed 25 individual characters that she includes in her performances. Contrastingly, stand-up comedians inadvertently portray a persona, but focus on the effectiveness of each joke to achieve the highest degree of hilarity, even in short sets. “Comedy is … edited and concise, [it’s] almost like an economy of words,” Bärris explains.

Comics like Patrick Lamb (above) and Okello Dunkley (see below) have been carving out a niche for English-language stand-up in the past years, often showcasing the expat experience in their acts, like Dunkley’s show Almost Austrian.

They say laughter is universal, yet cultural differences can be palpable: Stand-up comics in Vienna often notice a drop in vocal reaction when just half the audience is Austrian. Dunkley recalls an interaction with an employee at a comedy venue, who was disinterested in the show because: “There’s just too much laughing going on.” Bärris remembers an Austrian audience member apologizing to him for his audible amusement, to which he replied: “No, no, that’s what you’re here for.” While laughter is instant affirmation for the comedian and thus highly encouraged at stand-up shows, Viennese audiences can be too reserved to let out a clamorous chuckle, thanks to Austrian etiquette. Heckling, a staple of stand-up shows in the Anglosphere, is nearly unheard of in Vienna. “I don’t think the public here expects the gag thing, I think the expectations are different. I think the Austrian audiences are very cultured, it’s more like a theater audience,” says Lamb. “They’re much more tolerant and gentle and respectful than a pub full of stag and hen parties in Croydon or Brooklyn would be, where it’s merciless. You’ve either got them or you haven’t, and if you haven’t, you’ll be in tears.” The differences in expectation are evident in the cultural notions over comedy as well. Austrian humor delves toward the macabre and loves double-entendres but avoids direct insults, unlike British humor, says Lamb. Simultaneously, Austrian jokes can be highly referential and often comment on specific events and persons both current and historic; “I think British and American comedy tends to be more universal,” he says. That is where the Anglo-American tradition shines, with Vienna’s English-language comedians combining their format’s universality with everyday experiences in the city. “You just talk about life… everyone has to go to the Billa at Praterstern on a Sunday,” Dunkley shares. “I can safely say that I think Vienna is the best place to do comedy in the world because they don’t laugh at everything… it’s like practicing with weights on.”

“You just talk about life… everyone has to go to the Billa at Praterstern on a Sunday.” – Dunkley

Despite some skeptic Kabarett fans, Vienna’s English-language comedy scene grows, but not fast enough for Bärris: “There are 1.8 million people in the city, but we’ve never had 1.8 million in the audience!” Nevertheless, thanks to regular shows, guest stars from abroad, special events for holidays and competitive comedy battles, stand-up in the Austrian capital has just started getting comfortable.

“[Stand-up and Kabarett] are thoroughly different, even
though they look the same; comedy is about the jokes,
Kabarett is about what you have to say.”

Reginald Bärris
, comedian and founder of Vienna Chuckles

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