Pop star and comic Otto Jaus waxes poetic about fame, being funny and attempts to define the many meanings of the word Schmäh

It’s not hard to see why Otto Jaus has been so successful as a comedian. His playful attitude is underlined by a mischievous, slightly dark sense of humor that made our conversation honest, awkward and hilarious, the perfect combination for authentic Wiener Schmäh.

“I don’t know when I started thinking I was funny,” Jaus mused as he sipped tea at our corner table. “I could tell I had a certain effect on the people around me and I like being the center of attention.”

As fate would have it, this oh-so-Austrian singer and comic started out playing the piano, and then became a Vienna Choir Boy at age eight, touring the world with a troupe of prepubescent vocalists in sailor suits and singing in the Hofburg every second Sunday. After his voice broke, he attempted regular school. But after failing most of his classes, he told his parents, “Whatever I do, I’m going to make music, even if I have to stand on Kärtnerstraße with my guitar.”

They finally let him go, but insisted he learn a profession, just in case. So he became a technical draftsman. “And then I started to study musical at the Vienna Konservatorium (Now called MUK – Music and Arts University of the City of Vienna). Then he got a scholarship for the Royal Academy of Music.

After that, he began his career in musicals, his big break came with his first roles at the legendary Viennese cabaret theater Kabarett Simpl and later as part of the ensemble of their Revue.

How would he describe Austrian cabaret to a foreigner, say a German? “Stay at home, you won’t understand it,” he snickers. “No, seriously. You’ll find everything from thigh-slapping one-liners (Schenkelklopfer) to people like Nia (Michael Niavarani), who’s one of my biggest role models.”

In the past two years his fame has skyrocketed, after teaming up with Paul Pizzera to form Pizzera & Jaus. In 2016 the duo hit it big with their single “Jedermann.” It topped the Austrian charts for 40 weeks and won Song of the Year at the Amadeus Awards, Austria’s Grammys.

Their style is tongue-in-cheek, but distinctly Austrian. The music is pop rock with passionate counterpart vocals.

Liebe mocht ned blind, sondern nur die Augn gschwoin, (Love doesn’t make you blind, it just makes your eyes swollen.)

The idiosyncrasies of dialect are part of the charm that makes their style. The text is simple, but desperately angry, sad, honest and full of remorse. And funny.

The melancholy topics in their songs are not all there is to Wiener Schmäh. Pizzera & Jaus do bits between numbers on stage and garner plenty of laughs, beside the screams and applause from their ever-growing fan base.

There are regional differences in the references, says Jaus, particularly when he did cabaret and standup in Germany. “But the bits stay the same, it’s still funny.” This is underlined by the fact that the Austrian comic Joseph Hader whom Jaus admires, has repeatedly won the Bavarian Comedy Prize. Yes, Bavaria is in Germany.

As he continues philosophizing about the meaning of Schmäh, Jaus says, “Wait, I have a better example: When the traffic light turns from red to green and the guy in front of you doesn’t move, you could call him an idiot, but the Wiener Schmäh would be to ask, ‘Wos? Woa für di die richtige Foab ned dabei?’ (‘What? Were none of those the right color for you?’)”

Jaus says that in the realm of Austro-pop, the band Seiler & Speer opened up a door with their song “Ham Kummst” (“Just wait till you get Home”) that meant that pop in Mundart (dialect) was coming back. “Wiener Schmäh just doesn’t work in Hochdeutsch,” Jaus said, shaking his head.

His favorite kind of comedy? “I like black humor, all the things you’re not allowed to say.” As to English-language comedians, he’s a big fan of Louis CK and George Carlin. But, essentially, that’s easy to link to the humor he grew up with.

As we gestured to pay, he hit on it. “To me, Wiener Schmäh is when you tell someone he’s a ‘Vollidiot‘ (a complete idiot) and he thinks you’ve just given him a compliment.”