At his “student flat” in the center of Graz, the guitar collection and the urban artwork totally fit the rocker lifestyle we expected from one of Austria’s favorite sons. But what to make of the delicate tartes and coffee he served us on arrival? Well. It’s Austria. And Paul Pizzera is also an artisan of unexpected analogies, like:
“I think a lot of things happen for a reason, but me being the 4,001st law student in Graz was not going to be one of them,” he said with a snicker. “I’ve always loved to read and write, but the writing even more; so studying German literature and philosophy seemed like the right choice.”
His love for language also grew out of music. “I’ve been greatly influenced by poets like Ernst Jandl” – poetry known for the performative aspect, i.e. “better heard than read.” In his own way, Pizzera is always on stage, weaving music and poetry into emotional fabric that millions of German-speaking fans can associate with.
But even with his colorful metaphors and thought-provoking lyrics, Pizzera is firmly grounded in reality. He loves fiction and satire but gets nothing out of science fiction. “As soon as it’s about spaceships and aliens, you’ve lost me.”
His career began in Graz, and while he started out performing solo with his guitar, poetry slams were a jumping off point, “a great way to get experience performing.” And cabaret – the marriage of comedy and music – was his drug of choice. He joined forces with cabaret artist Otto Jaus, forming Pizzera & Jaus in 2013. Their attitudes complemented one another perfectly.
“I have a certain grotesque sense of humor so that I find the music of Austria’s traditional Saufkultur (binge culture) pretty funny.” He mentioned a few artists that crack him up, like the accordion toting Schneiderwirt Trio. (You’ll find them on YouTube. Thank me later.)
Despite Austrians being used to cynical, morbid humor, it’s getting increasingly difficult to use that without people feeling like their toes were stepped on, he told me. “I love black humor, and yes, it’s dangerous if you want to be politically correct.” The Germans and Swiss don’t seem to have been bothered by it though, and Pizzera says he’s been asked whether audiences have trouble understanding him many more times than anyone actually complained about it.
“But when they ask me, ‘How far do you think comedy can go?’ I answer, “Not as far as the Germans back in Stalingrad – they went too far – but farther than Jörg Haider in his day, he couldn’t have gone farther enough.” It’s clear that he knows he’s being provocative with jokes like that, but he enjoys watching his audience squirm.
I must not have been squirming enough after the Stalingrad analogy, so he laid on another one: “Humor is like food,” he said with a wink. “Not everybody has it.” His face melted into an infectious chuckle. “It just makes me laugh, I can’t help myself.”
But a certain amount of intelligence is needed to enjoy black humor, he says.
“I’m not going to make a joke saying feminism is good. Cause I believe that.” That kind of joke could only come from people who know it’s “not allowed,” he said, leading to a few more priceless metaphors that tragically don’t translate. But his conclusion certainly does: Dark humor is “the rescue lane for the political correctness traffic jam.”
Austrian Dialekt, he says, or the Bavarian language region (Bayrischer Sprachraum) generally, impresses him immensely, and he’s found a word for it: “primitively deep” (primitiv tiefgründig).
While we talked, Pizzera spouted insights at a mile a minute, highlighting some of his favorite examples of “primitively deep” humor.
Martin Puntigam, of the comedy show “Science Busters” is also a Grazer native who, Pizzera says, embodies the approach perfectly. “He’s linguistically so sharp, so mean, and he sinks so low but is so smart while doing so, which makes it so much fun to listen to him.”
Pizzera explained the simplicity of the “low” or dirty side of humor through stars of other classics of Austrian comedy, like MA2412 legend Karl Ferdinand Kratzl who said: “Hässlich (high German for ugly) is a nice word, but schiach (Austrian for ugly/nasty) is more accurate.”
Pizzera’s attitude toward language is honesty. Just being dirty or disgusting isn’t clever on its own, but when there’s a smart background, the dirty stuff is better. “The worst kind of people are drunk people in suits that think their great,” said Pizzera shaking his head. “But if you’re smart and add a funny frivolous jab to it – but only in combination – that’s perfect.”
While not a purveyor of Wiener Schmäh (Viennese humor), Pizzera does find the Austrian language looser, not as buttoned up as official German – more tolerable, because it diffuses the tragedy. “I think the blue-eyed, stumbling way our language works forgives a lot.”
Straight Into Life
Eine ins Leben
For his partner in pop, Jaus, Pizzera is full of praise. While he writes the songs and lyrics, Jaus is the master performer.
“I don’t know anyone in Austria or Bavaria who can sing like he can. He can sing anything, and he’s an animal on stage, playing the piano and the drums … he’s like a Swiss army knife.”
His own voice has evolved since working with Jaus, like any good partnership, learning from one another: “We are each other’s teacher and student, both therapist and patient.” It’s also psychologically better to have someone to share the spotlight with. “Two years after I began performing, I stood alone in front of 10,000 people and that does something to you.” He’d had great success but was extremely unhappy and began seeing a therapist. He didn’t want someone to give him advice, but someone to ask the right questions. “There’s a reason they go to school for that.”
At the same time, he understands his need for the stage. “Why is Mick Jagger still on stage at 70? Because he can’t find anything to drink or shoot up that even gets close to the high – that cocktail of serotonin, dopamine… You can’t get that any other way. And you get addicted.”
During lockdown, without the chance to perform, Pizzera was afraid he would shrivel up. But as soon as they were able, they met to rehearse and record, Pizzera also took the opportunity to flex his writing muscle. Der Hypokratische Neid (Hippocratic Envy) is Pizzera’s first book with two voices: a cynical intellectual analyst and a reactionary, working class Prolet. In the time it takes for one therapy session, he has meticulously examined images of world, women and the self, just to discard them. Now both teacher and student, his own therapeutic journey has marked a change in his needs and self-image as a performer.
“I realized I no longer wanted to be on stage alone. It gives me so much to be able to share the stage with someone who’s become one of my best friends. And that feeling is priceless.”
Paul Pizzera’s 5 Quirks of the German Language
Glück & Glück – In German, luck and happiness are the same word and several sayings use this as a play on words: “Das Glück is a Vogerl” Happiness/Luck is like a bird, that can fly away at any moment. “I always thought that says a lot about how we see things in this part of the world. Happiness is inseparable from luck.”
Creating words – Oftentimes humor comes from unlikely word creations and unexpected imagery. In their song “frmdghn” (Fremdgehen, or cheating) Pizzera & Jaus say “Today we’ll see your Zweitbesetzung (understudy), I don’t have a Seitensprunggelenksverletzung.” Seitensprung means side-hustle or affair, and Sprunggelenksverletzung means an ankle injury.
Bending metaphors – In the same song, the protagonist explains why his extra-partnership escapades shouldn’t be a big deal. “Drum hob I mi am Hamweg hoit a poa mal verlafen – I werd jo eh net weniger, i bin jo ka Safn,” saying he got lost a few times on the way home, but that doesn’t mean there’s less of him. After all, he’s not a bar of soap. The translation can’t do the original justice.
4 words that end with “nf” – Ask a German speaker what the only 4 words are that end in “nf.” Most will be able to think of the first three Hanf (hemp), Genf (Geneva), and Senf (mustard), but the last one tends to keep them stumped. We use the word every day, it’s Fünf (five).
Vanitas – This Latin word describes what Pizzera sees as an essential part of the Austrian state of mind – a work of art that shows the transience of life, the futility of pleasure and the certainty of death. “Austrian humor thrives on this idea that nothing really matters and then going into great detail about it.”