Hape Kerkeling is one of Germany’s most beloved comedic actors and has been entertaining with his well-developed cadre of amusing characters since his teens. Starting out in radio, he featured alter egos such as Hannilein, a precocious child who comments on the world of adults. False teeth, wigs and fat suits would become regular props as more character personae were brought into his act, most of which are quite annoying and socially inept. Yet, Hape is perhaps best known for dressing up as Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. Accompanied by his television show camera crew, he almost gained entrance as the President of Germany’s guest at a state dinner in Berlin. Government officials were not amused but the story made international headlines.
Burned out after years of touring, this self-professed ‘couch potato’ decided to take a long walk and ended up traversing the famous el Camino de Santiago, a 400-mile pilgrimage beginning in southern France, trekking over the Pyrenees and ending up in northern Spain. He published a diary of his journey, “I’m Off for a Bit, Then,” and it became a phenomenon: the best-selling non-fiction book in Germany since WWII, with almost 3 million copies sold. His combination of humor, adventure and spiritual awakening are expressed through his own voice without any characters speaking on his behalf. For Hape, the journey was transformational, and since his return, his characters, his humor and the whole of his life have found new expression.
SuperConsciousness Magazine asked Hape to share some of his insights.
SC: Your English, with that lovely British accent, is beautiful. I understand you speak four other languages in addition to German and English. What has been your experience with different languages and cultures when getting people to laugh?
HK: My mother tongue is German, but I have also had the chance to work in the United States and England, and I must admit, I love English and American humor.
Comedy in Germany has been largely influenced by English speaking comedians for the past 50 years and is nowadays very similar. The German language, by comparison, is quite stiff and square compared to English or French, and as a German comedian, I make fun of that with the use of different, softer German dialects.
Also, Americans love to laugh loudly and are always up for a good joke. The Germans, by comparison, are quite reserved, what I call “the laughter within.” They are amused but don’t show it immediately. Sometimes, it takes one second more before they will burst out in laughter.
SC: In what ways have American and British comedians influenced German comedy, and who has influenced you personally?
HK: Every comedian who is big in America is also big in Germany. Jerry Lewis influenced a lot of German comedy; so did Steve Martin and Woody Allen.
If others laugh at you and the way you are, it is better to laugh with them and then make them laugh even more before they think about laughing about you. And that is where you get control of a situation back in a way.
Jerry Lewis was one of my biggest influences. When I was a child, he was very big everywhere and he really made me laugh. I loved his comedy and still do to this day. But, I think I loved Woody Allen the most. He was always making fun of himself. He taught me to laugh at myself.
SC: You have developed many characters in the past 20 years. Which ones are your favorites?
HK: Well, when I’m on stage, I love every character, and at the moment I have three. There is one obnoxious guy with very big glasses; very much a Jerry Lewis-like character. He is always overacting with hysteric laughter and he’s funny when he tries to be polite.
Then there is a Dutch lady who is a couples therapist. She talks with her funny Dutch accent, but she doesn’t use the right words while she is trying to deal with the couples’ relationships. I pull people up on stage to improvise with this character. She thinks she is always right, so she is funny when she tries to get the audience members to do what she says.
And the third character is a local reporter from a newspaper and he is always kind of drunk, so he is always unaware of how people are reacting to him.
SC: Growing up, you didn’t see yourself as very sporty or athletic. Did it seem to you that the only option available was to be funny?
HK: My lack of sporting ability was a weakness I had to deal with. I didn’t want to become bitter, so I tried to laugh about it. I chose laughter. If others laugh at you and the way you are, it is better to laugh with them and then make them laugh even more before they think about laughing about you. And that is where you get control of a situation back in a way.
SC: You’ve also created a character that was a child.
HK: Children are anarchic by nature, so with the child character, I could bring some anarchy into the everyday boring life. Plus, back in 1982, I looked much younger than seventeen. I could hardly get into a cinema without showing my ID.
SC: How do laughter and humor help you to deal with difficult circumstances?
HK: Only love and humor are able to heal the biggest wounds. If one loses his laughter, he loses his life. Therefore, I try to laugh loudly at least once a day. I call it a recipe!
SC: During a peak in your success as a comedian, you decided to take a long walk, and the book you wrote about your adventure became a #1 best seller. In another interview, you stated, “The Camino really begins after you’ve finished it.” How has your life changed since your pilgrimage?
And when you really burst into laughter, it feels so, well, like a little child. Not thinking about anything, just laughing about the world and at the world. To me, it feels like eating loads of happiness.
HK: As a comedian, I do a lot of improvisation and after the pilgrimage I started trying to connect back into people. I’m much more aware about how they feel, how they react, and can in a way sense before they might feel humiliated or something. I try to be much more careful than before.
SC: And have you found that you in a more joyful or happy state of being?
HK: Yes, absolutely. When I was much younger, I was more aggressive with my humor, but after that trip it was weird. In a way, I have become much more tender.
SC: Do you enjoy laughing at yourself as much as you enjoy the laughter of your audiences?
HK: When we laugh, we absolutely forget about everything that’s around us. And when you really burst into laughter, it feels so, well, like a little child. Not thinking about anything, just laughing about the world and at the world. To me, it feels like eating loads of happiness.