Q&A: Rainer Hersch
Brit standup comic, who merges humor with music, tours Delhi and Mumbai this month
Last month, pedestrians in New York were in for a surprise when improv group, Improv Everywhere, planted a Carnegie Hall orchestra on a busy street and invited passersbys to take on the baton and conduct them. This has been part of Brit comedian Rainer Hersch’s standup routine for about two decades now. Known for merging music with comedy, Hersch, who has performed at Mumbai’s Comedy Store thrice in the past, returns to the country for a two-city tour covering Mumbai and Delhi this month.
Besides picking awkward conductors from his audience, Hersch, a trained pianist, is also known to remove the seriousness attached to classical music. This month he tours with his 1996 production, All Classical Music Explained, a hour-long music comedy which premiered at the Edinburgh Festival and has seen umpteen appearances on television and radio over the years.
Unlike most comics, Hersch’s material steers clear of embarrassing personal details or a white man’s first impression of India – the ubiquitous head nod or the combined chaos of traffic, you get the drift. Talking about his brand of comedy, Hersch, who is currently performing in Doha, says over telephone,“I wouldn’t call it anything. I don’t give it a name like that. I can tell you what it [my comedy] isn’t. I don’t talk about sex because I think there are lots of people already doing it brilliantly and I don’t need to do that. And I there are something that people talk about at shows in a way that you won’t even talk to your most intimate friend. I’m not sure that stuff makes me laugh anymore. What makes me laugh is detailed, intelligent comedy that’s interesting.”
You are doing group shows with Indian standup comics and a solo show this month. How are the two different?
The difference is that the show with the other comics is a standup comedy about India, life and funny things that have occurred to me and will make the audience laugh. My solo show is about the subject of Western classical music. It’s for those who want to know more about classical music or even for people who already know about it.
Your show All Classical Music Explained debuted in 1996. What makes you go back to it when you have plenty other productions to showcase?
I have all these shows that I’m always working on. In fact, in January I will debut my new music show. But this [All Classical Music Explained] is very much a favorite show and it’s about a subject that doesn’t change. It’s not like politics where it’s dated and would no longer be interesting. As I’ve done the show so many times, I think it’s gotten better over the years. A lot has happened to the show and its format. It was broadcast on BBC. You might ask an actor: Why do you carry on doing Hamlet or Mahabharata and not a more contemporary play, but for me, this is a good one so why should I stop doing it? That’s what I feel. I hope it’s a show that will get liked. I am interested to see how the audience responds to it, whether they find it as funny here as they did at Edinburgh.
The audience in India may not be well versed in Western classic music. Are you skeptical that people won’t get it?
Like India, in the West, classical music is no longer taught in school. My show is not for people who know all about it [western classical], though people who know it all understand it better… they get the jokes more and where they come from. But I think anybody new to western classical will also laugh at the show. It’s not a show based on basic knowledge [of classical music]. I do think there are some things that everybody knows about western classical. In fact, I think there are 22 western classical compositions that people know, though they might not know the name or its composer. They might not even know that it’s western classical music since they recognize it from the TV shows or films… they recognize the same tune and that’s where I begin really. So it requires no more prior knowledge than that.
The last time we saw you perform in India, you gave Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” a hilarious makeover. Most people know it here as the “Old Spice ad” here. Will you be getting the placards with your guesswork lyrics this time as well?
The part about guessing what they are trying to say in an opera with the help of cards on stage has been part of my routine now. It’s a style I’m known for and I have many other cards which say what I think it is that they are saying. So I’ll have another one of those for this show. The cards routine is shorter for the group show and I have a bigger routine for my solo classical show.
How will it be different from your previous gigs?
This time it’s more developed. I’m talking about what makes opera funny. I’m doing some statistics about opera, about who died in opera most. In operas, people always die so I’ve made stats, which are funny but real, about who died and what composer killed the most number of people.
EDM is flavor of the season. Ever thought of making an electronica crossover for your upcoming shows?
I like electronica but it’s not something I don’t know well enough. However, I am doing this show during Christmas which is based on pop music. It’s based on the Christmas number ones list. In the charts in the UK, there’s a big guess about who’s going to be number one and over the year, there have been some terrible Christmas number ones. I’m doing a show based on it, so though it’s not exactly a crossover, it is a shift to something that’s more popular. Maybe five years from now my show will have electronica.
You tweet in English, German and Spanish. How many languages do you know? Do you use that knowledge as part of your comedy routine?
I speak German ’cause my dad is German and so is my wife. I’ve performed in German while touring Germany. I also did a show in Mexico and learnt some Spanish for the show. I learnt it in a week! Somebody asked me if I could do it in Spanish and I said yeah, how hard could it be? So I had a week to prepare and spent three hours a day with a Spanish teacher as we translated the show in a simpler form of Spanish. I practiced obsessively – it’s probably something that comes with me playing the piano I suppose. I knew what I was saying since I also know French and between all these three languages, it wasn’t so different to know a fourth language. Though unlike my other shows, the Spanish one is more like a one way conversation since it’s not like learning a language. It’s just about the audience understanding what you are saying.
You are currently performing in Doha. Is the audience in Doha very different from that in India?
The Doha audience is an expat audience. So it’s mostly Brit people who come for my show. In India, it’s always Indian people and that’s great. I found that if you stay within the area which they understand, they [Indians] are a very good audience. They are patient, they like to laugh and find things funny. It’s wonderful and pleasurable really. It’s all about keeping things within their reference. All audiences have a sense of reference – there are certain things that they know about and some that they don’t. You try and understand your audience and the way you can do that is by trial and error. All comedy is, to some extent, trial and error. You try it for the audience and if they agree with you, they will laugh.
Rainer Hersch performs in India between October 11th to 18th at Blue Frog Mumbai and Delhi.
Rainer Hersch India Tour
October 11th: Best in Stand-Up Comedy feat Rainer Hersch, Daniel Fernandes, Nishant Tanwar at Blue Frog, Mumbai. Rs 600
October 12th: Best in Stand-Up Comedy feat. Rainer Hersch, Gursimran Khamba, Nishant Tanwar at Blue Frog, Mumbai. Entry: Rs 600
October 13th: All Classical Music Explained (ACME) feat Rainer Hersch at Blue Frog, Mumbai. Entry: Rs 600
October 18th: Best in Stand-Up Comedy feat Rainer Hersch, Karunesh Talwar, Neville Shah at Blue Frog, Mumbai. Entry: Rs 600
October 19th: Best in Stand-Up Comedy feat Rainer Hersch, Daniel Fernandes, Varun Thakur at Blue Frog, Delhi. Entry: Rs 600