Interview: Standup comedian Bengt Washburn
"I couldn't talk," says comedian Bengt Washburn. "That's what it was like. That's what I tell people at my shows about living in Germany for three and a half years. It's hard learning a language when you're middle-aged." While the comedy business takes some comedians like Tom Rhodes, Rich Hall, and Dave Fulton to Europe, it was Washburn's wife's job with the U.S. military that found them in Germany. As such, Washburn couldn't do many gigs.
"I got to do a couple of shows in Berlin and Cologne," he says. "Those were ex-pat shows, and I did shows on the U.S. military bases." He was also able to pop in and do a guest set at the Comedy Store in London. "But with the kids I couldn't afford afford to go over there and work my way into anything. And you can't work for money unless you have a work visa, and getting one of those can be kind of tricky."
So Washburn took care of the kids and wrote a lot. "We had a baby while we were there, she's three now. And I would come home six to eight weeks a year and do comedy in the States and then go back there." Washburn now lives in Washington, D.C., but his time in Germany had some positive effects on his comedy.
"Oh yeah," he starts. "I ended up with a whole new CD, but I was kind of rusty. I didn't have much stage time over there, but my last CD was Bengt Over in Europe, and it was about that whole experience."
Of the many challenges to living in Germany, the language was probably the biggest hurdle to overcome. "There's lots of Germanic in our language, lots of similar stuff, but the pronunciation is so different and the grammar is tricky."
Washburn recalls a story about a friend who purchased a pen for her husband. "The part that retracts the pen, that opens and closes it, it wouldn't work so she's trying to figure it out for like an hour," he says. "It still doesn't work, so she drives all the way back into Stuttgart, an hour away, and in broken German asks how to get the pen to work. The guy takes the cap off the back of the pen and puts it on top of the pen. She wasted two hours for something that simple. Everything is like that. Every time you pull into a parking garage you're like, 'How does this work?' Even the door knobs are different. Do you twist it, do you turn it?"
On a deeper level, Washburn came to appreciate the differences between Germany and the U.S.
"It's a different culture. People don't understand that," he says. "Like with healthcare legislation. People say, 'We should do what the Germans do.' And having lived there I can say we're not Germans. We're not going to run anything as efficiently as they do. We're just not, and people don't understand that. People think government systems between cultures are interchangeable. They give no credence to the cultural differences."
He elaborates: "You know how we have laws preventing people from plugging parking meters? That's what we do in America. You go by and put a quarter in for someone. Germans would point you out to the parking meter officer. That's how Germans feel about rules. It's a completely different attitude."
Washburn did enjoy a few aspects of German life. "I really enjoyed the order that comes with everyone being on the same page," he says. "But that can get out of hand, as we saw a century ago. It can work in a different direction, but after having been there, I think people might be a little too afraid of that. But we've seen the cost. Holy cow, that was nuts."
IF YOU GO:
Acme Comedy Co.
708 N. First St., Minneapolis; 612-338-6393
8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
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