What an inspiring anniversary to celebrate this week. The crumbling of the Berlin Wall, the symbolic division between the vibrant, free West and the state-run, concrete-sculpted East. When the fall of the wall was covered on TV, my reaction was multifold:
1. They’re doing WHAT with sledgehammers? Yay!
2. Why is this happening now?
3. What in the world took so long?
4. Does this really mean the end of the Cold War, or will Germany be the sole beneficiary of this boldness?
And then the most important question of all:
5. How can I joke about it?
This month in 1989 was the third month I had been doing a weekly cabaret called “Theater of the Bizarre”, in the lower level of the Elbo Room (which somehow is still there at Lincoln and George, hosting musicians I’ll never learn about in my middle-aged life). The show needed a little time to find an identity, but Nick the owner was a very good guy, liked what we were doing and open to using the lower level of the restaurant in different ways. My friend Steve Ginensky had asked me to help him get this show going, the only time anyone had ever outright asked me to perform onstage. So, for that compliment, I was grateful.
“Theater of the Bizarre” was hosted by a black-clad Euro-trash art casualty named Armando von Shtuppenvald, accompanied on piano by his lacky Pepe. We smoked, wore berets and wrap-around sunglasses, had bored German accents — think of Mike Myers’ Dieter character, but actually funny. For a while Steve and I swapped these roles — usually during the show — by swapping Armando’s iconic chin beard. After a few months, though, the novelty of this wore thin, as did the amusement of me trying to play anything on piano. (My lousy piano-playing did, however, give us our theme music. Butcher the song “Konnen Sie Der Muffinmeister” well enough and it takes people a while to realize you’re singing “Do You Know The Muffin Man”.)
And with the fortuitous Fall of the Berlin Wall, we were propelled into a two-year run of the show.
The fall of the wall and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union didn’t happen overnight, we sometimes forget. It took about 20 months for the latter to occur, and in that time, we were able to milk people’s attention to Germany for all it was worth.
One of my bits was a box of “Cut-out Dolls of the Communist Party”, a kit that allowed you to dress up Deng Xiao Peng as Jobba the Hut and Fidel Castro as a Cuban infielder and a big-band leader. For the president of East Germany (a position that went through a lot of occupants before disappearing completely), instead of changing clothes, I rotated the head, from Erik Honneker to whoever replaced him, to Werner Klemperer, to Arte Johnson in his “Verrrry interestink” outfit. In the picture below, you can see me with the cutouts, while Pepe reads from our book “Kafka fur Kinder.”
And when the rest of Europe began to fear the power of a unified Germany (yeah, it had been a rough century whenever Germany got rambunctious), Steve as Pepe penned one of our best song parodies, to the tune of “We Are The World”:
There comes a time, when you have to forge ahead,
Even though, you don’t know, what you’re doin’…
You’ve got Roseanne und E.T., Disneyland und MTV,
But WE’VE GOT FAHRFERGNUGEN!
We are the World! We are the Germans!
Our men are strong, our women look like Edgar Bergen!
Uber alles said and done, we just want to have some fun….
At which point, Armando would always interrupt from offstage and go into a tirade about his going off the leash, only to be soothed when Pepe began to tinkle “Alley Cat” on the keyboard. It was a grand good silly time, and during “Theater of the Bizarre” I made a lot of good friends. I also got the idea for “Politically Correct Bedtime Stories”, but we can’t blame the Germans for that.
So, you know, it’s great that 20 years ago, millions of people began to throw Communism and their oppressive leaders out the window. Kudos. But much more importantly, it gave us lots of topical material. For that, Steve and I will be forever grateful.