When Cultures Collide, Life Is a Cabaret
A conversation with comedian Jenny Simanowitz: sharing the secret of making people laugh
Jenny Simanowitz is a natural comedian. It’s clear from the way she blows into a room, in a swirl of arms and bangles and flowing fabric, with an amused twinkle in her eye at the absurdity of the scene. Any scene. Whatever’s happening, or about to happen, she’s ready.
"I expect to have a good time," she told me. "I mean, think about it: Life is funny!"
We met at the Café Ritter on Amerlingstraße just off Mariahilferstraße (U3 Neubaugasse) – a gracious and roomy old Kaffeehaus that, after a massive rent increase and highly-publicised court battle, is now back in full swing under new owner Herald Holzer. It was a Monday afternoon and the place was packed, every booth and table full, making me glad I had come early to wait for a quiet corner. Spending time with Jenny Simanowitz is a memorable occasion and I didn’t want to miss a word.
From a career as a teacher and sales trainer, the South African-born Simanowitz has made a name for herself in Vienna, with a "communications cabaret" called Sex and Business [see "New Age Stage Play", Apr 2010 TVR], performed in both English and German. Performing alone or with colleague Margaret Carter, she plays across the at times cavernous cultural gaps between business life and private life, between Austrians and Anglos, between men and women. A new show, Courage, premiered on 25 April at the Interkulttheater on nearby Filgradergasse, and continues on selected evenings through 12 May.
"I love the poster for the new show," Simanowitz said, shoving a postcard-size version across the table. It shows her suddenly captured by a spotlight, blond head thrown back, arms wide with Liza Minelli bravado, in a see-through jacket of scarlet lace, trimmed cuffs and collar in splashes of matching boa feathers. It’s outrageous. And wonderful. I couldn’t help laughing.
She leaned across the table conspiratorially: "This woman I know has a networking platform, you know, for business contacts, called ‘Netto’; and I thought, this could be useful. So I uploaded the card…" She sat up. "And in fifteen minutes, I had 20 emails from men!" she said, slapping the table for emphasis. "Ranging from 22 to 60."
It says something to still be a femme fatale at 63. But it is as much a credit to the men, I mused, that they knew a good thing when they saw it. Comedy is the stuff of life to Simanowitz, as basic as the air she breathes. Her material comes out of the ordinary events of her life, re-mastered with timing and attitude into hi-fidelity performance.
"I just tell it like it is," she said, showing me how she begins the new show. "I confess that I really feel like I’m getting old." (I must have looked sceptical, as she raised the intensity.) "Because just four days after my birthday I got a letter from an insurance company, and they said it was wonderful and congratulated me… and then offered me insurance for my grave."
Simanowitz claims that for a long time she didn’t realise she was funny. At least that’s what she says. "Now I know that I’m funny," she admitted. "But you don’t actually. There are certain things you don’t perceive, that are only perceived when the time is right to perceive them." At drama school, the emphasis was on basic technique and the tragic parts were the most respected. Also, with a teaching degree from Cambridge and enrolled for a certificate in Drama Therapy, she and her colleagues were considered the poor relations.
"We were definitely the Cinderellas of the thing!" she said. "But the problem was, I always tried to play drama, and I can’t play drama." It was only when she started working as a sales trainer, that she realised "people were laughing all the time – and I discovered I was funny."
Now we were down to it: Simanowitz likes sales, and not just the human kind, when you pay civilised calls on people and close deals over drinks in posh restaurants. She likes telephone sales. Nobody likes telephone sales. Particularly when you sell securities.
"I loved it," she insisted. "I’d pick up the phone and call my client and say, ‘Something is happening on the stock market today you really need to know about. Have you heard…’" To Simanowitz, it was gossip, like sharing secrets with a friend, an approach she learned in her 20s from some Canadians. "One guy used to say things like, ‘Just hold on, Jim;’ (then in a raspy voice) ‘I have to get up and close the door’. Then he’d get up and slam the door, and get back on the phone and say in a whisper, ‘Now we’re alone…’"
"And people responded?" I was amazed.
"Yes!" she assured me. "You tap into people’s imaginations; this is what you’re doing the whole time." So Jenny Simanowitz was a con artist.
"Oh, completely! And I got completely into it!" No shame there.
"Of course, thinking about it now… it was on the right side of the law, but only just."
From London, Simanowitz went to West Berlin, in 1986, surely one of the most exciting cities in Europe. There she got another job in sales, for Allianz Versicherung, selling insurance – in German, which she had somehow "picked up".
"In the beginning, it didn’t go so well," she admitted. "As soon as I started stuttering along, they knew that I was a foreigner. And I kept thinking that they must be all Nazis – of course, I’m a Jew, and they were mostly over 60..."
Then she discovered what happened if she began in English.
"I would say ‘Good Morning, Hr. Mueller,’ and that for a German is like asking them if they had sex last night. You just don’t say to a German, ‘How are you today.’ In English you say, ‘How are you,’ ‘Oh, I’m fine,’ and that’s it. For a German, once you get over the ‘Oh, God, someone wants to know how I am,’ you really get to hear about it."
But if she started each call in English, the prospective client would try to respond in English. "And they stumbled. And I’d say, ‘Would it be easier if we spoke German?’ and they’d say, ‘Oh, yes!’ and then I’d say, ‘You must excuse me, because my German isn’t very good’, but by that time they were so relieved, the rest was easy."
Coming to Vienna was another big change: another culture, another stage.
"So much of life here is theatre," she said. "You see theatre in all the interactions of life, the whole pomp and circumstance, the titles, the protocol."
It was in Vienna that Simanowitz got off the telephone and in front of an audience. One of the first things she had to learn was how to dress.
"That was quite a trauma," she confessed. For one of her very first training workshops, she showed up in a jogging suit.
"They were nice jogging togs," she insisted, but not exactly what the telephone company had in mind. I thought the training went very well, but then the coordinator came up to me afterwards and said, well, they had liked the training..., but I could simply not show up in a jogging suit! Then I went through a stage of trying to look like the Austrians – and that was worse!"
With clothes, as with so many things, it’s about status, an idea identified by her drama teacher Keith Johnson, at the Royal Court Theatre. "You’d do a scene, and it was very boring. If you put a status conflict in, it became interesting," she remembered. "It’s about the way you sit, if you take up a lot of room or if you don’t. And this is what these people were doing. In my meetings, they were sitting there like this" (as she stretched out on the banquette) "and I was sitting there in my prim little suit and saying, ‘Ja, aber eigentlich…’ I couldn’t even express myself!"
So she had to restage it. At the next interview, she found herself cooling her heels in the lobby while her client kept her waiting for 20 minutes.
"The guy kept running out of his office and saying "Ich komme gleich, Ich komme gleich," and then went back in and disappeared." Finally he called her in. She leaned back in her chair, and waited.
"To raise your status, you have to be very calm. No nervous movements," she explained. "So I sat down and just looked at him. And then he said, ‘Ok, what can I do for you?’ And I said, ‘You can relax!’"
In the end, the trick of comedy is to make it look easy, as if it just happened by accident.
"It’s a lot like being a clown in a circus," she said. "The clown has to be twice as good as the acrobat. It’s much harder to be out of control." To be in perfect balance is one skill; to be out of balance without losing your balance, is even harder.
"But that’s the absurdity of the thing," she went on. "It’s also about making yourself unthreatening, about laughing at yourself. It’s about status. If you come across as completely comfortable setting yourself down here, this allows the audience to be up there. And if you’re down there and happily there, then they don’t have to worry about you. It allows them to relax."
It was what Keith Johnson called "one of the most important principles of improvisational theatre," Simanowitz said. "‘People like happy, stupid people,’ he would tell us. And it’s true in a way." It is what Charlie Chaplin and every great comedian has understood. "You’re down here, and they’re up there, and you don’t mind."
But if they underestimate you for it, it will only be their loss.
Next show: 27, 28 Sept., 19:30
6., Fillgradergasse 16
(01) 587 58 30