Samuel Ch Zernig is, in his own words, the “UK’s premier male German stand-up between the age of 25-30”.
I got together with him to talk about stand-up, self-promotion, and his celebrity friends/stalking victims…
Thanks for meeting with me Samuel. So, tell me a bit about your background and what led you to performing.
I come from a tiny, tiny village in the middle of nowhere in Germany. Growing up, I had no access to the performing arts whatsoever. As a matter of fact, I didn’t see my first proper stage production until my 18th birthday, which I celebrated in London.
I got instantly hooked. From then on, my London visits became more frequent, to the extent that I would fly over and see seven plays, musicals or cabaret shows in four days.
When I finally moved here, I was – and still am – like a kid in a candy store, injecting show tunes and Ibsen plays into my veins like there is no tomorrow.
Sounds like you see a lot of shows.
Fun fact, in the last 6 years, there hasn’t been a single Saturday that I haven’t seen a play, musical, or something douche-y Off-Off West End. I’m convinced I’ll take my last breath in a theatre, probably while watching the nth revival of LaLaLand the musical…
Normally, I sit in the front row and soak in the gestures, pronunciation and nuances of the performances, which to a certain extent I use and re-mix for my own set. Funnily enough, I got most of my English skills – including the swearing – from live theatre and Benidorm the TV show (which I’m weirdly obsessed with, but that’s a whole different story).
At University, I studied Media Management and Media Psychology, or as I like to call it ‘the art of influencing people’. When I moved to the UK in 2010, I started as an intern for the UK’s biggest Newspaper publisher. I worked my way up by building their now very successful corporate licencing business. After five years, we consciously uncoupled and I started working as Business Development Manager for a wonderful, large, international marketing company.
Sounds very corporate. So how did stand-up come about?
So, how did I end up becoming the UK’s premier male German stand-up between the age of 25-30?
Well, I always found it easy to make people laugh. So mix that with my passion for the art of live performance plus my desperate desire to get approval from random strangers and ta-dah! I found my calling. I got trained by the wonderful Logan Murray, who also trained the likes of Josh Widdicombe, Greg Davies and Diane Morgan. I haven’t looked back since.
And here I was thinking you were in the 35-50 age bracket… 😉
So what is your process in terms of coming up with ideas for your set?
As you know, my stand-up topics are normally very unique and a tiny bit controversial. I love to play with German stereotypes.
My first set started with the simple idea of using something dated like the knock-knock joke and giving it a very dark twist (which made it a tiny bit infamous on the comedy circuit…)
I tend to write jokes with the rule of three. I go for an innocent joke, followed by another innocent joke – normally delivered in a very happy, likable, high voice – and then deliver a twisted one, for which I drop my facial expression and voice. This normally gets the best audience reaction.
I also get ideas from shopping around for visual illusions, which I can use on stage. Like my eight-foot German flag pole, which I pull out of an envelope. I like the idea of stand-up being more visual, which gives the audience and promoters something to remember you by.
My new set is based around the Rothenburg cannibal case. I did a lot research about him. I thought, why not approach this case like a rom-com? Like first dates, just with one person eating another one (I’m aiming for Halloween bookings). This set also includes my most ambitious illusion yet, requiring a lot fake blood!
Yeah the rule of three is pretty reliable. No idea why but two seems to be too little and four seems to be too much. Three is just right. It’s all very ‘Goldilocks’.
So are there any topics you wouldn’t touch because they’re too dark?
Yes! Plenty! I would never touch topics like recent human tragedies, or racism, or make fun of something which I know could cause somebody in the audience distress. That’s why I normally go after people who are either dead or convicted murderers. And I’m doing this as character comedy, which is very important to highlight. I love to read people, but would never go after obvious things. Nobody needs to be scared when they sit in the front row during my show. Unless you are heckler…
Funny you say that, as that’s my take on it too – I never pick on anybody in the audience unless they decide to heckle, at which point they’re fair game. I know a lot of other acts who feel the same.
So based on your background in media management, and your current role in marketing, how are you finding the promotional side of stand-up?
I think I’m a natural self-promoter…!
Obviously I’m really blessed to be able to apply all my marketing skills to myself. I think it’s so important to keep reminding yourself that you are your own best product. Like Marmite, you might not be everybody’s taste and that’s really not a bad thing. Find your niche of Marmite loving people and fill it!
Find out what you want to stand for or what message you want to pass on. Make sure your material/promotional material is in line with that message. This will help you to create a buzz around yourself.
But then again, the best marketing skills can’t help you if your material is rubbish.
So is there anything in particular you’re doing to create a buzz? I’m assuming this interview may be part of it. 😉
I’m a strong advocate of finding ones USP and trying to visualize it. Being the only authentic German stand-up who does kind of soft blue-ish material makes me kind of a novelty to start with. This is enhanced by my usage of Word-Of-Mouth triggers such as illusions or props. A lot of people don’t necessarily remember my name, but they do remember what I do. The other day a random person came up to me while I washing my hands in the lavatory and got really excited telling me that he saw me doing my flag work. Which is great for me! He didn’t remember my name, but he immediately associated me with stand-up and topics from my set. And it’s those people who carry on your brand message to others. I would say that at the moment I’m getting half of my bookings from people who saw me on stage or were told about my act, which is great and much appreciated.
I find it also very important to carry your brand message over to your other ventures like events – that was one reason why I initiated the UK’s first Stand-Up Oktoberfest at Steve McCann’s great Memoirs of a Geezer – show promotions (promo shots, flyers, posters), and merchandise. By the way, this is the perfect time to plug my amazing merchandise range exclusively available at samuelch.com!
That’s a really good idea – the word-of-mouth triggers thing, not the shameless plug… There are so many other acts around, so I guess the more you can stand out from the crowd the better.
OK, so I have to ask this; I’ve noticed on your Facebook page you’ve got selfies with everyone from Zac Efron, to Richard E Grant, to Mel C (there are a lot with Mel C…)
Do you stalk these people, or are you secretly already an A-lister?!
Ha! You forgot to mention Katie Hopkins, George Clooney, and the Owl who played Hedwig in Harry Potter. It’s a mixture of theatre obsession, former work – I used to work with Justin Bieber, for a whole day… – and being fortunate enough to live in such a culture capital as London. It’s a mind-blowing thing that some people whose faces I had plastered over my bedroom walls now know who I am. Thanks to my stand-up I do actually have one or two telephone numbers of people I used to watch in the cinema as a child.
I might put on an Edinburgh fringe show next year called “Samuel’s Selfie Master Class” – or ‘The SS master class’… I do love it by the way when audience members ask me for a selfie after my set. I force them to take about twenty, to make sure they capture my good side and the light is appropriate. That’s why I carry a mini ring light with me everywhere I go.
Why does that not surprise me?!
And I know what you mean about the telephone number thing. I remember swapping phone numbers with someone who I used to watch on TV and it was such a weird feeling. I was trying to act cool but I’m not convinced it worked. Hugging his leg was probably a step too far to be honest.
Anyway, what is next for you Samuel? Other than the Edinburgh Fringe show you mentioned?
I’m performing my show at the Brighton Fringe in late May (which I can hopefully take to London in late summer!) This will finally get me closer to my artistic vision of mixing stand-up with freak show elements – video interludes, visual elements, audience participation and a few costume changes (which I’m basically insisting on). Hopefully as a double or triple bill with some hilarious other people, who are a bit mad at me right now because I keep referring to them as Kelly and Michelle. Get it? It’s a hilarious pop culture reference…
Yup. Destiny’s Child. Very good. 🙂
The plan is to also do a couple of sets at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, which I’m really looking forward to.
I’m also currently writing a new translation of a classic Goethe play as a tragic stand-up set. I don’t know if it will be any good, but I thought I might as well give it a try.
In addition, I’m keen to write a set which under-18s can enjoy – to achieve my lifelong ambition to tap into the lucrative teen market and become the male, German version of Ariana Grande of the comedy scene. Current working title is ‘Frozen Party’.
I was also approached by a publisher to translate my dissertation into English for the UK market, which is like super serious and sophisticated. If I find the time, I will absolutely consider it.
And as mentioned before, the Stand-Up Oktoberfest is running this autumn at the legendary Thomas Neale in Shadwell – so do come along for an event like no other!
Your marketing background is showing again..!
What was your dissertation on by the way?
New Revenue Streams For Newspapers. Thrilling title, I know.
Could’ve been worse. I mean, probably not by much, but still.
OK, so lastly, have you got any advice for any aspiring comedians reading this?
There once was a small boy in a tiny school, cast as the Pie and the Ice Cream in a second grade stage adaption of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. In the dress rehearsal, his teacher crushed all his performing dreams with her (very wrong) opinion that he was unfit to play the Pie and the Ice Cream. So she took the Ice Cream part away from him. It took twenty years for him to finally make a triumphant return to the stage. He doesn’t know if his teacher is still alive, but he is determined to stick his first Camden Fringe poster onto her gravestone.
Guess what Angelo Marcos? That small boy was me!
So I advise everyone to go for it and enjoy it, as you certainly don’t get any younger.
Unless you are an aspiring German stand-up in the UK. Then never walk down the stairs in front of me, as I hate competition.
I’ll let Henning Wehn know to be careful around you, although I guess he’s moved on from ‘aspiring’ so might be safe..!
Well thank you again for meeting with me, Samuel. It’s been fun – and a bit dark of course.
My absolute pleasure! Anything for the wonderful people of Britannia!
You can find Samuel Ch Zernig: