Berlin - Dharmander Singh and Neil Numb were just looking for a second venue for their popular Cosmic Comedy standup shows. Their usual location in the basement of Belushi’s bar across from the Volksbühne would sometimes become unavailable at short notice, and they hated cancelling shows.
The pair immediately thought of Comedy Club Kookaburra just up the road on Schönhauser Allee in Prenzlauer Berg. The club has been a staple of Germany’s comedy scene for nearly 20 years and has played a large role in the success of American-style standup comedy in the capital city.
So they began talking to owners Svenja and Sanjay Shihora during the Berlin New Standup Awards show, which recognises the best new English-language comedians, in September and discovered the Shihoras were considering selling. The Shihoras' health currently makes it difficult to run a comedy club and corona has made a normally tough business impossible. Numb and Singh had toyed with the idea of opening their own club for years but had never found the right venue.
“The appeal of buying this place,” Dhar says inside Kookaburra’s showroom where the headshots of German comedians adorn one wall and pictures of international comedy legends are a part of the salmon-and-gold interior, “is that it was here and we could open the next day.”
Nightclub? No. Comedy? Yes.
Although Singh and Numb originally planned to gradually take over club operations starting late last year, the second shutdown kyboshed that plan and the Shihoras just handed them the keys on 1 March. They hope to have the doors open by June, if the pandemic plays along.
"I'm very grateful that the duo have taken it over and are keeping the stage there alive," Sanjay said by phone Friday, adding that the decision to sell was difficult. "A restaurant wanted to open there and someone wanted to open a nightclub, and I said: No."
The Shihoras opened Kookaburra on Schönhauser Allee in 2002 in an old bank — a century-old safe in the basement is historically protected and was originally to be the club’s namesake. But a certain other nightspot in Berlin took umbrage to the planned Tresor Comedy Club (“Tresor” is German for safe). And so the duo named their club after an Australian bird famous for its laugh.
The club was modelled after US standup clubs and had its own TV show on Sat.1 for a time. Berlin comedy legend Kurt Krömer also had a show there before he outgrew the club.
Sanjay and Svenja met while at French clown Marcel Marceau's school in Paris and Sanjay said he plans on performing once his health improves: "Start from the beginning again."
At Kookaburra, touring German comedians performed solo shows Thursday through Saturday and a German-language open mic — Humor erectus — on Sundays will continue under the new management. A rotation of other shows included an English comedy night that single-handedly launched a scene that has now sprouted at least three other dedicated clubs (Comedy Cafe Berlin in Neukölln, The Wall in Friedrichshain and Ma’s Comedy Club in Mitte) as well as almost nightly shows throughout Berlin whenever the world isn’t suffering from a pandemic.
And Cosmic itself.
Both Singh and Numb have performed at Kookaburra but Cosmic has made a name for itself by offering guests a shot and pizza before every show as part of the price of admission. And then there's Singh's high-energy hosting. Numb says the pre-show alcohol and grub are a key component of their success.
“What you want is that when the show starts, the audience have gelled into one unit,” he says in his Scottish accent behind the bar at Kookaburra. “Most comedy clubs are about the comedians, we’re about the audience.”
The pair say the club should be seen more as an international comedy club — they’re planning a variety of nights in European languages and Singh also hopes to produce an Indian night. Nights for just female or LGBTQ+ comedians? Of course.
“People can come to multiple nights and see something different,” Singh says.
Out of respect for the Shihoras, Singh and Numb say they’ll keep the Kookaburra moniker for now but may ultimately rename the club. A Kickstarter will be launched in the coming days to raise €10,000 to help redecorate. An office is to become a hot sauce store — Neil’s side gig is the Chili Punk chili and hot sauce brand. And the pair see the safe room in the basement becoming a members’ lounge.
They hope to also open the club during the day as a cafe and offer a raft of workshops from comedy to drama to even standup classes for kids (Prenzlauer Berg, you know).
Full disclosure: Editor Andrew Bulkeley performs comedy regularly in German and English.