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Joz Norris


Tape 143: My German Teacher Tried To Run Me Over

  • Tape 143: My German Teacher Tried To Run Me Over

In July my new show, You Wait. Time Passes. (“explores pet themes of creativity and the abnegation of self in service of art” – Chortle, really selling the show’s laugh-out-loud qualities) is coming to the Berlin Comedy Cafe as part of the Berlin Fringe. Perhaps you live in Berlin? Perhaps you know people who live in Berlin? Perhaps you are in some way, any way, able to help me sell tickets to my show in Berlin, a city where I know two people? (Hi if you’re reading this!) If any of those sentences describe you, then feel free to buy a ticket, or send this to a friend, or whatever. I accidentally booked a ticket to see Hadestown in London the night before my show in Berlin, so I will literally be stumbling off a plane and almost immediately performing and it would be lovely to do that to a nice busy room.

Anyway, I’ve never been to Berlin (if I had I would surely know more than two people there. I plan on coming back knowing at least five), despite the fact that most of my favourite albums were recorded there (does anybody know if Hansa Studios still exists? If not, I’ve read that there’s an abandoned sanatorium in a spooky wood a short train ride out from the city centre, so I’ll just go and look at that instead). I’ve never even been to Germany, despite spending three years studying the language as a teenager.

The interior of the Beelitz Sanatorium. My working assumption is that if I do attempt to explore it, I will die.

French was compulsory, then from Years 9 to 11 we had a choice to study German or Spanish. I was pretty sure that Spanish and French were more or less the same language, and quickly did some research to double check. The Spanish for “the” was “la.” Same as French. The Spanish for “what” was “qué.” Close enough to French. I decided to study German as I clearly knew how to speak Spanish already, though I have subsequently learned that this is not the case. In fact, I eventually realised I didn’t really know how to speak French, but I only learned this partway through a three-day work conference in Paris. At the time, I had accidentally become the deputy head of a higher education college for French students studying creative advertising in London, a job I had got at least partly down to my promising that I would be able to understand the students. It was during dinner on the conference’s first day, when I found myself eating steak and chips and nodding along to the conversation around me, which I did not understand, only occasionally contributing by pointing at my plate and saying “pommes frites,” that I realised that maybe I was a bit out of my depth. But all this is another story for another time.

For now, I’d like to celebrate my finally visiting the country whose language I learned back in the mid-2000s with a tribute to Mr Hapke, the man who taught me German (caveat – the amount of German I know today is close to zero). Mr Hapke played for a major German football team in the 60s, and very much taught with the air of someone who had had a fun life and was determined to spend as much of the rest of it as possible simply enjoying himself. Here are my top 4 memories of Mr Hapke, and the values he instilled in me in lieu of successfully teaching me German:

  1. Nearly Running Me Over – I would usually walk into school in the mornings in a daze, my awareness of the outside world blinkered by whatever story I was telling myself in my head. One of my mum’s favourite stories about my childhood involves a time I was walking around the playground during the lunch break and was repeatedly shouted at and bullied every time I walked past a specific bit of the playground. When I tearfully told my mum about my experience, she asked me if there was a sort of net in the area where the bullies were, and I said yes there was, and she burst out laughing and told me I was walking in front of the goal. I can remember very specifically what I was thinking about that made me overlook the existence of a game of football happening around me – I was using my brain to watch the trailer for a new imaginary movie that reunited Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith, then at the peak of their Men In Black fame, but this time as a pair of wisecracking bomb disposal experts. Anyway, I often found myself tuning out from the world around me in order to tell myself a story, and was in exactly this state walking to school when a car screeched to a halt inches from me. I turned to see Mr Hapke at the wheel, smiling kindly at me and gesturing for me to continue. When he entered our German class that day, he pointed at me and said “I nearly ran this guy over today! He looked like this!” before doing an impression of a startled rabbit, teeth protruding, eyes bulging out of their sockets, knees knocking together. “He looked so scared! Like a dumb little deer or something! It was hilarious.” I had never really bonded with a teacher outside of school before, and felt a swell of pride.
  1. Singing The Cheeky Girls – Once a year, our school put on a music competition where students could form bands or enter themselves as solo performers. For reasons I still can’t really understand, one student band decided to recruit Mr Hapke as their lead singer and got him to perform “Cheeky Song (Touch My Bum)” in front of the entire school. We all thought this would be embarrassing for him, but he absolutely rocked the joint. There was not an ounce of self-consciousness in this 60-year-old, teddy-bear-like blond German man skanking his head off and singing with so much enthusiasm we were worried he was going to hyperventilate. If you’re familiar with the concept of “core memories” as conceptualised in the Pixar movie Inside Out, I believe one of mine was formed watching this performance.
  2. Playing Us Action Movies Dubbed In German – I cannot remember a single German lesson Mr Hapke ever gave that involved actually teaching us German. I can remember that “Ich fahren rad” means “I ride my bicycle,” so it must have happened at some point, but my only memories of Mr Hapke inside the classroom involve playing us action films dubbed in German, perhaps hoping that if they were films we had already seen, the dialogue would just sink in. However, Mr Hapke was notoriously impatient and would invariably fast forward through the dialogue scenes to get to the next action setpiece. He made us watch The Matrix once and became visibly bored and agitated as he realised how much of it involves the characters sitting and talking about high-concept philosophical ideas. He would instead treat us to a supercut of the film that just included its martial arts sequences and gunfights, meaning the only German we heard was Keanu Reeves occasionally saying things like “Scheisse!” as he ducked behind a pillar to reload.
  3. Throwing Kids Out Of His Classroom For Not Liking Wild Wild West – One of these lessons was spent watching Wild Wild West, one of the most unfairly maligned blockbusters of the late 90s. As usual, he fast forwarded through every scene that involved Will Smith (him again) talking to Kevin Kline about how they proposed to put a stop to Kenneth Branagh’s plan to take over the Old West with a giant mechanical spider (genuinely such a great movie), and paused it whenever a gunfight or scantily clad prostitute was onscreen. One scene included a close-up of a woman’s bum as she sat down flirtatiously on a desk, which prompted him to shout “Oooh, did you see that?” and rewind so we could watch it again. Later on, an action sequence that sees Will Smith being dragged along behind a moving train culminates in him doing a backflip onto the train’s roof. A few of us muttered “whoa” at this stunt, but Hamish, one of the class’s self-consciously cool kids, audibly scoffed and said “Wasn’t that impressive.” Mr Hapke leapt to his feet, apoplectic with rage, and shouted “Be quiet, boy, that was amazing!” before ordering Hamish to leave the class and wait outside after he refused to formally take it back and agree that it was an incredible stunt. “I just don’t think it was that good,” he muttered as he packed his bag and slouched out of the room.

Those are my top 4 memories of Mr Hapke. I’d love to include my top 5 memories of Mr Hapke, as it has a better ring to it, but I’ve been sat here racking my brains for minutes trying to remember anything else about him, and nothing is coming. He is a figure who holds a position of enormous importance in my memory, and who I think in many parts taught me values – silliness, the ability to embrace our inherent foolishness – that are at the very core of the person I became and the life I led. And yet, now it comes right down to it, I have only four memories of him, and not one of them involves him teaching me German. I assume he is retired now and hope he is happy and healthy and still leading a life led by fun and silliness and not giving a shit.

A Cool New Thing In Comedy – It feels in keeping with the theme of this week’s newsletter to plug not just my show in Berlin, but the Berlin Fringe in general, which is a growing comedy and theatre festival which this year sees shows from the likes of John-Luke Roberts, Josh Glanc and Kate Cheka among others.

What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – This week saw the Darren Maskell Memorial Gig at Up The Creek, where a bunch of comedians and friends came together to celebrate him the way he would most enjoy – by being impenetrably stupid onstage. I loved seeing Marny Godden perform her character One Tooth for the first time in years, and Mark Silcox and Luke McQueen’s assertion that “we have so many anecdotes about our friend Darren, but now simply isn’t the time to share them” had me in bits.

Book Of The Week – I’m currently reading Wavewalker, Suzanne Heywood’s memoir of spending most of her childhood on a boat sailing around the Pacific Ocean because her parents were obsessed with following Captain Cook’s third voyage. It’s a really fascinating book, albeit a very sad one – all her pleas for a normal childhood and education go unheard by her parents as they repeatedly put their family in more and more danger. It’s an amazing story, but must have been very tough to live through.

Album Of The Week – Keep Me On Your Mind/See You Free by Bonny Light Horseman. I discovered these guys in lockdown, and they quickly became one of the artists I listen to more than any other. Their latest double album is an hour of really beautiful country folk mostly recorded in an old Irish pub. It sounds ancient and I love it.

Film Of The Week – I recently watched Napoleon Dynamite for the first time. It’s great, but I was really surprised by the dance scene – I was aware of it as a pop culture moment, but had never seen it, and my understanding of it was that he does a really embarrassing awkward dance in front of the whole school. But it’s absolutely incredible! Does anybody else remember people talking about that scene as though it was really lame and excruciating? Have we just changed our attitude to people who dance like nobody’s watching? I would sell my teeth to be able to dance like that.

That’s all for this week! As ever, if you enjoy this newsletter enough to recommend it to a friend, or encourage others to subscribe, it’s hugely appreciated! It’s very exciting to see the readership growing, and every like, share, recommendation and so on all really helps to build this space, this little corner of the internet where you can actually write about fun, interesting things as every other social media platform fragments and slips down the toilet. Thank you for all the shares and support so far! Take care of yourselves until next time, and all the best,

Joz xx

PS I have no plans to actually charge for this newsletter or put it behind a paywall, but I do write it for free and the comedy and media industries are in a perilous state right now, especially for freelancers. If you value the Therapy Tapes and enjoy what they give to you, and want to support my work and enable me to keep writing and creating, you can make a one-off donation to my Ko-Fi account, and it’s very gratefully appreciated.

PPS Darren Maskell used to carry an ice sculpture of a swan in a coolbox across London for every gig, and dance with it to the music from Edward Scissorhands, before giving it to an audience member. We recreated that routine at his memorial gig and gave it to his mum. Rest in peace, Darren. We miss you.

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