On a Saturday night in Berlin’s southern district of Neukölln, dozens of people are sipping cocktails and sharing stories of their drunken anecdotes in a darkened room.
It might sound like some kind of group therapy session, but these punters are actually here for a comedy show – with a twist.
“It’s a bit like Alcoholics Anonymous but in reverse, because we drink together and tell our drunken stories and there's no shame,” says Chris Davis, who’s standing next to a table filled with cocktail ingredients at the front of the sold-out crowd in Comedy Cafe Berlin.
Davis, wearing a top hat and braces, is The Wandering Barman. He’s on a mission to educate people on how to create top notch cocktails at home with high quality ingredients, and make people laugh as he shares stories of his life as a barman in a city that rarely sleeps.
The 33-year-old, who’s originally from a town outside Glasgow in Scotland, is fizzing with energy as he explains how to turn gin purple – butterfly pea tea that you can buy from Asian supermarkets is the secret ingredient – and the best ways to use a cocktail shaker, with jokes interspersed.
His cheeky charm makes the audience feel at ease during the show, and he even invites some people who've shared an anecdote to the front help him create a cocktail.
“Berlin bars are late, they’re smoky and they’re wild,” says Davis after the show. “Everyone talks to each other, no one is left alone in a bar. That’s what I love about it. You have Israelis talking to Italians, Japanese talking to the Germans, no-one’s shy, everyone’s having a good time.”
Apart from providing great material for his shows, working as a barkeeper has provided Davis with a solid career in Berlin.
“There’s an art to being a good barkeeper,” says Davis, who still has an unmistakable Scottish accent.
“People sometimes don’t take bar work seriously but it’s a great buzz and it’s completely hands on. You need to be skilled.”
When Davis arrived in Berlin from Scotland in 2008 to suss out a new city, he started working in an Irish bar.
“It was a horrible place with no windows and it was extremely expensive but we had a laugh and that’s how I met all my friends,” he says.
Over two years he saved €8,000 before taking nine months off to pursue his interests.
During his time off, Davis tried poetry, writing, improvisation and theatre workshops, as well as theatre, before he found comedy.
“There is something for everyone in Berlin – if you have an interest in something you’ll find it,” he says.
He discovered stand-up comedy through contacts in the improvisation workshops – and decided to give it a go.
Davis’ observational and sharp comedy is relatable and he often focuses on culture shocks experienced by people who come to live in Germany.
Some of his earlier jokes were about visiting Berlin’s saunas and the FKK (nude culture), for example. “Have you ever been told by a German man to get naked? It’s the most psychologically disturbing thing ever,” says Davis.
Chris Davis doing stand -up. Photo courtesy of Chris Davis.
Another culture shock that garnered laughs was food shopping. “In German supermarkets everything is super fast,“ Davis says.
“The only thing that slows the checkout staff down is loose veggies. I like to put a kiwi and potato in the one bag to give me time to pack.”
Davis has performed all over the world, including in Melbourne, New York and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
In The Wandering Barman, Davis does acknowledge the different nationalities in his crowd in a good humoured way…but he says the Germans are always up for a laugh and that the serious stereotype is a myth.
“Germans do have a sense of humour, absolutely” he adds. “It’s just that things are more literal in the German language.
“They can’t really do banter,” he adds.
Davis’ career has taken him to a range of different establishments, from a Russian bar to high-end cocktail bars and a trendy hotel. He’s even worked in the bar of a brothel, an experience he described as an “eye opener” and helped him realize people should never be judgemental.
He currently works in Pauly Saal, a chic restaurant in Mitte, as well as the Mini Bar, a tiny place in Kreuzberg that's known for its long opening hours and has become a city institution.
Davis’ idea to combine stand-up with barkeeping came in 2015 when he was co-running a part-time pop-up restaurant and cocktail business. He was entertaining people while giving out drinks, and had the idea of combining both things.
Around this time the English language comedy scene in Berlin was exploding in popularity – perhaps due to the huge numbers of expats who come to the city – and Davis was becoming fed up of doing only stand-up.
“It seemed like everyone was doing stand-up, there was a boom,” he says. “In the Berlin comedy scene it went from two shows a month to 10.”
Davis wanted to think of a “concept rather than just content”. So The Wandering Barman was born. Davis managed to secure a monthly slot at the Comedy Cafe Berlin.
“The show's had its ups and downs but I’ve been learning so much,” he says.
A high point has been his sold out shows that have attracted people from all over the world.
After spending a decade in Berlin, Davis says the city – and its bar scene – has changed.
Apart from the obvious cost of living increases, such as rent going up, Davis says Berlin is “less gritty and more polished”.
“Berlin is supposed to be grimy and dirty,” he says. “Now places that were abandoned before are being knocked down and shiny new things are being built in their place.”
Although he loves the taste of well-made cocktails with ingredients like rosemary and dark chocolate, Davis is also a fan of traditonal bars.
He loves the German Kneipe – the name for classic, traditional pubs across the country.
“Kneipen are the best thing about Berlin bar culture,” says Davis. “They’re old, they’ve been there for decades, they have oak wood, they’re cheap and they’re the most friendliest places you could ever go to.”
He says 'Kneipen' in Kreuzberg and Neukölln are disappearing but that people who are curious to try them can still find a lot of them in districts like Wedding, Treptow and Moabit.
But modern trendy bars and restaurants in Berlin are not necessarily a bad thing, says Davis.
“It does make everything seem a bit new but it’s okay,” he added.
The comedian and barman wants to take his show even further next year, and is aiming to attend functions and other events with it.
Back at the show in Comedy Cafe Berlin, the crowd is giggling maniacally thanks to the fun atmosphere, jokes and the cocktail tasters that are handed out. Davis finishes off his set by promising the audience one of his creations, that tastes like the retro sweet, Parma Violets.
Behind the bar he's joking with the crowd that he doesn't get to relax until he's made everyone a drink.
A true host until the end, it's hard to see where Davis' barkeeping ends and his comedy begins. But that's the appeal of a show like The Wandering Barman: it feels like you're getting an authentic slice of Berlin bar life, complete with delicious cocktails.