He’s been called the “Clown Prince of Berlin” and “The World’s Only Inflatable Boy,” but words fail to convey what Roc Roc-It actually does. Sure, he can breathe fire, hammer a nail up his nose, and hang a bowling ball from his earlobe, but Roc-It’s true talent is the screwball humor he brings to his freakshow antics.
He’s the jolly goofball in the midst of the fetishists and pain-proof paragons. Even if he’s snapping a mousetrap shut on his tongue, his shows aren’t really about pain. It’s more something about good old-fashioned showmanship, the art of the grift, getting an audience in the game. Lately, his schtick has been to take mundane everyday objects – clothespins or rubber gloves or a tennis racket – and turn them into outrageous, hilarious stunts. He’s an alchemist on stage, with the uncanny ability to make the ridiculous into something sublime.
We sat down to talk to this friendly neighborhood freak before his upcoming performance at the Full Moon Cabaret this Thursday 12th January.
If someone has never seen your show before, how would you describe what you do?
If people ask me what kind of show I do, I tell them I do a comedy stunt show. Otherwise, I think the name is kind of the program. I just Roc-It.
I’ve always wondered… You’re German, right? Are you from Berlin?
No, I’m a Zugezogener. [To my mystified look.] You know, the people who move to Berlin after. I was born in the Black Forest and I grew up like 60 kilometers away from Cologne in the countryside. I’m a country boy.
Wow, you’d never know that. I’ve heard there’s a big circus community in Cologne…
I did not come from the circus community. I came from being a street kid, more or less. Instead of going around just asking for money, I thought I want to do something. So I did like a little Diabolo and fire stuff.
But you still must have learned the Diabolo and fire from somebody?
All on the street. Never in a circus school. I didn’t come the classical way. I did do various jobs and apprenticeships. But I didn’t want to work for boss or a company. And then I went this one time to Barcelona and I saw all these street performers working on the Rambla and I was like, yeah, wow, that’s what I want to do. That was my calling, basically. But when I arrived in Barcelona, I actually had no idea of what I was doing. I had some skills but not a show. And I didn’t speak English, I didn’t speak Spanish, I had no clue. For the first five months, I slept outside and I lived on less than €10 a day and I just kept doing it and slowly everything came together and it became a show. That was 15 years ago, when I was 25. Since that day, I’ve been doing only this full on.
So you made your way to Coney Island at some point. When were you there?
It was roughly ten years ago. I was in the U.S. on a three-month visa and I had big fights with my ex-girlfriend at the time and we split up. And then I had two weeks left on my visa, and I thought, fuck it, I’m going to go and visit some friends in New York.
Where were you before?
In New Orleans. I just got out shortly before Katrina, actually. Street performing in New Orleans was really tough for me. And then I came to New York and it was also tough, but everything was bigger. Like, the houses were bigger, there were shitloads of people, there was noise everywhere. It was really intimidating trying to do a street show in New York. I just got by struggling for two weeks.
And then on my last day, my plane was supposed to go in the evening. And I was like, I want to see this beachfront on Coney Island. So I went with my suitcase down to Coney Island to do a last show on the beach in New York before I leave to go back to Europe. I walked past the Coney Island Circus Sideshow and [Artistic Director] Dick Zigun saw me wearing a green suit and green bowler hat. I had orange sideburns looking like a leprechaun with a suitcase saying CIRCUS SIDESHOW. And he was like, “So you do a sideshow. What do you do?” And I was like oh, this and this and this. And he was like “I’m actually interested.” And I said, “Okay, you give me a beer and I go onstage and do something.” He brought me straight backstage and I was in front of the audience in about ten minutes. And I got the audience so loud and so wild, that he hired me straight away for the next three years.
And you didn’t know anything about the Coney Island Sideshow?
No, I knew nothing about what a sideshow is. For me, my show was always a bit stranger than all the shows of my friends. My friends were jugglers, guys riding a toy unicycle, doing all this classical stuff, and my show was always a bit weirder. And I was always a bit weirder character. So for me, it was basically, like, okay, there’s the main show and I’m the sideshow. Later on, I realized that actually is the real concept of the sideshow. There’s the big top circus tent and there’s the weird little show next to it and that’s the sideshow.
It’s amazing that you would stumble right into the heart of sideshow in America and not even know it.
They were still waiting on Insectavora. She was going to come in like two weeks and they had only four people cast. And Dick said, you can fill this spot until she comes. And then actually, because I came, they fired the midget. And this is the Coney Island Sideshow where they are really into the natural born ones.
Yes, usually that’s the top of the freakshow hierarchy.
The thing is, if you do street performance, naturally, if you go on stage, you can control the audience like crazy. If you can do the street, you do the stage easy.
So you were with the Coney Island Sideshow for two years?
Three years. I did about two and a half thousand shows for them.
But they’re only in operation during the summer, so what did you do in the winters?
In the winter, I had so many gigs that I had to push them away from me with all four legs and hands. I was not only working with Coney Island Sideshow, I was working as well with the Disgraceland Family Freakshow and, at this point, I started my cabaret series and I did my solo show and I got hired for all sorts of burlesque shows. So basically while I was in New York, I did a thousand shows a year.
And in the meantime, your visa had run out…
Yeah, I was totally illegal. Like all my paychecks went to my friends. Maybe you shouldn’t be recording this.
So it must have been really difficult for you to decide to leave then?
At the end, because I was working so much and so intensively, I got injured quite a lot. I knocked my teeth out. I broke several ribs on stage. I burned my face off. And at one point, it just got to be like, it’s too much. And I’m illegal. I cannot really travel. I cannot really make a career out of it. I cannot find an agent. With all the stuff I did there, I would have actually been totally solid but I could not do it officially. So I was basically fucked. And I was getting injured without having health insurance. It was getting too intense and I thought, “Okay, I need to chill out. I need to go back to Barcelona.”
I tried to go back to the States later and they interrogated me for six hours with Homeland Security. And then they actually brought me in handcuffs back to the airplane in a prison car and they deported me. They gave me a bad stamp so I’m banned for a lifetime as a tourist. The only way I can ever go back is if I get a green card, which costs shitloads of money.
So this was how long ago now?
That was 2012, I think.
You’ve been in Berlin since then?
I was in Berlin before New York. I’ve been in Berlin about nine years. And I’ve been everywhere in Europe but I haven’t found a city that’s more free than Berlin.
Do you miss New York?
Here the performers leave quicker and others come, but here, for the first time I have almost the same sense of community. Berlin now is like New York 10 years ago. Money isn’t so important. You get by. If you live in other cities, you have to make $500 a job or you can’t survive.
Among the many things you’ve been doing lately, is performing with Kabaret Kalashnikov.
I do this twice a year with them. It’s one of my favorite projects, actually. In every other show, I’m me. I don’t put on a costume, I don’t put on make-up. I go on as me. But for Kalashnikov, I was Mama, I was a genie, I was a sailor. And I’m totally loving it. I have this idea of making a solo show out of Mama. But this is somewhere in the future.
You don’t still perform in the streets now, do you? Well, I know you’re part of the Berlin Lacht Fest every summer in Alexanderplatz, which is sort of on the street.
I’m not part of the Lacht Fest organization. I just perform there every year. And for the last two years, I organize the late-night cabaret.
You do so many things… Human blockhead, fire…
I have a two-hour solo program if I do just the stuff I do right now. If I expanded to all the stuff I have done in the past, if I bring all the acts back, that would turn into a five-hour show. All the acts I do right now, maybe like 15 acts, I rotate around. Something like that.
How would you say your acts have changed since you started?
When I started, I did fire performances. I played the burning devil stick, I was doing fire breathing, fire eating, and I played the Diabolo. That was my start. And I did magic. I don’t really do any of this stuff anymore. There was the influence of the sideshow. There was the influence of all the street performances. Of cabaret. I don’t want to do fire anymore. I prefer to do comedy. Not as in stand-up comedy, but as in, I’d rather make an act funny than put in on fire. I respect anyone who does an amazing fire show. But it’s actually, for me, better to do a funny juggling act with three balls, than do a juggling act with three fire clubs to music. Your skill level goes up if you don’t use the wooaahh of fire anymore.
The skill of talking, not many have that.
Exactly. And if you can take anything at the end, without any big skills, any kind of bullshit and make it into a really great act, that’s the skill I’m aiming for. There’s one of my mottoes. I got it tattooed here. [He rolls up his sleeve and shows me his right arm.] “Dazzle them with brilliance or baffle them with bullshit.” Either it has to be really poetic or just so ridiculous, that it’s still the same good.
Roc Roc-It will be performing on Thursday, 12th January at the Full Moon Cabaret. Find out more on the Facebook event page.
Roc Roc-It will also be performing at the end of January with the Squidling Brothers Circus Sideshow. More info coming soon to their Facebook page.