01.09.2011 «Interests and good hobbies are the best prevention»

Interview with Emil and Niccel Steinberger. Does humour keep you healthy? What role do art and laughter play in health? spectra asked two people who ought to know: Emil and Niccel Steinberger. Both earn a living making people laugh. The great comedian Emil does it with his unforgettable stage shows and books, and Niccel as an author and presenter of laughter seminars.

Pictures «Interests and good hobbies are the best prevention»


spectra: Emil Steinberger, at almost 80 you still go on stage about 100 times a year. Does humour keep you young?

Emil: I don’t think that’s necessarily true. You can’t solve everything with humour, problems in your job, for example, but humour can be a useful starting point for defusing a situation.

What do you do to keep healthy?

Emil: I work! I’ve never been keen on sport. I can’t stick to even the tiniest good resolution, such as taking a half-hour walk every day. It’s more likely to be my various professional activities that keep me healthy, or at least free of problems, and allow me to work.

What do you do for your emotional well-being?

Emil: I go on stage! It really does do me good to hear people laugh. And sometimes it continues even after the show. I hope the laughter doesn’t stop when the audience leaves the theatre. I hope they continue to enjoy it a bit after they’ve gone home. I derive enormous pleasure from all this, although it is very tiring.

So you create soul-food for other people. What’s your personal soul-food?

Emil: Time always plays a role in people’s ability to receive culture, and active people always have the least time for the arts. But everyone should have an interest that is with them all the time and motivates them to do things and experience things. I naturally prefer to consume culture in the theatre, but recently we’ve visited a lot of museums and have enjoyed them greatly. They provide a very uncomplicated form of entertainment. You can just walk in without having to reserve a seat, and you see and experience things that simply do you good and provide you with the impetus to go out and get active yourself.

Niccel, it was through humour that you got to know your husband. Can you briefly tell us how you and Emil got together?

Niccel: After a visit to the Roncalli Circus at the age of 15 I was totally convinced that that was where my future lay. When I was 20 I wrote to Emil asking him to give me some tips on how to become a clown. This developed into a pen-friendship. Later I did theatre studies and then intercultural German studies at university. I wrote my final dissertation about clowns. In the process I discovered laughter as a concept. I noticed how many different aspects there are and how important and good laughter is. I wanted to pass this knowledge on to others. That’s why I started holding laughter seminars after I left university. I found that laughter was a good approach for me personally. I used to listen to sad music when I was sad, but that just made me sadder still. At some point I realised that I needed to listen to happy music to make me feel better.

What do you think about hospital clowns?

Niccel: I think they’re great. Laughter is always good for people. It makes them stronger, braver and more creative, and it reinforces group cohesion. I am totally convinced that people who work together should laugh together. We do this in our office too, and we also pass on the laughter bug to the waiters in our favourite restaurant, for example. It’s wonderful to hear that our employees look forward to coming to work every morning. It’s a big compliment and I’m sure it’s because we laugh together so much.

How do you establish a «culture of laughter» in a company?

Niccel: Every company has to find its own way of doing it. Some do better with spoken humour, others with slapstick humour, or maybe there’s someone in the office who’s a brilliant story-teller. It varies a lot. Depending on the chemistry between the individuals, they can develop their own humorous language.

What sort of people come to your laughter seminars?

Niccel: All sorts! Some of them are young people who want to write about the subject for their high school certificate. The oldest participant so far was an 80-year-old lady. There are people who treat themselves to the seminar as a retirement gift. Others are bereavement counsellors who want to use laughter in their work. I once had a police officer who wanted to use more humour in interacting with the people he was in charge of. And there are teachers who want to incorporate humour into their lessons. Then there are seriously ill people who come because they want a chance to really laugh again. Almost nobody laughs with them in their normal lives because they think it is inappropriate. But laughter is very liberating for people who are ill.

Emil, you have already promoted non-smoking in a campaign run by the Federal Office of Public Health. Can you imagine promoting abstinence from drinking or drugs as well?

Emil: The misery that drugs cause makes me very unhappy. When I see a drug addict I always wonder what has happened to that person to make them need drugs so badly that they are unable to satisfy their need with something else. They evidently have no pleasure in their everyday life that would prevent them from sliding into this situation in the first place. But there are also people who are simply unable to solve their problems and have to run away from them.

So you would promote drug prevention?

Emil: Yes, but only indirectly. I think it’s important for young people to be interested and curious. Not curious about trying drugs, though, curious about experiences, new things, culture. The seeds are sown – or not – in the parental home. There are of course homes in which the words theatre and cinema are never mentioned. The children of such parents have to go out and find some culture themselves, or have to rely on their friends for it.
Niccel: There are a lot of very inquisitive, sensitive and probably very artistic people in the drug scene, too. They may have got into drugs for completely different reasons and not because they didn’t have any interests.

You live on Lake Geneva, surrounded by vineyards. What’s your attitude to the drug alcohol?

Emil: When we moved there it didn’t take long for the invitations to start coming, for dinner and wine-tastings...
Niccel: ... or press conferences and theatre performances. You get together at ten in the morning and drink a quick glass of white wine …
Emil: ... yes, exactly. I just don’t want to be part of it. I simply don’t go to events like that. I’m lucky in that I’ve never been interested in alcohol. I think I was 34 the first time I drank beer, and then only because my colleagues made me. I just didn’t want to. There was a reason, of course. I always used to have to fetch beer for my parents, and that made my fingers stink of hops. I hated the smell. I have a similar attitude to wine. It’s not good for me either, I’m better off drinking water. I’m pretty resolute, but sometimes you really have to stand your ground.
Niccel: It’s funny that the people drinking alcohol always want everyone else to drink and feel good. Recently even my brother thought I ought to have a glass of wine now and again. He reckoned I ought to give myself the pleasure. But what has pleasure got to do with it? I have absolutely no need to drink wine.
Emil: I was shocked at what I saw in Germany. Kids drinking beer while waiting for the bus to school. It’s tragic, but what can you do? The only thing that helps is distraction, other interests. I’m convinced that good hobbies and interests are the best form of prevention…
Niccel: ... yes, but as you are always saying, until we can manage to have a half-hour walk every day, we can’t tell other people what they should and shouldn’t be doing with their lives.

Talking to spectra were:

Niccel Steinberger, born in Germany in 1965, studied intercultural German studies at Bayreuth University and today is an author and gelotologist (an expert in laughter). She has been a laughter coach since she left university and also gives seminars on the subject of laughter. With her husband Emil she set up the Edition E publishing house which publishes Emil’s recordings and books and her books on laughter.

Emil Steinberger, born in 1933, is one of the most popular and successful Swiss cabaret artists ever. Following jobs in the post office and in graphic design, his «Emil» performances were highly acclaimed in the 1970s and 1980s in Switzerland, West Germany and East Germany. He also worked as a voice artist and actor. He performed his last Emil show in 1987. In late 1993 he moved to New York, where he spent six years. Today Emil Steinberger writes books and regularly tours Switzerland and Germany with his material.

Niccel and Emil Steinberger have been married since 1999 and live on Lake Geneva.

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