Not a 'clown' to you

Herbst takes new style to Germany

Christoph Maria Herbst is the German who would be Ricky Gervais. Or maybe John Cleese.

Herbst was virtually unknown when, three years ago, he brought British irony and "mean" humor to the lead role in "Stromberg," the German version of Gervais' "The Office."

The show was like nothing on German TV at the time. Straight-faced, with no laugh track or over-the-top characters, it featured Herbst as Bernd Stromberg, a mean, self-centered and hilariously incompetent boss of a middling insurance company.

It made Herbst a star.

Now the man who brought U.K. comedy to the Germans is taking on another BBC hit — "The Worst Week of My Life," which has been adapted as "Hilfe Hochzeit!" for Berlin-based channel Sat.1.

"There is something about Anglo-American comedy that really appeals to me, that I find very close to my own humor," Herbst says. "As a German, typical German comedy really turns me off: the idea of having to present jokes on a silver platter, of having to play the clown or of having to be nice so the audience will like you."

Herbst's character in "Hilfe Hochzeit!" — an ordinary guy caught up in an everything-that-can-go-wrong-will week before his wedding day — is more presentable than "Stromberg."

But while Herbst is shifting gears with the new series, he has no intention of playing nice.

The poker-faced funny man continues to break German comedy taboos — playing a mean-spirited cripple in local boxoffice hit "Where Is Fred?" (2006) or a misunderstood Hitler look-alike in Constantin Film's spoof "New From the Wanker."

"Playing Hitler was something I had great fun doing. I never once thought: 'Is it OK to do this — to laugh at Hitler?' I just had great fun with the role," Herbst says. "Showing the ridiculous aspect of Hitler and not taking him so seriously is something British and American comedians have been doing for years. It's about time we started to, too."

While British humor remains a touchstone, Herbst insists his success is rooted in his portrayal of very German realities.

"We saw that with 'Strom-berg,' people really saw their own work lives reflected in the show," he says. "With 'Hilfe Hochzeit!' it's the same thing. These are flesh-and-blood people, and they look and talk the way people do in Germany.

"You'd never mistake it for Britain. Sometimes we get really scary letters from 'Stromberg' fans that say, 'You think this is comedy, but it is my reality.' It makes me glad I became an actor," Herbst says. "I originally trained as a banker. I could have ended up being Stromberg instead of playing him."