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One of Germany's most popular and influential comedians, Otto Waalkes has not only recorded a large number of hit comedy albums, starred in immensely successful movies tailored to suit his comic persona, written bestselling books, drawn popular comics, and gathered numerous awards — ever since he has risen to fame in the mid-'70s, he has been one of the country's leading comedians and became a part of general pop culture: many of his sketches have become classics, and several of his phrases and jokes have become public catchphrases. Even after several years of little media attention in the '90s, he managed to launch a comeback in the new millennium and continues to be a popular and respected figure in Germany's comedy scene.
Waalkes' persona is essentially a child in a man's body; his jokes are often intentionally juvenile and silly, often building on numerous puns (in the tradition of his idol, German comedian Heinz Erhardt) and spinning absurd situations into even more absurd territory. Additionally, he often performs parody songs; one of his trademarks is the endless announcing of songs that he never gets around to play. Among his most famous sketches are an English lesson where the English words are translated into German based on what they sound like, not on what they actually mean; a medley of songs mocking new German wave hits by always turning their lyrics into the same Hansel and Gretel story; and a sketch where a girl finds out her hairdryer is enchanted, but when she kisses it, it turns out not to be a prince but an electric razor!
Waalkes — who often appears and records using only his first name, Otto — was born on July 22, 1948, in Emden, Germany. He got his first guitar when he was 12, and during his high school years, he played in a rock & roll band called the Rustlers, who gave their first public performance in 1964. Four years later, Waalkes graduated from high school and then entered Hamburg's college for visual arts in 1970, living in a huge apartment-sharing community that counted 14 other residents, among them Udo Lindenberg and Marius Müller-Westernhagen. In 1972, Waalkes played his first big gig with the Rustlers in Hamburg and met Hans Otto Mertens, who would later become his long-term manager. However, Waalkes' stage banter and the introductions to his songs proved to be far more popular than the music itself, so before long Waalkes put together a solo program that focused on comedy. His popularity quickly surpassed that of the other blödelbarden (as the performers of such sketches and silly songs were often called) on the scene, among them Karl Dall and Frank Zander. The same year, Waalkes released his first album, simply called Otto, on his own label, Rüssl Räckords (co-founded with Mertens). The album sold over half a million units.
A 1973 TV show called Otto Show was Waalkes' breakthrough. In the following years, he released more records, made large nationwide tours, and appeared in more TV specials, which became more and more successful. Never mind that during this time, Germany had two nationwide TV stations (plus a number of regional stations), and there wasn't even a comedy scene to speak of — other than his similarly successful colleague Dieter Hallervorden and the more intellectual, distinguished Loriot, no comedian was more popular and had more presence at this time than Otto Waalkes, whose brand of humor seemed to be almost universally beloved: his third TV show in 1975 reached 44 percent of all viewers. Throughout the rest of the decade, Waalkes continued his meteoric rise and collected several awards for his best-selling gold and platinum albums along the way.
In 1980, Waalkes published his first book — a collection of sketches, jokes, drawings, and other miscellaneous funny ideas called Das Buch Otto, which sold over 200,000 copies in its first year alone. In 1982, he became the voice of Ronny, a monkey "hosting" the TV show Ronny's Pop Show, which presented new music videos — the show was successful enough that it continued to air until 1990. A follow-up book called Das Zweite Buch Otto followed in 1984.
Waalkes made his last TV special in 1983 and then moved on to the big screen with the lead role in 1985's Otto — Der Film, a comedy romp that used a simple storyline about a down-on-his-luck guy trying to win the heart of a rich upper-class girl as a framework to showcase as many of Waalkes' sketches and comedy routines as possible. Co-written and co-directed by Waalkes himself, the movie became one of the most successful German films ever (with over 8.7 million viewers), and it inspired a number of sequels (with standalone storylines): Otto — Der Neue Film (1987), Otto — Der Außerfriesische (1989), and Otto — Der Liebesfilm (1992). When the latter film didn't attract as many viewers as the first three, Waalkes returned to TV, creating an animated series called Ottos Ottifanten in 1993 ("ottifanten" was the name of the comic-strip elephants he drew; they first appeared on the covers of his comedy LPs) and then a TV series called Otto — Die Serie in 1994 that spoofed the Edgar Wallace movies of the '60s by juxtaposing clips of them with new material starring Waalkes (an approach similar to that of Carl Reiner's 1982 film Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid).
Waalkes returned to the big screen with 2000's Otto — Der Katastrofenfilm, but the film's box office performance was disappointing. A feature-film version of his Ottifanten series called Ottifanten — Kommando Störtebeker was released in 2001. He also remained active as a voice actor, appearing in the German versions of Mulan and Ice Age (and their respective sequels). In 2004, Otto launched another theatrical feature, this time inviting several other popular, younger comedians to co-star with him. The experiment worked: 7 Zwerge — Männer Allein im Wald, a spoof of the Snow White tale, became a huge hit and re-established Waalkes' popularity with an older and newer generation of fans. A sequel followed in 2006: 7 Zwerge — Der Wald Ist Nicht Genug.