If you were asked to name Austria's great cultural exports of the 21st Century, you might struggle somewhat. Actually, asking to attach the name Johann Lippowitz to a face would probably tax many, as he is a man known by reputation rather than name. Before we launch into an informative and exciting account of his career, there is just one more thing you do need to know: he doesn't actually exist.
If you're the sort of person who likes to look for birth certificates you'll find that David Armand doesn't actually exist either. He was born David Whitehead, in the UK, and changed his name to Armand, still in the UK, perhaps for an equity card1. Armand David, incidentally, is a 19th-Century French monk who apparently discovered a new species of deer. Anyway, David Armand was educated at St Catherine's College, Oxford, and the London Academy of Dramatic Arts, and has appeared in BBC Dramas such as Eastenders and Casualty as well as Channel Four's Peep Show, among others. He was to find fame, though, of a sort, in the comedy troupe The Hollow Men. The Hollow Men had been trundling around London with their show and had already taken it to the Edinburgh Festival when they made the last minute decision to turn up at the Aspen Comedy Festival in Colorado in 2003.
The show, which was to earn them the festival's 'Jury Prize' as well as a six-part series on American TV Channel Comedy Central, included the best bits from the various performances The Hollow Men had put on over the years since the group's formation at Cambridge University in 1996. One of its most successful performances was Armand taking on the character of an Austrian Dance Artiste, by the name of Johann Lippowitz.
In 1996, actress Natalie Imbruglia quit her role as Beth in cult Australian soap opera Neighbours and moved to the UK, where she began a singing career. Her first single, 'Torn', debuted at an impressive number two in the UK charts, and spent 11 weeks at Number One in the UK Radio Airplay charts. The song was a tale of a broken relationship and its lyrics were rich in visual imagery, perfect, in fact, for an interpretative dance artiste.
Johann Lippowitz's Torn mime was featured by American TV Channel HBO on their coverage of the Aspen Comedy Festival and was an instant success, with the clip being widely disseminated across the Internet. His career had taken off - Lippowitz now had to add performances to his repertoire. He recorded a mime to Paul Young's Wherever I Lay My Hat at Out of Focus Group, a song which he also showcased on BBC Three's Comedy Shuffle. He made two appearances on Comedy Shuffle, the second, in episode six, was his interpretation of the Oasis classic Don't Look Back in Anger. For all his success with a series of new songs it was hard to see Lippowitz taking his career any further. The performances were simply too short to stand on their own in anything like a live tour or a video/DVD, so he seemed condemned to be nothing more than a popular turn at comedy clubs and the occasional star of Youtube. Then he got a call from a British Comedy Institution.
The Secret Policeman's Ball
Since the dawn of time (a period also known to historians as '1976') Amnesty International had been raising funds and awareness by persuading Britain's top comedy talent to reinvent their best material for live audiences. This format saw Peter Cook bring his lugubrious brilliance to Monty Python's 'Courtroom Sketch', John Cleese responding to Cook's 'Interesting Facts' with his manic rage and Michael Palin finally admitting that this was in fact a dead parrot.
The show in 2006, the first 'Ball'2 since 1991, was launched as The Ball in the Hall at the famous Albert Hall in London. In the 21st Century the format was somewhat hampered by the fact that Britain's top comedy talent was mainly stand-up comedians. This meant that the show was largely given to five minutes ripped from the two-hour long shows the comics, in the main, already had on video. Where was the stand out 'you'll never quite see this again anywhere' performance going to come from? Step forward Lippowitz, whose five minutes' maximum run time was perfect for this format. All he needed was a new angle. Torn, his most popular piece, was the obvious choice for the show, but how to give it a new edge? Usually, he performed to a taped track, but how about if he actually persuaded Natalie to sing live? This was the answer and, midway through Lippowitz's mime, Imbruglia stepped out from the wings to sing as the performance continued like a surreal signing for the deaf. But the show had one more trick up its sleeve. For the final chorus, Natalie not only sang along - she joined in the mime as well.
Hanging up his Hat?
The show had been a huge success - Lippowitz could count himself among the illustrious show's classic performances. But would this be his final swansong? For some it might seem like the ideal opportunity to bow out on a high; others will doubtless hope there is more yet to come. Only time will tell. One thing is for sure, though, the enigmatic Austrian has made his mark on comedy history.