Close brush with death gave me chance to become known writer, says humourist Steve Fisher

Steve Fisher has a humorous column in the weekly Reflex that regularly provides a highly amusing take on Czech life from a foreigner’s perspective. The US-born author has had a host of other jobs in over two decades in Prague, including radio DJ, bit-part actor and voiceover artist. In recent years, however, he was forced to work less, after surviving an extremely serious illness that left him handicapped. We discussed all of those things at his Prague 3 apartment last week. But I first asked Fisher about his initial impressions of the city, when he came here to teach English in 1991.

Steve Fisher, photo: Ian WilloughbySteve Fisher, photo: Ian Willoughby

“I was staying the first night with another teacher, up in Letná. I climbed with her up the Letná hill, looked out over Prague – it was like a grey September day – and thought, wow, this is the saddest place I’ve ever seen, man! Whoa!

“I had just been before that in Florence, Italy, where the light is beautiful and it’s just lovely, over the Arno. And I was looking at Prague going, wow, this town is really sad.”

But you stayed anyway.

“Oh, yeah. Because ultimately I discovered that it was really a truly beautiful, special, magical, mystical, safe, loving place [laughs]. I fell in love with the city, as a lot of people do.”

You mentioned teaching English. I know you also worked later on Radio Metropolis. What was Radio Metropolis and what did you do there?

“When I was a kid I dreamed of being a DJ, a writer, an actor, a comedian – and somehow I’ve gotten to do all of those things, and most of them here.

“Being a DJ was the first one I got to do here. They just started the station in this nuclear bunker in Žižkov, under Parukářka. I had a morning show, 6 to 9, and was basically doing stand-up comedy on the radio – doing jokes, doing bits, and playing music.

“It was fantastic. I loved it. It was great fun but it was also tough and there were a bunch of idiots running it who didn’t know how to sell advertising. I was only there for about a year.

“But what was really important for me was that – in addition to meeting a lot of other nice people – I met the guy who translates my stories, Jan Valeška.

“He was the news guy at the radio station. He and I formed a relationship and we’ve worked together in one form or another for 20 years. So that was great good fortune.”

Tell us about the other jobs that you’ve done here. I was reading that you’re also a voiceover artist.

“A voiceover ARTIST – that’s great [laughs]! Yes, [in ‘thespian’ voice] I’m a voiceover artist and you can occasionally here me telling me to turn your cell phone off at the Rudolfinum [concert hall], for example.

“Or on TV, if you hear an advertisement for Panasonic – they use different voices but I’m at the end sometimes saying [does smooth TV ad voice] ‘Panasonic, ideas for life’.

“And I do a lot of training courses, recorded Microsoft step-by-step, how to use PowerPoint, sitting in a studio for like five hours and reading 70 pages of step-by-step instructions.”

Of all the jobs that you’ve had here what has been the strangest?

“I think lying naked in Old Town Square in February in minus 4 degrees Celsius to play a dead Dr. Jekyll in a movie called Van Helsing, a horror film that was shot here.

“I’ve been in a lot of movies as an actor, 20. Usually I say a few lines and then die a horrible death. That’s what they hire people here for. I’ve died in a lot of movies.”

I guess you’re best known for writing a column for Reflex magazine. What kind of stuff do you mainly write about?

“Whatever weird thing comes into my mind, really. Of course I write a lot about Czech people, and about seeing Czech life from an American perspective, yada, yada, yada. But I write about marriage, parenting, technology.”

I was reading one probably older piece by you about the immense difficulty of learning Czech. How is your Czech now, 23 years later?

“Oh, it’s just… horrible [laughs]. But no, it’s OK. In fact, I’m seeing a woman now and she doesn’t speak English and we speak only Czech together, and that’s great.

“But I sound like a complete idiot [laughs]. I’m sorry for her for that, because I’m not a complete idiot but in Czech I sound like one.”

As a US humourist writing in a Czech magazine, you could be well placed to compare Czech and American humour – could you make a comparison between the two?

“It’s hard for me to say. Because I can’t really appreciate Czech humour as much as I would like. I find Czech humour is very dry. It’s done in a kind of obscure, abstruse way, from the side.

“It’s different – and that’s one of the reasons why I think my stuff is interesting here. Because there really is nothing like it.

“In America we have people who do what I do in newspapers and magazines all over the country, who write every week some satire. Or there’s The Onion, or there’s stand-up comedy

“Here it really is not a tradition, satire or even stand-up. It’s starting. There’s some stand-up on Czech TV, on HBO. And there’s a couple of people writing what they call fejetony, essays.

“I have so many people who inspire me to do what I do, from James Thurber to Woody Allen. But I can’t really compare Czech and American humour – I just don’t know that much about it.”

It seems to me that Czech humour is absurd and dark.

“Oh definitely, people here have an appreciation for black comedy – there’s no question about that. I write a lot of that in my stories, so I’m glad for that.”

Do you mind me asking, I know a few years ago you were seriously ill…

“That’s right – I died actually, five years ago.”

What happened?

“I caught this bacteriological infection, streptococcus pyogenes, it’s a lethal strain of streptococcus. I just got it somewhere, picked it up God knows where, I shook somebody’s hand or in the bathroom.

“I felt kind of tired. After work I went home. I lay down. Next thing I knew, I said to my wife, I think you’ve got to take me to the hospital. She did. And when I got to the hospital I died.

“My lungs collapsed. My kidneys failed. My heart stopped. And somehow these Czech doctors saved my life. They brought me back.

“They put me in intensive care, in an induced coma, and pumped me with everything they could think of, every antibiotic they could think of. They had no idea what was wrong with me – they’d never seen anything like it.

“For two months I was in a coma. I was dreaming for two months. It was amazing. It’s a story I really have to tell some day.

“Then when I was in the coma I got sepsis, where the blood leaves your extremities and rushes to your brain. They had to amputate the fingers on my right hand, my left hand whole, and both of my legs below the knee.

“When I came out of that coma, the doctor at Thomayerova nemocnice, a great hospital, said Mr. Fisher you’re very lucky to be alive, but I’m sorry, we’ve had to amputate your fingers, your hand and your feet.

“I was like, that’s OK! I’m back! I couldn’t believe it when I woke up, that I was still alive, because in my dream my wife had died, my kids had died, it was just like a horrible, horrible tragedy dream that I lived for two months.

“When I woke up and I was back in the world and I had my family again and my life again, I was like, oh God, I really didn’t care. But I knew my life was going to be kind of hard.”

How has it changed since then?

“Well, in good and bad ways… Of course they had me on a lot of good drugs at the time [laughs] – they had me pumped up on some good anti-depressants.

“That helped a lot and I recommend them for anyone who has a problem with depression. I took them for a year and they really helped me. Then I was fine.

“But, I had to learn how to walk. I had to walk on artificial legs. I had to learn how to use a robotic left hand. I had to learn to put these things on and take them off, and to do things with no fingers and no hands.

“That was the hard part. And also just the difficulty of living like that and not being able to do a lot of things.

“But at the same time, because I couldn’t work all the time, which I had been doing, it freed me up to do other things.

“One of those things was that I started writing – I started writing these funny stories. Which I had always written, but I never had the time to write a lot of them.

“Because of that Reflex discovered me. They were like, we’ve got to translate these stories into Czech – there’s nothing like them. And I fulfilled one of my other great dreams, which was to become a humourist and a writer, and then a published author [of a collection of columns]. So, yeah, good and bad – there’s always two sides to everything.”

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