Dass ich nicht lache – “Don’t make me laugh!”German humour is no laughing matter

“Don’t mention the war!” This legendary Fawlty Towers quote is a prime example how English people like to make fun of Germans. “I did once, but I think I got away with it.” British comedy has relied on German stereotypes (among others) for decades, yet other than as object of ridicule, Brits don’t seem to expect Germans to be funny. This prejudice is so deeply engrained that star comedian Henning Wehn, living and working in England for decades, still scores hysterical laughter by just stating that he is “the ambassador for German humour”. Germans themselves disagree.

This is believable. “Humor ist, wenn man trotzdem lacht” (loosely translated “Humour means to laugh in the face of mishap”) is the favourite answer of Germans when asked for a definition. Indeed, while scientists fail to come up with a valid and robust “theory of humour”, seeing it as a way of coping with unfortunate events or tough realities makes perfect sense. Writer Otto Julius Bierbaum coined this explanation in the early 20th century, declaring: “Humour means the skill to face the imperfection of the world, its everyday challenges and inevitable failures with cheerful calmness.”

A more external definition for “being humorous” is the ability to make others laugh or as the English say – “Always look at the bright side of life…dadum, dadum…”

Serious culture and the art of comedy

In 2013, the psychiatrist Jakob Heins created controversy with his book “Deutsche und Humor – Geschichte einer Feindschaft” (Germans and humour – history of hostilities). His thesis seemed to support the British idea of “the unfunny Germans”, but on deeper reading his criticism aimed for a different target.

Germany indeed has a long tradition of distinguishing arts in the categories “E” and “U”. “E” as in “Ernst” means serious, earnest and classy. “U” as in “Unterhaltung” means simple entertainment and a general lack of refinement. Comedy and humour in general has, for centuries since the Age of Enlightenment, been dropped into the latter category, reducing its value in public conception.

Germans only laugh about simple jokes and puns, the author claims – or in an organized event where their fun is officially prepared. This would explain the phenomenon of Carnival, where once in a year even the most normal and well-aligned people are allowed to go bonkers. Within limits, in confined space and time. The same category covers the Bavarian Oktoberfest.

When it comes to evidence, the authors point out the lack of awards that comical literature receives in established literary circles. Many literary critics would disagree with this general statement. Yes, when it comes to rewards and the acceptance as “high culture”, humorous contributions to the arts and literature often fail to be taken seriously (see what I did there?). Yet there are plenty of historical examples for highly valued humoristic works. Wolfram von Eschenbach wrote „Parzival“ in the 13th century. Literary characters like the “Hanswurst” or the “Kasper” are household names for German kids since the 15th century, and the famous “Till Eulenspiegel” was a prankster who questioned authority and rules of medieval life in a book published first in the beginning of the 16th century.

For many years, the leading personality of German literary criticism was Marcel Reich-Ranicki, a man as brilliant as cynical, as bright in his knowledge as he was dark in his opinionated negativity. The one thing that bridged the gaps between the literary community, academical circles and the general public was his outstanding humour. Reich-Ranicky was witty, funny and able to break down difficult concepts into simple words. His life and work alone is the best argument to disprove the idea that Germans treat humour with disrespect.

The language dilemma

Comedy is not only a staple of German culture, but also a common word used in German language. The native word “Komödie” is still in use for theatre and movies, but since the late 90s the English term “Comedy” describes everything that is either stand-up, satire or political cabaret. Comedy takes huge time slots on TV and sells very well in stage appearances, with some comedians selling out huge arenas with tens of thousands of tickets.

It was the TV presenter and musician Stefan Raab who introduced the world to typical German “Klamauk” (shenanigans) when he flooded the formerly dead serious Eurovision Song Contest with disrespectful, anarchic, completely silly comedy acts. This kind of disruptive, slightly bizarre chaos has tradition in German music (see my article about the “Neue Deutsche Welle” a little while ago), but it also stands for a significant part of the modern German comedy scene.

Sadly, a part of this culture is also pretty dull, not to say dumb. Entertainer Mario Barth, for example, makes a fortune telling sexist jokes about his girlfriend. On the other side of the spectrum, comedian Dieter Nuhr covers a middle-classy, self rightous audience with condescending tales about the idiocy of everyone and everything.

A decade ago, a German politician coined the term “Leitkultur” (leading culture) to describe the necessity of integration for immigrants. The culture of the natives had to be in the leading position, and newcomers had to adapt to it. No matter what one might think about this sentiment, comedians did not fail to use the word “Leidkultur” (culture of pain) instead. Sounds the same, has a different meaning and endless humorous potential – but try translating this kind of pun into English.

The world of German comedy

Here is an example for German comedy that is as timeless as non-reliant of language: Loriot, or with full name Bernhard-Viktor Christoph-Carl von Bülow. The bizarre, the madness in everyday life, the weirdness of normalcy – nobody pointed it out better than him. While he knew to use language in brilliant fashion, many of his skits worked very well without it. (Example: “Das Bild hängt schief”, in which Loriot as an insurance salesman tries to correct a wonky frame on the wall.

More leaning towards the banality of life is Jürgen von der Lippe, sliding more and more into what Germans call “Altherrenwitz”, another example of a German term that is combined from other words and gains a special meaning. “Altherren” are men of a senior age, “Witz” simply means joke. An “Altherrenwitz” is the kind of usually sexist joke men of a certain age tell each other when women aren’t around.

If you are an ambitious German learner, here is a pretty comprehensive list of German comedians to check out:

The historical approach

The tradition of humour as a form of respectable art is extremely old. The ancient Greeks had a proud tradition of comedy in theatre and writing that persisted throughout the Roman Empire despite draconian laws that forbid to ridicule a Roman citizen. Of course, it still happened, and the Roman theatre tradition was quite rich – as was the love for obscene jokes, as toilet graffiti in places like Pompeii bear witness to.

The literary tradition of classy humour got a bit lost in medieval German, where the Catholic church did not value laughter and fun very highly. A rough life full of dangers made humour important for the common people, though, as a way of coping. It could be quite rude and rather primitive at times, and here is where the afore-mentioned tradition of Carnival started. The “Schwank” as a folksy variation of the ancient Greek comedy was popular – bawdy, profane and full of Schadenfreude.

In the socialist German Democratic Republic, political cabaret and satire were officially highly regarded. In fact, writers and artists had to present their material before publication to government authorities who often ruined amazing works by means of censorship. The East German rulers had an aura of boredom and lack of humour – which on the other hand created brilliant humour among the general population. Irony, sarcasm and the abuse of official language for ridicule was widely spread and could be absolutely hilarious. As was the official language itself – with great examples like the bureaucratic term used for a Christmas angel: “Jahresendfigur mit Flügeln” was printed on the packages in stores. Translation: “Year end figurine featuring wings”.

An example for the sadness of these times was the Saxonian comedian Eberhard Cohrs. Well loved by East German audiences, he faced a ban from writing and performing for naming common problems of everyday reality in the GDR. Under growing pressure, he made off to West Germany illegally. While the East German authorities allowed his family to join him a few weeks later, his career was over nevertheless: His jokes didn’t work as well with West German audiences, and ironically, critics of the time suggest that part of it might have been a language barrier. His strong Saxonian accent, hilarious for GDR citizens because it had the tonality of their leadership, simply was too hard to connect to for West Germans.

Back to England

Much more could be said about German humour. But back to Henning Wehn, the German comedy ambassador. Viel Spass! (Have fun!)

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