England. Germany. Humo[u]r.

Hat-tip to Jo for pointing me to an article in the Guardian by English comedian Stewart Lee. Lee went to Germany to stage a play set in an English stand-up comedy club, and reflects, interestingly, on the differences between the German and the English sense of humor. The article’s accompanied by a picture of Harald Schmidt, Germany’s answer to David Letterman, dressed as a bobsled. (!)

Lee’s conclusion: "[B]e assured, the German sense of humour not only exists, it actually flourishes, albeit in a form we are ill-equipped to recognise." According to Lee, English humor is based on building up intentional confusions of meaning that are resolved, with a funny paradox, at the end of the sentence. This sort of humor doesn’t work in Germany, because "[t]he German language provides fully functional clarity. English humour thrives on confusion."  Furthermore, English humor about bodily functions doesn’t translate well: "A German theatre director explained that this was because the Germans did not find the human body smutty or funny, due to all attending mixed saunas from an early age." (!!)

Therefore, Germans don’t really warm to English stand-up humor:

[T]he idea of stand-up is somewhat alien to the Germans. They have a cabaret tradition of sophisticated satire, cross-dressing and mildly amusing songs, and there are also recognisable mainstream, low-brow comedy tropes in the form of vulgar popular entertainers. But the idea of the conversational, casual, middle-ground of English speaking stand-up comedy is unknown to the Germans.

To Lee it "seemed to me that their sense of humour was built on blunt, seemingly serious statements, which became funny simply because of their context."

All well and good, I’d say, from an outsider’s perspective. Here are some other sorts of German humor that appear in "forms we are ill-equipped to recognize":

The funniest things Germany has to offer, in addition to Titanic magazine, are well-observed, character-driven scenes in movies. One example: a meandering, shiftless barkeep in a filthy Berlin dive tells his parents he’s actually manager of a restaurant. When they come visit him, his foul-mouthed, unwashed friends have to occupy a corner of their favorite restaurant, dress up in ill-fitting formal wear and impersonate his "employees" as they serve his parents (Herr Lehmann). It’s a satisfying set-piece, but it can’t be ripped from the surrounding movie or presented as a sketch.

As Lee notes, mismatches of register are behind plenty of other German comic achievements as well. One thinks immediately of Max Goldt’s delightful essays, which bring a lifetime of education and a mind-breaking vocabulary to bear on tuna advertisements from 1987. Or of Eckhard Henscheid’s novel "The Morons," subtitled "An Historical Novel from the Year 1972", in which the pointless doings of band of long-haired, largely jobless German hippies living in Frankfurt is chronicled with all the brow-furrowing verbal solemnity and detail of a 19th-century social-realist drama.

Or take this excerpt from Daniel Kehlmann’s bestseller The Measurement of the World, with which I’ll end this post. Measurement follows early-19th-century German polymath Alexander von Humboldt as he explores South America. After his hosts regale him with rich and lusty tales of port and forest, they ask Humboldt for some German equivalents (courtesy of Titanic (G)):

He doesn’t know any stories, says Humboldt. He also doesn’t like telling them. However, he can recite Germany’s loveliest poem, freely translated into Spanish: Above all the mountaintops, it is silent, there is no wind to be felt in the trees, the birds are also calm, and soon one will be dead.

Everyone looked at him.

"Finished," said Humboldt.

3 thoughts on “England. Germany. Humo[u]r.

  1. That last joke warrants an explanation; I doubt very much that most English-speaking readers will understand it. The joke is that Humboldt paraphrases in his dead-pan, factual way an actual and very well-known poem by Goethe, called Wanderers Nachtlied, or Wanderer’s Night Song:

    Über allen Gipfeln
    Ist Ruh
    In allen Wipfeln
    Spürest Du
    Kaum einen Hauch
    Die Vöglein schweigen im Walde
    Warte nur, balde
    Ruhest du auch.

    Whether this is indeed the loveliest poem of the German language can remain an open question, but it has an eerie beauty without doubt.


  2. We do have the kind of of jokes relying on double menanings of words, but only a few. Example: Treffen sich zwei Jäger, beide tot. (Two hunters meet, both are dead; relys on the doublemeaning of “treffen”: 1. to meet 2. to hit the mark, with the hearts of each other as the mark, obviously).

    And then there is the ironic self-humiliating kind of humor which comes from a more or less defined group: Gehen zwei Studenten an ‘ner Kneipe vorbei (two students walk past a pub) or Kommt n Bratscher zur Probe (A viola player comes to rehearsal). Both rely on more or less known clichees (students never miss a chance to get pissed; viola players only show up on the day of the concert) and can only be understood if one knows the clichee involved.

    This might not be inherently german, but it exists in Germany too. Though I don’t know how common that sort of thing is here.

    Just my two cent on this long forgotten entry. Greetings from a convinced lurker who somehow felt the need to speak up about this and is still puzzled why.


  3. As we are on the topic already (and I was just reminded of this by the joke with the hunters): do “jokes” like “Steigt einer in die U-Bahn, der andere findet auch fünf Mark.” (“A person enters the Underground, the other finds five Marks, too.”) exist in anglophone countries, too?


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