‘My First Zonen-Gaby’: An Exegesis of Two Famous Rude German Jokes

Trigger Warning: This post contains discussions of racial stereotypes and East German hairstyles.

After the Charlie Hebdo attack, there were cultural misunderstandings galore about whether the French satire magazine was an obnoxious racist rag. Some of the Charlie's satirical cartoons contained stereotypical depictions of black people and Muslims, which was enough for many non-French speakers to denounce the magazine. Those who spoke French and knew the French media landscape countered that the editorial line of Charlie Hebdo was left-wing. The use of rude caricatures — whether of blacks, Catholics, gays, or royalty — is simply par for the course in the rollicking, adolescent world of European satire. To those in the know, which includes me, there is no debate: the latter point of view is correct.

Here's another magazine cover that's sure to provoke controversy, this time in Germany. I will now explain the background to you before the controversy erupts. I happen to have learned a lot about Germany, even though I've lived here for over a decade.

The roots of this joke go back to November 1989. The Berlin Wall had just come down, talk of unification was in the air, and thousands of East Germans were traveling freely to West Germany for the first time. The West German satire magazine Titanic decided to weigh in with a cover. Titanic, you should know, follows the dictum (g) of Kurt Tucholsky: Was darf Satire? Alles. (What is satire alllowed to do? Everything.)

Here is their November 1989 cover:

Zonen gaby

The title reads: 'Zonen-Gaby (17) overjoyed (BRD) : My First Banana'. Let's unpack the cultural signifiers. First, the name. Gaby (short for Gabrielle) is a common name all over Germany, but was especially popular in the East. Zonen-Gaby refers to the fact that she comes from East Germany. Now, there is a whole code governing how one may refer to residents of the former German Democratic Republic. The most polite way is 'People from the New German Federal States'. Quite a mouthful. Then comes East Germans. By the time you get to Ossi, you're in the political-correctness danger zone. And that brings us to Zonies. Right-wing Germans, who never accepted the notion of East Germany as a legitimate, independent state, referred to East Germany as the 'Soviet Occupation Zone' to emphasize its temporary and non-democratic character.

'Zone-Gaby' is 17, and now residing in the BRD, the German initials for West Germany. She has several characteristics of people from the East, including the half-hearted perm and unisex denim jacket. East Germans were very much into these things. If you don't believe me, just look at the footage from the fall of the Wall. East German women were also delighted by geometric plastic earrings. There were lots of dangling red plastic triangles. Gaby has what looks like a peach-colored plastic wind-chime hanging from each ear. Also the teeth. Basic medical care in the State of Workers and Peasants was quite good, but there was neither the money nor the will to provide comrades with bourgeois fripperies like cosmetic dentistry.

And finally we come to the cucumber. Bananas were rare in East Germany, and one of the stereotypes of East Germans coming for a visit to the West (which was allowed under strict regulation) is that they ran to the nearest grocery store to devour exotic tropical fruits unavailable in the East. Poor Zonen-Gaby is evidently unfamiliar with bananas.

This is, without a doubt, the most famous Titanic cover in history, perhaps comparable to National Lampoon's 'If You Don't Buy this Magazine We'll Kill This Dog.' The number of people who found it grossly offensive was outnumbered only by the number who found it funny, which was only outnumbered by the people who found it both.

And now, 25 years later, Titanic has just outdone itself:

Refugee joe

Even if you're not German-Powered™, you can probably see where this is going. The more sensitive among you should click away now. I'll give you a few seconds.

OK, we're back. I will now continue to dissect the joke, solely in the name of cross-cultural understanding, and perhaps Science. Our old friend Zonen-Gaby is back, this time in the company of 'Refugee Joe.' The title reads: 'Refugee Joe (52 cm) overjoyed (asylum): My First Zonen-Gaby'. As we also see, Zonen-Gaby is (still) overjoyed at meeting her new friend. Her thought bubble reads 'Hee-hee — Banana Joe'! The black band promises 'Even more asylum critique in the magazine!'

The reference to 52cm should be self-explanatory. Although I should note for accuracy's sake that the current owner of the world's longest penis is an American (of course) and his glistening missile of sin is only 13.5 inches, or 34.2 cm long. Erect.

German Word of the Week — Plus!: Moralin and Gulaschkanone

This week's German Words of the Week is not only a twofer but also — an example the kind of fabulous positive-plus synergy which makes this blog world-famous — coupled with What I Learned from Tatort. Wow! I can hardly wait to type the post!

Last week, I dutifully switched on my television to watch Tatort. Every Tatort plays in a different German city, and this one was in Kiel, a port city way up north on the Baltic sea. Unfortunately, the detective who features in the Kiel Tatorts is Borowski, who has all the charisma of a sea cucumber. Yes, I know, his waxen flesh and papery monotone are supposed to convey the legendary taciturnity of Germans from the north, renowned as the dullest, stuffiest, and most reserved of all Germans. Which, believe me, is saying a lot. My pragmatic Anglo-Saxon mind entertains the heretical notion of whether these Ent-like humanoids should be the subject of televisions shows that purport to be "entertainment." The most brutal blow was the casting of gorgeous Turkish vixen Sibel Kekilli in a supporting role. She stole every scene she was in, and made the viewer desperately yearn for her to suddenly break into the other scenes, which mainly featured North Germans bitching and seething.

But I digress. I should have known I'd be in for something special this time, because the entire week, the main German public-television station had been highlighting proper nutrition with various specials and cooking shows. And that meant that this week's Tatort had to Teach us about Proper Nutrition. As Christina Sieben observed in her review, the "die Gulaschkanone" of high-minded educational public TV was set on "constant bombardment." Now, a Gulaschkanone is basically what it sounds like: a goulash cannon. The term originally referred to military field kitchens, for obvious reasons. But here, in context, the cannon is spouting edifying lessons like a Stalin's organ. In Sieben's summary:

Artificial colors have to be, because nobody will buy white energy drinks. Cows are always chained up in the dairy. "Research Institutes" are in the pocket of industry. Good food costs money, but people are too cheap to pay for it. The old organic farmer in the show knows all his cows by name. Everyone wants to earn money. And, at the end of the day, it's all our fault. Bon appetit! 

Sieben goes on to predict that with Public Television Nutrition Edification Week over, the next Tatort will contain slightly less Moralin. You know, Moraline (not to be confused with Betweenanene (Screwene)). Like Adenosine, Guanine, Cytosine, Adrenaline, or Methamphetamine. Moraline bonds with plot elements in public-television dramas, causing the narrative to coalesce in ways that offer edifying lessons to the benighted, easily corruptible audience.

Thanks to Moraline, we learned all those valuable things about food and nature from last week's Tatort (although strangely enough, the topic of lavish cow subsidies (g) was barely mentioned). Moraline additive also helps us understand, for example, that unemployed people want to work, alcoholics and drug addicts roll like they do because of childhood trauma, women can do everything men can, family-run firms are the only halfway-acceptable form of free enterprise, and that Scientology, nationalism, plastic toys, wars, lobbysists, and nuclear power are evil.

If you watch too much German public television, your moraline levels may reach toxicity: You may begin to use phrases like "our fellow-citizens of the Islamic faith" or "food-chain-renewability enhancing measures" in everyday speech. At this point, you'll need to spend a few hours in a secure, moraline-free environment. The most reliable place is Titanic Magazine (g), which, is 100% moraline-free and whose motto is "Ein klares Ja zum Nein!" (A clear Yes to No!).

Tips for World Cup Tourists

So you’re thinking of coming to Germany for the World Cup? Fabulous! I’ll probably be leaving for Rome. If you’d like advice on how to behave, here’s an archive of tips written by foreign residents of Germany for you, courtesy of the Spiegel magazine.

But why rely on foreigners? Instead, I’d advise looking at page 36 of this month’s Titanic, which contains valuable hints written by actual German Mark-Stefan Tietze. What follows is my slightly abridged, and very very loose, translation, of this important contribution to cultural understanding:

Don’t even think about it!

As a World Cup tourist from some underdeveloped region of the world, you should know: not all Germans are Nazis, some of them just want to make a nice profit from you. Nonetheless: there are also tourist traps in Germany, and plenty of behaviors you’re better off avoiding:

Blathering on pointlessly

In Germany, communication is always goal-oriented ("Out of my way!" "Show me your papers!" "Give me the money!").  Things that might count as charming banter in your culture ("May I help you cross the street?" "What glorious rainy weather!" "By the way, I come from Burundi") will be regarded in Germany as superficial blather and a waste of time.

Turning down invitations

If a German actually manages to invite you to his home to show you his own personal recycling system, you must never turn down the invitation. Otherwise, you’ll make another enemy, and what it means to make enemies of Germans you can learn from any history book.

Speaking during meals

It is considered improper to speak during meals in Germany. According to old German custom, you should poke around the plate gloomily for a while, then suddenly choke it all down in one fell swoop. As soon as you see the German national dish, "Sludge with Goo and Meat," before you, you’ll know why.

Conceal your fears

In Germany, culture, economy and cuisine are traditionally based on fear. Germans are accordingly proud of their fears and delight in spreading them. Currently, Germans are afraid about their pensions, dying-out as a nation, and being eliminated in the first round. Don’t be afraid to talk about your own fears (floods, nuclear war, sauerkraut) — but always admit that your hosts’ fears are more important.

Inappropriate Appearance

An inappropriate appearance can injure religious feelings in Germany. Of course, nobody will complain if Catholic Brazilian girls visit churches in their traditional costume of sequined bikinis. However if you happen to be in East Germany, you should avoid provoking the natives by having an unusual skin color. The ancient Germanic gods that are worshiped in these areas strictly forbid it.

Remaining sober during the evening

During the day, Germans like to appear lifeless and stony. During the evening, however, they drink several liters of beer and then suddenly go out of their minds and begin screaming like banshees. You should absolutely join in! Anyone who doesn’t will quickly get smacked in the chops. Of course if you join in, you’ll also get smacked in the chops, but you won’t notice it as much.

Forgetting to mention the war

Never forget to mention the war to Germans! Germans love to prove, in hours-long conversations, that they know a lot about the rather unfortunate parts of their history, and that they’ve learned important things from it. As a follow-up, they’ll be happy to explain to you all the things that suck about your country, and which genocides you should feel responsible for.

I hope this helps apprehensive tourists.  Welcome to Germany, and don’t forget to root for Togo if Germany gets eliminated!

House Spiders — The Enemy Within

The most recent Titanic‘s "Letters to Our Readers" section addresses house spiders (who I didn’t know were subscribers):

Honorable House Spiders!

All these years we’ve lived together with you without serious problems.  Indeed, you could even speak of a peaceful co-existence.  And now we have to read in the specialty bug magazine Draco the following description of one of your species that lives all over the place, which bears the already rather unsettling name Scytodes thoracica:

The house spider "covers its prey with an stringy fluid and thus binds them to the ground.  The powerfully-build poison glands actually produce poison only in a small front portion — the larger rear portion excretes an extremely stringy glue.  From here, the spider sprays, under extremely high pressure, a secretion onto the prey from a distance of up to 2 centimeters.  The secretion immediately sticks to an immobilizes the prey." 

Poison glands?  Spraying glue?  Stringy secretion?  All this in our bedrooms?  In the kitchen?  The bath?!  But there’s more: "If the victim makes a strong escape attempt, it will be spat upon repeatedly.  Then the spider, looking quite relaxed, will eventually come by an apply the poison bite.  The victim will either be sucked dry right then or brought out of its bindings and dragged to a hiding place by means of the spider’s chelicerae and pedipalps."

That, house spider, is the last straw, and we really don’t want anything to do with it.  So next time we greet you in the sink or shower, whether you’re looking quite relaxed or not, we aren’t going to take your chelicerae carefully in a hand towel and shake your pedipalps gently out the window — instead, from this point on, we’ll get the vacuum cleaner and turn it up to 1000 watts!

Eek!  A Spider!  —  Titanic