Is German humor an oxymoron?

by Brooks Riley

Is German humor an oxymoron? Someone said that it was. It might have been Jay Leno, it might have been someone else. It could have been many people, all clutching a cliché as worn out as an old shoe, and one that never really corresponded to reality. That Germans have humor also interferes with our other clichés, most of them emanating from our own World War II movies, which indoctrinated us to the ‘Achtung‘ school of German intransigence.

The cliché that refuses to die was reinforced by a 2011 poll, which voted Germany the most unfunny country in the world. (With the British coming in 4th place and US in 5th, one has to wonder who was voting.)

Maybe it’s time to take another look. The video of a spontaneous combustion of laughter on a subway in Berlin went viral in 2011, racking up 3 million viewers who simply had to see it to believe it.

Germans like to laugh. They like to laugh so much that humor, a Kleinkunst (minor art) once dubbed the Tenth Muse, is more than just a cottage industry. Contrary to the accepted wisdom, their humor did not emigrate in 1933 even though many of its better exemplars did leave the country or were later arrested and murdered by the Nazis. One of those who stayed behind was the legendary Karl Valentin, a Bavarian comic whose nightly show began with music by Mendelssohn. One night during the Third Reich, he was visited by the SS, who told him he would have to stop playing that music because Mendelssohn was Jewish. Valentin answered: ‘Then you’ll have to turn off the lights, Edison was Jewish.’ So much for Achtung.

My introduction to Valentin was fortuitous. I wanted to hear Walter Schmidinger reading from the works of Thomas Bernhard at the Salzburg Festival. Sometime after I bought the ticket, Thomas Bernhard died. In his will he forbade the public performance of his works in his native Austria. A letter informed me that Schmidinger would be unable to read Bernhard but would read from the works of Karl Valentin. Karl who? I fully intended to return the ticket, but didn’t. On the evening in question, I debated whether or not to attend. My comprehension of German was nascent at the time, and although I knew Bernhard’s works in translation, I would probably not be able to understand much of this other guy.

Curiosity won out. Walter Schmidinger is a brilliant, noble Austrian actor of nuance and pathos. Schmidinger reading Valentin is a bit like John Gielgud reading H.L. Mencken or Mark Twain. Or maybe not. The evening was prodigiously funny. Valentin’s monologues are deceptively simple, ambushing the audience with the obvious (“I used to live on Sendlinger Street–not on it . . because the streetcars drive through. . .” ). With a vocabulary of about 20% I was able to understand nearly 80% of the humor. It was partly Schmidinger stepping out of his dignity suit, but it was also the delerious absurdity of Valentin’s prose. The German-speaking audience howled, and I was right there with them–only much more surprised than they were.

One of Valentin’s most famous works is the ‘Bookbinder Wanninger’, which he recorded in the Thirties, about a bookbinder calling a client (a company) to tell them that their books are ready. What follows is the switchboard operator passing him on to all sorts of irrelevant employees, including the company president. It still resonates today, as we desperately try to make telephone contact with the right person at a business address.

Someone who ‘goes into the cellar to laugh’ is how Germans describe a rare breed of German without a sense of humor. Curiously, the phrase also implies that even the most poker-faced Bürger has to laugh somewhere, sometime. But humor is expendable in perilous times: It could be that the whole nation went into the cellar to laugh during the Third Reich, allowing atrocity to rule the day.

A recent New York Times article about Chancellor Merkel claims that ‘in private she is highly engaging and even funny.’ Perhaps the chancellery has a cellar where she goes to nurture her inner Dorothy Parker.

Stand-up comedy in the US tends to be a series of extraneous one-liners strung together into a monologue. In Germany, the monologue is a single-subject delicacy, sometimes served to the subjects themselves. Once a year, during the strong beer season at the Nockherberg, a locale in Munich, important politicians watch themselves being lampooned on stage. Although an acting chancellor rarely appears, enough other well-known figures from the different parties are on hand to take the heat. It makes the annual White House press corps dinner look tame. Half the fun is watching the politicians themselves and suspecting that more can be learned about them from their reactions at the Nockherberg than from their sober sound bites in the Bundestag.

A comedian is called a Komiker (the stand-up, one-liner kind à la US) or a Kabarettist (more dramaturgical, as monologist, or in a duo or ensemble). These days, they come in all shapes and sizes, all ages and all nationalities. Turkish comedians are popular, mining a rich vein of immigrant humor (Kaya Yanar, Bülent Ceylan). One of the best is Django Asül, a Bavarian of Turkish descent who delivers his humor in a heavy Lower Bavarian accent. Nothing exposes a people and their idiosyncracies better than the inside experience of an ‘outsider’. Audience shots of Germans laughing at themselves are especially reassuring when the barbs come from Germany’s newer citizens.

Kaya Yanar gets stopped for speeding

The country is full of comedy clubs or cabarets. Humorists tend to be regional although appearances on television bring them national exposure; north Germans, Berliners, Germans from the populous Ruhr region, all have their favorite humorists. German Wikipedia has entries for 607 comedians, and that’s not including the Austrians, the Swiss and the ones nobody’s ever heard of.

Bavaria is a plentiful source, some of the humor very dark–Bruno Jonas, Sigi Zimmerschied, Ottfried Fischer, Sissi Perlinger, Michael Mittermeier. The hilarious monologues of Gerhard Polt have accompanied me on long car trips, his first-person travails buoying me along at 100 mph with a risus sardonicus on my face.

Gerhard Polt: Mahlzeit (a form of greeting at lunchtime; literally ‘meal time’.)

Originality and timing are the keys to successful comedy—think Steven Wright, Woody Allen or Robin Williams: Or the gaunt professorial Piet Klocke elevating ADHD to an art form with his unfinished sentences; Georg Schramm with his multiple personas and agressive diatribes; Eckart von Hirschhausen, a medical doctor who specializes in hippocratic humor; or Hape Kerkeling with his multiple alter-egos, including the nerdy buck-toothed town crier ‘Horst Schlämmer’. Kerkeling as Cleopatra, Napoleon, Martin Luther and other historical figures spices up the hybrid six-part documentary series for ZDF’s Terra X, ‘Underway in World History’ (Unterwegs in der Weltgeschichte), a unique blend of solid information, luscious photography, and anecdotal humor, with Kerkeling as tour guide and impersonator.

Hape Kerkeling – Trailer for ‘Unterwegs in der Weltgeschichte

Or the multi-talented Helge Schneider who delivers a brand of humor that is almost accidental. Embarrassing and irresistible, it also defies description. Schneider is well-educated, and can play great jazz on the piano, for instance, but when he sets out to amuse people, it’s with a bland silly song called Katzenklo (Litter box, or Cat toilet)—and that’s the point. Schneider is hit-or-miss as a comedian (he doesn’t even call himself one) and his is a precarious brand of humor, but when he’s good he’s pathetically good.

Another, newer star is Olaf Schubert, a Saxon (the Saxonian accent is part of the package, as it is with the Bavarians) whose nervous east German Weltanschauung is so hermetic that he brings to mind a kind of post-modern Simplicius Simplicissimus.

Austria has its own star examples, the hang-dog fatalism of Josef Hader, or Cornelius Obonya, an actor at the venerable Burgtheater: Not strictly a comedian, he nevertheless delivered a nearly three-hour monologue ‘Córdoba—the return match’ in dozens of voices on an empty stage, to a standing ovation. The title refers to the only time the Austrian soccer team ever beat the Germans, in Córdoba, Argentina in 1978, but the monologue itself more or less mines every social and political controversy since then.

Josef Hader on film acting at the German Film Awards.

The German-speaking Swiss can’t be left out, with Ursus Wehrli (of the duo ‘Ursus und Nadeschkin’), now much more famous for putting the world in order than for his appearances on the cabaret circuit. Or Emil Steinberger, Switzerland’s most famous and prolific comedian.

Ursus Wehrli puts art in order (in English)

Television offers plenty of ways to make people laugh. The Heute Show, a variation of ‘That was the week that was’, is a no-holds-barred take-down of politicians and their weekly gaffes, moderated by a sports reporter with perfect comic timing: Oliver Welke and his ensemble can be brutally funny and dead-on. Chancellor Merkel, otherwise known as Angie, or Mutti (Mom), is a favorite target, although the show is an equal-opportunity free-for-all that leaves no politician unscathed. Neues aus der Anstalt, (News from the Asylum) is another irreverant show about the news.

Americans may have their Breaking Bad, but Germans have their Tatortreiniger, a half-hour comedy about someone who washes up after crime scenes. Or Josef Hader’s two-part TV film (Aufschneider, or one who cuts open things) about a sad-sack coroner whose colleague kidnaps her own dead father from the morgue because she can’t bear for him to be autopsied.

Humor pops up in TV crime fare too, notably in a popular sub-genre called the Dorfkrimi, or village crime story. The crime is often incidental to the drollery of bumpkins in their picture-book habitats, their dirty little secrets as hoary as the codgers playing skat down at the local tavern, their sheep providing inofficial roadblocks, and their chickens and pigs contaminating crime scenes. Several weekly series follow this premise (Mordshunger and Mord mit Aussicht,or ‘Murder with a View’), but the more successful examples are movies of the week, from directors like Markus Imboden (Möderische Jagd), Julian Pölsler (Polt muss weinen and three other Polt films), Max Färberbock (Sau Nummer vier) or Rainer Kaufmann (Erntedank and Föhnlage).

Humorous crime novelists enjoy wide readership: Jörg Maurer and his five Alpenkrimis (Alpine crime stories), Max Bronski with his junk-dealer’s-eye-view of the criminal class, but above all the inimitable Austrian writer Wolf Haas, whose perennially down-and-out detective Brenner is the sieve through which dubious aspects of the Austrian character are filtered and ruthlessly exposed. Thomas Bernhard probably would have loved Haas’s books (in the cellar). At least one of them has been translated into English but it’s hard to imagine his comedy travelling well in spite of his stylish prose.

Josef Hader as Brenner in the film version of Haas’s Silentium (Trailer).

A dark past is not necessarily a prerequisite for dark humor, but when the two combine, as they did in a recent German student film, a glossy mock commercial for a new Mercedes with sensors that can react to danger before the driver does, the nation debated—without much humor—whether one can laugh about Hitler.

Mock Mercedes commercial

It’s rather late for this discussion. At the film premiere of Schtonk!, Helmut Dietl’s 1992 satire about the forged Hitler diaries, I was the only one in the audience who laughed at the opening flashback, a faithful valet combing the dead Hitler’s hair in his open grave. More recently, though, a new satirical novel by Timur Vermes, ‘Er ist wieder da’ (‘He’s back.’), has topped the bestseller list for months, and film director Dani Levy has satirized Hitler in My Führer—the really truest truth about Adolf Hitler. Whether they like it or not, Germans aren’t shaking off Hitler anytime soon, but are they shaking with laughter about him? Slowly but surely. It might be the best medicine.

Disclaimer: It was not easy to select video examples in a language foreign to many readers. My choices were based on length, and on gags that might be understood in spite of the language. For those who do speak German, there is a wealth of material on YouTube.