Thursday, 12 August 2010

Ve haff vays ov making you laff!

It seems to be a common stereotype of Germans amongst Britons that they have no sense of humour. And actually, there is a German stand-up comedian working in Britain, Henning Wehn, who bases his act on this misconception and bills himself as 'the German comedy ambassador'.

Here's a taste of his style. Note the stop-watch around his neck that he uses to time the length of audience laughter to his jokes: You see, Germans are all over-analytical - geddit? Vorsprung durch Humor.

Respect to Henning for exploiting this German stereotype, and for getting in some well-placed digs at the English. But the perhaps surprising truth is that Germans have a very well-developed and sophisticated sense of humour, Danke sehr.

I'm now going to post a few examples in support of this proposition, though I should point out that I don't particularly think these are the funniest; however, they are the best I could find on YouTube.

One of the best British TV shows recently has been 'The Office'. Could the Germans appreciate the humour of laughing at the embarrassing cringe-worthy antics of David Brent? You bet they could - they did after all coin the word 'schadenfreude' for the pleasure derived from the misfortune of others.

'The Office' inspired a hugely popular German version called Stromberg (after Bern Stromberg, the eponymous anti-hero) that caused a bit of friction between the producers and the BBC over how much 'The Office' influenced it.

However, rather than show you a clip from 'Stromberg' I am going to take it one step further and demonstrate how the Germans can ratchet the cringe value up a couple of notches more. Click here for David Brent as Adolf Hitler! (Don't worry if you can't understand the language, I think the visual comedy is enough to understand the main joke). This parody is from the ProSieben show 'Switch Reloaded', which spoofs German TV shows, which is funny if you've seen the originals, but a bit difficult to 'get' if you haven't.

Another show that makes fun of (rather than parodying) other TV shows is 'TV Total', created, produced and hosted by comedian Stefan Raab. Its format is to show clips from other TV shows and then slag them off - a bit like Harry Hill's TV Burp but with Doc Marts on. Unlike Harry Hill's often surreal commentary, Raab is more cutting with his criticism. 'TV Total' also has Raab interviewing celebrities in a David Letterman style format, but from a rather bizarre desk that moves across the stage. I've dug out this clip of a very weird interview with Adam Green conducted in English and German (p.s you don't have to watch it all the way through if you don't want to!).

'TV Total' is itself parodied by 'Switch Reloaded', and so it goes around. The 'Switch Reloaded' parody usually has a Raab lookalike absolutely wetting himself with laughter at his TV clips, to complete silence from the audience. This is quite close to the truth :)

Stefan Raab is also involved in the Eurovision song contest, to the extent that he was even the Germany entry in 2000 with the nonsense song 'Wadde hadde dudde da', which unbelievably came 5th. You can see and hear it being performed here if you really want to. Bored with the Eurovision, he as-arrogantly-as-usual came up with his own song-contest called the 'Bundesvision Song Contest', promoting German-language lyrics and with entries from each of the 16 German states ('Bundesländer').

Stefan is such an all-round entertainer that many people would like to smash in his smug face, which is in effect what they can do on the ProSieben TV show 'Schlag den Raab' ('Beat Raab'). The format has been reproduced on British ITV as 'Beat the Star', with the difference that the British show has different celebrities whereas on German TV it is always Stefan Raab. But we're getting slightly away from German humour, other than that 'Schlag den Raab' exploits the universal appetite to see someone with an over-inflated ego beaten by an underdog (another case of 'schadenfreude' perhaps?

An example of a straight-forward sketch show is 'Sechserpack' on the Sat 1 channel. Sechserpack is German for six-pack - as in a six-pack of beer - but here referring to there being six comedians involved. A higher level of language comprehension is needed here, but some of the gags are visual too.

A TV program where the comedy is more character-led is Ladycracher starring the multi-talented Anke Engelke (who was actually born in Canada). Engelke's humour is like the English comedienne and actor Catherine Tate's, and she has created a large range of distinct characters with their own quirks and mannerisms. Engelke also uses word-play and language for humorous effect, which makes it a bit difficult for non-German speakers to get into. Here though is one sketch anyone will get the point of (it's a helpline for the deaf. Not very PC!):

Engelke also does a good stand-up, acts, sings, and provides the dubbed German voice for a number of English-language imports, including Marge Simpson on 'die Simpsons'.

A male comedian using character-led humour is Markus Maria Profitlich, best know from his Sat 1 program 'Mench Markus'. He too combines a mix of stand-up, pre-recorded sketches, and live sketches on-stage in his show. He reminds me of a German Alexi Sayle, and not just because they are both large and shaven-headed.

There are a number of comics who perform in only one character. On the stand-up scene, the main one to spring to mind is Cindy aus Marzahn, who goes to prove that Germany has its chavs too (Marzahn is a suburb of Berlin dominated by concrete high-rise flats mostly inhabited by people at the lower end of the income bracket).

Ilka Bessin has created a monstrous Vicky Pollard - like character in Cindy, but rounded out into someone more potent: we don't laugh at Cindy just because she represents the tasteless excesses of the Unterklasse (though there is that), but because she has licence to say the things that we're all thinking but social convention means we can't say. In this respect she is similar to a drag queen, which is also reflected in her rather large and masculine build and overdone make-up.

Here she is slagging off the people down the Arbeitsamt (JobCentre), and sorry non-German speakers, but Cindy's humour is very much language based:

Cindy represents a particularly Berlin kind of comedy, a very much in-your-face attitude which has its own name: the Berliner Schnauzer, translatable as something like the Berlin gob. Another very Berlinisch comedian of a different kind is Kurt Krömer (real name Bojcan Alexander). His 'Internationale Show' on the local RBB channel is a surreal mix of inept chat-show host, amateurish local reportage, and couldn't care less interviews where he generally seems to be getting more and more drunk. He does for Berlin local television shows what Alan Partridge did for Norwich, except Krömer is much more likeable as a character. Here he is 'interviewing' cabaret singer Ina Müller (note how the set, and Krömer's clothes, are reminiscent of East German deco):

Edit: oh bugger! YouTube have taken this one down. Try Googling 'Krömer' or something - it's worth it!

A comedian who is expert in creating many dozens of comic characters is Hape Kerkeling. His creations are too extensive to recount here, just to say he is the Dick Emery of German TV. Only much better and actually funny.

In this clip he is fooling former Bayern Munich footballer Stefan Effenberg by pretending to be an English Sports TV presenter interviewing him live. The effect of a German pretending to be Englishman talking in terrible German is quite effective (and embarrassing - maybe I sound like that?)

Ethnic minorities in Germany have their comedy expressed on mainstream TV too. The Turkish comedian Kaya Yanar is perhaps their best known exponent, with his televised stand-up show 'Made in Germany', and his sketch show 'Was guckst du?!' (which means something like 'what you looking at, mate?!'). Unfortunately, for the non-German speaker his stand-up comedy is somewhat inaccessible. Even for the native speaker it is a bit hard, as he uses a lot of 'Kiezdeutsch', which is a street slang mixture of Turkish, German, and other influences including Russian and American.

Here is a taster from 'Was guckst du?!', the point of the joke being that the Turkish couple in the car (supposedly) have little German and deliberately misinterpret the German cop's words to make out he is a Nazi:

One of the funniest sit-coms on German television also makes hay from Turkish cultural clashes, and also the universal problems of family life and teenagers. 'Türkisch für Anfänger' or 'Turkish for Beginners' has a great deal more depth than most sitcoms, and is at times emotionally moving and explores taboo subjects, as well as being very well acted and very funny. Here's a clip from right back at the beginning:

Germany has its fair share of bigoted comics too, of which Mario Barth is probably at the summit (or the depth) of opinionated male-centric egoism. Somewhat like a German version of Jim Davidson. But like Jim Davidson he has a big following, so even though he's not my cup of rooibos, here's a taster (with English sub-titles):

At the other end of the intellectual scale, there are lots of satire programs on German TV. I am unfortunately not near enough the end of the scale myself to even begin to understand a lot of it, particularly as it requires a deep appreciation of German politics and current affairs.

One satirical program I sort of get is Extra 3 by NDR. Here's a clip where they are taking a dig at Tom Cruise (with English sub-titles):

A comedian also labelled as 'intellectual' is Harald Schmidt, who has had success with his late night shows on ARD and with the very much anti-intellectual Oliver Pocher. Watching Extra 3 and Harald Schmidt I think that here 'intellectual' seems to mean one or all of 'so above our heads that it must be funny, but we're just too stupid to get it', 'totally off-the wall experimental but likely to fall flat', or 'so close to the edge of bad taste that it hurts.' In the latter category, Schmidt has on many occasions made jokes about Hitler (here he is looking quite Spike Milligan), and does shocking sketches such as this 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? For the Dead' which are almost Python at their blackest (the Dead Granny sketch).

As my example though, here is Harald Schmidt over-analysing the different kinds of Rock Metal (chosen because it has English subtitles). Hmm, maybe Henning Wehn is correct about the analytical German mindset?

But don't let me give you the idea that Germans have only recently learned the art of laughing. For example, one long-running sit-com from the 1970's is 'Ein Herz und eine Seele'. This had more than a passing resemblance to the British 'Till Death Us Do Part', though the far-right patriarch whoi looked like Hitler of course had more resonance in a recovering Germany than Alf Garnett did.

A simpler kind of comedy is expressed by the cartoonist 'Loriot', real name Vicco von Bülow. And yes, he is a descendent of the aristocratic von Bülow family that for example included the Prussian general who alongside Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. Vicco himself was awarded an Iron Cross in 1943. Here's an animated cartoon of his from way back when that characteristically for him deals with the problems of communication between a married couple:

I have concentrated on TV shows for my examples. Of course German humour is prolific in all genres, from the jokes told down the corner Kneipe, through humorous novels, cartoon strips, satirical magazines, comic opera (Mozart's 'Die Zauberflöte'!), 'Cabaret', and so on. Here, for example, is a clip from the musical comedy 'Der Schuh des Manitu' performed at Berlins Theater des Westens, which compares to anything on NY Broadway or London's West End.

I've come to the end of this brief overview of German humour. In conclusion, I think it is proved that Germans do have a well-honed and sophisticated sense of humour every bit the equal of the British.

Of course, you might argue that Germany never produced a show comparable to Monty Python, and you would be correct. But that doesn't mean that Germans can't laugh at Cleese and the gang, otherwise the Pythons wouldn't have produced 'Monty Python's Fliegender Zirkus' especially for the German market.

I leave you with a totally daft feature film 7 Zwerge – Männer allein im Wald (7 Dwarves - Men Alone in the Wood). So get out the popcorn (or the Bier und Wurst) and enjoy! No English sub-titles I'm afraid, but the jokes are pretty visual or at least not hard to guess. You might spot that Nina Hagen is playing the Queen and Harald Schmidt (see above) is The Best Jester candidate.


  1. I watched the first clip of the German comedian and he was hilarious. I agree that Germans have a sense of humor, but I find that I often don't get it. live in an area that is famous for 1970s terrorists that were held in a jail near my house so the jokes are endless but unfortunately many of them lost on me, but after putting my foot in my mouth, now know that a joke about "cheap real estate" is not intended as a dig to where I live, but a reference to the jail....oops :)

  2. Great summary! Shame that so many of the YouTube videos are now broken.

    I think in general it's unfair to say the German's have no sense of humour, any more than any other nation/group/creed. But I think in comparison to the Brits, for example, humour simply doesn't play the same role in society in Germany. A quick glance over the TV or radio listings shows as much, with the British having plenty of sketch shows, sitcoms, stand up performances, satirical current affairs programmes and comedy gameshows. Whilst there are some great homegrown affairs in Germany, as you've pointed out, they're a lot more sparse, and the German comedy airwaves are instead made up of lots of dubbed tripe from over the pond.

  3. Great summary! Shame that so many of the YouTube videos are now broken.

    I think in general it's unfair to say the German's have no sense of humour, any more than any other nation/group/creed. But I think in comparison to the Brits, for example, humour just doesn't play the same role in society in Germany. A quick glance over the TV or radio listings shows as much, with the British having plenty of sketch shows, sitcoms, stand up performances, satirical current affairs programmes and comedy gameshows. Whilst there are some great homegrown affairs in Germany, many of which you pointed out, they're a lot more sparse, and the comedy airwaves are instead filled with dubbed tripe from over the pond.


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