Tuesday, 21 January 2014

German Humour... You must be joking!

When I told people I was preparing a presentation on German humour, the reactions were fairly typical; disbelief, mocking, confusion... ok, they weren't really that bad, but there was certainly an edge of questioning about it. 'Why would you choose to present such a topic?'. 'What kind of humour do German people have?'. 'Do Germans even have a sense of humour?'. Well, I took it upon myself to delve into this controversial matter, looking deep into the history archives and doing extensive research, and here is what I have found out:

German humour has a pretty bad rep. when it comes to international opinion (no surprises there!). According to a survey on social-networking site badoo.com in 2011, Gemany was voted as the country with the worst sense of humour in the world (that was after Russia and Turkey, then also the UK... don't know what happened there). According to the German newspaper Die Spiegel, the British stereotype of a German is a 'ruthlessly efficient, but humourless engineer', and the Schnitt magazine goes one step further, saying that 'In (British) eyes, the Krauts are a humourless people, who vacillate between grumbling seriousness and sentimental romanticism, and are incapable of distancing themselves from the seriousness of life'. It's looking pretty bad for the German contingent at this point. However, the University of Hertfordshire also did a study on international humour, and found out that Germans were the ones who laughed the most, and found more jokes funny than anyone else. So what went wrong?

Well, part of the problem is that we just don't get it. Let's start with the fact that only 1% of British students study German at A Level, compared to 91% of Germans with English - accessing German-language comedy is nigh on impossible for a large part of the British population. And we're not particularly inclined to, either - studies of Nazi and communist eras, whilst incredibly important, do little to boost the image of a frivolous, and even funny, nation to the outside world. What's more, our (fantastic) British sense of humour doesn't translate very well into German, either: according to Stewart Lee, who tried to translate his standup routine for a show in Hannover, the problems lie in the strict German sentence structure, composite nouns (Germans sticking many words together to make one really long one), and a lack of that oh-so-British awkwardness when it comes to describing bodily functions. Schade.

But never fear, there are chuckles yet to be had for those who wish to find them. For those few German speakers out there, Germany has a long history of laughter to enjoy - from the 18th-century Hanswurst tradition (a bit like Punch and Judy), to the more modern Cabaret shows, there is plenty of humorous heritage to get your teeth into. During my time in Germany last year, I had the chance to visit the museum of the famous Bavarian comic Karl Valentin, known as the Charlie Chaplin of Germany, and with great quotes such as 'Kunst ist schön, macht aber viel Arbeit' (Art is beautiful, but it's a lot of work), and 'Mögen hätt ich schon wollen, aber dürfen habe ich mich nicht getraut' (To have liked to is certainly what I would have wanted, but to have been allowed to is what I did not dare). However, due to the language barrier, his humour is still only largely known in German-speaking countries.

One man who has managed to cross the no-mans land between British and German humour is the self-titled 'German Comedy Ambassador to the UK', a certain Mr Henning Wehn. You may have spotted him on UK panel shows, such as 8 Out of 10 Cats, Would I Lie to You, QI, or even in his own series, 'What's So Funny About German?', where he explores the boundaries of German culture and stereotypes for a British audience. I'll leave you with his contribution on the matter of Germans and humour: up to you if you lachen or not... http://www.bbc.co.uk/languages/german/comedy/jokes.shtml

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