Humor is unique and universal at the same time. One of the perks of laughing besides being, well good, is its ability to unite people and nations. You could probably say that most cultures have some similar funny bones. At least we all can always agree to laugh about something, like physical comedy. Of course there are also things that maybe some cultures would laugh about more than others – because they know where the jokes emerge from. This is where humor get’s lost in translation.
Now I am a huge fan of sarcasm, irony and blue humor. And I applaud the approach to be critical of Germans in general. Obviously, there is tons to criticize. But there is one thing, that I don’t think is particularly funny: Re-producing cultural stereotypes, no matter in what area. As laughing is contagious, so is re-creating the same simple images of other cultures and people. And this only let’s the world go stale.
Brooks Wheelan is an American stand-up comedian who went to search for Germany’s funny bone. Under the premise that Germany is too serious to be taken seriously in the comedy context, Wheelan went on a search for things he could find funny. And while there are definitely some problems in Germany with light humor, good punchlines and subtle set-ups, I am almost certain that Wheelan did not even try to understand where German humor is coming from. He went to a Bavarian beer garden to talk to a German stand-up comedian about what is or what is not funny to these serious Germans. This scene served as an example of how Germans can deliver their sarcasm. With a straight face, so not even the professional American comedian detected it.
Showing bummed out faces on the street, taking an incredibly weird humor seminar at the German Humor Institute (ok, agreed, putting emotions and spontaneity on a chart or into an institution = classic German) and then found his chuckle salvation at last in a – you guessed it – stand-up club. Finding finally what he was searching for in a format he is familiar with as an American (and stand-up comedian). Because everyone there speaks the same language as Wheelan. Literally. This to me is just proof that often, humor really is about context and knowing the surroundings in which jokes are embedded in. Otherwise the jokes get ‘laughs in translation’ (good one, Wheelan).
Check out the video for yourself and see if you agree.
If you want to see other episodes of this series about France and Denmark have a look here.
In most cultures humor is not meant to be so honestly and directly giving criticism as in German. Means in many rather sensitive or over politically correct cultures, people tell silly jokes or do overexaggerating postures which seem so staged and made-up and artifical that a German would not consider them funny, but “Klamauk” (Shenanigans). So quite important to German humor is directness, creativity, spontaneity, reference to social/policitical/human misbehavior and authenticity, all at once – and that’s pretty hard in fact. Also creative use of language – not in a silly, but a quite sophisticated way (think of all the great German literature, people have high standards here 🙂 ), is highly important.
So in that sense, I am always wondering why Germans are ranked so low for their humor, it might be just not understood because it’s quite demanding and might require a lot of knowledge about culture, history, politics, situational context, etc. Most nations seem rather used to slapstick or clownish gags or late night humor – where the host makes a silly joke and the masses start launching as it couldnt be more artificially made up. So what did one of our best literature critics used to say (Reich-Ranicki: “I can’t enjoy myself below my ‘niveau'” :D. In that sense.
Weirdly, this humor institute and the people interviewed does not reflect at all what German humor is from my experience 🙂 … as this is in fact not spontaneous nor authentic. Sad that this documentary gives that distorted picture. … maybe German humor is a bit gloomy I agree, with dark humor we might be among the best (together with the Nordics). … and humor is not “jokes” ! How about researching about Loriot, Heinz Erhardt, Harald Schmidt, and those kind of exceptional german humorists. whatever, enjoy 🙂
interesting points! haven’t thought about that, think there is a lot of truth to your little analysis! 🙂
Germans are hilarious! But it is very different than American humor. It is usually a very dead-pan sense of humor, and very dark and critical. I went on a date with a German man in Munich, and half way through the date I finally realized that he was being sarcastic and joking with me. I had just thought he didn’t like me.