After living in Berlin for eight years, I finally started consuming German mass media because of my work. A few months ago, I got a job as a subtitler; I essentially binge-watch German movies and write subtitles in English. While I enjoy my job because I get to sit around, watch TV and write all day, I can’t help but notice a trend in all the German content I watch; it’s seriously lacking comic relief that I can relate to as an American. However, it is also witty in its own unique way that I, as a native English speaker, can’t entirely grasp.
There’s this extremely prevalent stereotype: “German’s can’t take a joke; Germans have no humor” bla bla bla. But this doesn’t really match up with the German people I know and love, many of whom are absolutely hilarious.
I decided to unpack some of the intricacies of German humor through a few conversations and an internet deep dive. Here’s what I found:
Where Does the Irony End?
One of my closest friends in Berlin is completely bilingual from birth; half German, half American. Her definition of German humor is “unresolved irony.” In succinct terms: “alles is sheiße,” (Everything is shit,)—but you can’t tell if anyone’s joking. The blurred lines between sincerity and satire make the German language hilarious. Here’s a great example of a recent Deutsche Bahn announcement that straddles the border of insanity and comedy:
Brilliant Deutsche Bahn announcement: "notice to all conspiracy theorists: please be aware that the German government is secretly gathering saliva specimens to produce clones which will then replace you. So please wear a mask to stop the govt getting at your DNA." https://t.co/8y5zFMHeBS
— Guy Chazan (@GuyChazan) November 19, 2020
Timing is Everything
Unlike my own people who can never shut up, German’s know how to utilize silence to their advantage. A long, tense pause is sometimes all it takes to induce a giggling attack. The order in which you reveal information is absolutely vital, here’s a relevant example (you can turn on English subs):
Making the Best of a Shitty Situation
Schadenfreude is one of those words that’s transcended the German language and made its way into a number of different cultures. Although German humor based on schadenfreude can be awfully reminiscent of past national horrors and downright offensive, when directed at less sensitive topics, this tactic of humor can actually be, well, humorous. It can sometimes be relieving to joke about our current misfortunes, hence the phrase “comic relief.” The popular Instagram meme page, Elhotzo, captures this pretty perfectly. Take this post for example:
View this post on Instagram
It translates: the statement “a little party never killed nobody” has become a bitter lie this year.
So Many Words to Choose From
Take a look at advertisements around Berlin and you’ll immediately see a ton of excellent word plays. My personal favorites are from the BVG.
They came out with this gem concerning the US election:
Roughly translated: As a public company, we’re not allowed to disclose who we’d endorse. So, we’ll just say this: We wish them both good luck.
The word play here is the German word for both- beiden, pronounced Bi-den. So, the BVG may not be “allowed” to support one candidate or another, but their preference is still abundantly clear.
This phenomenon isn’t only in advertising. One of my closest friends and the funniest person I know claims his favorite jokes in German are flachwitze, or flat jokes but probably better known as puns. His favorite:
Translated: What do cars like to eat? Parking spots. But Plätzchen in German are both cookies and spots, hence parking spots. The joke falls a bit… flat but that’s the point of a flat joke, right?
So much of German humor is absurd to the point that it’s bordering on stupid. Germans and I, an honorary German, absolutely love it. Here are two examples:
Translated: At lunch I suddenly can’t taste anything. Nothing. Taste = 0. Like my mouth is dead. I start to panic. Definitely Covid! Then I realize I’m in the clear. Stupid tofu.
Or this one:
Pharmacist: Always take you pills at mealtime.
Me: So six times a day?
It may have taken me eight years and a lot of awful television to figure out that German is actually a very comedic language. But making broad statements about a culture such as, “Germans aren’t funny,” or in my case, “Americans are all fat and stupid,” can be more damaging than we may originally think. In order to successfully practice intercultural communication, it is vital to break down these stereotypes and crack a few really bad jokes from time to time.