Underrated: German humour

Defending a nation often accused of entirely lacking a lighter side

Underrated
ILLUSTRATION BY Ellie Foreman-Peck

The standard representation of a German joke is an Englishman watching a group of earnest Teutons being told a funny story and asking why they are not laughing. He is informed, They’re waiting for the verb.” Then there’s the jape performed on an English audience in Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. The pranksters tell them the mournful dirge they are hearing is the funniest song in the German language and that the Kaiser had had to be carried off to bed he found it so droll. The audience laughs itself silly and wonders why it was so often said Germans had no sense of humour. It turns out to be the saddest song in the German language, which had reduced the Kaiser to tears. The audience departs in embarrassed silence.

No matter what the language, a lot of humour is lost in translation. German humour tends to be long-winded, like the language; yet another reason why it is hard to translate. I tried out a few simple Count Bobby, Baron Mucki jokes on my son. This one worked: Count Bobby tells an artist: “Paint me a picture of Mary Magdalene!”

“Before or after the sin?”

“During! During!”

Connoisseurs will appreciate this is a Catholic joke, therefore restricted to Austria and south Germany. The Catholic Rhineland would probably consider itself too sophisticated for this sort of ribaldry. Berliners are famous for their wit, which often has a dryness to match our own. In novellas like Master Flea or Little Zaches E.T.A. Hoffmann proved himself a brilliant satirist, sometimes on a par with Swift. Joachim Ringelnatz’s light verse is held up as a good example of Berlin humour, the written equivalent of the artist Heinrich Zille’s depictions of Berliners at play. Clara Waldorff or Wilhelm Bendow kept audiences tickled pink between the wars. Munich possesses its own classic comedian in Karl Valentin, who has his own museum. Valentin is wordy, but he has a funny face and a great comic timing, albeit in Munich dialect.

Political cabaret was a form of humour that thrived both in Berlin and Munich. In the ruins of Berlin Günter Neumann at Ulenspiegel was able to poke fun at the Allies provided he made them laugh, and he did, uproariously. Kleist’s comedy Broken Jug or Zuckmayer’s Merry Vineyard or Captain of Köpenick can be very funny when well performed, but Germans laugh at the Berlin or Rhineland dialects of the characters just as we might chortle at a Brummie or Geordie. An accent alone can be sufficient to set them off. Saxons have nasal accents, and ungainly German tends to be dismissed as Saxon. During communist times, the Saxons ruled the roost in the GDR, and cracking jokes about them was one way of getting your own back.

German jokes are sometimes ponderous, befitting their verbosity. German comedy films are not always rip-roaringly funny. Gerhard Polt’s Bavarian philistines can be an acquired taste but in Look Who’s Back and Schtonk, Germans have poked fun at the Third Reich. There is nothing new in this: Hitler jokes (not to mention digs at Goering and Goebbels) were a way of letting off steam once, just as Honecker jokes were a manner of resisting the GDR (remember the one in The Lives of Others). The historian Richard Grünberger tells the story of a Berliner and a Viennese comparing notes after an air-raid. The Berliner says, “The raid was so heavy that for hours after the all-clear window panes were hurtling down into the street.”

“That’s nothing, came the reply. “In Vienna, portraits of the Führer were raining down into the street for days after the raid.”

What makes us cry with laughter? When I was young, it was Benny Hill, an almost wordless satyr who was always in hot pursuit of scantily-clad females; or Frankie Howerd, who was—as they said then—“as camp as a row of tents”. Neither would be respectable now, but I would plead in mitigation that the French adored Benny Hill and a generation ago it was almost impossible to visit a provincial bar in France without finding him bobbing about on the television. The same was true of Monty Python, but his Gallic fans were chiefly intellectuals looking for hidden meanings.

German humour can be coarse, but that is by no means a German prerogative. Had the Three Men in a Boat really wanted to know what made the Kaiser laugh, they would have been best advised to put on a drag act and the dirtier the better. One noble courtier had to dress up as a poodle in a skimpy costume with “a marked rectal opening” and perform tricks. William’s military cabinet chief, General Georg von Hülsen-Haeseler, suffered the same fate as our own Tommy Cooper when, at Donaueschingen, he dressed in a bright-coloured ballgown complete with feathered hat and fan; while blowing kisses to the assembled company he suffered a fatal heart attack on stage. The accompanying music and applause continued while the royal doctor certified his decease: yes, it was a pretty sick joke.