The Bielefeld Conspiracy: What are you laughing at?
The comedian Patton Oswalt, in his special ‘Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time’, recalls his experience of Germany as being one of utter confusion. On making a joke about strudel being piped through the city of Berlin, his tour guide stopped and earnestly explained that the pipes were in fact used for a completely different purpose and certainly were not in use as a dessert delivery system. Oswalt was taken aback at the literal understanding of the joke, which in turn convinced him that although the Germans were a lovely bunch, they did not understand comedy.
There is a truth in what Oswalt says. Quite often absent minded native English speakers will make sarcastic or intentionally stupid statements in order to entertain themselves and others. When this occurs in-front of Germans, unaccustomed to this weird cultural nuance, they will take jokes as literal statements of fact. Germans in general dislike inaccuracy and when identified, they will always attempt to politely correct the speaker. I could argue that this happens because of the subtle tone of voice required to make sarcasm work, it is easy to misunderstand, even for a native.
The German distaste for inaccuracy might also manifest when it comes to particular nationalities. The British are expected to be haughty, sarcastic and slightly whimsical. We are afforded a certain amount of leeway in this regard. When I make a facile remark or a sarcastic jibe, it is within context and so I might raise at least a smile, if that. Americans on the other hand, are not afforded this leeway, especially if they are taking part in a tour. In this context, making a dumb joke will be taken as a dumb statement and require appropriate corrections. Why? To put it simply, tourists, especially American tourists are expected to make stupid statements.
However, it would be unfair to claim that Germans do not understand comedy or even worse that they are humourless. Slapstick humour is always a winner. If you ever want to break the ice with Germans, think Mr. Bean and collide, trip or slip on anything in the available area. I guarantee you will make a friend for life. This style of humour might seem to comedy aficionados to be out of date, but like many things in Germany, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This explains the popularity of the annual televised event of ‘Dinner for One’, an English language comedy sketch that has been shown every New Year since 1963 and is the most repeated television show of all time.
It is also demonstrated in the continued popularity of Die Bielefeldverschwörung or The Bielefeld Conspiracy an internet joke that has been maintained for over two decades. The joke posits that the city of Bielefeld, North Rhine-Westphalia, does not actually exist. It is in fact an elaborate conspiracy perpetuated by shadowy forces, sometimes CIA, sometimes Aliens, for no discernible reason.
The joke was born in 1993 as a satirical swipe at conspiracy theories and came about from a simple misunderstanding at a party. When a student was introduced to another at the party, he exclaimed "Das gibt's doch gar nicht" (I don’t believe it) when told his new acquaintance came from Bielefeld. The joke originates from the fact that the phrase "Das gibt's doch gar nicht" can mean both “I don’t believe it” or literally as "That doesn't exist" depending on the context. I know what you are thinking, it is very funny.
From humble beginnings, the joke grew through a conversation with a follower of New Age ideas and a chance journey past the closed motorway exit of Bielefeld. It further gained popularity due to the joke travelling around the German Usenet and later internet forums. The joke came to include some basic questions:
1.Do you know anybody from Bielefeld?
2.Have you ever been to Bielefeld?
3.Do you know anybody who has ever been to Bielefeld?
The expected answer for these questions is no, simply because Bielefeld is not a place of world renown. Should anyone actually answer yes to any of these questions, they are either a shill or deluded and thus the conspiracy is easily proved.
If it feels like you are missing something then don’t worry, you are not alone. The curious nature, longevity and overall surrealism of The Bielefeld Conspiracy are quite hard for non-Germans to get their heads around. The joke doesn’t quite function as you would expect and it has more moving parts, but it has permeated the German consciousness. To date the city has used it in promotional material, going as far as to confirm the city existed in a press statement released on April 1st, it sparked a film and was even used by the usually stern faced Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel. It was also appropriated by McDonalds to promote facts about the quality of food served by the clown loving firm.
Does this mean that Germans are humourless? I have no idea. Sarcasm is a special weapon in the arsenal of English speakers that is frequently misused. The British may feel they created humour and that the American simply stole it (refined it), but I bet many comedians wish they could have a joke that was so long living and so effortlessly popular. So, when we question the humour of Germans just remember one thing: it has the power to make whole cities disappear.