Are the Germans Funny?
There are two stereotypes of the Germans that once mentioned, cause absolute bemusement to our Teutonic cousins. One is the belief that David Hasselhoff is some kind of living god. When I mention this to the Germans that I know, the first question I hear is ‘Who?’. It is heart breaking to discover that few Germans know or care about the former Baywatch star and that they even more confused why anyone would think his popularity had any currency within the Bundesrepublik. The second stereotype is that Germans, on the whole, are a humourless bunch. This causes less bemusement and more heartfelt soul searching. Once, during a workshop about global perceptions of Germany, I presented a slide, the gist of which pointed out that Germans were frequently perceived as humourless robots. The room remained very silent for several moments, until one person forlornly wailed “But…I AM funny”.
I imagine to that particular participant, the realisation that not only they, but their entire culture was considered unfunny was hard to swallow. It is also clearly untrue. Germans are frequently very funny, in real life, on television and often on purpose. Yet, try telling that to the average British person and they will stare a hole through your head, as if you had airily stated ham is the square root of cheese. I once mentioned that I had watched a German stand up special on Netflix, to which the response was ‘Germans have stand up now?’ as if it had suddenly appeared overnight.
Germans accept that Britain is a funny country, with much of this understanding revolving around the fact that only a country of incredibly funny people would choose mint sauce as a condiment. British comedy exports are frequently referenced, such as Mr.Bean or Monty Python. More modern comedies such as The IT Crowd are sometimes mentioned, but the biggest influence on German understanding of British humour is the New Years Eve favourite Dinner for One. This is basically the British humour base camp, the jumping off point in German understanding of what the British consider humorous. However, Dinner for One is a relic of the music hall days of light entertainment and has only been shown in the UK once since it first aired in Germany in the 1960s. It is questionable how much Dinner for One exemplifies British humour, given that comedy isn’t a static medium.
The term “schwarzes humour” or black humour is often referred to when discussing quintessential British humour, although the translation does little to explain that what is often described as “schwarzes humour” is simply common or garden sarcasm. Sarcasm is categorised as the lowest form of wit in the English speaking world, yet it is considered to be one part of the lifeblood of British culture internally and externally.
Sarcasm and humour for the British is a communication multitool. We use humour, in varying degrees of success, to diffuse awkward moments, to bond with friends and loved ones, to insult our opponents or to while away an idle few minutes. To be funny is a prized skill, to be unfunny is one of the greatest insults. Due to our overreliance on humour, the British can either come over as superficial, unserious or worse, sneering and superior.
The ultimate problem of sarcasm is its inherent need to be subtle. It requires a good understanding of tone of voice and body language, to ensure that sarcastic phrases can be confused as sincere, while at the same time being clearly insincere. This is often part of the joke, the fact that the target of a sarcastic response might not even know they are being made fun of.
Germans seem to love sarcasm, but it can cause difficulties in delivery. Firstly, German dialects, especially when speaking English, tend to sound toneless. This clearly conflicts with the need to have a specific tone to denote sarcasm, which Germans will often make up for with exaggerated body language such as a wink or a nudge, that seems to have some connection to comedic turns seen every year during Fasching (Carnival).
Secondly, German humour in all forms must face a British and to a larger extent, American ethnocentric perspective that claims ownership of humour and comedy at large. Most Americans and Britons do not expect Germans to be funny and so react with astonishment when a German cracks a joke. Often, in these moments of confusion, the British and the Americans will attempt to explain why something is not very funny, without ever realising that it was their misguided belief in universal humour ownership that led them to think that a humorous or sarcastic German was actually being earnest.
As we have seen, humour is constantly evolving, but certain recent trends also have an impact on cultural understanding of humour. Take the example of Banter; when I was younger, Banter was the way we described a witty back and forth between a pair or group of people. Nowadays, Banter is a catch all term for, being a twat. Sarcasm may still carry the moniker of lowest form of wit, but under sarcasm we can find Banter, crawling over the shattered bones of long forgotten knock knock jokes. Banter has essentially become the term we use when we make a joke that is either objectively unfunny or directly racist or upsetting. All around the UK, there are rooms and offices under an oppressively awkward silence, just waiting for someone to declare ‘What’s your problem? It’s only banter’.
A more depressing evolution in British humour, especially since 2016, is to assume that any vaguely critical response by an EU representative on Brexit, that uses humour, is somehow mocking or degrading to the British public. All it takes is a witty tweet from Brussels and the whole pro-Brexit commentariat rushes to condemn the high handed approach of EU representatives. Contrast this with their explanation of their “jokes”, which more often than not can be summed up as ‘What’s your problem? It’s only banter’.
Clearly humour, whether in German or in English is a complex topic that is worthy of further analysis. What cultures find funny is not always the same and frankly this is perfectly natural. What causes problems is that belief that one cultures humour somehow has more artistic integrity or importance than all the others. If you are still unconvinced, do yourself a favour and look up the funniest British TV moments and ask yourself how funny other cultures would find them.