An expat survival guide to German humour
“Same procedure as every year.”
On the New Year’s Eve of 2002, I remember sitting together with my flatmates in our shared apartment in Hamburg-Altona - my first ever New Year in Germany - watching the festive television broadcasts. I was flicking aimlessly through the channels, when our only German flatmate yelled, “Leave it here!”
He had obviously spotted something he wanted to watch, so I went back to the previous channel. It was an 18-minute long, black-and-white two-hander sketch about a woman’s 90th birthday, and her butler, who gets progressively more drunk as the evening develops.
Dinner for One: As funny as it gets
Up to that day, I had never heard of it, so imagine my surprise when my flatmate told me that this 1963 relic, called Dinner for One, actually originated in the UK. Despite remaining almost completely unknown in its home country, it has since acquired a cult following in Germany and, as it turns out, forms the basis of their understanding of what the British find funny.
It is aired on almost every single German terrestrial channel in the lead-up to New Year’s Eve - in some instances more than once - presumably to accommodate its huge popularity. In contrast, since its release, it has only been shown once in the UK.
Humour: The essential bonding tool
Universally, there are many physical attributes that make us identify with other human beings. The ability to speak the same language is another one. But for the sake of this article, I’m referring to one thing in particular: our ability to laugh. Be it a hearty genuine one, a little snigger at a clever remark, or even laughing out of desperation (it’s the standard British recourse when we feel embarrassed). It doesn’t matter. What does matter is the bond created when two or more people laugh together in the same place, at the same moment, and for the same reason.
For many people around the world, humour is not just something that happens on the periphery. For the most part, humour is essential to our lives. Without this quality, our days would be filled with boring routine tasks, overly repetitive, dull and a bit meaningless.
With that in mind, it is easy to draw a line between this sense of humour - the one where jokes are part of everyday life - and the German equivalent. The big difference: in Germany, humour and jokes have a special place and time, but they are not essential to one’s existence. Inventive uses of language, such as irony, sarcasm and witticisms, would go straight over a German person’s head, not because they do not exist in the German language - they do - but primarily due to the fact that your use of those terms will not follow the set rules as to application, timing and, most importantly of all, place.
So, my advice: if you do tell a joke, make sure to immediately follow it up with the words “that was a joke!” The alternative is to forget humour altogether, as depressing as that may sound, at least until you’ve mastered all the nuances and intricacies of German language and culture.
Are German funny?
Are Germans funny? One thing often said about the Germans is that they lack a sense of humour, that they’re too serious, and that they don’t get jokes at all. An element of truth, or simply a cultural thing? Let’s take a deeper look.
At a time when the Brits were being educated by John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Rowan Atkinson, in Germany, a certain comedian was enthralling audiences with his short sketches. His name was Bernhard-Viktor Christoph-Carl von Bülow, better known by his stage name Loriot. His cartoon drawings were made into TV sketches and became an overnight hit. Essentially a satire depicting different German stereotypes, Loriot is written with witty dialogue, coated in good old family TV charm, suitable for all ages. It’s a bit like Mr Bean, but with dialogue. Loriot is charming, inoffensive, easily digestible, and 100 percent German.
The complete antithesis to Loriot, showing the “dark side of the moon”, is a German comedian called Helge Schneider. Born in 1955 in North Rhine-Westphalia, Schneider is best known for his absurd songs like Katzeklo (Cat Toilet), and his self-directed films Texas (1993), 00 Schneider (1994) and Jazz Club (2004). Indeed, Schneider’s combined discography has more than twenty-four releases spanning three decades. He also has eight films to his name. Anyone who dismisses German humour as either underdeveloped, or as simply not funny, obviously hasn’t seen any of Schneider’s movies.
British humour vs German humour
Comedians like Schneider might epitomise the complexity and the extent of German humour, and thus show how much it has developed since the sixties and seventies, but the question of why the British do not consider German humour “funny” isn’t difficult to understand.
Aside from the obvious cultural and linguistic differences, the other important element is the absence of self-mockery from what is considered “being funny” in Germany. Contrary to the British, Germans do not like to mock themselves, neither in private, nor in public. A joke at your own expense is never funny, but rather humiliating and degrading.
Whereas in many countries mocking oneself is seen as an indication of strong character and personal strength - someone who is confident enough to put themself in the spotlight and allow others a laugh at their expense - in Germany, this concept is completely alien. Trying to make fun of yourself in front of a German will only cause confusion and will make you, as the source of it all, feel misunderstood, and ostracised from the group. Even worse, you might even cause further embarrassment to your German friends — a classic case of Fremdschämen.
Germans are experts at sarcasm
Contrary to popular belief, however, Germans can be very sarcastic. The difference is, their sarcasm is extremely dry. In other words, there is no indication that someone is being sarcastic - none whatsoever. There is no traceable change in their intonation, timbre, or enunciation that gives the reader a clue.
The only way to be sure would be to counter it with an equally sarcastic response, and see if they react to it. Only then would you be able to decipher the true nature of their remark. A common bonding tool the Brits use is to lightly poke fun at the other person - a true sign that you feel comfortable with each other. To a certain extent, the Germans do the same thing. However, the nature of their sarcasm is much stealthier, virtually untraceable, and is done less in favour of bonding, and more in order to disguise their true comment, so that they can’t be accused of being mean.
The Germans are funny - period
Coming back to our Dinner for One analogy, let’s say that it is easy to get things wrong about somebody else’s sense of humour, particularly if you lack the cultural and linguistic knowledge required to fully comprehend it as an outsider.
Granted, to your dismay, the Germans will most likely “leave you hanging” when you expect to be high-fived after your witty comments, or praised when using a hefty dose of self-mockery. Despite that, I urge you not to be hasty in branding the whole nation as “having no sense of humour”.
To my great personal relief, I have found Dinner for One getting progressively better every year: a direct correlation to the amount of alcohol I drink while watching it. Last year, I managed to watch all four repeats on ARD. Sadly though, I cannot recall a thing after that, and only remember waking up with a hangover the morning after.