German Humour – Yes it exists!

This is an article I wrote for the British Club of the Taunus Magazine, which is why I assumed a certain familiarity with the British comedy series “Keeping Up Appearances”. If you don’t know the series yet, I highly recommend watching it. And while I’m at it, I also recommend “Men Behaving Badly”, “Absolutely Fabulous”, “The Royle Family” and “Cold Feet”. 🙂

Many people look at me sceptically when I assure them that Germans do have a sense of humour. German humour seems to be a bit like Nessie or Bigfoot – one has heard that it exists, some people claim to have seen it, but its existence remains unproven and many consider it a myth. I well remember a hilarious South Park episode in which the Germans were voted to be the least funny people on earth and promptly showed up to prove how funny they were by presenting a technical gadget that made jokes.

A few years ago I held an intercultural training for a group of employees who had come to work in Germany on an assignment. One part of the training covered the topic of doing business with Germans. As usual, I pointed out that it is not customary in Germany to start a presentation, meeting or other professional event with a joke. I was just about to go on to the next point, when a British expat raised his hand and asked, “Are you serious? No joke?”
“None at all?”
“No. In your own team or among colleagues, maybe. But the more formal the occasion, the less humour is acceptable.”
I went on with the training. After ten minutes, the British expat raised his hands again and asked “No joke? Not even as an icebreaker?”
Until then I hadn’t realized how essential humour is for the British. I knew it was important and I have always been a fan of British humour and comedy. But, as for most Germans, it was normal for me that in some areas of life humour is not acceptable. For the British expat it was unfathomable.

It was a useful moment for me both as a German and as an intercultural trainer, because it showed me one important reason for the steadfast belief that Germans have no sense of humour. Ever since that day, when the issue comes up, I say, “We do have it. But at the proper time.”

In Britain, humour is literally used in every life situation and has a myriad of purposes – breaking the ice, dealing with grief, easing negative feedback etc. No topic is considered taboo. In Germany, there are some situations where humour is inappropriate and there are some topics that are just not joked about. When I was a child and watched British sitcoms with my (British) mother, a sentence she frequently said was, “Oh, they couldn’t have done that in Germany!”

And there we are at the next “humour issue” – different countries have different senses of humour and most of what is considered funny in one country will be considered tasteless or simply boring in another.

A great example is the wonderful British comedy “Keeping Up Appearances”. A few episodes were shown in Germany, but I don’t think anybody watched it. It wasn’t just the abominable dubbing, it was that the two pillars of this comedy just didn’t work in Germany: class distinctions and extreme politeness. Hyacinth Bucket’s (“It’s Bouquet!”) attempts at appearing more upper class by pointing out her “much sought-after” postcode, her pronunciation and word choice, or buying from a shop with a Royal Warrant would not be considered amusing in Germany, just absurd, and most Germans wouldn’t even understand how such things were connected with a social class at all. Neither would German people have been as indulgently polite as Hyacinth Bucket’s much-suffering acquaintances, neighbours and friends were.

So, what is German humour like then? There are of course different types of humour, just like in any other country. Many jokes are based on criticisms (there is an abundance of jokes about the alleged laziness and inefficiency of German civil servants, such as “How does one play civil servant Mikado?” – “Whoever moves first loses!”), or unhappiness with the political situation (during the Nazi years and in East Germany, political jokes flourished, even though one risked arrest and even life by telling them) but also on simple misunderstandings. Political satire (“Kabarett”) is very popular, and you probably won’t be surprised to hear that some Germans point out that they only like Kabarett because it’s sophisticated humour. I have read many amusing threads in forums where there are heated discussions about whether some comedian’s humour is intelligent enough to be considered Kabarett.

Local and ethnic humour is a big favourite as well. About ten years ago, Kaya Yanar, a German comedian with Turkish heritage became famous overnight with a witty TV show casting a bitingly funny – but never hurtful – look at stereotypes. His ironic observations of the differences between Turks and Germans still have both Turks and Germans in tears of laughter – I thought it was a nice sign that Germans could also laugh about themselves, which up to then was not a typical part of German humour. Several comedians and TV series have since shed a humorous light on the life of Germans with a non-German heritage. Another fairly recent trend is stand-up comedy, which quickly became popular.

While playing with words and language is an integral part of British humour, it has no big tradition in Germany – simply because our language is far too precise for the misunderstandings and double meanings that are so often the topic of English jokes. I know only of one German who could do that well: Heinz Erhardt. If you understand German, it’s worth googling his texts or finding videos of him on Youtube because he had a masterful way of using language hilariously.

The other undisputed master of German humour is Loriot. He had an almost uncanny eye for the typical German ways. His view of German behaviours and situations is so detailed and yet so subtle that most non-Germans would not find him funny because his humour is based on detailed knowledge of Germans. Though, one of his most famous sketches would make everyone chuckle who has come in touch with Germany formality: two men in a bath. Ending up in one bathtub by a simple mix-up of rooms, these two gentlemen – undressed, with a rubber ducky waiting on a stool next to the tub, arguing about who can hold his breath longest and how warm the water should be – keep up unfailing formality even in this situation, not for one second forgetting to address each other with the proper title, surname and the appropriate “Sie”.

German humour has surely developed. I personally think it has got wittier, cheekier and also more open and tolerant. Still, without a good background knowledge  of Germany and Germans, it can be hard to understand. But believe me – we Germans love to laugh and while German humour may remain somewhat elusive, it’s out there somewhere.

PS: When I told a German friend about this article, she at first was of the opinion that there really was no German humour. Which is funny considering that she – a German, as I said –  has a wonderful humour! However, mentioning Loriot was enough to convince her that we do have good humour here and soon we were engrossed in reciting the “men in a bath” sketch and other typical Loriot bon mots.

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