The truth about Comedy in Germany

“A German joke is no laughing matter” wrote Mark Twain in his famous dual-language essay, ‘The Awful German Language / die schreckliche deutsche Sprache’. 

Native English speakers have this long-standing belief that Germans have no sense of humour. Of all the stereotypes we have of the Germans, I think this is the biggest myth of them all.

I recently became infatuated with German comedy, and want to prove that this belief is simply not true.

Kabarett: a history.

Germany’s history with comedy is, much like the rest of its history, a little complicated. 

Comedy in Germany dates way further back than you might think. Some sources date it all the way back to the 16th Century. However, modern comedy really began in 1901 with the appearance of Kabarett (Cabaret). 

Kabarett, inspired by the French Chat Noir, involved music, comedy and political satire. This is the typical type of comedy you will see on German television today. Fair warning: it gets pretty weird…

The 1920s saw Kabarett flourish and become incredibly popular among Germans. The Empire banned public criticism until after WWI. After the war, Germans were pleased to legally have freedom of speech and political satire in their lives once more.

That was until the Nazi’s came into power in 1933 and started to repress any and all intellectual criticism. Kabarett got hit badly. It’s reported that many German-speaking comedians and kabarett artists fled to neighbouring Switzerland and France, some as far as the USA. 

Post-WWII, with cultural policy in the control of the Allies, it became very important for Kabarett to make a return. It was critical that the horrors of the last decade under the Nazi regime were portrayed by the artists.
Kabarett was not just a source of entertainment for Germans. It became a focal point for denazification and re-education.

Stand-up comes to Germany.

Kabarett remained the most popular form of German comedy for some 50 years after the war. Then, in 1993, RTL launched RTL Samstag Nacht (a “depoliticized knock-off of the American Saturday Night Live”). The Quatsch Comedy Club was launched around the same time and eventually aired as a TV show in 1996.

Finally, stand up comedy was starting to appear in Germany.

The next twenty-something years saw stand-up comedy in Germany develop and grow into an art form of its own. Germany also started releasing TV shows and films that are genuinely funny, not commercially funny.

This history is only the tip of the iceberg. There is, of course, much more to explore beneath the surface of this timeline.

However, two things are clear: comedy exists in Germany and Germans do have a sense of humour.

So why the stereotype?

Well, the obvious starting point is the country’s history. Free speech was suppressed at two different periods in time – once by the Empire pre-WWI and once by the Nazi regime, pre-and during WWII. 

This sadly meant Germany lost decades of humour development.

And we Brits (and Americans) have this idea in our heads that mentioning the war to the Germans is utterly unthinkable.

In reality, the Germans have no real issue discussing the war, whether in serious conversation or in comedy. As previously mentioned, Kabarett is rife with political satire, Nazi’s included.

The other most common reason placed on Germans for their supposed lacking sense of humour is their language.

Many native English speakers will tell you the German language is not flexible enough to allow for humour. That we have the upper comedic hand in English, because we are able to easily change our word order, or use a word with three different meanings to easily create confusion, irony, differing contexts and innuendos.
German, on the other hand, has a grammar system straight from Mensa. There are three genders, four cases, god knows how many conjugations for the different verbs and those bloody compound words. At first glance, German looks to be a rigid language.

The exact meaning of a sentence relies on the correct use of gender and case pertained to the eventual meaning, affecting how humour can be delivered. Basically, it’s harder to pun in German when the grammar makes things so much less ambiguous.

Why people think Germans aren’t funny – BBC Travel

According to some, Germans also struggle to grasp non-literal meanings, are intent on correcting you when you’re wrong, and fail to understand irony, overstatement and understatement.

The reality is very different.

I, too, was fully onboard this bandwagon. When I first started learning German, I became increasingly frustrated at how structured and literal the language was.

But then I started to pay attention to the nuances of the language. I watched German TV and listened to German podcasts. I realised that they were, in fact, capable of using the same techniques that traditionally make a good joke in English. This includes the ‘pull back and reveal’ technique Stewart Lee suggested was near impossible in German due to its complicated word structure.

… German will not always allow you to shunt the key word to the end of the sentence to achieve this failsafe laugh.

Lost in translation – stewart lee, the guardian, 2006

During my quest for research on comedy in Germany, I came across this brilliant blog post by linguist Mark Liberman. It essentially rips apart Lee’s Guardian article.

The “pull back and reveal” joke structure, as Lee describes and exemplifies it, consists of a sequence of clauses: A, B, C … and then D. Is there any language on earth in which you can’t tell a story that way? My knowledge of German barely reaches the ability to read with the help of a dictionary, but that’s enough to make me sure that if any language is so bizarrely crippled, it’s not German.

the language log – mark liberman

I really don’t think there’s any way to get around that initial frustration when learning any new language. But when you push past that barrier and open your mind to how fluid and intricate the language can be, you’ll realise that German is actually pretty flexible and there’s a lot you can do with the language to create comedic situations.

It’s simply a matter of how hard you’re willing to try to understand it.

Bless the internet.

The rise in streaming and video on the internet over the past ten years has had a significant impact on humour and comedy in general. We now have access to humour from all different angles of the globe. Netflix even has a series called Comedians of the World showcasing great talents in a myriad of languages.

The Internet has made space for multiple German comics to build successful careers for themselves and evolve stand-up comedy in Germany into its own art form. 

This new generation of comedians, actors and writers are not afraid to poke fun at the country’s past. And this allows them to use another excellent technique of “exposing uncomfortable truths” – also heavily used in English humour.

As you can see from my above ramblings – when you dare to do a little research, or open your mind to other cultures, you will find that most stereotypes are just that. Stereotypes.

Comedy in Germany exists. But more than that – it’s flourishing and thriving. I would argue it’s more popular than ever.

And it’s bloody good stuff.

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