If you’ve started to dabble in a bit of German, chances are you’ve had a few giggles already.
German is close enough to English that we hear some familiar sound combinations at times.
Seriously, I challenge anyone to conceal a smile the first time the word Fahrt (trip) is encountered.
Believe it or not, those jokes that you enjoy at the expense of the German language will start to wear thin after a while. You’ll find yourself searching for more. Something a little more advanced—and somehow elusive. I’m talking about a bigger challenge: Understanding German humor that native speakers get a kick out of.
Germany: The Least Funny Nation on Earth?
Rather unfairly, Germany was tarred not so long ago with the brush of world’s un-funniest country. YouTube is without doubt a major culprit in perpetuating this misleading and baseless myth.
I mean, what chance can a language have with videos like this one going viral? It’s time to debunk this unfortunate stereotype and show you that there’s more to German humor than Fahrt jokes. Stop giggling!
Should You Learn German Humor? Can It Really Be Done?
Okay, I must admit that there’s no simple answer to this question. I could simply tell you to watch the British slapstick comedy “Dinner for One” and leave it there. But that would be sure to leave you with more questions than answers.
The German language may at times seem fiendish in its machinations, but there’s a system in there somewhere that you can learn, bit-by-bit, with practice and dedication.
Humor, on the contrary, isn’t so easy to pin down.
It doesn’t come with a handbook. And while this might be frustrating, discovering humor is a hugely rewarding way to unlock not just a language, but a culture. Sharing a joke is among the real joys of the human condition. It’s one of the most important ways that we relate to each other, and it can be a powerful bridge between individuals, even when they don’t share a common language.
Eddie Izzard makes a compelling case for this through his “Comedy without Borders” show, and—even more impressively—is proving that it’s possible to do comedy in rudimentary German, for Germans, and get some laughs!
Of course, Eddie’s a professional, but the rest of us most likely need a few pointers.
If you’re still scratching your heads—and after “Dinner for One,” who could blame you—then you’re ready to proceed. Let’s get started with a crash course in advanced German humor.
What Exactly Do Germans Find Funny?
As a language learner, accidental jokes probably account for 99% of the Witze (jokes) you’re making, and aren’t to be underestimated. I’ll never forget enthusiastically thanking a friend the day after a housewarming party with the email subject line, “Eine Tolle Nacht!” (A great night!)
To my horror I later discovered that those three perfectly innocent and correctly translated words inadvertently implied not just that I’d enjoyed myself, but had done so in some sort of erotic context. Whoops! It was, at least, hilarious for my friend. And a reminder that these accidental jokes are a priceless part of learning German for all concerned.
But you’ll want to go beyond accidental humor, so we need to start with a bit of a breakdown of some of the key components of the German Sinn für Humor (sense of humor).
We already mentioned “Dinner for One.” This comedy sketch depicts a butler, who becomes steadily more intoxicated as he plays the part of several of his employer’s deceased friends while serving dinner for her 90th birthday.
It was actually originally produced in the 1960s in Britain and is entirely in English, yet somehow has become a German New Year’s Eve favorite. No Silvester (new year’s) celebration is complete without a viewing. Exactly why is something of a mystery, but one can readily and accurately conclude that slapstick comedy is a bit of an all-round winner in Germany.
A language that contains a word for taking pleasure in the misery of others? This surely hasn’t come from nowhere. I won’t say that Schadenfreude is perceptible amongst native Germans, at least not in my experience; I suspect it tends to be more of a slightly guilty, internalized indulgence.
Viewed in a positive light, you can find a strange comfort in the thought that your accidental public collision with a lamp post will be a source of secret delight for any Germans in the vicinity.
Stereotypes and Self-deprecation
One refreshing quality I’ve observed in German friends and acquaintances is a fairly well-developed level of self-awareness.
A few qualities of stereotypical German-ness—let’s see now…superhuman powers of organization, fanatical rule-following and a sizable dose of guilt about the past? Oh yes, your German friends are more often than not wise to these, and surprisingly ready to laugh, somewhat ruefully, at themselves—or at least not to get too offended at your gentle ribbing.
In a reversal of Izzard’s border-crossing project, there is a German comedian by the name of Paco Erhard bringing exactly this style of self-deprecating brand of humor to the English-speaking world with his “Guide to Being German.” A must-see if he’s in town.
So that was a primer on some key characteristics of a truly German sense of humor. We’ll have you cracking jokes in no time!
Here are a couple of types of jokes you might expect to hear, in order to get you a little warmed up:
Häschen (bunny) jokes: where a bunny walks into a bar…and something ensues. Warning: likely to be low in actual comic merit. Otherwise known as Dad jokes.
Blondinenwitze (blond jokes): Isn’t it good to know that a bit of old-fashioned sexism is breaking through the language/humor barrier?
Veräppeln (making fun) of people from other parts of Germany. Regional differences are complex and confusing, but you’re on safer territory when everyone bands together to poke fun at the Austrians.
And here’s an April fool’s gag that only a German learner can fully appreciate.
Why So Serious? Learn German the Fun Way with 5 Humorous Online Resources
So it’s true that the Internet has been responsible for fostering myths of German un-funniness, but it’s also a virtual treasure trove of material with which to exercise your new-found sense of German humor.
1. Daily Fuel
For a regular dose of all kinds of humor, from short, witty columns to amusing snippets of overheard conversations, you might try German newspaper the Suddeutsche Zeitung‘s online humor section. And if you’re a fan of satirical news sites like The Onion, check out its German counterpart, Der Postillon.
2. “Berndt das Brot”
What could be more quintessentially German than a disgruntled loaf of bread having a grumble about things? This is actually the premise for a children’s show, kind of in the style of “Sesame Street.” It’s quite bizarre, but entertaining—and sometimes educational too, e.g. Berndt can give you a rundown on German history!
3. “Monty Python” in German
Did you know that the Pythons have a huge following in Germany? So much so that a German version of the show was produced. You may recognize some of the sketches, such as “The Lumberjack Song,” which was directly translated to German. And if you like the quirky Python humor, you might also try “The Mouse Catcher,” a little-known German series in a similar absurdist vein.
You’ll find an extensive list of cartoons here. There are however a couple in particular to which I’d like to draw your attention.
Sign up by email to receive a series of one-off sketches penned by cartoonists Joschua Sauer and Matthias Vogel. These seem to come pretty sporadically—presumably on an as-they-feel-like-it sort of basis.
Nichtlustig means “not funny,” by the way. Do you get it, Gunther? It’s called “not funny” and it’s supposed to be funny! Ho Ho Ho! And they are quite often. The cartoons. Funny.
A pioneering German cartoonist Vicco von Bülo produced a huge body of work under the pen-name Loriot. Find a selection of his cartoon sketches here, and here’s an episode from a cartoon series he created in the 1970s.
Loriot’s particular style of humor was all about (mis)communication and the comedic moments that arise in encounters between people.
It’s perhaps fitting to end on that note.
If there’s one major point to getting to know German humor, it’s to move closer to understanding people whose backgrounds, experiences and cultural norms may be strange to you.
Humor—whether intentional or not—is a way of finding common ground. You don’t do this by memorizing a set of rules, but rather through being curious, keeping your mind open and making mistakes.
Have fun out there, and don’t forget to laugh at yourself!
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