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Do Germans have a sense of humour?

Dr Angela Schattner, research fellow at London’s German Historical Institute, examines the evidence.

In Germany, the British are famous for their dark humour and the vast range of comedians they have produced. Comedy shows from Monty Python to Rowan Atkinson are loved in Germany as much as they are in Great Britain. And yet Germans are often confronted with the cliché of being too serious and having no sense of humour at all. Is it true? Are Germans just people without humour?

On the subject of humour, the first person that springs to each and every German’s mind is the writer, cartoonist and actor Bernhard-Viktor von Bülow, also known as ‘Loriot’. When he died in August last year, the whole of Germany mourned his loss. Most famous for his drawn characters with their trademark huge noses, the humour in Loriot’s drawings, TV sketches and films were mostly built on all sorts of miscommunication, often with a touch of vulgarity. He caricatured everyday life and family life as well as civil society.

Beside the late Loriot, Germany has also established a long tradition of satirical cabaret artists such as the TV series Scheibenwischer and cartoonists such as Greser&Lenz who caricature German and international politics regularly in the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung or the news magazine stern.

So why is that Germany are still seen as unfunny then? When asked about it in an interview, Loriot summarised, quite rightly: “The Germans have certainly as much sense of humour as every other nation. The only difference is that they value the worth of the comical quite differently. The comedian is valued much lower than the tragic actor.”

But things are changing. German stand-up comedy is getting increasing coverage in German TV schedules and home-grown  German comedians such as Michael Mittermeier and Mario Barth are becoming huge success stories domestically. Their comedy finds it hard to travel, however, because plays on words and political jokes are hard to translate, and you need to know the cultural background to appreciate the humour.

It seems that some are prepared to try to address English-speaking audiences, nevertheless. Michael Mittermeier – Germany’s best selling comic – debuts this year on the Edinburgh Fringe. Brave man.

For an insight into German humour, the GHIL is hosting an exhibition of cartoons from the German cartoonist duo Greser&Lenz until 29 June 2012.

*For those of you new to the whole concept of the German Historical Institute in London (GHIL), here is Dr Schattner’s description of its history, and function:

British and German history are often more closely entangled than one might think, and certainly goes far beyond WWI and WWII. Exploring those entanglements is an integral part of the mission of the GHIL. The Institute’s aim is to research German and British history and relations in co-operation with historians and to present those findings to the public.

The Institute itself has a very British-German history that traces back to Dr Carl Haase, the then Director of the State Archives in Lower Saxony, who developed the idea based on the model of the German Historical Institute in Rome. For him, the necessity for such an institute arose from the rich history between the two countries, such as the personal union between Hanover and the United Kingdom. Moreover, London’s position as an international research hub was ideal for giving new impulses to German history.

His idea was met very favourably by historians on both sides of the Channel, with British historians having themselves an interest in a research library on German history, too. An Anglo-German Historical Research Group was formed in 1969. It comprised leading British and German historians of the time such as Paul Kluke, the founder of the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich, the Reformation historian Arthur Geoffrey Dickens and Francis L. Carsten,  the leading expert on Prussian history in Britain and himself a German-Jewish exile. Supported by a society founded by the Volkswagen foundation, annual academic conferences on Anglo-German relations were organised, scholarships to German and British PHD students were awarded from 1971, and a small office with two members of staff was set up.

This was the nucleus for what was to become the GHIL, officially opened on 4 November 1976 as an independent academic institution.  In 1982, it moved to its beautiful present premises at 17 Bloomsbury Square. And since 2002, the GHIL has been part of the Stiftung Deutsche Geisteswissenschaftliche Institute im Ausland (DGIA), which is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).

Today, the GHIL consists of  24 members of staff. It maintains a unique library on German history in Britain, from the Middle Ages to the present, and hosts around 20 international conferences and workshops per year, as well as a series of public lectures and exhibitions on German and British history.




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3 responses to “Do Germans have a sense of humour?”

  1. I was wondering what the status of the pun in German humour is. My wife, who speaks german fairly fluently, made a joke to a German friend about an awful cafe experience (a very rare event) as an ‘Eiscafe – more like scheisscafe’ pun (even I got it). After a long pause – gales of laughter and the friend repeated the pun to other Germans in our presence – every time there was a long pause followed by extreme mirth. Did they just not get it? Was it too rude and they were laughing out of embarressment at our awful English ways? Are puns just not a valued and easily recognised form of humour in Germany? We ceratinly haven’t found a general lack of humour on our visits there. The part of the former east Germany near Dresden where we go on holiday certainly has lots of people who like a good laugh, and my comments at a village football match that they were very good and perhaps would like to play for England and that we could do with the help, was well received.

  2. Everyone has a sense of humour….just ask them!
    The Germans (in common with most nations) just don’t have the same one as the British. We British (in our arrogance!) like to think of ourselves as having the standard universal sense of humour whereas in truth ours is the rare one born of our unique history.
    Humour is mostly about creating bonds among “us” at the expense of “them”. German humor can be coarser and more transparent than British because the difference between “us” and “them” in Germany is usually geographical (sometimes political) and the audience is invariably the “us” (little chance of offending “them” to their faces!) In this context outward displays of mirth are expected (even at ones own jokes if they are funny enough!)
    In Britain it is quite different.British humor is mostly about one social class (“us”) attempting to feel superior to another(especially sneering at former fellows trying to desert ones own class and move into another). Because the different classes are geographically mixed the British humorist has to “feel out” his audience and use subtlety to find just those who are of like mind and will appreciate his efforts. That is why British humor is usually understated and delivered with a “straight face”. Why belly-laughs are replaced by amused smiles , why puns are such a particularly British feature and why a real Brit would never laugh at his own joke.British humor is often self-deprecating.”Why would they put themselves down” a German might ask.The answer is that they are not,but have enough confidence not to fear appearing to!
    I know “Fawlty Towers” was popular in Germany and the US but deep down I don’t really believe that they get it. Basil Fawlty was funny in England precisely BECAUSE he had no sense of humor and was one of “them”.He represented a real ridiculous person that everyone had come across among their acquaintances.
    Humour cannot easily be analysed the way some Germans might like.Humour that has to be explained is no longer funny. It is all about a sense of the ridiculous and that is buried deep in our cultural subconscious. I think possibly Germany falls a little short in the area of humour because it doesn’t have the same historical longevity of its institutions available for ridicule as its neighbour across the channel!

  3. Very thoughtful post, thanks. The German sense of humour is far less self-conscious than the British; God forbid that we should do anything as obvious as make jokes and laugh at them! One of the reasons I suspect why Michael McIntyre gets criticised by his fellow comics is that he simply finds stuff funny and shares it with us, whereas the others are taking a position, turning themselves inside out and letting humour out by the back door. Anyway, probably the biggest truth is that ‘humour that has to be explained is no longer funny’.

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