I don’t watch much TV – I’m apparently too young for shows made by Germany’s public broadcasters and too old for what the country’s private channels produce.
But I’ve always been able to stay awake for Günther Jauch’s millionaire quiz show, if only because I have fantasies of becoming a telephone joker helping someone get rich. I see myself with a wide grin like Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of The Joker in Batman movie, sitting in an internet café surrounded by young helpers, their fingers poised on Google, ready to generate the perfect answer that makes Günther Jauch’s production company €1 million poorer.
So, of course, I watch the programme, my social life being particularly barren on Mondays, to train myself for the day that someone wants me to be a joker.
Recently, however, something odd happened on the show. Jauch made a risqué joke. Not the usual schoolboy humour that makes the studio audience giggle – he was particularly effective a couple of weeks ago with an observation about cleaning up cats vomit in a shared apartment. In the chair was a bright and hairy eastern German. He was doing well and if he had me as a joker we could have reached at least €125,000, splitting it after the show.
Jauch, making the compulsory small talk, asked the man from Thuringia how he intended to spend his winnings. “On a new parachute,” he said and it emerged that he liked to drop out of aeroplanes. A good parachute apparently costs around €5,000.
Then came the joke from Jauch: “Not a Möllemann model?”
At least that’s what I think I heard. There was a ripple of uneasy, buttock-shifting laughter from the studio audience. Even Jauch seemed to be chewing his bottom lip, worried whether he had gone too far. Well, I think he did. It wasn’t funny. It was grossly offensive to the family of Jürgen Möllemann, the Free Democratic Party politician who jumped to his death in 2003, but also to anyone who has lost a relative in a violent fashion.
Now, on the whole, I’m in favour of breaking taboos and stretching the boundaries of humour. That’s maybe because I am English and we are notoriously fuzzy about what constitutes good taste. I even thought German talk show host Harald Schmidt dressed up as Hitler was funny – he was not mocking Holocaust victims but rather the film “Downfall” and our odd enduring fascination with the Führer.
But Harald Schmidt is late-night television; Jauch is family viewing. And he crucially failed the amusement test. Many of the audience probably could not even remember who Möllemann was, what he stood for and who hated him. If you make an offensive gag, it has to serve a purpose.
The fact is: something is going wrong with German TV humour. It is, of course, a universal phenomenon that a very small number of executives exercise too much power in television. Their cautious standards and uncertain taste has a bad influence on commissioning. They are not risk-takers.
Germans love to laugh, their language makes for really inventive wordplay, but they are badly served by television comedy managers. There is a significant gap between the wit that you can now hear around an urban German dinner table (really!) and the lame, inappropriate jokes served up on TV, both public and private.
When numbskulled entertainment managers fail the cause of comedy in Britain, it usually enriches the stand-up comedy scene. In the back rooms of pubs across the country you can hear sharp, anecdotal humour. This has not happened in Germany. Instead you get Mario Barth renting out Berlin’s Olympic Stadium and making even more lame Man-Woman jokes than he cracks on television. You get comedians like Dieter Nuhr writing books in an attempt to be taken seriously – and thus sacrificing the essence of his humour, his precise timing. You get Stefan Raab losing concentration before he can bring his jokes to a successful conclusion. The proud Teutonic tradition of Cabaret, as the Süddeutsche Zeitung argued the other day, has also lost its fizz.
It does not look good. That is the hidden message of Günther Jauch’s strange faux pas about a dead, mostly forgotten politician: Germany’s largely laughable TV is suffering a humour crisis.
Sadly, there’s no punch line for this one.