The other week, my family and I got a good laugh out of the welcome book left by their Airbnb host in Berlin. Their recent trip to the city was their first experience of Germany, and the stern list of house rules laid out in the book did nothing to allay their perceptions of the country as a rather serious place. “Playing needs of children”, explained the book, “should be taken into account in an appropriate manner. They may only play in the designated areas”.
On one page, in what read like a parody of the German affection for rules, the book stated rather severely that “without some kind of order the coexistence of several people is not possible”. Clearly, the text had fallen victim to the patchy translation abilities of Google, but the incident got me thinking: where does the stereotype of the serious, humourless German come from? And is there any real truth to it?
“Treppenwitz”, translating roughly to “staircase joke”, is a German word that describes the frustrating moment when a witty comeback occurs to you after it’s too late to use it. The experience might be universal, but the rest of the world seems to believe that lagging behind when it comes to comedy is a particularly German phenomenon: in 2011, the country was voted as the “least funny” in an international survey of around 30,000 people.
Whilst the participants belonged to many different parts of the world, it’s the British who have always been particularly keen fanners of the flame when it comes to the cliché of humourless Germans. “The Germans”, perhaps the most famous episode of classic sitcom Fawlty Towers, features Basil Fawlty trying and failing to avoid mentioning the war to some deadpan German hotel guests, culminating in him shouting “you have absolutely no sense of humour, do you?”, at the baffled group. The episode undoubtedly exaggerates for effect, but when it comes to jokes about the war, it may have got one thing right.
A famous episode of Fawlty Towers, featuring a serious group of Germans.
The Second World War: Not a laughing matter
In a segment recorded last year for American broadcaster NPR, German comedian Michael Mittermeier suggested that comedy became difficult for Germany in the wake of the second world war, when “no one was in the mood to laugh”.
He claims that “after '45, the comedy industry in Germany was very weird. There were no real comedians on stage as live performers. And on TV, we had these well-feeling, cheesy comedy movies - really crap ones”. German history, then, and sensitivity to joking about it, may be one of the reasons that outsiders consider Germans so serious. And though Mittermeier jokes about the war in his own sets, Berlin-based comedian Alex Upatov claims there’s still a difference between what you can joke about in German as opposed to English.
After only performing in German for a month, he told me that on his return to English comedy “what struck me at my first English show was how often you hear the word “Hitler”… It’s not as easy to get Germans to laugh about those topics”.
It's not just content, however, that can translate poorly between German and English audiences. The very structure of the German language means jokes are sometimes literally impossible to translate to a comedic effect. Rather than German comedy being an oxymoronic concept, it’s possible that we English speakers simply can’t grasp its linguistic nuances.
Upatov uses the example of a joke he tells in English: “I Googled: “how to enjoy single life” and Google gave me a bunch of websites that all had a similar tone… and that tone was: “Alex, you are a strong and confident woman”. The punchline – Google assuming his gender as female – is impossible to deliver in German, where the female article, “Alex, du bist eine, starke, selbstbewusste Frau”, gives the joke away too early. What’s more, with verbs so often shunted to the end of a sentence, the rhythm and pace of comedy in German is unavoidably different to comedy delivered in English.
Moving beyond the serious German cliche
It’s possible, too, that the enthusiasm British people have for the “serious German” cliché stems from the British habit of using comedy not just to make people laugh but to deflect, defend or avoid. As German writer Philip Oltermann so aptly put it, “Comedy has become the British gut reaction to anything big, clever or vaguely intimidating”, whilst in Germany, comedy “still patrols the closely guarded border between seriousness and silliness, between work and leisure”.
Whether you ascribe to these theories or not, it’s hard to deny that German comedy has been thriving in recent years, with Berlin today boasting one of Europe’s most lively comedy scenes. In 2015, it wasn’t austere arthouse films but two edgy comedies - “Er ist wieder da” about Hitler randomly awaking in modern day Berlin and “Fack ju Goehte 2” about a chaotic class trip to Thailand – that took the box office by storm., whilst just last year, a comedy from public service broadcaster ZDF about neo-Nazis won an Emmy in New York. Starting with the 2006 Türkisch für Anfänger, there have also been a slew of sitcoms in Germany, including an Office-remake that features the type of humour appreciated by American and British audiences.
Stereotypes are hard to shake and the “serious German” may be around a little longer, but as Upatov points out, any of us could well fall victim to a Treppenwitz. “From experiencing Russian, German, Spanish, English, Arab, pretty much all kinds of people, I know they all love a good, funny comeback and all need some time to figure one out”. In the end, all that “Treppenwitz” really tells us, he says, is that “the Germans must have a really good bunch of writers to have invented words like that”.