As an economics blogger, I am not an expert on international humor, but today’s sad news got me thinking. Germans insist – mostly unsuccessfully – that “German humor” is not the least bit oxymoronic, the rest of the world just doesn’t seem to understand it. Which is why the prejudice will probably live on.
One of the most German of all humorists, Vicco von BÃ¼low (”Loriot”), passed away on Monday at the age of 87. Explaining what Loriot meant to German humor and culture is difficult (see above). He was probably to German humor what Monty Python was to the British. His sometimes absurd drawings and stories of twisted everyday situations were a provocation at first, but have strongly influenced the way Germans have continued to develop their humor – in comedies, but also in literature and film.Â ”This is just like in Loriot” is almost a standard expression in German, describing an everyday situation that turns to become so absurd that it is just hilarious.
An example from Loriot’s work: a couple on a romantic date. He, slightly older and played by Loriot himself, starts a short, somewhat serious but also romantic monologue. The only problem: he has a small piece of a noodle from the last dish stuck on his face. The woman cannot concentrate on anything but the noodle on his face. He, somewhat annoyed by her distraction, tries to remove the noodle but then sticks it to some other part of his face. The noodle therefore travels around his face while he tries to get into a serious relationship talk with a completely distracted girlfriend.
Another example is the almost wordless clip “The picture is crooked”, where an older gentleman (again: Loriot himself) waiting in a hotel room for a business meeting, in his attempt to correct a slightly crooked picture on the wall, destroys the whole hotel room.
The most absurd, yet very German, example is probably “Gentlemen in the bath tub“. Two men meet for the first time in one man’s bath tub, and discuss various aspects of taking a bath, when to let in water, at what temperature, when to put a small duck into the bath tub etc. It is mostly a struggle for authority where both keep a formal distance (“Herr Dr. KlÃ¶bner!”) while sitting naked in a mostly empty bath tub.
There are a few ingredients to German humor of the Loriot type: you need an audience that knows and has witnessed too many times before how people take themselves and their procedures and rules a little too seriously. In other words, they need to be German. What is more, you need a twisted everyday situation that turns absurd in a very subtle manner and in a way that does not offend your audience. And you need to put in hard work. Loriot did not consider himself particularly funny (although he was the most modest person I have ever seen). For him, humor was simply hard work: carefully observing German everyday life, constructing these situations in a small play, working out the details with the actors (for instance with the brilliant Evelyn Hamann), and thereby making it absurd in the Loriot type of way.
To be sure, not all Germans like Loriot. But his work is a perfect example of two aspects of German humor: it exists, and it is very hard to export (something that Tyler Cowen pointed out a while ago). Therefore, being German is perfect if you are a humorous person: On the one hand, you (more or less) understand and appreciate US, British and also other European humor to some extent. On the other hand, and mainly thanks to Loriot, you have access to a very special source of German absurdity humor. When it comes to humor, Germany might actually be the best-supplied country in the world.