The country of humor is … Germany!

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 Bülow (”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. “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. Klöbner!”) 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.

16 thoughts on “The country of humor is … Germany!

  1. Visiting the Taunus area to attend a German friend’s birthday party I was expected to deliver a few lines in German to the 50 or so attending. I invented an absurd story based on the preceding speech. The Germans laughed and I concluded in English, “For those of you who don’t speak German, it’s not funny in English.”

  2. I never thought of Loriot’s work as funny. Cute, stiff, without bite, antiquated. Maybe he was relevant in the 50s or 60s? But that was way before my time. Or could it be that there are regional differences in perception? Could it be that in Switzerland and other, very conservative areas, he is still at his prime?

  3. @ Bill

    That is a great example, thanks!

    @ IF

    Absolutely, you have to understand what Germany was like 20 years ago, so I am not sure whether my children for example will find it funny. But his influence on German humor lives on – and I still find it funny.

  4. Thank you for giving me a reasonable excuse for not “getting” Loriot. Everyone else I know is practically in deep mourning.

    As you described the sketches, I found myself thinking of similar ones with Harvey Korman and Tim Conway on the Carol Burnett Show, and wondering if they would come across just as humourless when written out like that. Probably so.

  5. Maybe one has to be German to “get” Vicco von Bülow.

    One of our best has gone and Germany is much poorer and darker for it.

    RIP Loriot

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  7. Great piece and thank you. I am an Australian living in Germany for 6 years, and most things that Germans laugh at I don’t get (but I get Loriot). One play that is German Classic humour is “Dinner for one”, a silent film made 30 or more years ago, and is shown every New Years Eve. It has cult status in Germany, and even I find it hillarious. It is very much in the Monty Python vein.

  8. ‘Dinner for One’ was written by a British writer. Maybe this explains why Mr. Cullen finds it is in the Monty Python vein?

  9. Though from an different era and sometimes cruel, Wilhelm Busch is rather funny (the siege of Paris, the monkey with the punch bowl).

    As an exchange student near Cologne I once showed my Englisch teacher the poem “Jabberwocky”. After staring at it hard for several minutes he said, “It has many vocabularies.” He later handed it out to the class for comment. It was fun watching the Abitur candidates BS-ing not to show that they didn’t understand it.

  10. As a side note regarding German humor: for some reason the most popular “comical” comic book in Germany was Spanish: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clever_%26_Smart or in English http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mort_%26_Phil.

    It is still running but back in the day when it became popular in both Spain and Germany it was a very sarcastic portrait of Spanish society in later Franco’s years with a subtle way of depicting incompetence and corruption of authority through slapstick jokes.

    Spanish and Germans come along very easy but we have quite a very different culture (I am Spanish and I speak German and have traveled there a lot), so this is sort of fascinating and amazing.

    But it makes sense now, as it said here: “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.”

    And this parody of incompetent government secret agencies clashing with normal people and regular police in very stupid ways somehow fits in that description of German humor.

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