Wir sind doch amusiert

Living in Germany as I do, I often find that I have hard things to say about the Germans. (Germans should see this not as evidence of their special faultiness but of my misanthropy. Were I living in Tahiti, I would doubtless have a lot of hard things to say about the Tahitians, who I understand from the paintings of M. Gauguin to be a happy, friendly and good-looking lot.) So why don’t I preface this by pointing out some of the nice things about Germans. They have contributed immensely to the world’s wealth of science, literature and philosophy. Everybody concedes that they make good cars and beer. The food is better than you might think it is.

But with the best will in the wortld, Germans are not funny, are they? We’ve all heard the German attempt at The World’s Funniest Joke — ‘der ver zwei peanuts valking down der Strasse, and von vas assaulted … peanut‘ — and even that needed Englishmen to be thought up.

Not a barrel of laughs, then, the Germans. Most of you have probably never seen German comedy, and you are the lucky ones. Those of you familiar with teutonic jesting will have had to suffer through Otto Waalkes, Dieter Hallervorden, Gottschalk & Kr?ger and similar highlights.

But wait. There is a narrow but rich seam of gold running through the dross. Germans might not often be funny, but when they are on song they can hold their own with the best. Here then, in the interest of fostering cross-cultural understanding, are some suggestions for those of you who can read and understand German.

Some of you might remember the old Edgar Wallace mysteries. What you might not know is that they were tremendously popular in Germany, where they spawned dozens of film versions (many featuring a young Klaus Kinski as bad guy). They remain a post-modern ironic cult hit. Director Tobi Baumann’s Der Wixxer is a send-up of everything Wallace, with Bastian Pastewka as the correct Detective Long and Oliver Kalkofe as the dishevelled Inspector Longer. The film is immensely silly; the scene in which the detectives and a medical examiner inspect the corpse of the Monk With The Whip is pure Abrahams & Zucker Naked Gun stuff. It could have been improved only by omitting the outtakes during the ending credits. This was amusing the first time somebody did it, but is rather old now.

More silliness is on offer from Bully Herbig in Der Schuh des Manitu. This western was a staggering success in the German-speaking world; in Austria it grossed more than any other film in history. It’s unlikely the film would sell well elsewhere, even in translation. Just as Der Wixxer is a parody of the Germanised Wallace mysteries, Der Schuh takes off on a superficially American but deeply German phenomenon: the Winnetou tales of Karl May (themselves made into very successful films starring Pierre Brice). The Indian Winnetou and his blood-brother, Old Shatterhand (a German-born immigrant to the Wild West) are a bit like the Lone Ranger and Tonto, but Winnetou is no mere sidekick. He, not Shatterhand, is the protagonist, and a fount of all that is wise and noble. Not so Abahachi, Herbig’s thinly-veiled Winnetou-Ersatz. He and his blood-brother Ranger (Christian Tramitz) make an utter mockery of the Brice films. (Brice once confronted Herbig on television, blaming his disrespect for the Sept. 11 attacks. No, really.) Like Baumann, Kalkofe and Pastewka, Herbig and Tramitz owe a lot to Abrahams and Zucker (even unto Herbig’s second role as Abahachi’s twin brother Winnetouch, proprietor of the Puder Rosa Ranch and direct if anachronistic descendant of Airplane‘s Johnny Hinshaw). Like Leslie Nielsen, who found his niche in the Abrahams/Zucker films after a career of mediocrity, the Argentinian Sky Dumont makes up for a long list of terrible films with his perfect job as villain Santa Maria.

Though there are people who find that a little David Sedaris goes a long way, I have always found him amusing. Now, imagine that Sedaris had grown up not as a lisping gay southern American boy saddled with a jazz-obsessed father but as a straight German boy in conservative Bavaria saddled with unreformed ’68 Generation parents. The result of such a transformation would look a lot like Jess Jochimsen, whose Das Dosenmilch-Trauma is a somewhat Sedaris-like memoir. The Dosenmilch of the title is the tinned condensed milk accompanying the Sunday-afternoon coffees of Jochimsen’s childhood. (These days you’re likelier to get fresh milk, but not for nothing is the little B?renmarke bear iconic in Germany.) I even learned an excellent new word from this book: Dosenmilchdosenpiekser, the little metal spike with a bulky wooden handle used to punch a hole in the lid.

Walter Moers is beloved by German children for his K?pt’n Blaub?r tales. German parents had better exercise caution before buying the entire Moers library for the wee ones. His best creation, das kleine Arschloch, is not child-safe. The Arschloch — a fat, unattractive, bespectacled prepubescent of ambiguous sexuality — tears a new one in church, state, Volk and Vaterland. Moers’s k.A. cartoons are a hateful miasma of malice and misanthropy, and screamingly funny. Among the highlights: the kleines Arschloch visits the sick; goes to confession; produces Asterix and Obelix for the school stage; and (now historically poignant) visits relatives in East Germany. But nearly every story is a flawless, poisonous gem.

Milder and more polite altogether is Loriot, as this distinguished-looking aristocrat prefers to be known on stage. Though he perfectly embodies the German Bildungsb?rgertum, he is nonetheless a quiet subversive. He’s turned in a good deal of fluff in his day, and his films don’t work as well as his television sketches. But the best of his sketches are very good indeed. There’s an unfortunately rather pricey collection now available on DVD. A sound investment for those who know they like him, but perhaps you should try him out (German television occasionally shows his old stuff) before you buy.

The tale of the bogus ‘Hitler Diaries’ and how they took in a major German newsmagazine as well as renowned international experts is funny enough in its own right. Schtonk!, a film starring G?tz George and Uwe Ochsenknecht, makes it even funnier. It’s a rara avis among rarae aves — a successful German comedy that is not slapstick. The best scene, in my view: the forger Ochsenknecht is trying to sell a purported portrait by Hitler of Eva Braun to a rich Swabian couple who have never managed to shake off their sympathies for the F?hrer; they confront him with an art expert, who is asked to confirm the picture’s provenance. Don’t miss this one.

Mundstuhl are a pair of Hessian comics best known for their characters Dragan and Alder, two immigrants of uncertain (but eastern) origin who hang around Frankfurt’s Konstablerwache, up to no good. Their dialogues murder both common sense and the German language. They’ve generated a bit of controversy because some think their D&A sketches xenophobic; but they are no more hateful than Fawlty Towers‘ Manuel. And far from failing to integrate, their Kanakendeutsch has been adopted by Germany’s youth. Ultrakorregd!

6 thoughts on “Wir sind doch amusiert

  1. I don’t know… the English and their stereotypes (another stereotype, I know)… As someone who lived two years there and watches German TV on satellite, my take on it:

    I think Otto Walkees is magnitudes better than Bully & friends, and even Hallervorden is better than standard fare BBC comedy. (‘Carry on’ etc.) Then there is Volker Pispers who is top-class in political cabaret.

    On the other hand, of the saturation-level comedy shows on the private German satellite channels, Kaya Yanar’s “Was Guckst Du!?” sometimes makes it, the rest (from Stefan Raab to Bully) is just mass-produced lameness, not funny.

    BTW, what do you think about the German (and not just German) obsession with New Year’s Eve re-runs of ‘Dinner For One’?

  2. English? Not guilty, m’lud.

    Bully on TV is weak, I agree. But Schuh is magnificent. I can’t share your ambivalent enthusiasm for Yanar; I much prefer Django As?l (a Turkish-descended comic whose delivery is broadest Bairisch).

    I steered clear of the whole Kabarett world deliberately; I wanted to talk about Germans doing the same sort of thing other people do (and, for once, doing it right). Kabarett is very German. But since you mention it: der Polts Gerhard is godlike. Though he was phoning it in by the end, Dieter Hildebrandt’s Scheibenwischer surely deserves at least a lifetime-achievement award. (It’s interesting, BTW, that Hildebrandt’s colleague Bruno Jonas, so good in Kabarett, was so irredeemably awful as a television sitcom star. Comedic talent doesn’t always travel well across genres.) And, though few outside Bavaria will have heard of them, my fellow AFOEer Claudia knows of my fondness for TBC.

    As for the appeal of Dinner for One (my, how I hate it), I can only say this:

    – its English is simple and repetitive; it’s easy even for people with only schoolroom English to understand (and, if so inclined, thereupon to congratulate themselves for being Weltb?rger).

    – its humour is, shall we say, broad. If Myles na gCopaleen’s ‘Plain People of Ireland’ were Germans, they’d have lapped it up.

  3. You missed out on the Ralph Koenig comics, “Der Bewegte Mann” (not a bad film either) is pretty hillarious and “Kondom des Grauens” has that same German take on an American genre that can work so well.

  4. Nah, in fact, I’m not a huge fan of Koenig. He’s not bad, but not great either. He’s a bit like the Grateful Dead: not the best at what he does, but the only one who does it.

  5. Hm, how did you say it, I didn’t share your unambivalent enthusiasm for the Schuh 🙂 Certainly better than the TV show, but I thought it is mediocre, and could have more with the theme. (And the latest “Raumschiff Surprise” – let’s not talk about that.)

    I saw Django As?l once – was very good, but didn’t catch him ever since.

    Interesting you say Kabarett is German – it is at least Hungarian too, in fact my yaw dropped when I first saw Volker Pispers because he resembled (both in style and appearance) a Hungarian cabaret-ist very much.

    My own take on ‘Dinner for One’: for the first (and second) time, I thought it’s slow and unimaginative, and couldn’t get it. But on another New Year’s Eve five or six years later, I found myself looking for it – can’t really explain what caught me about it. (BTW, I thought these new year’s eve re-runs are something distictly German, but since I learnt it also features in Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands and Switzerland, and some others I forgot, in two different versions.)

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