The bellyache takes the cake—laughing so hard I have to roll in the aisles, on my bathroom floor reading on the toilet, or fall from the chair. Laughter so painful, tears come to my eyes. Mother often said, „Nach dem lachen kommen die Tränen” (“After the laughter come the tears.”)
Being German, people assume I have no sense of humour. They say so to my face. They say I never laugh at anything. I do. But when I do, they roll their eyes and say I am childish, immature. I simply don’t laugh at what many others find funny, at what most of the English-speaking world finds funny.
I say “no” to most of stand-up (with notable exception thinking comedians such as George Carlin), to most sitcoms, reality shows, and other trash on television; “no” to much of popular culture—dumbed-down pablum, cheap, condescending entertainment, extolling the lowest common denominator. We fall prey to this after a long, hard day at work, as an easy diversion from the relentless rat race. We are often too busy, overwhelmed, too exhausted and emotionally drained to read, think, and indulge in deep, meaningful conversations. I can not relate. I do not understand that sort of humour. (At times, I, too, succumb to the idiot box.)
I am useless at telling jokes, reciting limericks, or spouting puns. But, sometimes I forget my lack of talent, my lack of understanding, and attempt something, inducing eye whites and groans. Then I remember the foolishness of trying to ingratiate myself at some party, in some circle of co-workers or friends.
Fundamentally, I am a serious person and seen as such by the English mind. But I do laugh—at the foibles of real life, the absurdities and incongruities, the mishaps of others. Half serious, half tongue-in-cheek, I say, “Schadenfreude ist die beste Freude.” This translates as, “Joy from others’ misfortune is the best joy.” Real life is much more humourous than anything popular culture can throw at my feet. Some of the best literature—for me the best of the English language, the French, the German, and the translated works of other languages—the writings that have stood the test of time, serious, high-minded, tragic, are laced with humour and gut-busting laughter. Opera is replete with humour (tragic and comedic), Shakespeare too. Classic tragedy has more humour than contemporary comedy. We Germans are accused of cruelty, laughing at the expense of others. Yes, sometimes taking pleasure from someone else’s misfortune is most enjoyable. It is almost a national past time (but this should not be taken too seriously).
It is a problem of language. German sentence construction rules out the lazy set-ups that English-language humour is based on. Are we Germans really incapable of laughter? No. It is simply that the German language, German humour, is so different that the English mind can not see it, so far away over the horizon. German humour does exist.
Let me quote a few paragraphs from comedian Stewart Lee’s “Lost in translation”, printed in The Guardian, Tuesday, May 23, 2006.
... attitude to the Germans and their supposed lack of a sense of humour is best understood through the example of the joke known to comedy professionals ... as “The German Child.” It goes like this. An English couple have a child. After the birth, medical tests reveal that the child is normal, apart from the fact that it is German. This, however, should not be a problem. There is nothing to worry about. As the child grows older, it dresses in Lederhosen and has a pudding bowl haircut, but all its basic functions develop normally. It can walk, eat, sleep, read and so on, but for some reason the German child never speaks. The concerned parents take it to the doctor, who reassures them that as the German child is perfectly developed in all other areas, there is nothing to worry about and that he is sure the speech faculty will eventually blossom. Years pass. The German child enters its teens, and still it is not speaking, though in all other respects it is fully functional. The German child’s mother is especially distressed by this, but attempts to conceal her sadness. One day she makes the German child, who is now 17 years old and still silent, a bowl of tomato soup, and takes it through to him in the parlour where he is listening to a wind-up gramophone record player. Soon, the German child appears in the kitchen and suddenly declares, “Mother. This soup is a little tepid.” The German child’s mother is astonished. “All these years,” she exclaims, “we assumed you could not speak. And yet all along it appears you could. Why? Why did you never say anything before?” “Because, mother,” answers the German child, “up until now, everything has been satisfactory.”
The implication of this fabulous joke is that the Germans are ruthlessly rational, and this assumption leaves ... little room to imagine them finding time to be playful. But be assured, the German sense of humour not only exists, it actually flourishes, albeit in a form [the English mind is] ill-equipped to recognise.
... the idea of stand-up is somewhat alien to the Germans. They have a cabaret tradition of sophisticated satire, cross-dressing and mildly amusing songs, and there are also recognisable mainstream, low-brow comedy tropes in the form of vulgar popular entertainers. But the idea of the conversational, casual, middle-ground of English speaking stand-up comedy is unknown to the Germans.
I enjoy sophisticated satire and mildly amusing songs but I do not care for cross-dressing cabaret and vulgar, popular German entertainers. To continue ...
The flexibility of the English language allows ... to imagine that [the English] are an inherently witty nation, when in fact [they] just have a vocabulary and a grammar that allow for endlessly amusing confusions of meanings.
... German will not ... allow you to shunt the key word to the end of the sentence to achieve [a] failsafe laugh. After spending weeks struggling with the rigours of the German language’s far less flexible sentence structures to achieve the endless succession of “pull back and reveals” that constitute much English language humour, the idea of [English] comedic superiority soon begins to fade. It is a mansion built on sand.
The German phenomenon of compound words also serves to confound the English sense of humour. In English there are many words that have double or even triple meanings, and whole sitcom plot structures have been built on the confusion that arises from deploying these words at choice moments. Once again, German denies ... this easy option. There is less room for doubt in German because of the language’s infinitely extendable compound words.... English ... surround[s] a noun with adjectives to try to clarify it. In German, they merely bolt more words on to an existing word. Thus a federal constitutional court, which in English exists as three weak fragments, becomes Bundesverfassungsgericht, a vast impregnable structure that is difficult to penetrate linguistically, like that Nazi castle in Where Eagles Dare. The German language provides fully functional clarity. English humour thrives on confusion.
... for the smutty British comic writers, it [is] difficult to find a middle-ground between scientifically precise language describing sexual and bodily functions, and outright obscenity. There seem[s] to be no nuanced, nudge-nudge no-man’s land, where English comic sensibilities and German logic could meet on Christmas Day and kick around a few dirty jokes in a cheeky, Carry On-style way. A German theatre director explained that this was because the Germans did not find the human body smutty or funny, due to all attending mixed saunas from an early age.
The geographical accident of Germany has denied Germans the fun [the English] have with language, and it seem[s] ... that their sense of humour [is] built on blunt, seemingly serious statements, which [become] funny simply because of their context.... situations that ... seem [ ] inexplicable, even offensive at the time, hilarious in retrospect.... [a] night in Hannover ... out drinking with some young German actors[:] “You will notice there are no old buildings in Hannover,” one of them said. “That is because you bombed them all.” At the time ... shocking and embarrassing. Now it seems like the funniest thing you could possibly say to a nervous English visitor....
Most of my sources of humour tend to be highbrow. A few, but rare, are from the gutter—traces of the crude and coarse interwoven like a few shit brown threads in a silk tapestry of golds and blues. (We Germans have an obsession with shit.)
When I laugh it comes from deep within, thunder rolling from the belly, bursting forth full volume in an aria of aching guffaws and bass notes. I tilt back in my chair, head thrown back and mouth wide open. The gut starts to hurt, tears stream from my eyes. I can not sit or stand any longer. I am at risk of falling to the floor but I still can not stop.
If, say, in a restaurant, you found a group of Germans around one table and a group of English around another, I am willing to bet €1000,00 the Germans would be laughing longer and louder. If you were a fly on the wall at a gathering of friends and family in a German household, or seated at their table, storms of laughter would be present, swirling and spinning, possibly feet and fists banging, chairs and benches threatening to crack and break.
This piece is slightly revised from the original, Saturday, May 26, 2007