‘Aving a laugh – German vs. British sense of humour: the struggle is real


Wednesday night. Anglo-German Stand-up comedy night at “Kooks”, my favourite British expat haunt in Munich. Florian Simbeck of the iconic German comedy duo “Erkan & Stefan” has just cracked a joke about a nostril hair he yanked out while driving a car. There are just so and so many jokes one can make about body parts and its associated fluids, with nostril hairs never featuring very high on this unpublished list. A few solitary figures in the audience erupt in ecstatic laughter, while I knock back half my G&T to brace myself for another avalanche of German humour. And it got me thinking.

Humour is a funny thing indeed – (excruciatingly bad) pun intended. What makes you laugh to the point of wetting yourself, may merely elicit a raised eyebrow from your colleague/spouse/cleaner/pet.

A complex matter certainly compounded if you throw the cultural element into the equation – vive la différence. Forever sitting between two chairs in a metaphorical sense has certainly granted me with the privilege of taking on the role of (fairly) impartial observer. And rest assured, it isn’t going to be a cut and dried, predictable synopsis à la “Germans-are-the-unfunniest-race-on-the-planet-and-English-sense-of-humour-rules-the-world”. As always, I’ve tried to dig a bit deeper, and my research has yielded some interesting results.

Dinner for One, Loriot et al.

German sense of humour certainly thrives on a strong slapstick, physical and knockabout element, which is best reflected by the legendary sketch “Dinner for One”, featuring close to no dialogues, but the decrepit old butler stumbling over a stuffed tiger’s head a gazillion times, spluttering food and wine in the process. This sketch is in fact a comedy staple televised in Germany every New Year’s Eve and one of the most repeated and successful shows on national TV since the NDR first screened it in 1972 – tellingly enough, it has never been broadcast on British TV, its country of origin.

(Source: ARD)


While Germany has a long-standing tradition of excellent satire and political cabaret, the Anglo-Saxon art of stand-up comedy has yet to get off the ground here, that is if you blank out vulgar TV comedy muppets such as Mario Barth or Ingo Appelt . (On a side note: British politicians perform exquisite satire on a daily basis in the House of Commons, hence probably the decreased need for cabaret artists to re-enact it all in a comedy setting. )

Another favourite, especially amongst the educated classes in Germany is comedian Viktor von Bülow (1923-2011) aka Loriot, whose sketches, drawings and movies have attained cult status across all generations and were generally built around all forms of situational miscommunication, often with the slightest hint of vulgarity. His probably most famous sketch centers around a noodle (…), with Loriot proposing to his girlfriend Hildegard, unaware of said noodle stuck to his face. The noodle starts to move upwards and downwards across his face, which stands in stark comical contrast with his earnest, yet painfully unromantic and bureaucratic proposal of marriage. Any interjections by Hildegard prove to be tragi-comically futile.




(Source: Die Welt)

A prime example of situational miscommunication. But is this all German humour boils down to, is wittiness ultimately the sole preserve of the British?

The laughing matter is a matter of language

British comedian Steward Lee has in fact come up with the very interesting argument that the Germans’ lack of wit is incidentally linked to the pecularities of the German language, more specifically to the rigours of German sentence structure. Not being able to shift the key word/subject to the end of the sentence puts the Germans at a clear disadvantage vis-a-vis their British counterparts. English wit centers around confusion, which is ultimately achieved by putting the subject at the end of the sentence.

Furthermore, the preponderance of compound words in the German language for enhanced linguistic clarity eliminates the possibility for double or triple meanings of words. These double or triple meanings of words is in turn the mainstay of English sense of humour, upon which many sitcoms are based. Again the element of confusion serves the purpose of being witty, an option denied to Germans, as a result of their linguistic limitations.

In my humble opinion….

Irrespective of linguistic particularities, I strongly believe that the much lauded British sense of humour is essentially a product of their stoicism and ability to not take everything so seriously, i.e. at face value. Probably one of the reasons why so many of my (feeble) attempts at being funny have not been assessed as such by my earnest German friends. My advice to all of you out there: take it all with a pinch of salt, it will certainly spice up things! Lighten up, for life is already hard enough as it is. Amen.

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