Friday, 28 September 2012

2: Is it a joke?

At some point in Germany you will come across the nefarious “Is it a joke?”
This is not a reproach or a commentary on your sense of humour, simply a common response to any joke in a land where humour is a fifth rate citizen.

Contrary to stereotyped opinion, Germans do have a sense of humour, although it isn’t the most recognizable Teutonic trait. If you want “that is so funny!” ringing loud in your ears, you’ll need to get an arsenal of jokes about mechanical failure, engine breakdown, or power shortages.

Germans like jokes to be clever, not funny, so make sure you have enough punch-line to stimulate a bucket of nerve endings at a neuroscience convention. Anything about a quantum physicist misquoting a statistic, a dog been taken do a doctor and not a vet, or a police officer dressed as a fireman should get you started. Engineering disasters and miscalculations are also popular. I found myself in a mess combining both.

In Germany it is illegal to run out of petrol on the motorway. When I told my German housemate, the Bod, that I found this hilarious, he burst out laughing. “Why is it funny?” he enquired still chortling. “Huh, why? Why is this funny?”

I tried to explain to the Bod that I find it hilarious because running out of petrol is bad enough, without a green and white light flashing in your face and a fine to remind you. My housemate stopped laughing. A weight returned to the room, as if we’d been subconsciously discussing gas chamber dancing. The Bod looked at me, out of courtesy, then straight through me.

“Think about it,” he began. “It’s logical that if you run out of petrol you will be fined. It will not possible to run out of ze petrol. There is, how you say…ze counting machine, no…ze fuel clock, ze readometer of ze oil. This is flashing whens you are getting low with ze petrol. It is very almost impossible to this flashing not notice before ze petrol is running out!”

Traffic irregularities also get most Germans chortling. The misreading of road signs or a dysfunctional conveyor belt at a Volkswagen plant will keep guffawed audiences hunting the malfunction for hours. Computer crashing is also startlingly funny for the Bundesland's inhabitants (unless if the device in question is theirs).

Unnecessary system reboots, hard drive failure and RAM deficiency are of course cackle catalysts.

“Who is making zese computers? What kind of engineer is making such a faulty device?”

If you yourself however should suffer file loss, do not share it. Telling a crowded bar how you lost your treasured dissertation will merely advertise your own rebel & callous methodology. Remember; methodology is king in Germany.

Germans also love jokes about Bavarians (unless they’re Bavarian, in which case they like their jokes to be about the Swiss or Sausage competitions). Of course, they demand logic, so you’ll be safe venturing into a conversation with puns, riddles and puzzles set in the Alps or a Bavarian butcher. Even jokes with punch lines that have a clear comedy-route-path, whereby all variables and possible trajectories are communicated with 97.8 percent clarity, will require a post-mortem. 

In brief, avoid anything with a subtle punch line unless you want your moment of light relief to transform into a judicial enquiry. If you are confronted with a cross examination, be prepared to explain every last detail about the joke’s characters; how did the chicken escape from the fenced-in CCTV-surveyed farm? Where were the Germans at this party of English, Irish and Welshmen? Why did the pope interrupt his Sunday sermon to talk to Michael Jackson? Did the bear have no toilet paper or was the rabbit on a volunteer scheme? Why would somebody a. look for  and b. rub an old oil lamp twenty years after discarding it? What chemical metamorphosis gave birth to a twelve-inch pianist?

Germans do not like double entendre. Or satire. Anything that involves imaginary boundaries and cognitive diversions is like hiking through Jerusalem with your supplies strapped to your body: you just don’t do it

This includes irony. Do not say things like  “Cold, hey?” when it is actually hot, just to make small talk at a bus stop, for example. Such outbursts could unveil an avalanche of confusion, or at best you’ll get drawn into a long, protracted discussion about whether there is a zephyr in the shade that might technically be defined as a variant of cold.  

In general, avoid trying to make people laugh. Keep things on linear trajectories and refrain from subtle twists in conversation. If all else fails, laugh only when prompted by the laughter of others.

 Always have a handful of German proverbs handy. You’re allowed to veer from the literal with these and they will buy you time when stuck for a reply. Phrases such as Die Hoffnung sterbt zu letzst (Hope dies last) or Kommt Zeit, kommt Rat (Time will tell) should help you stun, or at least confuse and thus divert the attention of your audience.

You may find the above information unfounded if you land a funny German. These of course exist. They vary from the diabolically hilarious Nazi trauma one-liner (‘Don’t leave the oven on. You know what we Germans are like’) to the quietly staunch satirist.

Needless to say such people are rebels in Germany. Possibly artists or activists. The likelihood is they are part of an alienated subculture and write for a German satire magazine such as Titanic. They are sharp, witty intellectuals as funny as any you will find anywhere. There is however a third category of comedy lover, undoubtedly the most dedicated. This is Funny Guy.

Funny Guy is not unique or indigenous only to Germany. Everywhere you go, you can find him. But Funny Guy Germany is louder and more convulsed. You’ll recognize he/she, preferably at a safe distance, from the uncharacteristic speed of their movements. Funny Guy is a Tommy Gun of raised hands, pseudo dances and punch lines. He’ll often just jump the punch line and leave you head-over-heels with his trademark “Yeah!” – followed by an air-fuck or a Guevara raised-fist and clenched teeth. Funny Guy will constantly interrupt you with the opposite of what he is expected to say, demonstrating his ability to use irony and satire, often contemporaneously. Funny Guy is never literal, but rarely subtle. 

“So you’re from ze UK, yeah?”

Just agree, unless of course if you’re from a good country like Brazil, in which case say it.  

“UK, yeah, yeah!” says Funny Guy.

 Do not look confused - just wait.  Funny Guy has a punch line for you. “Hey, don’t worry, it’s just a joke.”

 If you don’t laugh at this point, Funny Guy will be offended and will question your appreciation of comedy. “What, you don’t like ze jokes? I thought British people love ze sense of humour. Tin of baked beans, cup of tea, quickie with the Queen…Yeah!”

Don’t panic. Funny Guy always thinks that Anglo-speaking people will get him best. His fine-tuned quipster character has been carefully moulded through excerpts from sitcoms and US Indie films and he is convinced he can’t fail. Funny Guy has seen Richard Pryor and knows of Ron Burgundy. He knows his Eddie Savage from his Eddie Murphy. Funny Guy will often have a very convincing accent in English; a Bronx, cockney or South LA twang. Funny Guy will expect you to read graphic novels and will want to know if you drink your own blood. 

Is it a joke?

The best thing you can do to appease Funny Guy is tell him you lost your uncle and then say you found him again. Under a car. This should keep Funny Guy tied up with enough membrane queries for you to make your escape.

Give Funny Guy the odd raised glass and air-fuck from a distance to preserve your freedom for the remainder of the time you share in his presence.


  1. Helger Schneider? Loriot??? Just to mention a few?

    1. Kurt Tucholsky.. He is fantastic pinpointing the UrGermane: The Prussian soul, which still live it's own life in many a German

  2. Nothing like self-deprecating British funnies to elevate themselves above everyone else. I am really beginning to wonder why you're here. Anthropological field trip sponsored by the Royal Society?

    1. Honestly, I don't find anything here mentioned "above everyone else". "Jeder tickt anders" And the more you are aware of this, the better understanding.
      Maybe you are the one wishing to "be above everyone else"..? A German National sport: Observing and very loud analyzing whatever, where ever. I have met you all over Europe. -No one likes that part of many otherwise respected German Charakterz├╝ge!
      Germans hate when they are the one's being merciless analyzed and measured according to other preferences than their own.. (You're talking of: umgedrehte spies.. ?)

  3. Very good article. I will be facing many of these issues
    as well..

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  4. Spot on..! Been there, tried it as well.
    Once in the factory shop i hang a small notice on a somehow displaced box (any Brit or Dane would find it funny or at least well seen) Axel was completely disorientated, as any "good German" is supposed to be meeting "unordnung". He looked at me and noticed that something was going on here. "AAH ist das ein scherz ??! Jahh??!" -I confirmed and he started laughing as if heard a fantastic joke.. I was somehow shocked! -To turn one's mind from serious concerned "Untersuchungs-mode" to "laugh of your life" was just a mental switch in his perception! Not his own ability to observe. But had to be helped by a second person.. Like handling a robot. Scary somehow ?!

    When ever i entered a room with a Brit we ended up having fun before anyone of my normal "freundeskreis" had said a word.. -I often had the impression i was betraying something, while spot on, getting better along with a total stranger, than ever possible with them.