Have you heard the one about the German comedian?
No, didn't think so.
Germany has long been plagued by a reputation for chronic, countrywide unfunniness. It's the national character, the old stereotype goes — they're just humorless. No, no, it's the language, others say — it's too literal for irony, and how do you make the punchline a surprise with a sentence structure that makes you reveal your noun before your verb? Some are willing to admit that Germans like jokes — just bad ones. The groan-worthy limericks recited at carnival each year, for instance, or the ancient slapstick skit that still cracks the country up every New Year's Eve.
In fact, if anyone's guilty of using the same gag over and over, it's us. (Because Germans are so unfunny it's funny, amirite?!) Most recently it's The Economist, with a report on something called "the German Institute for Humor."
Based in the eastern city of Leipzig, it's a coaching center staffed by performers and psychologists who help clients from executives to doctors to high schoolers to inject a bit more lightheartedness into their interactions at work or school. They earnestly extol the benefits of humor, both professional ("Work will be more fun, the atmosphere in the office and the work flow will be improved") and personal (young alumni "can consciously (dis)place their anger, they will no longer helplessly look upon their own problems, but rather take the first step towards improving their situation, while viewing their own behavioral patterns with a certain amount of self-irony").
Who other than Germans would take laughter so seriously? Americans, for a start. It was a US therapist, Frank Farrelly, who came up with the idea of using "supportive humor" to treat patients — and trained the founder of the German institute. Numerous US consultants offer almost exactly the same coaching sessions, while the ever-so-solemn International Society for Humor Studies is based in Oakland, California. There's an International Summer School and Symposium on Humour and Laughter at which bespectacled academics from all the world discuss with great sincerity the "theory, research and applications" thereof. (And this year, for the fifth time, it's being held in a nation that prides itself on its irreverence: the UK.)
So why does The Economist conclude that the Leipzig center's courses are "a typical German answer to a shortcoming: work harder at it"? We can only suppose that it's down to another platitude: the old jokes are always the best. And the "humorless Germans" trope is one of the oldest of them all. Remember when South Park had Germany precision engineer a joke-telling automaton, Funnybot, as a riposte to being voted the world's unfunniest nation? (Funnybot then tries to take over the world, thus making him the other thing people say about Germans.)
One of the best parts of that episode is when the then German president, Christian Wulff, tells a pair of über weird jokes in a bid to prove his country's comic credentials. Because German jokes are weird. And rude, and dark, and laugh-out-loud funny. Here are some of the best that won't lose their laughs in translation.
Comic and cartoonist Loriot made Germans laugh at their own formality, and they loved him for it. He's also charmingly surreal. This dog, man. This dog.
Titanic, Germany's longest-running satirical magazine, goes where no other publication dares. Politics, sex, religion, World War II, even — gulp — a missing toddler, you name it, Titanic has joked about it. This cover reads, "Horrible suspicion: Was Hitler anti-semitic?"
The self-appointed "German comedy ambassador to the UK" has become a fixture on British radio and TV. Like several of his compatriots who perform for foreign audiences, he deliberately plays to our stereotypes of Germans — but with a deadpan oddness that's all his own.
Germany's equivalent of The Onion has the same mix of satire and absurdity, with headlines from "Paleontologists find 28-million-year-old fossil in Natural History Museum" to "Government willing to sign UN anti-corruption agreement for 5 million euros." The one below reads, "Man waiting in nuclear bunker urges West to take a harder line on Putin."
Remember this wonderfully weird ad that went viral a few months ago? Yep. That's how Germans sell supermarkets.