Who told the British that Germans aren’t funny? As national stereotypes go, the ‘humourless German’ is one of the most familiar. But it’s very wrong – and I consider myself uniquely qualified to say that, having spent nearly a decade living and performing comedy in the country.
In 2007, together with another comic, I started Germany’s first-ever alternative comedy night, which we called ‘Kafka Comedy’, the idea being that an Englishman running a comedy night in Germany sounded like something out of a Kafka story. I booked as many German acts as I could. Thanks to the likes of Burkhard Bering’s routine about Hitler ordering falafel and a bloke who lay prostrate on the floor singing Ivan Rebroff songs, we enjoyed some modest success.
I learned that German comedy is often character-based, political, and makes use of German grammar to end jokes with verbs. I also learned that in Germany, and I’m not making this up, it is considered customary to smile after telling a joke, and that irony should be clearly signalled when speaking German with the phrase, ‘Ironisch gemeint’, which means ‘This is meant ironically.’
During almost a decade gigging all over Germany, from small towns to big cities, I saw first-hand that Germans love to laugh. And they laugh in response to many of the same things as the British. So why do we in Britain persist in thinking they have no sense of humour? For me, the question is bound up with our British cultural sense. The thinking goes that if we are funny, some other people surely aren’t. And who better to pick on than our Germanic near-neighbours, who are good at pretty much everything else?
In this analysis, British humour is a response to general British crapness, like our duff trains. Comedy is a constant presence in our everyday lives and we endlessly make fun of ourselves; if we spill our tea, we make a joke alluding to our idiocy – whereas if you do that in Germany people will literally think you are an idiot. In my early days in Berlin I taught English all over the city and remember making jokes to security guards; teaching on the 50th floor of a building, for example, I might say ‘Well, guess I’ll take the stairs!’. To which the guards would reply, ‘The lift works.’ Yet those same guards might come down later to the comedy club and laugh in their hearty German fashion. German audiences, by the way, are generally more patient, less drunk, and keener on applauding than their British counterparts – but they enjoy their comedy at specific times, rather than as an everyday part of life. If the country had a slogan it might be ‘Germany: the Home of Precisely-Scheduled Fun.’
The Germans are thoroughly addressing our criticism of their humourlessness. These days, Berlin is home to what is probably the biggest comedy scene in Europe, and not an evening goes by on the London comedy circuit without a German doing a turn. And there’s another of our British prejudices to dispel: in my experience, Germans very much do want you to mention the war. They love it in fact, and they’re ready, if you do it well, to laugh at it and themselves.
In my final weeks in Germany, I played a one-off show in the town of Bayreuth. The promoter had booked me on the back of seeing me perform a routine about how I believed the origins of Nazism lay in leather fetishism. I’d come to the end of my show without doing it when the promoter called from offstage: ‘You didn’t do the Nazi joke!’ I said, ‘I don’t normally.’ ‘Come on,’ said the promoter, ‘Nazi joke!’ Another audience member shouted, ‘Nazi joke!’ And so there I was stood in a room of 80 Germans, all clapping and stomping their feet and shouting ‘Na-zi joke!’ ‘Na-zi joke!’ ‘My,’ I said, stepping forward to the microphone after the longest pause, ‘Germany’s really changed.’