Jokes don’t travel? Germans aren’t funny? Don’t make me laugh
The comedian Eddie Izzard has exploded the myths that jokes can’t travel and that German humour doesn’t exist
Force Majeure: Eddie Izzard. Photograph: Michael Nagle/The New York Times
It’s disconcerting to hear Eddie Izzard, a gifted and thoroughly British comedian, cracking jokes in German. But from the modest stage in Berlin’s basement Imperial Club he has the equally modest crowd laughing within seconds, and he keeps them laughing for 90 minutes.
The faces are delighted and relieved. It is possible, they seem to say, to be simultaneously funny, ironic, sarcastic and absurd in German.
Izzard’s mission: to explode the myth that humour can’t travel and that the German language and culture are the death of comedy. “It’s bullsh*t, and I’m here to change that,” he says. “Comedy is about people, not countries. All countries have humour, though not all people. The Tory Party in England has no sense of humour, for instance.”
For Izzard’s Berlin experiment he asked his linguist brother to translate his recent Force Majeure stand-up show into German. Then Izzard set about learning it by heart, a page a day. It’s no mean feat for the 51-year-old, whose last brush with German was two years of lessons in the mid 1970s and who, until now, has never used a script.
“Normally I’m like a bird on stage. The act is in my mind, and I love improvising, but that is beyond my ability here,” he says. “In German I’m more like a swimmer.”
Despite his limitations it’s a delight to watch Izzard swim, not sink, in Berlin with his patter about Charles I setting the trend of wearing wigs made from King Charles spaniels. He sees himself as part of a comedy avant garde that is testing the linguistic limits of comedy.
Michael Mittermeier, a Bavarian comedian, has taken his act in the opposite direction. He delights in subverting no-fun stereotypes with breezy tales of his childhood. “We had a school subject called ‘guilt’ three times a week. On Fridays we had ‘shame’,” Mittermeier told a London audience. “By the time I was 14 I thought I had invaded Poland myself.”
Many arguments are floated to explain why Germans and German are considered unfunny to English native speakers. The British comedian Stuart Lee points to how German has more compound words than homophones, offering fewer options for wordplay. The elastic sentence structure of English, meanwhile, allows comedians to arrange words to hold the punchline until the end of the sentence.
“The German language provides fully functional clarity, English humour thrives on confusion,” he wrote recently in the Guardian .
But a stint working in Germany encouraged him to throw away what he calls English-language “comedy crutches” such as linguistic misunderstandings. “I am a better stand-up because of it,” he added. “I try now to write about ideas, that would be funny in any language.”
By different routes, Lee and Izzard argue that funny ideas are the backbone of comedy and are universal, while wordplay is a useful tool but cannot cross borders.
This goes to the heart of a misunderstanding that has prompted German comedy-lovers, crippled by insecurity about their humour, to spend decades importing admired English comedy traditions, such as stand-up, with mixed results.
Gayle Tufts, a Berlin-based US comedian, recalls her first stand-up comedy tour through the German provinces in the 1990s. Arriving at one club, she asked the owner why there were no seats for the audience. “It’s stand-up comedy, isn’t it?” he said.
Lurking behind the insecurity about humour is, as so often in German life, the Nazi era. Few remember today that Germany once had its own variation of the biting “borscht belt” humour typified by Mel Brooks and Woody Allen.
In the 1930s German Jews, frequent practitioners of edgy satire in big city cabarets, were forced into exile or gas chambers and forgotten. One exception was Kurt Tucholsky, a journalist, who delighted in skewering the Nazis and his countrymen with observations like: “A German’s fate: to queue at a counter. A German’s dream: to sit behind a counter.”
Excising Jewish and other humorists from its cultural landscape left a gaping wound. It eventually healed over but was never filled in the postwar decades, when inoffensive, escapist entertainment established itself as the new norm. Institutionalising this transition was a dictatorship known by the letters E and U, pigeon-holing every artist’s contribution to German cultural life either as serious ( Ernst ) or entertainment ( Unterhaltung ), never both.
In this environment Germany’s potential Eddie Izzards would have failed as comedians: too humorous for the serious cultural mavens, too highbrow for a comedy mainstream that bears a striking resemblance to Mrs Brown’s Boys at its broadest.
But there are encouraging attempts to challenge this cultural apartheid. In his recent book, Germans and Humour: A History of Hostility , Jakob Hein argues that “the enemy of seriousness is not humour, it’s humourlessness.”
Izzard’s comedy success in Berlin suggests that, as often in life, salvation has to come from outside. Another saviour is Nein Quarterly, a fictitious German academic devised by Eric Jarosinski, a US academic.
After years grappling with the German language and German philosophy, from Kant to Adorno, Jarosinski realised his talent lay in satirising rather than peddling this heavy, pessimistic world view.
His Twitter feed, @NeinQuarterly, is a high-wire walk between high and low culture that explodes all assumptions about the limitations of the German language and humour. “You say German words are long. I say they are too big too fail.” Or: “ Weltschmerz . German for #firstworldproblems.”
“The humour doesn’t always work, but, when it does, it is a combination of tragedy and farce,” says Jarosinski, who now contributes a column to the weekly Die Zeit . “Nein’s is the voice of a depressive misanthrope, but he speaks to a shared experience of failure and frustration. If you’ll allow me to quote myself: ‘Perhaps a misanthrope is the only true people-person.’ ”