Is talking about German humour a mission impossible?

The cliché of the Teuton having no sense of humour is hard to shake. It even has some literary distinction. As the famous German journalist and writer, Kurt Tucholsky, wrote in 1919: ”When a German makes a good political joke, half the country takes umbrage on the sofa.”

Not to worry, though, there is indeed a German sense of humour. If it may sometimes seem not entirely accessible, it is nonetheless well organised.

German humour has its shrine: the cabaret. This tradition, which dates back to the early 20th century, is a distant relative of the French cabaret, from which it took its name. Although, German cabaret has no naked girls, and no dancing, just a stripped-down stage devoted to political satire.

Cabaret culture

During the show, one or more of the artists perform skits, often accompanied by songs. The difference in the shows lies purely in the humour: the talk is always of political or social issues. Every major city has at least one theatre devoted to cabaret, which is also popular on television.

The tradition is so strong that it survived two dictatorships in Germany in the 20th century. Highly popular in the 1920s, then banned under the Nazis, the cabaret reappeared in force after the Second World War and even managed to continue under the East German regime.

“No other dictatorship in the world has ever paid actors to mock the regime,” explains Dirk Neldner, director of Distel (“The Thistle”), the most famous cabaret in east Berlin. His first show, in 1953, was titled “Hooray! We finally have humour on the schedule!”

Although the authors were scathing towards the communist regime, they continued to receive subsidies from the state. Why? Because, satire is so deeply entrenched in German culture, as a very ancient form of “political housekeeping”, or keeping politicians in line.

Laughing together

For example, in the Cologne Carnival, floats have been rolling down the streets, as part of a tradition of teasing the clergy or politicians that dates back more than 200 years. Comedy brings people together and holds a protected status where it can get away criticising the rich and powerful.

This kind of tradition allows Neldner to identify what he believes to be a typical German sense of humour; “The Germans need to go somewhere to laugh together,” he explained. It’s a theory, though, not shared by Werner Doye, who performs the political satire “Toll!” (“Super!”), broadcast weekly on ZDF: “Even during the dictatorship, having a safe laugh at the cabaret didn’t mean that people didn’t make jokes behind closed doors at home,” he says.

“The stereotype of the serious German comes from the fact that the comedy scene has long been hampered by authority. In Germany, unlike in the UK for example, many subjects were banned. That’s no longer true today.”

The proof comes in the form of a joke currently doing the rounds regarding the German chancellor: What does Angela Merkel do with her old clothes? She wears them.