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In Germany, A Comedy Renaissance

Jul 25, 2017
Originally published on July 25, 2017 5:36 pm
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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

There's a stereotype that Germans aren't funny. One reason for that is the World War II era. That's when the Nazis sent Jewish entertainers to the death camps. And many non-Jewish German comedians refused to perform under the Third Reich. But now German comedy is coming back, and it involves some funny but mildly offensive Nazi jokes.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has this report on German comedy. And she starts with one of its champions.

MICHAEL MITTERMEIER: My name is Michael Mittermeier. I'm a German comedian, kind of a unicorn.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: I meet Mittermeier in a Munich museum dedicated to one of his heroes, Karl Valentin. He's been called Germany's Charlie Chaplin. The late comedian exemplifies the rich tradition of German humor before World War II. This 1934 Valentin skit is called "The Record Store."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KARL VALENTIN: (Speaking German).

NELSON: In it, he walks into a record store and drops absurdist double entendres to a flabbergasted sales clerk. Valentin died shortly after the end of the war. Mittermeier says no one was in the mood to laugh anyway.

MITTERMEIER: And so after '45, the comedy industry in Germany was very weird. There were no real comedians on stage as live performers. And on TV, we had these well-feeling, cheesy comedy movies - really crap ones.

NELSON: Humor tends to work when you're exposing uncomfortable truths but stops short of being offensive. And that was an impossible task for post-war German comedians. But Mittermeier is part of a new generation of Germans. He's willing to poke fun at their country's past. Here the 51-year-old performs at a club in Edinburgh, Scotland.

He's talking about what it was like to be a German elementary school student in the 1970s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITTERMEIER: Every day we heard, you're guilty, you're guilty, you're guilty, you're guilty. I had a school subject called guilt.

(LAUGHTER)

MITTERMEIER: Three times a week, we had guilt. On Fridays, we had shame.

(LAUGHTER)

MITTERMEIER: By the time I was 14, I thought I invaded Poland.

(LAUGHTER)

NELSON: A German tells a Nazi joke and gets a laugh. It's a sign of the times - even better if you can work in a dig at Americans like this joke. It's about a girl walking up to Mittermeier at a bar.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MITTERMEIER: (Imitating woman) Hey, you, German guy, why are there so many different languages in Europe? What to answer to such a highly extreme intelligent question?

(LAUGHTER)

MITTERMEIER: And I said, look, Tiffany (ph), you want to know why there are so many different languages in Europe? Because we Germans lost the war.

(LAUGHTER)

MITTERMEIER: No, no, no, hey, don't applaud. You know what she answered to me? (Imitating woman) Oh, I'm so sorry for you guys.

NELSON: Nowadays, anything goes in German humor, even if it sparks international incidents, like it did with Turkey. Last year, Ankara demanded Berlin punish a German comedian who read a satirical poem about the Turkish president on TV. It insinuated the leader fornicated with goats. Berlin eventually refused. Officials here say they will get rid of the German law criminalizing insults against foreign leaders.

That's what the comedian was challenging in the first place. Germans seem to be more willing nowadays to protect free speech if it's funny. On a satirical show called "Extra 3," comedian Christian Ehring played part of a speech by right-wing candidate Alice Weidel.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EXTRA 3")

ALICE WEIDEL: (Speaking German).

NELSON: In which she said, political correctness belongs on the scrap heap of history. Ehring joked, yes, out with the political correctness. Let's all be incorrect. The Nazi slut is right.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "EXTRA 3")

CHRISTIAN EHRING: (Speaking German).

NELSON: The candidate sued for defamation and lost. Another sign that Germany wants to shed its dreary reputation is the creation of the German Institute for Humor. It's led by life coach Eva Ullmann.

EVA ULLMANN: (Speaking German).

NELSON: Recently, she held a workshop for teachers in the northern city of Bremen. She coached them on using humor and body language to engage students and diffuse tension in the classroom.

ULLMANN: Somebody's eating and I say, oh, thanks for bringing me a sandwich. So trying to - little perspective change for daily things who annoy you.

NELSON: That perspective change is something Bremen school district official Susanne Poppe-Ullmann hopes her teachers will embrace.

SUSANNE POPPE-ULLMANN: (Speaking German).

NELSON: She says it's hard for Germans to grasp that being funny can actually be productive. She says the problem is they think humor clashes with their German work ethic, which is internationally respected. The Humor Institute's Ullmann says Germans are funny, at least in private, which means the stereotype of the humorless German may be around for a while.

ULLMANN: So that's mostly a two-sided thing - yeah? - the world saying Germans are not fun and Germans saying, yes, you're right.

NELSON: Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Bremen.

(SOUNDBITE OF DJANGO REINHARDT'S "BRAZIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.