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May 26, 2006 4:13 AM   Subscribe

Lost in translation. British Comedian Stewart Lee explores comedy in Germany and finds it stymied by the peculiarities of language and sentence construction. Mark Liberman at Language Log disagrees. And an extended essay by Josh Schonwald explores in greater depth how the German comedy scene is transitioning (PDF) from the more traditional kabernett to a burgeoning stand-up comedy scene, which is characterized by one observer as being in "the Bob Hope phase of comedy."
posted by madamjujujive (72 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
german jokes [sickipedia link]
posted by the cuban at 4:21 AM on May 26, 2006


English humour thrives on confusion.

Kate Fox, in her very entertaining book, Watching the English, says that English humor thrives on irony.
posted by three blind mice at 4:26 AM on May 26, 2006


Abiola Lapite at Foreign Dispatches has a excellent post ("Nice Theory, Shame about the Facts") discussing Lee's (mis-)analysis of German grammar.
posted by myl at 4:32 AM on May 26, 2006


Maybe English humour thrives on more than one thing?
posted by Summer at 4:36 AM on May 26, 2006


English humour...thrives?
posted by kittyprecious at 4:37 AM on May 26, 2006


Q: Why does English humour thrive?
A: Because especially over the last few decades, many English-speaking people all over the world have made it their priority to be innovative in finding new and interesting forms of humour, including experimenting with various literary, historical, philosophical and psychological devices and precepts.

(Get it? Get it? Ha! I kill me!)
posted by chicobangs at 4:43 AM on May 26, 2006


yay, chicobangs is back! Good to see you, guy.
posted by madamjujujive at 4:50 AM on May 26, 2006


The rebuttal seems spot on to me.

And goodness, when I was seven or eight, I would tell that silent child joke whenever I possibly could - my Dad had told it to me because I never shut up, and regretted it immediately. But in the version I knew, it was just a silent child, not a German one, and the joke was just as funny (and I now wonder if I stripped the German stuff out because I was too young to know the stereotype).
posted by jack_mo at 5:15 AM on May 26, 2006


Oh, and chicobangs - Bernard Righton fan?
posted by jack_mo at 5:16 AM on May 26, 2006


Joel at foreigndispatches does a mean deconstruction, exploiting Stewert Lee's unfamiliarity with colloquial and informal German, however he sounds utterly mirthless.

I would rather be funny and misguided than German.
posted by NinjaTadpole at 5:27 AM on May 26, 2006


Beats being Belgian at least.
posted by Meatbomb at 5:31 AM on May 26, 2006


obligatory
posted by arialblack at 5:38 AM on May 26, 2006


Q: How does a German comedian start his act?
A: "I will now tell joke number one."
posted by Meatbomb at 5:44 AM on May 26, 2006


I am misguided and German, and I find the article funny.
posted by uncle harold at 5:57 AM on May 26, 2006


(Thanks, mjjj. You're one of the reasons I came back. I'm going slow for now.)

I didn't even think of the Righton character. I don't know him very well. I'm a sucker for that stuff.

It's cool that the stereotype of the Germans' nonexistent sense of humor is ever-so-slowly on its way out.
posted by chicobangs at 6:00 AM on May 26, 2006


German comedy.

lol

Up next, French hygiene, English food, and Italian work ethics.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 6:16 AM on May 26, 2006


Don't mention the war!
posted by carter at 6:30 AM on May 26, 2006


IANAGS, but I've heard that German is really good for making absurd wordplay for children.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:31 AM on May 26, 2006


As an Ami living in Germany, it's my experience that it's not that Germans lack a sense of humor, it's that they don't employ it in the same circumstances as Americans (and Brits) do. If there is any linguistic basis to it at all, I think it has more to do with the fact that the familiar and polite forms of address (du/Sie) are still in common use. The idea that it has something to do with sentence structure or that German is somehow more precise than English (it most definitely is not) is simply strange.
posted by moonbiter at 6:33 AM on May 26, 2006


A few years ago, a friend of mine was in a Bertold Brecht play at OSU. He said that one night there was a big group of Germans in the audience and it was fascinating because they had a completely different reaction to the show than the "regular" American audiences; mainly that they were laughing at parts none of the other audiences had found funny (and I believe that they generally found the play much more of a comedy than other audiences). So apparently, even in an English translation, the German humor was coming through.
posted by witchstone at 6:35 AM on May 26, 2006


Personally, I would have phrased it "Mark Liberman at Language Log (MeFi's own myl) proves conclusively that Lee is a blithering idiot who has no business opening his mouth anywhere but a comedy club, if there," but that's just me.

Also: chicobangs!! Welcome back!
posted by languagehat at 6:41 AM on May 26, 2006


If you want to know about German comedy you might want to check out Helge Schneider. IMHO the only good contemporary German comedian. Some Helge clips on youtube: Sex Machine, Wurstfachverkäuferin and Voyeur. He's also quite a unique filmmaker.
posted by namagomi at 6:42 AM on May 26, 2006


> English humour...thrives?

Most definitely. I really don't understand how this is even in question?
posted by catchmurray at 6:45 AM on May 26, 2006


See, it's like this: All people of a country share some characteristics: All Brits have bad teeth, all Swedes are blonde, all Frenchmen smoke cigarettes, all Egyptians wear a fez, all Mexicans wear a sombrero, all Italians are lazy, all Irishmen are drunkards.

It's that simple!
posted by spazzm at 6:50 AM on May 26, 2006


I wonder how American humour would do without lazy race-based jokes?
posted by Artw at 7:16 AM on May 26, 2006


Since this is about largely about language...

"Transitioning" is a crap word. There's no verb form of "transition." The verb is "transit," and its gerund is "transiting."

"Transitioning" makes no more sense than "transformationing."

Try "shifting", "changing, transforming, moving, implementing, transiting, switching, etc. Just not the bogus puffery of "transitioning."
posted by NortonDC at 7:18 AM on May 26, 2006


I hear good things about proper quotation, too.
posted by NortonDC at 7:19 AM on May 26, 2006


This thread seems to be transitioning to something new...
posted by soiled cowboy at 7:25 AM on May 26, 2006


Ugh. This mark Mark Liberman guy may know a lot about German linguistics, but he knows fuck all about comedy.
posted by Artw at 7:27 AM on May 26, 2006


Verbing weirds English, as Calvin said
posted by bonaldi at 7:37 AM on May 26, 2006


I wonder how American humour would do without lazy race-based jokes?
Well, since we're in stereotype mode, without Canadians bringing Canuck humour to the States, American humor would consist of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Amy Sedaris, Tina Fey, and fervent prayers for rain on off days.
posted by chicobangs at 7:39 AM on May 26, 2006


This thread seems to be transitioning to something new...

i'm having trouble orientating myself to the transformationing...

when i was in uni, all the german kids i knew had awesome senses of humor: they were all great at deadpan humor (at least it seemed like deadpan to me.)

my current boss is german, and while there are some american jokes we tell that he doesn't get, he picks up on most of it; and he is most certainly capable of making his own jokes in english. i'll have to see if i can get him to translate some german jokes into english for me.
posted by lord_wolf at 7:49 AM on May 26, 2006


Well, you know about Germans...



...they have ways to make you laugh.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 7:51 AM on May 26, 2006


All the germans I know are decidedly non-stereotypic, except one: He speaks english but swears in german, just like germans in american war movies.

"The connection went down, scheisse!"

It's so hilarious that I suspect it's intentional.
posted by spazzm at 7:55 AM on May 26, 2006


Good lord. Throwing oil on this old fire, and so shortly before the war! I mean World Cup!
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 8:34 AM on May 26, 2006


hey hey chico
posted by muckster at 8:49 AM on May 26, 2006


It's easy to think English jokes are better than German jokes when you're English and don't speak German.

Frassenschlieberunfkunstreinstolz in der klipps. Yeah right, that's funny.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 9:04 AM on May 26, 2006


Now is the time on Sprockets when we dance!
posted by Ynoxas at 10:02 AM on May 26, 2006


Humor doesn't translate. At all.
People always think that people who speak other languages have no sense of humor.
posted by signal at 10:07 AM on May 26, 2006


Is "British" another language? Because apart from (the fantastic) Eddie Izzard, I can't think of any British humormongers I've really enjoyed.
posted by kittyprecious at 10:39 AM on May 26, 2006


kittyprecious - That's no doubt entirely your own problem.
posted by Artw at 10:41 AM on May 26, 2006


Humor doesn't translate. At all.
People always think that people who speak other languages have no sense of humor.
posted by signal at 12:07 PM CST on May 26 [+fave] [!]


That is demonstrably untrue.

For proof, translate the following into any language you wish and you will find it hilarious:

A man walks into a bar with a duck in one hand and an axe in the other. The bartender looks at him a moment then asks "What will you have?". The man says "A scotch on the rocks for me, but nothing for the duck, he's driving."

Guaranteed hilarity in any language, provided that language has a word for "duck", or double your money back.

In all seriousness, a tremendous amount of english language humor relies on puns of some sort or another, so it is to be expected those very often are completely devoid of humor when translated.

That's why mathematics is not the universal language, and neither is music. It is physical comedy.
posted by Ynoxas at 10:48 AM on May 26, 2006


იმას ვითხოვდი აღმაშენებლსი ძეგლთან duck ჩაედგათ და ახლა სადაცაა იქაც არ მუშაობს უმეტესობა "რა უბედურება?" არადა გზაზე "ვითვლი უმტესობა ავარიები და საცობები duck, მიტომ კეთდება!"
posted by languagehat at 11:18 AM on May 26, 2006


ل س ل
posted by mr_crash_davis at 11:24 AM on May 26, 2006


ل س ل erskates
posted by sonofsamiam at 11:25 AM on May 26, 2006


The funniest thing in all this are the po-faced linguists taking this comedian seriously enough to bother rebutting him.
posted by Rumple at 11:57 AM on May 26, 2006


იმას ვითხოვდი აღმაშენებლსი ძეგლთან duck ჩაედგათ და ახლა სადაცაა იქაც არ მუშაობს უმეტესობა "რა უბედურება?" არადა გზაზე "ვითვლი უმტესობა ავარიები და საცობები duck, მიტომ კეთდება!"

now that right there's funny, i don't care who you are!
posted by lord_wolf at 12:12 PM on May 26, 2006


Wenn ist das Nunstück git und Slotermeyer? Ja! ... Beiherhund das Oder die Flipperwaldt gersput.
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:12 PM on May 26, 2006


Yeah, you'd think the linguists could take a joke.

As for German humor it does exist but it's very formulaic. Like the Sarge used to say: the Krauts should stick to building automobiles and leave the shooting business to Texans!
posted by nixerman at 12:16 PM on May 26, 2006


All German words more than seven syllables long are automatically funny.

At least half of the sentences longer than fifteen words translated by Babelfish into another language then back into English become funny. That ratio rises with the number of intermediate tranlations until it nears 100% with six (but one of them must be French).

"The Funniest Joke in the World" (although I prefer to call it "The Ultimate Joke") was indeed the best extended sketch in the history of Monty Python. If such a joke actually existed, it would end up on the web and kill every member of MeFi except languagehat (who has developed the most sophisticated linguistic defenses ever imagined) and Witty (who just doesn't have a sense of humor).

While I was writing this, I was doing an incredibly silly walk, while working my way around a minefield of banana peels, rakes and crotch-height pink flamingos, with my laptop on my head, while monkeys were flying out of my butt, then back in again. I'll be here all week. Try the veal; if it could, it'd try you.
posted by wendell at 12:47 PM on May 26, 2006


Josh Schonwald's paper is much more informative. Is that his thesis? I can think of no non-acamemic reason to write that paper.

A man walks into a bar with a duck in one hand and an axe in the other. The bartender looks at him a moment then asks "What will you have?". The man says "A scotch on the rocks for me, but nothing for the duck, he's driving."

That wouldn't be funny in countries where drunk driving was not taboo, or where drinking alcohol wasn't common.

Of course, it always has much more to do with culture then language.
posted by delmoi at 1:50 PM on May 26, 2006


That wouldn't be funny in countries where drunk driving was not taboo, or where drinking alcohol wasn't common.

Nor would it be funny in countries where ducks drive.
posted by soiled cowboy at 2:04 PM on May 26, 2006


Never even heard of Helge Schneider, so thank you Namagomi. Seems slightly reminiscent of Benny Hill in parts- or is that just me?

(You got any others?)
posted by IndigoJones at 2:35 PM on May 26, 2006


Der ver zwei peanuts, valking down der strasse, and von vas... assaulted! ... peanut.
posted by sour cream at 2:36 PM on May 26, 2006


So I sez, "Heil Hitler?! I barely know 'er!"

Und den I proceeded to further reinforce stereotypes about ze Chermans.
posted by sonofsamiam at 2:40 PM on May 26, 2006


In school, I used to eat sometimes at the (mostly) German-speaking housing co-op, and Germans joke around as much as Americans, if those mealtimes were any reliable guide. I remember realizing my German would never be good enough to understand the best jokes.
posted by pax digita at 7:39 PM on May 26, 2006


I lived in Germany for a while and there's such a cultural difference as to what is funny that humor (aside from fart jokes)... just didn't translate. At all.

The funniest thing that happened to me with a group of Germans was trying to explain every nuance of the song "The Bad Touch" by the Bloodhound Gang. They were very VERY serious about wanting to know "This Discovery Channel, it is some sort of pornography?"

I don't think it's just language. As someone else mentioned, I love Eddie Izzard and Monty Python but have yet to find British humor terribly appealing. I couldn't watch The Office. I didn't think it was funny, I thought it was painful.

Probably Brits don't think I'm funny either.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 11:37 PM on May 26, 2006


A man walks into a bar with a duck in one hand and an axe in the other. The bartender looks at him a moment then asks "What will you have?". The man says "A scotch on the rocks for me, but nothing for the duck, he's driving."

Why the axe?
posted by spazzm at 11:56 PM on May 26, 2006


Linguist joke:
Scene: The olympics.
So there's a party at the olympic village, the various nationalities are having a get-to-know-you session.
A.N Athlete approaches a large armed gentleman and tries an opening gambit, 'Are you a pole vaulter?'
LAG replies, no I am Lithuanian and how did you know my name was Walter?'
You see it's funny because the Lithuanian pronunciation of Walter sounds like vaulter to the english speaker. Wouldn't work if he were german because they pronounce Walter with a long a or whatever the linguists call it. Jokes are always better when you have to explain them.

Grapefruitmoon, try Father Ted, the Big Train, Smack the Pony, Attention Scum (all absurdist), Peep Show, Spaced, Happiness, Help! (sitcom) Monkey Dust (animation), Peter Kay, Little Britain, Jam, Adam and Joe, Armstrong and Miller, Goodness Gracious Me, Reeves and Mortimer, Black Books, Nathan Barley, etc.
And then start on the stand-up.
posted by asok at 7:40 AM on May 27, 2006


asok: I hated Little Britain. Maybe I'm like missing a chromosome or something.

(Loved Black Books though.)
posted by grapefruitmoon at 8:50 AM on May 27, 2006


This is the other thing about English-language humour: since it's spoken in so many different places and by people with so many different sensibilities, you are guaranteed to not like every type of humour (or humor) you see, even in a single place like England (or the States) which attracts a lot of people from elsewhere.

Personally, I love Little Britain, and Graham Norton's talk show would look great at midnight on Comedy Central, but I have to admit I don't really appreciate the comedy of discomfort (The Office, Ali G) as much as most of my friends.

I'd love to see more German humor.
posted by chicobangs at 9:22 AM on May 27, 2006


Up next, French hygiene, English food, and Italian work ethics.

And American Intelligence, of course.

(As in "According to American Intelligence, Iraq is heaving with weapons of mass destruction.)
posted by Grangousier at 11:34 AM on May 27, 2006


I lived in Germany for a while and there's such a cultural difference as to what is funny that humor (aside from fart jokes)

The ultimate fart joke (if you're 12 and bored in German class): the correct pronunciation of "Vater" (father).

Kept our tiny brains entertained for hours...
posted by dogsbody at 8:48 AM on May 28, 2006


if you're 12 and bored in German class

...and a Brit (or someone else who doesn't pronounce r).
posted by languagehat at 10:29 AM on May 28, 2006


They were very VERY serious about wanting to know "This Discovery Channel, it is some sort of pornography?"

grapefruitmoon, are you sure they weren't taking the piss? (Perhaps in that allegedly 'typically German' faux-serious manner, as pointed out in the Guardian article with the "you bombed all our old buildings" example?) The Discovery Channel is most definitely availabe in Germany, and I would assume it is about as widely recognized there as it is here in Holland.

Not that I would ever want to second-guess the patron saint of Longboats, of course. *genuflects, repents*
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 12:31 PM on May 28, 2006


goodnewsfortheinsane: These were small-town German teenagers who wouldn't know where or how to take the piss if it walked up to them and handed them a leash.

Maybe the Discovery Channel is available in larger cities, but these kids were all from very small towns in Ostfriesland. And this was also 1999, before über-cable really caught on.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:03 PM on May 28, 2006


I see. Sad, really.









Did you mention the war?
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 6:13 PM on May 28, 2006


Shoot. I knew I forgot something.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 6:24 PM on May 28, 2006


grapefruitmoon: perfect. You said Ostfriesland. Where I grew up, Ostfriesland was the traditional butt of all jokes. An Ostfriese and a priest walk into a Kneipe... There's no need to continue this thread; Ostfriesland is as good as Godwin.
posted by muckster at 11:05 PM on May 28, 2006


Ein Ostfriese und ein Priester peanut valk into eine Kneipe ... und von vas assaulted! ... peanut.
posted by moonbiter at 12:08 AM on May 29, 2006


Do yo guys know the green horse joke? It can be translated into any language known to man.
posted by signal at 3:04 PM on May 29, 2006


Yes. It's also not very funny.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 4:27 PM on May 29, 2006


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