May 23, 2006

Dot's Not VUNNY!

An interesting article in The Guardian about the common Brit assumption that Germans have no sense of humor. According to the author, Stewart Lee, the actual reason underlying this assumption lies in the vast differences between the English and German languages - English is far more flexible, and this flexibility is the basis of a good bit of English humor, a concept nearly non-existent among Germans.

This may very well be true, but for some mysterious reason, Lee seems to think that the wonders of English are a bad thing in this context, that such a supple form of communication produces nothing more than cheap laughs and leads to shear laziness among English humorists:

At a rough estimate, half of what we find amusing involves using little linguistic tricks to conceal the subject of our sentences until the last possible moment, so that it appears we are talking about something else. For example, it is possible to imagine any number of British stand-ups concluding a bit with something structurally similar to the following, "I was sitting there, minding my own business, naked, smeared with salad dressing and lowing like an ox ... and then I got off the bus." We laugh, hopefully, because the behaviour described would be inappropriate on a bus, but we had assumed it was taking place either in private or perhaps at some kind of sex club, because the word "bus" was withheld from us. Other suitable punchlines for this set-up would be, "And that was just the teachers", "I was 28-years-old" and "That's the last time I attempt to find work as a research chemist in Paraguay."
YIPS from Steve-O: Sorry, I couldn't resist interjecting my favorite such example:
I don't think you understand: Chunks is my dog!
Sorry. I now return you to your regularly scheduled posting.
There is even a technical term used by those who direct comedy on camera to describe this one-size-fits-all mechanism. Eddie Large is gasping for air as a hot dog falls into the end of his snorkel. The shot widens to reveal Sid Little, whose sausages are flying into the air out of his hot-dog buns because he is using too much ketchup. Pull back and reveal. But German will not always allow you to shunt the key word to the end of the sentence to achieve this failsafe laugh. After spending weeks struggling with the rigours of the German language's far less flexible sentence structures to achieve the endless succession of "pull back and reveals" that constitute much English language humour, the idea of our comedic superiority soon begins to fade. It is a mansion built on sand.

While I'm intrigued by Lee's linguistic theory, I think it's preposterous that he seems to feel the need to grovel for it.

Speaking of English and German humor, show of hands please for all you Monty Python fans who love the Funniest Joke In The World sketch. I especially love the part where the WFJ becomes militarized and sparks an arms race between the Brits and the Nazis:

Colonel (Graham Chapman): All through the winter of '43 we had translators working, in joke-proof conditions, to try and produce a German version of the joke. They worked on one word each for greater safety. One of them saw two words of the joke and spent several weeks in hospital. But apart from that things went pretty quickly, and we soon had the joke by January, in a form which our troops couldn't understand but which the Germans could. Cut to a trench in the Ardennes. Members of the joke brigade are crouched holding pieces of paper with the joke on them.

Voice Over: So, on July 8th, 1944, the joke was first told to the enemy in the Ardennes...

Commanding NCO (Terry Jones): Squad! Get the....joke. Tell the ... joke.

Joke Brigade (together): Wenn ist das Nunstruck git und Slotermeyer? Ja! ... Beiherhund das Oder die Flipperwaldt gersput!

Pan out of the British trench across war-torn landscape and come to rest where presumably the German trench is. There is a pause and then a group of Germans rear up in hysterics.

Voice Over: It was a fantastic success. Over sixty thousand times as powerful as Britain's great pre-war joke ...

Cut to a film of Chamberlain brandishing the 'Peace in our time' bit of paper.

Voice Over: ...and one which Hitler just couldn't match.

(Film of Hitler rally. Hitler speaks; subtitles are superimposed.
A young soldier responds:
Hitler speaks:

Voice Over: In action it was deadly.

Cut to a small squad with rifles making their way through forest. Suddenly one of them (a member of the joke squad) sees something and gives signal at which they all dive for cover. From the cover of a tree he reads out joke.

Joke Corporal: Wenn ist das Nunstruck git und Slotermeyer? Ja! .. Beiherhund das Oder die Flipperwaldt gersput!

Sniper falls laughing out of tree.

Joke Brigade: (charging) Wenn ist das Nunstruck git und Slotermeyer? Ja! ... Beiherhund das Oder die Flipperwaldt gersput.

They chant the joke. Germans are put to flight laughing, some dropping to ground.

Voice Over: The German casualties were appalling.

Cut to a German hospital and a ward full of casualties still laughing

Cut to Nazi interrogation room. An officer from the joke brigade has a light shining in his face. A Gestapo officer is interrogating him; another (clearly labelled 'A Gestapo Officer') stands behind him.

Nazi (John Cleese): Vott is the big joke?

Officer (Michael Palin): I can only give you name, rank, and why did the chicken cross the road?

Nazi: That's not funny! (slaps him) I vant to know the joke.

Officer: All right. How do you make a Nazi cross?

Nazi: (momentarily fooled) I don't know ... how do you make a Nazi cross?

Officer: Tread on his corns. (does so; the Nazi hops in pain)

Nazi: Gott in Himmel! That's not funny! (mimes cuffing him while the other Nazi claps his hands to provide the sound effect) Now if you don't tell me the joke, I shall hit you properly.

Officer: I can stand physical pain, you know.

Nazi: Ah ... you're no fun. All right, Otto.

Otto (Graham Chapman) starts tickling the officer who starts laughing.

Officer: Oh no - anything but that please no, all right I'll tell you.

They stop.

Nazi: Quick Otto. The typewriter.

Otto goes to the typewriter and they wait expectantly. The officer produces piece of paper out of his breast pocket and reads.

Officer: Wenn ist das Nunstruck git und Slotermeyer? Ja! ... Beiherhund das Oder die Flipperwaldt gersput.

Otto at the typewriter explodes with laughter and dies.

Nazi: Ach! Zat iss not funny!

Bursts into laughter and dies. A guard (Terry Gilliam ) bursts in with machine gun, The British officer leaps on the table.

Officer: (lightning speed) Wenn ist das Nunstruck git und Slotermeyer? Ja! ... Beiherhund das Oder die Flipperwaldt gersput.

The guard reels back and collapses laughing. British officer makes his escape.

Cut to stock film of German scientists working in laboratories.

Voice Over: But at Peenemunde in the Autumn of '44, the Germans were working on a joke of their own.

Cut to interior. A German general (Terry Jones) is seated at an imposing desk. Behind him stands Otto, labelled 'A Different Gestapo Officer'. Bespectacled German scientist/joke writer enters room. He clean his throat and reads from card.

German Joker (Eric Idle): Die ist ein Kinnerhunder und zwei Mackel über und der bitte schön ist den Wunderhaus sprechensie. 'Nein' sprecht der Herren 'Ist aufern borger mit zveitingen'.

He finishes and looks hopeful.

Otto: Ve let you know.

He shoots him.

More stock film of German scientists.

Voice Over: But by December their joke was ready, and Hitler gave the order for the German V-Joke to be broadcast in English.

Cut to 1940's wartime radio set with couple anxiously listening to it.

Radio (crackly German voice): Der ver zwei peanuts, valking down der strasse, and von vas... assaulted! peanut. Ho-ho-ho-ho.

Radio bursts into 'Deutschland Über Alles'. The couple look at each other and then in blank amazement at the radio.

Then there's the classic Fawlty Towers episode (my personal favorite, btw) where Basil gets a concussion from having a moose head fall on him just before a group of German tourists arrive. Preoccupied with not mentioning the War, Basil of course keeps mentioning it, increasingly upsetting one of the German women. Finally, Basil notices this:

Basil: Here. Why is she crying?

German: She ist upset because you keep talking about ze war!

Basil: Well, you started it.

German: Ve did not start it!

Basil: Yes, you did - you invaded Poland!

Heh, heh.

Sorry for rambling a bit. Tim Worstall, from whom I got the original link, puts it all much more succinctly.


Dot's STILL not vunny!

Here I was musing about the fact that one could still joke about the Germans in these days of PC fever when I came across this article about Cleese himself attempting to stamp the practice out:

The 66-year-old actor is endorsing an essay competition - called "But don't mention the war" - organised by the German embassy in London, which encourages British students to write 3,000 words about modern Germany.

Cleese puts the jackboot firmly into his most celebrated character. "I'm delighted to help with trying to break down the ridiculous anti-German prejudices of the tabloids and clowns like Basil Fawlty, who are pathetically stuck in a world view that's more than half a century out of date," he says.

You see, virulent German expansionism is sooooo 20th Century. It's time to move on. Schnell!

Posted by Robert at May 23, 2006 01:55 PM | TrackBack

I'm glad you went to Fawlty. All through that post I just kept thinking: "Don't mention the war".

Posted by: RP at May 23, 2006 03:19 PM

You're more prophetic than you realize.

It seems to me that Cleese has become more and more of a prig as time has passed.

Posted by: Robbo the LB at May 23, 2006 03:53 PM

"World's deadliest joke" may be my favorite Python TV sketch. I'd always wondered what the actual joke said; I cut-and-paste the joke from your site into several German-to-English translator sites, but either (1) the translators don't work or (2) the joke is nothing but gibberish. I suppose either or both could be true.

Posted by: ChrisN at May 23, 2006 06:04 PM