Tears of laughter trickled down my face and I clapped so hard my hands turned red. But I was surprised at my reaction, for I was being hilariously entertained by a German comedian at Quatsch Comedy Club in Berlin, in a situation that could be considered oxymoronic by many.
The Germans obviously appreciate a show of good humour, a fact made evident with the soaring popularity of these comedy venues in Berlin. In fact, comedy has deep roots in German culture, with a strong appreciation of political satire as well as physical slapstick. Yet the Germans were voted in a 2011 survey by Badoo.com to be the least funny nationality, reinforcing a well-known stereotype of Germans having no humour.
“I’d never known about that stereotype. I only found out by speaking to English-speaking people,” Nicole Riplinger, an English and French teacher from Saarbrücken, told me. “I don’t think we consider ourselves to be humourless.”
“I definitely love humour,” she added, “especially involving irony and socio-critical issues.”
So, if the Germans have always had a funny bone in them, just how did this unfortunate stereotype come about?
Nicola McLelland, German linguistics professor at the UK’s University of Nottingham, believes that the way different languages are constructed can affect the way various cultures deliver and perceive jokes.
German is one of the few languages where the use of compound words. Compound words often can’t be directly translated into other languages, so jokes made with compound words simply won’t be funny to non-German speakers.
Christian Baumann, a lawyer from Nuremberg whose travels have exposed him to different cultures around the world, agrees that language differences play a huge part in Germany’s unfunny stereotype.
On one of his first foreign trips to the United States, he constantly had to translate his thoughts from German into English, even when telling a joke. The result was that people just didn’t get him. Some went as far as accusing his directness of speech to be rude.
“I think when you try to speak with a literal translation from German to English, you lose a lot of meaning that makes a joke funny. And when you have to explain a joke, it just isn’t funny anymore,” Baumann said. “So naturally, they didn’t think I was funny.”
But he also thinks that cultural variances play a big part, too.
“In English, you are always very polite, even if you are criticising something. But German is different. We will say what we have in mind, so, naturally I think, the English speakers have the impression that Germans are only logical, rude (but very good engineers) and can’t have fun,” Baumann said.
This is a sentiment German comedian Christian Schulte-Loh shares. Fully aware of the stereotype the Germans are labelled with, he writes in his new book, Zum Lachen auf die Insel (To England with Laughs), that Germans are too honest to be polite and the English are too polite to be honest.