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One American tests that hypothesis with his Berlin stand-up routine.
BERLIN, Germany — It’s a well-worn cliche that Germans have no sense of humor. Is it true?
Judge for yourself by watching this randomly chosen skit from the popular German comedy show "Mensch Markus."
A man reclines at his summer house with a friend, intent on a lazy afternoon of barbecuing. It emerges that he’s mixed everything up: He’s put the beer on the barbecue and his sausages in the cooler. He’s stuffed broccoli in his VCR and a videotape in the microwave. The punchline, if you can call it that, is that he’s put his bags in the house and his wife in the trunk.
And that’s a joke on a top-rated sketch comedy show.
Andrew Bulkeley is an American financial journalist who moonlights as a stand-up comedian in Berlin under the stage name Drew Portnoy. While it’s unfair to generalize that Germans are humorless, most observers, Bulkeley included, say the comedy industry is adolescent at best.
That is particularly true of stand-up comedy, which doesn’t have a strong tradition in Germany. But with stand-up slowly gaining popularity, notably in the capital, Berlin, outsiders like Bulkeley face the question: how does one make Germans laugh?
“Germany is such an intellectual country, they think they can only laugh at deep things like politics,” 40-year-old Bulkeley said. “At the other end, they can laugh watching a guy fall down the stairs because it’s slapstick and they love that.
“But they can’t laugh at the human condition, which is what stand-up is really about. The absurdity of life for example — they’re still uncomfortable with that. They might be able to say, ‘Sure that’s funny.’ But they don’t see the point in it.”
Bulkeley, who has lived in the country 12 years and has a German wife and children, performs his routine in German. He tells stories about himself as an outsider, uses irony and self-deprecation and reflects on the absurdities of life — all the classic ingredients of stand-up.
For example, Bulkeley plays on the German language and how it produces hilarious and sometimes unsettling effects when translated directly into English. When his wife had their first child, he was introduced to words such as mutterkuchen (mother-cake), which is German for placenta and muttermund (mother-mouth) which means cervix.
“I had to learn all these cringeworthy new words. It’s a very exacting language and Germans are such a serious people that they don’t always see the other side of the word. If you make them stop and think about them, they find it funny,” he said.
The recipe has worked. Bulkeley has reached the final of a stand-up competition at the Quatsch Comedy Club in Berlin — one of the city's top stand-up venues.
Yet those familiar ingredients are actually quite rare among German comedians. Another one who does use them is Oliver Polak, who is — as far as anyone can determine — Germany’s only Jewish stand-up comedian.
After 10 years of acting in sitcoms, including a remake of “I Dream of Jeannie” called “Bernd’s Witch” (“They really weren’t very funny,” he said), Polak started his new career four years ago.
He’s now one of the nation’s better-known comics, with a best-selling book, “I’m allowed to do that — I’m a Jew.”
Most comedy in Germany is bland and unambitious, said Polak, who grew up in the city of Papenburg, west of Hamburg. Most of it revolves around on-stage caricatures, such as a woman pretending to be a crude “Ossi,” a German from the former East Germany, which to many western Germans is a label on par with “white trash” or “redneck.”
“They put on wigs and tell stories that you can tell in the first 10 seconds aren’t true,” Polak said. “It is totally different from classic American stand-up comedy. Germany comedy doesn’t aim high or try to be very original. It’s always jokes about Starbucks and Ikea.
“Some of them have to talk backstage and ask, ‘Are you doing your Ikea number tonight? Can I do mine?’
“There are these cliches about Germans not having a sense of humor.” He paused. “I couldn’t really say with a good conscience that that is totally wrong.”
Polak’s influences are strictly American: comedians such as Larry David, Sarah Silverman, Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray and Steve Martin.
He has a theory about why Germany doesn’t really do comedy.
“In America, you have a tradition of speech. In the churches, the universities, … when people try to teach you, they make an effort to make it funny and interesting," Polak explaind. "You don’t have that tradition in Germany. It’s more a culture of writing and reading.”
If comedy is meant to provoke and perhaps be cathartic, Polak is, of course, in a unique position as a Jew in Germany. Inevitably, the question arises as to how Germans handle jokes from a Jewish comedian about the Holocaust. (A quick example: “I got the train here today. It’s a family tradition.”)
“There’s always a reaction, but there are so many different reactions.” Polak said. “I don’t make jokes about the Holocaust, I mirror how people in Germany handle the Holocaust, which is often ridiculous.
“That’s the job of a comedian. It’s about going places that no one else can go.”
Bulkeley has also tried World War II jokes. They didn’t work, though not for the reasons he expected.
“It’s not that they were offended, they just didn’t find them funny because they’d heard them all before," he said. "They’ve been telling each other those jokes since they were 14.”