German humor

German Humor and Irony – What’s That?

Rayka Kobiella

Rayka Kobiella

Rayka Kobiella is the Local Contributing Writer at Global Storybook (Germany).

Rayka was born and raised in Northern Germany, in a small village on the border with Denmark. Growing up rather away from almost everything, she found her excitement in writing and visualizing life in places far away from home. Right after school, where she studied literature and anthropology, she started exploring the world.

Since 2000, Rayka has been living a nomad live, writing about traveling, plays and short stories, making art and theater in Europe, East Africa, South East Asia and North America.

She's a member of Label Gray NYC, the FREE(AK) SHOW and the founder of the Performancekollektiv for New Music and Text in the intercultural context DissOPERAlusion.
Rayka Kobiella

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You probably heard the stereotype that Germans do not have any humor or a funny bone in them at all.  Since Berlin became a ‘hipster-town’, visitors started to come in here in droves and stay for a while.  And you know what they actually realized?  Germans do, in fact, have humor.  We just hide it very well.

Let’s just say – compared to other nations, we’re not that humorous.  However, our visitors do get occasionally surprised when they come across what appears to be a… joke-loving German.

Germans and Humor

Speaking of the German humor itself won’t make the jokes better, but it might motivate you to learn the language.  Why?  Because it’s not only a difficult one but also Germans love to use or rather misuse their language when joking.  For instance, our nouns have three different genders, verbs have different forms and if you use it or pronounce it incorrectly, then you might end up saying something else that you wanted.  This can also be assisted by a comma in an unusual spot.

The best ones are compounds actually – a couple of nouns put together as a big new word.  So here is the linguistic German humor that you won’t get if you don’t speak or at least understand our language very well.  However, that doesn’t mean that the jokes themselves are very challenging.  You just won’t get them if you don’t know their plural meanings.

German humorLet’s look at a few examples:

Laufen zwei Irre über Bahnschienen, meint der eine: “Ich hab solchen Hunger, ich beiß in die Schienen.”  Sagt der andere: “Warte bis da vorne, da kommt ‘ne Weiche.”

Here it is in English: Two madmen run on the trails.  One says: “I’m so hungry, I can bite the rails.”  The other responds: “Wait till we get over there – there’s a switch.”

As everyone knows, jokes don’t get funnier by explaining them, but to give you an idea of how German humor works – this might be the only way.  “Weiche” in German can mean “soft” as well as a “switch” like that of a railway.  So when you say that you want to bite the “Weiche” it can bring these two meanings together to mean “a soft trace”.  Since we realize that this is impossible and that one of the madmen used the word incorrectly – Germans will smile at this joke.

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Let’s try another one:

Kommt ein Junge in eine Bäckerei und sagt: “Ich möchte bitte Rumkugeln.”  Sagt die Verkäuferin: “Meinetwegen, aber bitte draußen.”

A boy walks into a bakery and says: “I would like to have some rum-truffles.”  The seller says: “Alright, but outside, please.”

Translated directly this one doesn’t make any sense at all.  Rum-truffles are called “Rumkugeln” in German – which literally means a “ball full of rum”.  Though it can also imply that you want to… go down on the floor and roll around.  That’s why the seller says that she’s fine with that, but not in her shop.  Since you might destroy it by doing so and it’s inappropriate anyway.

This one was very popular at political cabaret during the time when former chancellor Helmut Kohl was reigning for 16 years.  He was a really big man.  So this joke worked very fine on him.

A good way to get a grip on this type of German humor would be to listen to our classic comedian, Loriot.  He’s pretty conservative so he’s trying to make everything sound right, therefore he appears very stiff.  Loriot complicates things by applying the German language and the social norms too rigidly and therefore he turns them into something embarrassingly wrong.

Once you understand how the words with the double-meaning work – you’ll find them everywhere.  I found a nice example here:

A sign states: “Dieser Bereich wird zur Verhütung von Straftaten durch die Polizei videoüberwacht.”  Which means: “This area is under video surveillance by the police to prevent crimes.”  Not funny at all, right?  But thanks to the German syntactical ambiguity you might also read it as: “This area is under video surveillance to prevent crimes committed by the police.”  Ha-ha.

German Police Officer - Global StorybookThe Differences in German Humor

As you might have already realized about the German humor – we like to play with stereotypes.  Similar to Loriot, who wants to do everything right and then breaks social taboos by trying to be super correct.  But unlike Mr. Bean, this hardly ever happens with slapstick.  Though the idea behind it is the same – it’s funny because it’s going all wrong.

In addition, Germans love watching satirical comedy on stage and TV.  Especially cabaret during political events.  It’s a long tradition especially for the middle-class when people try to attend live political cabaret comedies regularly.

Jan Böhmermann is a popular modern satirical comedian with his own TV show.  He gained popularity across the World for his lewd poem on the Turkish president, Erdogan.  He’s provocative, edgy, and funny, and at the same time he comes across as a conservative hipster who we can all easily like.  Here’s a video of him in English:


Irony – What’s That?

Of course we also imported the idea for our own Late-Night shows, like Harald Schmidt, Joko & Klaas, Stefan Raab, plus heute-show… and they all do very well here in Germany.  Though, one thing you must always remember when meeting a German – is that you have to get your “irony-sign” ready on.  Not understanding irony is the worst thing about German humor.

There is one comedian who’s been incredibly successful, named Mario Barth.  On stage or on screen – he makes people laugh every second.  And the audience seem to need this very clear “sign” displayed – i.e. that this is funny, it’s just a joke and it’s not offending.

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If you want to get along well with Germans – make sure that you smile after making a joke, so that your new friends could also join you in smiling or laughing.  Also, when you try to make a smart joke – be prepared that people might not laugh at it, if they aren’t really convinced that it was funny.

In case you want to say something that is not satirical but ironical – identify it with “Ironisch gemeint” afterwards.  “This is meant ironically – it’s not a joke.”  Especially when you tell it to a group of people – there will always be one who will start a discussion since he or she didn’t get that it was ironic.  So make sure that you quickly name it as that.

Or you might also try exaggerating to make sure that everyone understands that it can’t be for real.  Like this very successful ad for a big supermarket.  It became so popular, that the guy even made a song out of it.  Here’s what he says: “You are the supercoolest co-worker ever.  It’s fantastic what you’re doing at work.  Sometimes.  You’re working right now?  Super cool computer.  Super cool pencils.  You are super cool.” 


In the End…

It’s not that easy to classify something as a typical German humor, same as with every other nation.  It usually varies – what someone thinks is funny.  There are simple jokes, slapstick comedy, puns, and then there are longer sketches, smart jokes or just pure nonsense.  There are comedians for every kind of taste.  For example, I personally love Helge Schneider, who’s a brilliant jazz-musician and he does a really weird Dada-influenced anarchistic kind of comedy.  But he divides Germany like no other comedian.

So as you can see – there is a stereotype about Germans as not being humorous, and it isn’t entirely true.  But I have to admit that I’ve never been in another country with such a general lack in understanding of irony or even grasping when something is a joke.  Though once you get used to that – you’re going to have a relaxed and fun time in Germany, for sure!

German humorFinally, here are some good jokes to tell at a German party:

“What is perverse?”  “I don’t know.”  “When the chicken is still attached.”

We also like the absurdity of anti-jokes:

“What’s the difference between frogs?”  Answer:  “The greener it is, the faster it swims.”

Or the Mummy jokes:

“Mummy, mummy!  I don’t want to go to America!”  “Be quiet and swim on!”

Very short ones:

German humor“If Catholics go protesting, do they become Protestants?”

And finally the mean jokes:

Patient: “Doctor, how long will I live?”

Doctor: “Ten.”

Patient: “What do you mean? Ten months, ten years, ten weeks…”

Doctor: “Nine…”

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