02 October 2010

Short Takes: German Humor

[When I was a teenager, my dad joined the Foreign Service and my family went to live in Germany for several years. Dad had learned German as a boy because his family were ethnic Germans living in Eastern Europe; the first language of his grandparents and their generation was German. After school, Dad would spend the afternoons with his grandmother, who never learned English (she refused, according to family lore), so my father learned to speak German at her knee, so to speak. He continued to study German in school, of course, and during the Occupation of defeated Germany after VE day, he was assigned to the Counterintelligence Corps because he spoke the language. When he returned to Germany in the early ‘60s, Dad made use of his German again (and the rest of us began learning it when we got there). Among his pleasures, however minor, was collecting humor that was either German or, in some cases, bi-lingual. (Those latter were jokes told by embassy personnel that depended on some knowledge of both English and German. They weren’t all necessary sophisticated jokes, as you’ll see.) Some of the jokes I’ve collected below were among my dad’s favorites back then. Vergnügen Sie sich! as we used to say.]

* * * *
The answer is “Nine W.” What’s the question?

Herr Wagner, Herr Wagner! Do you spell your name with a Vee?”

Nein, Double-u.”

* * * *
Two men, strangers to each other, were seated next to one another on a plane to Honolulu. The first passenger turned to his seat companion and asked, “You know, I’ve never been sure how they pronounce the name of this state. Do you know—is it Ha-WAH-ee or Ha-VAH-ee?”

Ha-VAH-ee,” said the second passenger.

“Thank you.”

“You’re velcome.”

* * * *
Did you hear? There was a terrible fire in Herr Professor Müller’s apartment last night.”

“Is he all right? Was there any damage?”

“He’s fine, but his study was completely destroyed.”

Gott in Himmel!

“Yes. He’d just finished his 30-volume history of the German people. He saved 29 of the books, but the last volume was lost.”

“How awful!”

“It is. That’s the volume that had all the verbs in it!”

* * * *
I was meeting a friend in a bar, and as I went in, I noticed two pretty girls looking at me. "Nine," I heard one whisper as I passed. Feeling pleased with myself, I swaggered over to my buddy and told him a girl had just rated me a nine out of ten. "I don’t want to ruin it for you," he said, "but when I walked in, they were speaking German."

* * * *
Josef Edelstein emigrated from his native Germany to a town in the United States. To make things simpler, he thought, he changed his name to Joseph Edel. He was a printer in the old country, so he set up a print shop in his new home, too. On the day he opened his business, he hung up a sign over his door which read Joseph Edel, Printer. No sooner had he opened his doors than the man with the shoe store next door paid him a courtesy visit.

“Good day, Mr. EE-dell. Welcome to town,” said the neighbor, pronouncing the new businessman’s name the way it’s spelled in English.

‘So,’ thought Joseph to himself, ‘that’s how they pronounce my name here. I’ll just change the spelling to match the pronunciation.’ He changed his sign to Joseph Idel, Printer, and set about having his name changed again.

The next day, the druggist down the block called. “Hello, Mr. EYE-dell,” announced the friendly neighbor.

Once again, Joseph thought, ‘So, they pronounce my new name like that, do they. Well, I’ll just spell it to match that, then.’ He wanted to be accommodating to his new neighbors, so again, he changed his sign to say Joseph Aidel, Printer.

Sure enough, the next day, the dress shop owner from across the street came for a visit. “How are you today, Mr. AY-dell?” he asked.

Well, Joseph just threw up his hands in frustration. ‘Now we’re back to the way I spelled my name when I arrived. What can I do but change the sign again?’ And so, the next day the printer hung a newly painted sign that said Joseph Edel, Printer once again. This time, Joseph decided, he’d just leave well enough alone: he’d just become Joseph ‘EE-dell’ in his new hometown.

‘These Americans sure do pronounce things oddly,’ he thought to himself. (You just can’t fight the Great Vowel Shift.)

* * * *
Just as in the old Soviet Union a lot of the humor was political and tinged with bitterness, so, too, were many of the jokes that came out of East Germany.

When is a sausage like a compass?

When you place it on die Mauer (the Berlin Wall). You can tell which way is east by the end that’s been eaten.

As you might imagine, this kind of humor was almost as popular among the Wessis (West Germans) as among the Ossis (East Germans) because it made them more secure about their freedom and economic wellbeing.

* * * *
In my recent collection of Russian jokes (“Short Takes: Russian Jokes,” 28 May 2010), I related one that was based on the names of the two national newspapers of the Soviet days. In the German Democratic Republic, there was a similar joke. The major, party-owned newspapers in the GDR were called Freiheit (‘Freedom’) and Neues Deutschland (‘New Germany’). The joke plays both on the newspapers' names and the constant scarcity of everything in East Germany.

A customer stops at his neighborhood East Berlin newsstand for a New Germany. He doesn’t find one and asks the newsvendor.

"All out!"

"So, I’ll take Freedom, says the customer.

"Don’t have that, either!"

"When will there be Freedom again?"

"When there’s a New Germany!

Curiously, this joke seems to blend the Russian joke about Pravda and Izvestia and the one about “Thank Stalin” and “Thank God.”

* * * *
One morning, Erich Honecker, the last Communist boss of the GDR, arrived at his office and opened the window. "Good morning, dear Sun!" he beamed.

"Good morning, dear Erich!" replied ol’ Sol.

Honecker got down to business and at noon he went to the window again. "Good afternoon, dear Sun!" he said.

"Good day, dear Erich!" came the reply.

That evening, Honecker quit for the day and stopped by the window on his way out. "Good evening, dear Sun!"

But the sun was silent.

"Good evening, dear Sun!” repeated Honecker. “What's wrong?"

"Kiss my ass,” said the sun. “I'm in the West now!"

* * * *
I first heard this joke back at the height of the Cold War from a classmate in the army Russian language program who grew up in a German neighborhood in Chicago. It depends on two German puns so it doesn’t translate very well, but it’s worth recounting anyway. (In German, the word aufhängen means both 'hang up' [as a telephone] and 'hang' [the form of execution], and wiederwählen means both 'redial' and ' vote again' [wählen means ‘to dial,’ ‘to choose,’ and ‘to vote’].) Let’s give it a try.

What's the difference between Erich Honecker and a wrong number?

None! In both cases, you just hang up (aufhängen) and try again (wiederwählen)!

* * * *
The East German secret police, the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (the Ministry for State Security, universally known as the Stasi), was almost as notorious as the KGB, on which it was modeled. (In fact the names of the German and Russian agencies both translate nearly the same into English.)

Two Stasi agents are stuck on a boring surveillance operation. Agent Müller breaks the monotony: Hansi, what are you thinking about?"

"Nothing much. The same thing you’re thinking," muses Agent Schmidt.

Müller turns suddenly. "In that case, you're under arrest!"

* * * *
This isn’t a joke, really. It’s an actual exchange between one of my classmates at the Bundeswehr intelligence school (MAD-Schule), where I was one of two U.S. guest-officers attending a course, and the other members of the class.

The MAD-Schule was in Bad Ems, only a couple of hours’ drive from Bonn, then the capital of the Federal Republic. The Bundeswehr officers in the class were stationed all over the country, so for some of them, this was the closest they’d been to the capital in a long while. To let them have some time at the Ministry of Defense and to take care of paperwork and a little networking, we took a day off from class and drove up to Bonn in a motor pool bus.

Among the officers were one from the Allgau (our class leader) and one from Bavaria. While our classmates liked to tease the class leader about his Allgauer dialect—we two Americans spoke better German than he did, they liked to say—they had a whole different attitude toward our Bavarian classmate (whom I’ll call Wolfgang). To Germans, Bavaria’s a little like Texas is to Americans: almost a separate country.

As we approached Bonn, we passed some of the foreign embassies on our way downtown. “There’s the French Embassy,” someone would call out, or “Look, the British Embassy,” and so on. “Herr Leutnant, there’s your embassy—the Americans.” They knew my dad had served there.

Before we arrived downtown in Bonn, where the main ministries and offices of the Bundesrepublik were located, one of our classmates shouted out, “There’s Wolfi’s embassy!” Everyone laughed, including Wolfgang. Not understanding the joke, since I knew there wasn’t such a thing as a Bavarian embassy, I looked confused at the others on the bus. It was Wolfgang himself who explained: “It’s the Bavarian state tourist agency. My embassy,” he chuckled.

* * * *
The GDR actually manufactured an automobile, the Trabant. It was the butt of many jokes because it was not only cheap but poorly made and without a single amenity.

How do you double the value of a Trabant?

Fill the gas tank.

* * * *
An Ossi driver pulled into a gas station. "Can I get a wiper blade for this Trabi?"

The mechanic looked the car over for a long time, thinking. "Okay, it's a deal!"

* * * *
Like bureaucrats all over the world, German Beamte are the cause of much humor—not often of the complimentary variety!

Three youngsters are arguing over whose father is the fastest.

Klaus says, "My vati is a race-car driver. He’s the fastest."

Willi counters, "Nein, my father is a fighter pilot in the Luftwaffe. He’s obviously the fastest one."

"That's nothing," insists Hans. "Mein Vater is a Beamte. He’s so fast that when his office closes at 5 o’clock, he's already home by 1 in the afternoon!"

* * * *
What day is the busiest for a Beamte?

Monday. He has to turn over two calendar pages.

* * * *

This isn’t a joke but the lyrics to a silly folksong (taught to children for the most part, I believe). I learned it in college and it’s always stuck with me because it’s so silly. I’m providing a free translation here (which doesn’t rhyme or scan, of course), but I think you’ll get the idea. (Because it’s a folksong, the lyrics will vary—and there are many, many verses—but they’re all along the same lines.)

I’m Doctor Eisenbart,
I cure people in my own way.
Can make the blind walk
And the lame see again.
My greatest success
I had once in Osnabrück.
An old fellow had a case of gout;
I cut off both his legs.
When a patient puts himself in my hands,
I first have him make out his will.
I send no one from this world
Until he puts his house in order.
That's the way I heal,
It’s tried and true, I guarantee it.
That all my methods are effective,
I swear by my doctor's cap.
[There’s a refrain after each line, but it’s just nonsense syllables
—and it varies from version to version anyway.]
There actually was a Johann Andreas Eisenbarth (1663-1727; spellings of the last name vary), an oculist and barber-surgeon from Bavaria. He didn’t actually have a medical degree, but that was no impediment in the 17th century, and he descended from a family line of similar practitioners. He was apparently a successful and skilled surgeon who was, however, something of a braggart and self-promoter. He had an itinerant practice and traveled with a large entourage of entertainers and musicians. The carnival-like spectacle attracted patients and the noise covered the screams of pain. In 1977, the Federal Republic issued a postage stamp with his image.

* * * *
A customer in a coffee shop calls the waiter over. “My coffee is cold!” he complains.

“It’s good you told me,” replied the waiter. “Iced coffee costs 2 Euros more.”

* * * *
Two men are attending a political event where the Chancellor is speaking. One turns to the other and asks, “How long has the Chancellor been speaking?”

"A half an hour,” replied the other.

“And what’s he speaking about?”

“He hasn’t said yet.”

* * * *
The German teacher asked Karl: “What case is it when you say, ‘Studying makes me happy?’”

“A rare one,” said Karl without hesitating.

* * * *
This joke depends on a German pun, so it won’t translate. I think it’s worth passing on anyway. (Keep in mind that in German, Mist is manure, used widely for fertilizer.)

An American was visiting a German farm. He called out to the farmer: “Hey, mister! Mister!”

The farmer turned to the American angrily. “I’m not the Mister. I’m the milker!”

* * * *
We all know this one in a slightly different context:

A tourist was on his way to a long-anticipated concert by the Vienna Philharmonic. Not knowing the way to the concert hall, he stopped a passerby and asked: “Excuse me, but how do I get to the Philharmonic?”

“Practice, practice, practice!”

* * * *
This joke, which turns on a German mondegreen, depends on the German pronunciation of a girl’s name. Julia, in German, comes out YOO-lee-ah.

Little Julia went to Easter Mass for the first time. After the service, her father asked her, “So, what did you like best about the Mass?”

“I liked that everyone sang ‘Hallo Julia’!”

* * * *
A mountain climber went into a hiking-supply shop. He told the clerk, “ I need some underpants.”

“Long?” asked the clerk.

“I want to buy them,” replied the hiker, “not rent them!”

* * * *
Believe it or not, this is a joke Germans tell on themselves:

Two Polish friends meet at their favorite bar. “So, Lech, what are you up to these days?” asks Stanislaw.

“I’m studying Hebrew,” answers Lech. “That way, when I get to Heaven, I’ll understand everything.”

“But what will you do if you go to Hell?” jokes Stanislaw.

“Oh, that’ll be okay. I already speak German.”

* * * *
What's the difference between an English, a French, and a German retiree?

The Englishman drinks a whiskey and goes fishing.

The Frenchman has a glass of wine and goes to play boules.

The German takes his cardiac meds and goes to work.

* * * *
This isn’t so much a joke as a language lesson. It points out the confusion between English and German, which share many words that seem to be cognates but actually don’t have related meanings. (Mark Twain was delighted, for instance, when he discovered the German word damit—until he learned that the emphasis was on the second syllable, not the first. The word, by the way, means ‘with’ [mit] ‘it’ or ‘them’ [da, a contraction of das, ‘that’]. When I lived in Germany, popular souvenirs among American and British tourists were key chains inscribed with the German expression Gute Fahrt. The phrase is simply the German equivalent of Bon Voyage—despite its appearance.)

A German exchange student, newly arrived in Britain, had ordered her first full English breakfast. She got hungry waiting for her meal to appear, however. "When do I become a sausage?" she asked impatiently.

The waiter, not understanding the student’s error, simply replied nonplussed, “Why, never, I trust.”

[In German bekommen means ‘to get,’ not ‘to become’ (werden in German). The German student’s mistake was in assuming that the English word has the same meaning as the German verb it looks and sounds like.]

* * * *
There’s a TV commercial running now on which an American exchange student is in Germany “to get some culture.” What he doesn’t get, he says, is the humor. His German friends are laughing at some video or TV show, but I have a suspicion that some of what the young man doesn’t get is the German fondness for the antiwitz, the anti-joke (or un-joke.) This is a construction that starts out with the familiar structure of a joke but ends illogically or without a punch line. The humor is in the surprise lack of . . . well, humor. In other words, it’s funny because it’s not funny! I thought I’d finish up with a few examples.

A few of the ones with illogical endings:

What’s green and runs through the garden? A herd of cucumbers.

Two men cross a bridge. One falls in the water. The other one’s name is Hans.

Two guys go through a tunnel. The third guy says to the fourth, “I think there are five of us.” The sixth guy says, “I don’t understand . . . .”

The kind without a punch line:

Knock, knock!
Who's there?
It’s the police. I'm sorry to tell you, there's been an automobile accident. Your husband’s been injured and is in the hospital.

How many plumbers does it take to change a light bulb?
One. His profession is irrelevant.

Two cows are grazing in a meadow. All of a sudden, a rabbit leaps out from behind a hedge and hops off. One cow looks up, chews her cud, and then ambles away.

You’ll have to decide for yourself if you think any of these is funny. I’m just providing the examples.

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