A few weeks ago, the Supertext team was invited to a benefit event to celebrate the Schtifti Foundation’s 10 year anniversary. After drinks and risotto at the Mascotte, we all headed to the nearby Bernhard Theatre, where we were treated to a ‘stand-up’ evening with a German comedian host, a Swiss female stand-up comedian and a singing trio that put on a musical-style comedy show – an interesting line up. And by interesting, I mean weird. And by weird, I mean not funny.
Play on words
Which got me thinking. Comedy doesn’t translate very well, does it? Take a simple joke: “Why was six afraid of seven? Because seven eight (ate) nine!” Obviously, this only works in English. British comedian Stewart Lee even wrote an article about the inflexibility of the German language that makes it impossible to pull off British comedy tricks: punch lines, for example, which reveal the joke at the very end, is a struggle as the German sentence structure doesn’t allow the key word to be sent to the end. Another point he makes is the precise nature of German, exemplified by compound words. Whereas double meanings, misunderstandings and confusion are staples of British comedy, German humour relies more on ideas than wordplay.
But as I mentioned before, the concept of humour often has very little to do with language barriers. Take British sarcasm, for example. My level of sarcasm was never high, but it’s been tamed completely since living in German-speaking countries, having offended enough people and experienced many awkward moments. Err on the side of caution – your words, even said with a smile, may be taken literally. And now, when I meet up with British friends and half of the conversation is dominated by making a mockery of each other, I feel a strange sense of freedom. The Japanese take it even further – the traditional stand-up comedy of Japan consists of two comedians: a bo-ke, who basically says or does silly things, and a tsukkomi, who gets to hit or insult the boke to put him into place. This form of comedy can be found in normal conversation, where a little mistake is the chance for everyone to gang up and laugh at the mistake. It’s hilarious, honestly. But if you smack someone for saying something stupid outside Japan, you’re likely to get arrested. And let’s not get into those infamous Japanese TV programs that are centred around somebody hurting themselves for the sake of a laugh. Even I draw the line there.
A laughing matter
My experience so far has been that Swiss and German comedy is based on either slapstick, physical humour – the biggest laugh the German host got at the Schtifti event was when he flailed his arms and legs about like a clown – or highly intelligent satire that requires a profound knowledge of culture and politics. The Swiss comedian satirised the lightness of teenage life brilliantly, as do magazines like Titanic and sketches by Loriot. In any case, it feels somehow practised, perfected – failure is not something that transcends into comedy in this part of the world. One other point I’ve noticed is that nudity or other sexual connotations doesn’t have quite the shocking effect in German as it does in English – maybe because the Brits are more prudish?
Corina, my French colleague, mentioned that the French take great pleasure in picking on one person and making fun of their faults. The Italians, according to Laura, delve deeper into the ridiculing of politicians and public authorities – even before Berlusconi became the laughing stock of the world. And the British sitcom The Office didn’t work quite as well in its American incarnation. In the end, translating humour is a little bit like explaining a joke: it never works.
Titelbild via Flickr: „Amazing Laughter“ sculpture by Yue Minjun – Matthew Grapengieser (CC BY-SA 2.0)