Lost in translation looks at the differences between English and German humor:
Our attitude to the Germans and their supposed lack of a sense of humour is best understood through the example of the joke known to comedy professionals such as myself as The German Child. It goes like this. An English couple have a child. After the birth, medical tests reveal that the child is normal, apart from the fact that it is German. This, however, should not be a problem. There is nothing to worry about. As the child grows older, it dresses in lederhosen and has a pudding bowl haircut, but all its basic functions develop normally. It can walk, eat, sleep, read and so on, but for some reason the German child never speaks. The concerned parents take it to the doctor, who reassures them that as the German child is perfectly developed in all other areas, there is nothing to worry about and that he is sure the speech faculty will eventually blossom. Years pass. The German child enters its teens, and still it is not speaking, though in all other respects it is fully functional. The German child’s mother is especially distressed by this, but attempts to conceal her sadness. One day she makes the German child, who is now 17 years old and still silent, a bowl of tomato soup, and takes it through to him in the parlour where he is listening to a wind-up gramophone record player. Soon, the German child appears in the kitchen and suddenly declares, “Mother. This soup is a little tepid.” The German child’s mother is astonished. “All these years,” she exclaims, “we assumed you could not speak. And yet all along it appears you could. Why? Why did you never say anything before?” “Because, mother,” answers the German child, “up until now, everything has been satisfactory.”
The basis for most English-speaking humor is the ambiguity of the English language:
At a rough estimate, half of what we find amusing involves using little linguistic tricks to conceal the subject of our sentences until the last possible moment, so that it appears we are talking about something else. For example, it is possible to imagine any number of British stand-ups concluding a bit with something structurally similar to the following, “I was sitting there, minding my own business, naked, smeared with salad dressing and lowing like an ox … and then I got off the bus.” We laugh, hopefully, because the behaviour described would be inappropriate on a bus, but we had assumed it was taking place either in private or perhaps at some kind of sex club, because the word “bus” was withheld from us. Other suitable punchlines for this set-up would be, “And that was just the teachers”, “I was 28-years-old” and “That’s the last time I attempt to find work as a research chemist in Paraguay.”
There is even a technical term used by those who direct comedy on camera to describe this one-size-fits-all mechanism. Eddie Large is gasping for air as a hot dog falls into the end of his snorkel. The shot widens to reveal Sid Little, whose sausages are flying into the air out of his hot-dog buns because he is using too much ketchup. Pull back and reveal. But German will not always allow you to shunt the key word to the end of the sentence to achieve this failsafe laugh. After spending weeks struggling with the rigours of the German language’s far less flexible sentence structures to achieve the endless succession of “pull back and reveals” that constitute much English language humour, the idea of our comedic superiority soon begins to fade. It is a mansion built on sand.
Some German humor:
On my first night in Hannover I had gone out drinking with some young German actors. “You will notice there are no old buildings in Hannover,” one of them said. “That is because you bombed them all.” At the time I found this shocking and embarrassing. Now it seems like the funniest thing you could possibly say to a nervous English visitor.