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Giving Serious Thought to German Humor

December 15, 2016

Each culture has distinct things that it finds humorous and its own ways to appreciate and acknowledge that sensibility. The funny thing is, most people don’t stop to consider the rich and nuanced portrait of a culture that an analysis of its humor can reveal.

Professor Rüdiger (Rudy) Singer will tell you that examining a culture’s humor is enlightening as well as fun. He is a visiting professor from Germany, teaching in the German, Scandinavian & Dutch department on a DAAD (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst or German Academic Exchange Service) professorship. This program brings German faculty to American universities to teach about German culture. DAAD professors also devote much of their time to research, which means that Singer is giving some serious thought to German humor.

Growing up, his love for humor took the form of making comical puppet plays and cracking jokes with his friends. He has since found a way to develop this passion in a scholarly setting. Singer examines the interplay between language and images in many ways (e.g., with regard to the portrayal of stage actors), and is specifically interested in why and how that interplay can make something funny. He is currently teaching a course in which he and his students analyze German comics, political cartoons, film comedies, and more to figure out what is it that makes them funny and distinctly German.

Singer likes to compare and contrast humorous content coming out of Germany with both British and American forms. He is convinced that traditional German humor usually plays with society’s rules, but ultimately serves to confirm most of these rules, while British humor tends to be more anarchic and eccentric. Singer observes that the Brits are often more self-confident than the Germans when it comes to testing the rules of their society. As for American humor, Rudy believes that it is a mixture of both German and British humor. He quotes German scholar Hans-Dieter Gelfert in saying that American humor is “disrespectful and critical of authorities, like British humor, but at the same time sentimental and moralizing, like German humor." Rudy observes that Germans have a very keen understanding of British humor, epitomized by Monty Python, and that most really enjoy it. In contrast, they do not have clear expectations for American humor, though they do consume a lot of it, from the heart-warming humor of the “Ice Age” movies to the anarchic humor of “South Park.”

Singer is adamant that an understanding of a culture’s humor is vital to one’s understanding of that culture itself. For example, until fairly recently, German history was marked by uncertainty and violence. Under these circumstances, humorous writings and pictures offered compensation and relief. On the other hand, the political and economic success story of West Germany after World War II has encouraged forms of humor which are a bit more aggressive. In addition, since humor plays with rules specific to a society, the preferred topics of humor can reveal a lot about that society and its rules. He also stresses the importance of learning about that culture in its native language, whenever possible. “Learning a language opens you up to a culture in a way you wouldn’t experience elsewhere,” he says. “It opens you up to a new way of thinking and shows you that things could be different than what you know.”

Singer will teach classes on various subjects in the semesters to come, including German realism, Grimm's fairy tales, and cultural encounters in comics—but humor will always be an important aspect of his courses.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.