Looking for Comedy Under Communist Rule in East Germany


What is the deal with international comedy? Join me each week to ask that very question in Comedy Tourism as I explore different trends and traditions of how the rest of the world makes funny in their respective native tongues. Don’t forget your passports! Just kidding, you don’t need your passport. Or do you? (You don’t.)

“There are people who tell jokes. There are people who collect jokes and tell jokes. And there are people who collect people who tell jokes.”

To be fair, this joke could apply to a myriad of dictatorships, but this specific joke belongs to the Deutsche Demokratische Republik. Don’t let the words “Democratic” or “Republic” fool you; the socialist state informally known as “East Germany” was Soviet-occupied making civil and political liberties there a bit shall we say… limited. Who were the people rounding up the jesters? Why, the secret police force known as the “Stasi.” And the people collected? East Germans. For a population of the poor and disenfranchised, humor became a rare source of empowerment.

What we Americans think of when we think of East Germany, this scene from the Zucker Brothers’ classic Top Secret comes to mind:

Val Kilmer aside, the DDR government was such a subject of ridicule by its own people not so long ago. Nowadays, East German jokes, or DDR Witz as the countrymen call them, have become part of the German cultural fabric. The Internet is rife with East German jokes, and it seems many Germans are downright sentimental about the quaint ways DDR Witz once skewered. A phenomenon known as “Ostalgie,” literally East Nostalgia, has gained popularity in Germany and the Western world. In fact, there’s an entire museum devoted to just that: glorifying DDR culture. It’s aptly named the DDR museum.

Question: Why is toilet paper in the DDR so rough?Answer: So that every last asshole in the DDR is “red.”
I know a joke: “Erich took a tether and went into the woods.” “Then what happened?” “I’m not allowed to say, but it starts off good!”
“How can you tell that the Stasi has bugged your apartment? There’s a new cabinet in it.” “What would happen if the desert became communist? Nothing for a while, and then there would be a sand shortage.” “Christmas has been cancelled. Mary didn’t find any diapers for the baby Jesus, Joseph was called up to the army and the three kings didn’t get a travel permit.” “Hey, I’m going to tell a political joke.”“Careful! I’m with the police.””Yeah, yeah, I’ll tell it slowly.”

Over twenty years later, the road to reunification has been an imperfect one. East Germany is still playing catch-up to its technologically advanced Western counterpart and the unemployment disparity might suggest that the dark days that inspired such biting humor have not fully passed. East German jokes are a national treasure of sorts, but perhaps for some of the wrong reasons. It’s easy to laugh at people who may seem a little backwards. But forgetting the reasons why they may be so out of touch is a disservice to the punchline.

Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.