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.”
In general, jokes about communism feel a bit dated. Communists are no longer the villains of the six o’clock news and I’d even wager that the term “pinko commie” is one generation away from extinction. But as a comedy tourist, it behooves you to move beyond the antique aspect of East German humor and attempt to hear the voice of a people struggling to make light of dark times. To understand the context of East German humor gives an insight into what life in the DDR was really like.Don’t believe me? Just ask the former West German intelligence service, Bundesnachrichtendienst. The BND actually sought out jokes told by East German citizens to determine the overall “public mood” on the other side of the Berlin Wall. Though reports usually began with political analysis and strategy, the “joke section” became a favorite among intelligence officers all the way up to the chancellery. Less than 2 years ago in 2009, also the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall falling, the BND released its files on East German Humor. Required reading on this event: the article “Humor Under Communism” from Der Spiegel.
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!”
While the West German spies documented, the East German spies meticulously documented (these are Germans we’re talking about here) and used the documentation against their own citizens. Remember the Stasi I mentioned earlier? That’s the nickname for the Staatssicherheit — the official state security of East Germany. They turned eavesdropping into an art and had a penchant for locking up any and all possible “dissidents.” The omnipresence of the Stasi created high-stakes for humor and shaped the nature of jokes themselves. Often the joke was not what was said, but what wasn’t said. For example, the following example is a non-joke about the leader of the DDR, Erich Honecker.Almost every East German joke seems implicitly political. Whether slyly poking fun at the Stasi always listening like the example above, or indirectly referencing the socialist state by lampooning its diminishing resources, or calling the police stupid — the humor was entirely a product of its immediate circumstances. DDR citizens coined the more explicitly political jokes “five-year-jokes”: three years in jail for the person telling the joke and two years for anyone who laughed at it.
“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.”Some of the jokes told in East Germany were variations on classic German tropes. Many East German jokes featured the character Fritzchen, or Little Fritz, a precocious young boy who would trick adults with wordplay into looking like buffoons. One such example
The teacher asks in school: “What is the most important thing in socialism?” The students consider and little Fritz (Fritzchen) answers: “The most important thing in socialism is the human!” The teacher: “That is a good answer, Fritzchen. I will give you a B-grade.” Fritzchen is dissatisfied and responds emphatically: “Would you maybe give me an A if I told you what the human’s name was?”And of course, I would be remiss if I did not mention the Trabant. Affectionately nicknamed the “Trabi,” the Trabant motor vehicle was a unique DDR creation and the most common automobile in the country. It ran on only two speeds and gumption, with a reportedly plastic shell to boot. The car was notoriously unreliable and the wait list to get one often ran on for years. It’s such an ironic reference now; I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s already graced a graphic T-shirt or two. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if Urban Outfitters started selling the car itself. Suffice it to say, the low quality of the Trabi lent itself to many a joke. Here are a few:
“What’s the best feature of a Trabant? There’s a heater at the back to keep your hands warm when you’re pushing it.” “A new Trabi has been launched with two exhaust pipes — so you can use it as a wheelbarrow.”
A few more examples:After the fall of the Berlin Wall, re-unification meant the death of this brand of East German humor. With new political freedom, the DDR jokes factory closed for business. Elizabeth TenDyke’s case study, “Humor As Resistance” at George Mason University, quoted an East German speaking on humor: “We couldn’t laugh out loud about the Stasi or say Honecker was an asshole. We had to ‘talk through the flowers.’ It was a lot more powerful then. Now everyone can walk down the street and say Kohl is an asshole. It doesn’t mean the same anymore.”
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.