sábado, 23 de abril de 2016
Is Jan Böhmermann funny?
Is Jan Böhmermann funny?
In a defamation case that’s garnered worldwide attention, the Germans turn to debating the essence of comedy.
By KONSTANTIN RICHTER 4/23/16, 3:18 PM CET Updated 4/23/16, 3:34 PM CET
Ever since the comedian Jan Böhmermann read a poem called “Slanderous Criticism” on public television, prompting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to take legal action, German analysts have looked at it from every angle. First they discussed the judicial perspective. Then they examined the political implications. And then, finally, they got to the most complicated question: Is the poem funny? Is it perhaps even a great work of art?
Humor, traditionally, doesn’t have a high standing in German culture. Goethe and Schiller weren’t particularly funny, and no one has ever called Heidegger’s “Being and Time” a comical masterpiece. At the University of Bremen, there’s a professor who’s done some serious research on humor. Whenever the media need an authority on laughing matters, they give him a call. But now that a bit of comedy has turned into a matter of global importance, every German suddenly claims to have an informed opinion as to its comedic value. And so I thought I’d give it a go, too.
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For anyone who hasn’t been following the news: The whole thing started with Erdoğan’s request for a ban on a satirical clip called “Erdowie Erdowo Erdoğan” that ran on German television. In response, Böhmermann, the 35-year-old host of another comedy show, set out to illustrate the legal limits of satire — and presented something that went far beyond. “This thing I’m doing now is not allowed, right?” he said and then recited a few couplets about the Turkish President’s small penis reeking of döner kebab and being sore from gang-banging. He also rhymed “f—ing goats” with “suppressing minorities.”
Böhmermann’s crude little poem, in the end, is just a crude little poem and not a comical masterpiece.
While defending Böhmermann’s right to freedom of speech, the English-language media overwhelmingly refrained from doing a line-by-line translation. The New York Times, the well-bred old lady, only said the poem was “laced with profanity.”
Most German opinion leaders, on the other hand, didn’t think the poem was crude at all. Discussing the affair in the nation’s Feuilletons, or arts pages, they usually refer to something they call the “meta-level.” Taken at face value, the poem isn’t funny, they argue, but what makes it humorous is the fact that the comedian embedded it in an analysis of German defamation laws.
Helge Malchow, a well-known book publisher, likened Böhmermann’s poem about the goat-f—ing Turk to “context communication,” which, he said, is “the essence of modern art.” The problem, he added condescendingly, is that saying one thing and meaning another is an art form “atavistic societies” — i.e. the Turks — don’t fully understand. Mathias Döpfner, CEO of Axel Springer (a co-owner of Politico Europe) said he laughed out loud when he read the poem and called it a “masterpiece.”
But is it really? A little history lesson may be in order here. The Germans, after all, aren’t known for their sophisticated sense of humor. In the 1930s, “the main protagonists of German humor were either killed or forced to flee,” writers Jakob Hein and Jürgen Witte recount in their book “Germans and Humor: A History of Antagonism.” This left only Nazi-approved comedians. When the war was over, the Allies, understandably suspicious of German humor, oversaw the founding of the so-called political cabarets. These institutions had cute names like Die Stachelschweine (“The Porcupines”) or Kommödchen (“Little Comedies”) and mostly engaged in the type of politically correct humor designed to re-educate and denazify the Germans. On public television, the bureaucrats of ARD and ZDF made sure that things didn’t get out of hand. And in East Germany, of course, the state kept an even closer eye on anything bordering on humorous.
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Some of the stuff that was passed off as German humor during these years was intelligent and subtle. But it sure wasn’t unruly. That all changed with the deregulation of the television industry in the 1980s and 1990s. Privately-owned channels such as RTL and Sat1 had lots of air space to fill, and they borrowed heavily from U.S. pop culture. In 1995, comedian Harald Schmidt launched his late night show, a Letterman rip-off that soon developed a life of its own. Schmidt, an intellectual type with a background in high-brow theater, liked to reenact Samuel Beckett plays on air. He also told jokes about the Poles. Schmidt wasn’t a racist. When he told a racist joke, the fact that he was telling a racist joke was meant to be a joke, too — a distinction that may indeed have been lost on those viewers who just enjoyed laughing about Poles.
Schmidt, the comedian who never really meant what he said, shaped Germany’s sense of humor. The Germans discovered the many uses of irony in daily life, and lots of taboos were lifted. These days, when you see someone raising their right hand in public that someone is usually a stand-up comedian, and the Hitler salute is meant to be ironic. (Unless, of course, he’s a Neo-Nazi. Then it’s not.) The same goes for those politically incorrect jokes about Turks, Poles and other foreigners that for many years were only told in private. They’re officially okay now as long as it’s understood that you don’t really mean it.
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Which brings us back to Böhmermann, who just happens to be a Schmidt disciple. In the late-night show’s latter years when Schmidt was exhausted from too many late nights, Böhmermann was his sidekick — and it shows. The Süddeutsche Zeitung recently called Böhmermann a comedian who likes “to put one meta-level on top of another.” So, on the meta-level in this case, Böhmermann goads Erdoğan into taking legal action — and exposes him as an autocrat who has no regard for press freedom. Coming at a time when Merkel depends on Erdoğan’s support more than ever, this is somewhat clever.
On another meta-level, though, Böhmermann knowingly toys with the long-standing German tradition of racist jokes about Turkey — a nation that many people here still consider culturally inferior, and love to make fun of. The Turks living in Germany know the gibes about goats and smelly döner kebabs. They’ve heard them all before. So they don’t care whether there’s a meta-level or not. Because when someone says that he isn’t saying something and says it nonetheless, the bottom line is that he said it.
Or to put it another way: Böhmermann’s crude little poem, in the end, is just a crude little poem and not a comical masterpiece. Which isn’t saying that he should go to jail for a joke. There’s more at stake here than the humor of it. But that’s on the meta-meta-level, I guess.
Konstantin Richter, a German novelist and journalist, is a contributing writer at POLITICO. He is the author of “Bettermann” and “Kafka was Young and He Needed the Money.”