Germany is experiencing the end of an era with the recent August 22nd death of Bernhard Victor Christoph Carl von Bülow, pseudonym “Loriot.” For decades, Loriot has characterized and personified German humor, as well as confused and confounded American and British comedians.
It would be a decently safe assumption to say that Loriot lead and directed German humor. His influence is massive and lives on even after his death. Dieter Wedel, one of Germany’s most famous television directors (known for shows like Tatort and Schwarz Rot Gold) once said, “The Germans don’t have any sense of humor — the Germans have Loriot!” However, such a broad, sweeping statement also asks the question, what is German humor and why is it so widely misunderstood?
Loriot is known for his live action sketches, but even more so, for his cartoons. His work reflects the mindset and pervasive “German” perspective on life and human interactions. Most of his humor stems from problems with communication between individuals during every day life, the comedy therein coming from the staunchly formal nature of the German language. Loriot was, as per usual with all typically German writers, a stickler for grammar. In this sense, Americans attempting to understand German humor often deal with the problem of the fundamental humor being, so to say, “lost in translation.”
Many German jokes are based on double meanings, coming from German’s favoritism towards taking many words, ideas and concepts and crashing them into one (sometimes absurdly) long compound word. The German language has very strict grammatical structure and often relies more on humorous ideas opposed to English’s reliance on wordplay. Loriot brought a sort of inanity to his work with the juxtaposition of his character’s dignified behavior against the exaggeration of their features. This is typified in his short sketch Herren im Bad.
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Seriousness combined a focus on banal flaws is a stereotypical theme in German humor. This is also seen in the way that Germans observe and perceive the world and people around them. I mean, there is no serious data to prove this and I’m being entirely subjective, but in my experience, Germans do not focus on personality flaws as something you can easily change, but instead as something that is a basic part of a person’s being. You aren’t dumb because you don’t study, you’re just dumb because you are. They’re not going to shun you for being a bit socially inept, they’re just going to accept that you’re kinda weird and run with it. Needless to say, Americans generally DO NOT get this.
The problem with German humor, is that you need to understand German to get it. You can’t explain or clarify the nuances of German diction or the play of grammar in English. Comedy doesn’t translate. Loriot’s genius comes from the fact that he was exactly as meticulous with his words as he was with his physical comedy. He made fun of the narrow-mindedness of and excessive formality of German while maintaining respect for the language’s tone and essence.
In response to Loriot’s death, Germany’s president of parliament, Norbert Lammert, captured von Bülow’s lasting effect on German humor and culture stating, “Vicco von Bülow put his stamp on cultural life in Germany for decades and, as Loriot, helped Germans to gain a more relaxed view of their mentality and habits.”
Stefan Kuzmany, a correspondant from Der Spiegel(Germany’s top newsmagazine) summed it up nicely: “Abschließend bleibt zu sagen, dass Loriots Tod absolut nicht nötig gewesen wäre. Unsterblich war er längst. Er wird es bleiben.” (“Loriot’s death was absolutely unnecessary. He had long since become immortal. And will remain it.”)