There’s an old joke about the citizens of Deutschland that goes like this:
How many Germans does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
One. They’re very efficient and they have no sense of humor.
The problem with indulging in completely accurate bigotry of this sort is that someone always presents exceptions to this blanket condemnation and ruins our fun of concluding that all Germans are uptight assholes. Usually someone on Twitter.
And I can tell you from my time spent in Germany that there aren’t simply exceptions; there are too many different sorts of “Germans” to precisely pinpoint their hilarious character flaws. It can be disillusioning, like when you find out that almost no Polish submarines feature screen doors.* Despite what the local skinheads might tell you, there simply is no one, essential German identity. For one thing, anyone moving here who assumes the country will consist entirely of unemotional blondes will be surprised to find himself surrounded by Turks, who can be alarmingly affectionate. There are also Russians, Africans, all manner of Middle Easterners, and a Creole guy called Fizzy. And let’s not forget that I’m not the only American living in Deutschland. There are a large number of U.S. refugees passing as Germans here, scheming numerous lightbulb-changing methods and being relentlessly jocular.
But this multi-kulti utopianism kills the buzz of our stereotyping. Americans would prefer to picture a Germany populated entirely with miserably morose Werner Herzogs, grumbling about the futility of existence, because, goddammit, that’s funny. And okay, having married one of these efficiency experts myself, I will admit that certain general characteristics of German-ness have been validated through Heike, her family, and her humorless German friends. There’s a little Herzog in every Hamburger.
Of course they do not actually lack a sense of humor – my wife and her associates are warm, lively individuals. They laugh heartily and frequently, engaging in sardonic musings and funny personal anecdotes. Further, there is a long traditional of German cabaret comedy involving rich double-entendre, political satire, and even parodies of typical German rigidity. But let’s just say I cannot for the life of me imagine any of them ever making a prank phone call. That level of malicious tomfoolery would be unthinkable. The irrationality of calling someone without the express purpose of achieving total, factual clarity would seem ghastly to a German. Same goes for exploding cigars or toothpaste on a cupcake. Unexpected outcomes are out, and irony goes over like a lead balloon.
When I consider the humor I have enjoyed in my time, the convulsive, breathless, 2 a.m. fits of laughter over Daryl’s Ward Cleaver impression, Karen’s dry commentary on Falcon Crest, or Kevin accidentally swallowing a condom (package and all), I cannot imagine a German falling victim to this level of hysteria. The helplessness, the lack of control – this would seem dangerous to a German. No mere witticism or bit of drunken slapstick could possibly be worth losing one’s composure. Unlike in America, where underarm farts could go flying at any time, seriousness is a German virtue.
Americans, boisterous and gregarious as we tend to be, will enter a room already laughing about nothing. We are a nation of back-slapping kidders, erupting in guffaws at funerals and in the ICU, spritzing ironic merriment over any situation. We are a laughing people in search of a joke, and we will find one even if grandiose self-delusion becomes necessary. Americans will titter endlessly watching Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo for the 27th time because the tragic stupidity of our culture requires this camp appreciation. America is always ludicrous. The Germans, by contrast, expect genuine quality in their culture because they usually get it. No one cuts their hair with a Flowbee or makes dinner with a Chop-O-Matic in Germany because there are real, quality products manufactured here for those tasks. Americans wrap themselves up in Snuggies while they make jokes about Snuggies. Everything in America comes pre-ridiculed.
The trouble with Germans is that their minds have been corrupted by logic. Generations of strict measurement standards and space-saving uniformity have created an expectation of pragmatism. The Germans do not first look for humorous intent in a given concept but for utilitarian value. They expect things to make sense, and unless you slap a warning label on any incoming sentiment reading “Achtung: Humor,” an attempted joke is likely to irritate because it does not deliver practical information. You are filling time with wasteful frivolity when problem solving could be taking place.
Thus, a proposed reality in which more than one person is required to change a lightbulb is not acceptable. Further, the obvious illogic of this multiple-bulbscrewers equation needs to be explained to you, lest your festering ignorance be allowed to develop to an unmanageable degree. Chances are good that a German will also be concerned with the energy efficiency of the bulb in question.
Noted mirthmaker that I am, I have often delivered well-polished witticisms to my loving wife only to have them not so much fall flat as slowly perish through merciless dissection. “What is this stuff about a Creole guy named Fizzy?” she will demand. “There is no such person. And why do you make this joke about Hamburgers when you have never been to Hamburg?” I try meekly to defend the art of the non-sequitur and the joys of pure alliteration, but my attempts at humor have been crushed under the weight of ruthless German fact checking.
To the traditional German, these stabs at light comedy are excessive, untidy. Clutter. Like the cartoon collectibles I like to scatter about the house that The Heike refers to as “dust catchers.” There is no room for this junk in the orderly German worldview. Of what use is all this claptrap?
These cultural differences were made clear early in our relationship. Once I was explaining to Heike about the non-sport of fizzball, a drunken outdoor activity promoted in the 1980s by the cartoonist Steve Purcell. Fizzball involves a baseball bat, cheap beer in cans, and healthy doses of rowdy stupidity. You shake up the can of beer, pitch it to the batter, and enjoy a huge explosion of foam and shredded aluminum when each Staggering Sultan of Swat connects. I recounted all this to her, sharing stories of the fizzball tournaments of my youth, my eyes wet with joyous reminiscence of the beer-soaked Good Times.
“A German would never do this,” she responded.
I became defensive.
“Of course he wouldn’t,” I countered, “because it’s stupid, filthy, redneck FUN!” Saying this, I found a strange pressure rising in my chest, a burning sensation that forced my spine erect. I felt an angry entitlement to the beautiful legacy of my own idiocy, sparked by the suggestion that one should behave with some level of dignity. And I realized that this feeling was what was the patriotic among us refer to as National Pride.
*I’d like to publicly absolve myself of any expected guilt associated with having trafficked in “Polack” jokes as a child, seeing as I had no idea what Poland was and assumed “Polacks” were simply some alien race who existed, solely and happily, as targets of our hilarious abuse.
** For the record, I also detest crank calls and other such prank-based humor, which is probably why I feel so at home in Deutschland.