How Many Angela Merkels Does It Take to Screw German Comedy?

The prosecution of Germany's leading satirist might be just what the country's comedy scene needed.

Picture taken on June 14, 2013 shows German TV comedian Jan Boehmermann posing for a picture in Berlin.
Chancellor Angela Merkel on April 15, 2016 authorised a Turkish demand for criminal proceedings against Boehmermann over a crude satirical poem about President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a bitter row over free speech. / AFP / dpa / Jörg Carstensen / Germany OUT        (Photo credit should read JORG CARSTENSEN/AFP/Getty Images)
Picture taken on June 14, 2013 shows German TV comedian Jan Boehmermann posing for a picture in Berlin. Chancellor Angela Merkel on April 15, 2016 authorised a Turkish demand for criminal proceedings against Boehmermann over a crude satirical poem about President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a bitter row over free speech. / AFP / dpa / Jörg Carstensen / Germany OUT (Photo credit should read JORG CARSTENSEN/AFP/Getty Images)

BERLIN — German comedy isn’t exactly known for its trenchant wit. The country’s most popular comedian over the past few years has been Cindy aus Marzahn, a loud, large woman in a garish outfit whose act mostly consists of crudely poking fun at working-class East Germans (her best-known catchphrase, “Alzheimer’s-bulimia,” is a reference to a bit about forgetting to throw up after binge eating). A 2011 survey of 30,000 people from across the globe found that Germany was regarded as the “least funny” country in the world, and postwar Germany has yet to produce an internationally known comic. The closest, perhaps, was the Monty Python-esque Loriot and his satire of German manners, though he passed away in 2011.

The reason, of course, is partially linguistic. Fewer people speak German than English. German grammar’s emphasis on clarity lends itself poorly to punch lines. And comedy is notoriously hard to translate. But part of the reason is also cultural.

Germany wasn’t always so notoriously unfunny. Before the Second World War, the country had helped pioneer a format known as kabarett – a mixture of satirical comedy, lyrical performance, and music that is the root of much of American stand-up comedy and late-night TV and that distinguished itself from its French equivalent with an overtly political slant. In the late years of the Weimar Republic, for example, kabarettists like Kurt Tucholsky wrote songs and poems poking fun at Adolf Hitler. But then came the Third Reich: The Nazi regime killed or drove out a huge contingent of Germany’s artists and performers, leaving a massive hole in Germany’s postwar cultural landscape from which many believe the country’s entertainment scene and sense of humor has yet to recover.

Enter Jan Böhmermann.

Before the 35-year-old became the man at the center of what has surely been one of the stranger poetry-related diplomatic tiffs in recent memory, Böhmermann was already making a name for himself as one of the most ambitious German satirists in a generation. His willingness to offend established German media figures and his expensively produced viral videos about the Greek financial crisis and the refugee situation had turned him into a hero among young Germans, casting him as a modern heir to Germany’s prewar comedy tradition and — although he is reluctant to attach himself to any political affiliation — a new voice for the German left.

Then came the “poem affair,” as it has come to be known. On March 31, Böhmermann opened his publicly funded TV show, Neo Magazin Royale, by announcing that he was about to do something that was “not allowed.” He then read out a profane poem about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that included, among other lines, the following:

“Dumb, cowardly and uptight,

is Erdogan the president.

His thing smells like doener,

even a pig’s fart smells nicer.”

The poem went on to criticize Erdogan’s treatment of minorities and atrocious civil rights record, and claimed that Erdogan likes to have sex with goats and was a pedophile. The purposely crude bit was meant as a calculated challenge to German law, whose Paragraph 103 prohibits the “abusive criticism” of foreign leaders, and which Böhmermann saw as unjustly catering to the whims of despots. He had been inspired by a widely discussed earlier incident, in which the Turkish government summoned the German ambassador over a satirical song by another German TV show.

The reaction came swiftly. Böhmermann’s broadcaster, ZDF, pulled the clip from the Internet. The deputy prime minister of Turkey called it a “serious crime against humanity.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel, seemingly worried that the dispute might jeopardize her recent refugee deal with Ankara, described it as “purposely hurtful.” Turkish government initiated legal action against the satirist in Germany, using the law Böhmermann had purposely violated, that could theoretically result in up to five years of jail time.

The extent of the fallout seems to have caught even Böhmermann by surprise. But as the government scrambles to contain the damage, the question remains: Has Böhmermann overplayed his hand? Or have Merkel, Erdogan, and the German media all become pawns in Böhmermann’s joke?

* * *

Although Böhmermann has been popular among younger, Web-savvy, politically left-wing Germans for nearly a decade, he was largely an unknown in the German mainstream before the events of the past three weeks.

The son of a police officer, Böhmermann began writing for a Bremen newspaper, Die Norddeutsche, at 16. In a Skype conversation last year, he explained that he quickly realized that he was “too unserious to be a journalist” in his youth, and focused on entertainment instead. He began pushing the boundaries of German propriety early in his career: He was fired from an early radio job when he refused to record a promotional bit and in 2005, he created a recurring radio series on the youth channel of a public broadcaster that purported to be the audio diary of Lukas Podolski, a notoriously show-offy and ineloquent German football player. His version of Podolski said idiotic things like “football is like chess, but without the dice.” Podolski later sued Böhmermann, but a Munich court rejected the suit.

Since then, Böhmermann has slowly worked his way up the comedy ladder, collaborating with other prominent German satirists, like Harald Schmidt, while distinguishing himself with a uniquely prickly public persona. In a Skype conversation last year, Böhmermann explained that he sees himself as an ambassador for a new generation of German humor: “The most important thing is the people who are on [German TV] right now die away, that they get old and go into retirement and that young people will come up.”

Böhmermann’s career has been punctuated by a series of escalating rebellions against — by American standards — the prim and conservative German media establishment. He co-created a roundtable talk show in 2012 with British television presenter Charlotte Roche called Roche & Böhmermann that aired weekly in the evenings and doubled as a parody of respectable German talk shows. Though it boasts some of the best-funded public television channels in the world, German TV programming is notoriously conservative and dull – a mixture of cheesy movies-of-the-week, broad comedy, and polite political talk shows. By contrast, Böhmermann began one episode of the show by taking a Viagra pill and saying that he “hoped that he would become the first German talk show host to have an erection on TV.” (In the end, he became only “mildly dizzy.”)

But it wasn’t until he received his own weekly evening talk show in 2013 that Böhmermann began refashioning himself as the conscience of progressive Germany. Neo Magazin (the “Royale” was added to the title last year) consists of a 30- to 45-minute mixture of monologues, sketch comedy, and interviews with public figures and blends wry observational humor with absurdist touches. The show has never been as overtly political as The Daily Show or Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, but as it has progressed, Neo Magazin’s political content has become sharper and more pronounced. In part, that may be as a result of a trial-and-error approach to winning audience share: Neo Magazin has largely made its name, both in Germany and abroad, on the shareability of its intricately produced viral videos, which are often in English and whose more successful iterations have tended to focus on politics.

Böhmermann took the helm of his own show at the height of the euro zone crisis, a time many within the country had become increasingly uncomfortable with the way Germany appeared to be throwing its weight around the continent. The subject of German hypocrisy has a way of getting Böhmermann worked up, even in conversation. “The Germans have the feeling that they’ve somehow been given short shrift,” he said over Skype, about the euro crisis, “which is total nonsense, total nonsense.”

When Merkel forced strict austerity demands on a stricken Greece in exchange for financial aid, he released a music video deriding German hypocrisy in English, featuring a man in a Nazi uniform. The lyrics: “We are Germans! We are honest, trustworthy people. … Our gold reserves are the second-largest in the world. … Please don’t ask us where it came from!” The video ended up making headlines in Greece.

Since then, most of Böhmermann’s more successful bits have dealt with — whether directly or indirectly — modern German identity. Like many Germans, he is attached to Germany’s open-minded democratic values while being deeply skeptical of patriotic sentiment. “At night I don’t like to walk around in the areas where there are German flags hanging outside,” he said over Skype last year. “We don’t exist. There is not such a thing as Germans. There are local patriotic feelings, but a German identity has never existed, even before the Second World War.”

This winter, he created a parody of a German action movie that doubled as a critique of the German refugee debate. It featured a shoot-out among neo-Nazis, feminists, left-wing activists, and refugees. “To make sure the Cologne New Year’s attacks never happen again,” it said, as he picked up a rocket launcher and aimed it at the Cologne Cathedral, “we must reduce all of Cologne to rubble.” In another more earnest video, meant as a critique of rising Europe right-wing populism, a crowd of refugee-helping, hijab-wearing Germans runs across the screen while Böhmermann yells, “We are proud of not being proud!” The willingness to look sharply at issues of German identity extends to the country’s dark history – a subject that, unlike other German comedians, Böhmermann told me he prefers to tackle head on: “The world won’t be able to laugh about Germany until it understands that things like the Second World War or the First World War were meant ironically,” he said. “We have a very dark sense of humor.”

His show quickly achieved a small but dedicated following, in particular among young Germans who primarily watch American TV and have long felt uninspired by the mainstream German media. “People who are as old as me … people already think like this,” he said over Skype. “It’s just unconventional that we are able to do this in TV, that we’re able to do it in the ZDF.” What makes Böhmermann unique for is young German viewers is the way he takes their politics and packages them in an ironic and Internet-savvy way.

Last year, Böhmermann made his first attempt at instigating an international diplomatic incident. At the time, Günther Jauch — a highly popular German public television host – had unearthed a video in which Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek finance minister, raised his middle finger at “Germany” in a speech in Croatia in May 2013. To conservative Germans, it came across as a needless provocation and a sign of ingratitude for the billions of euros Germany had sent to Greece. In response, Varoufakis implausibly claimed the video had been doctored.

Over several weeks, Böhmermann and his team produced an elaborate video that purported to demonstrate that Varoufakis was right — that Böhmermann’s team had in fact managed to dupe the German people with a fake video of the middle finger that they later passed along to Jauch, who fell for it and put it on his show. Böhmermann’s fake behind-the-scenes video featured a Varoufakis impersonator and a green-screen arm, and was so convincing that the German media spent weeks debating its authenticity. In a strange twist, Varoufakis “confirmed” that Böhmermann’s video was authentic in an interview with a Greek TV station. (The ZDF later issued a statement saying it was a fake).

Böhmermann’s goal was to highlight German self-importance – or, as he put it in his original “Varoufake” video, the fact that the inhabitants of a country responsible for “devastating Europe twice within a century” would be offended by a Greek man giving it the finger – but he managed to do much more. In what is now becoming his hallmark, his joke pulled in countless unwilling participants, including Varoufakis himself and members of the German journalism community. It threw into question the trustworthiness of the German media, and of the official narrative surrounding the Greek crisis, and as the hundreds of thousands of YouTube views racked up, began a news story in its own right, worthy of coverage in the New York Times.

With his poem stunt, Böhmermann has managed to create a similar satirical gesamtkunstwerk, albeit on a much larger scale. As the fallout from his bit has drifted further and further out of his control, it has become a lightning rod for discussions about German constitutional freedoms, racial stereotypes, the social responsibilities of comedy, and Erdogan’s authoritarian clampdown on civil rights. The head of the German Turkish community complained that Böhmermann’s joke was “misplaced and insulting,” while Der Spiegel, Germany’s leading newsmagazine, put Böhmermann on its cover and declared that his poem segment “belongs in the museum of German history.” Merkel’s reaction to the affair has spurred its own heated debate, with some seeing it as the beginning of a “slow end” for the chancellor.

In the wake of the video, Böhmermann has hidden himself from public view. He’s been given police protection, canceled public appearances, and announced that he was taking a break for several weeks from his television and radio show. He hasn’t given any interviews either. According to an article in this week’s Der Spiegel, he was genuinely taken by surprise by the size of the reaction, and when he found out that the ZDF had taken his skit off its website, he seemed “unsure of himself.” A friend of his told German radio that Böhmermann “hadn’t expected that it would take on this scale.”

But whether he planned it or not, Böhmermann has managed to accomplish something that most German politicians could only dream of: He’s forced Merkel to bend to his will. In a news conference last week, Merkel said she was allowing Erdogan’s lawsuit against Böhmermann to proceed because “courts should have the last word,” but she also announced that Paragraph 103 would be removed from German law by 2018, thus fulfilling Böhmermann’s original goal. More recently, the German justice minister announced that he would like to abolish it even earlier.

In our interview last year, Böhmermann said his biggest goal was to inspire more ambitious young Germans to enter the entertainment industry with a goal of transforming it. “There is no Monty Python in Germany,” he said. “There is nothing that pulls young, enlightened people into the media because they think it’s good.” Over the past several weeks, Böhmermann has proved that that is no longer true – and that he is German comedy’s greatest hope.

Photo credit: JORG CARSTENSEN/AFP/Getty Images

Thomas Rogers is a freelance writer based in Berlin.

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