How were you born?
Does an irony about an irony cancel itself out?

Comparative Humour: Germany vs. Switzerland

In his movie Ford Fairlane, Rock and Roll Detective, Andrew Dice Clay cast Priscilla Presley as a woman so rich she didn't need a sense of humour. If you look at the world through this lens, humourless people—and nations—make much more sense.

Take the Swiss. When it comes to jokes, the Swiss make the Germans look positively Irish.

A chuckle or two helps a downtrodden nation get through the day.  But in a cashed-up economy,  you could go for weeks without so much as a smirk. 

How rich are the Swiss?  They took the most popular key from their pocket calculators, and sewed it into the flag, that's how rich they are.

True, many well-to-do Swiss wear smiles, but that's just recreational.  Don't mistake it for serious, life-sustaining, meat-and-potatoes laughter.  

In 2009, the Swiss National Museum in Zurich sought to dispel the stereotype.  Witzerland was an exhibition devoted to Swiss humour, which lasted four months and hasn't been seen since.    

The Swiss comic magazine Nebelspalter ("fog clearer") co-sponsored the event.  Yesterday's Nebelspalter cartoons suggest that Swiss readers laugh mainly about money.   They suck heavy schadenfreude out of the Euro.  Not raising a lot of laughs around my house, lemme tellya.

Irony in Steel

Just because they don't have a sense of humour, doesn't mean the Swiss don't make jokes.  Perhaps their biggest joke is the Swiss Army.  I've observed before that it speaks poorly of a fighting force if its principal weapon of combat usually deploys as a corkscrew. 

'Twas not always so.  In the late 1800s, a Swiss Army Knife was exactly that.  A folding knife.

But then, someone had the bright idea to issue the force with rifles.  To maintain a rifle, you need to take it apart.  As a nation of watchmakers knows, to take anything apart, you need a screwdriver.  And bingo, the Swiss Army knife we know today was born.

If you have no sense of humour, you might have missed the memo which says exaggeration is often used for comic effect. 

The German-speaking company, Wenger, one of two which has the contract to make knives for the Swiss Army, came up with this little beauty. Wenger Swiss Army Officer Knife 2

Wenger is serious about this knife.  They are serious when they tell you that it contains 87 implements performing 141 functions—though exactly how a screwdriver can function when its handle is over 100 times wider than the blade is not made clear. 

English-speaking e-commerce sites sell this simply as a "Giant Knife", but the German description (on reveals the true extent of Swiss humourlessness.   This is the Officer's Version.

They are also serious when they tell you, with a straight face, that they charge $1500 for it at retail.  They are serious when they charge you $2149.95 to buy it direct from the factory, wihout a middle-man.  They are equally serious when they say customers who bought this also bought the Heritage Swiss Army knife, with a paltry four blades, for a mere $500. 

If you plug the customer ratings into a translator, you can get a feel for humour in the German speaking world. 

One customer, identifying herself as Frau Imelda Marcos, decries this instrument as sexist, since it doesn't provide a vacuum cleaner.  Others praise it as a medical wonder.  Another thinks its 4G reception is poor.  Still another notes that it failed to repair the Deepwater Horizon.

These are precisely engineered jokes of the highest quality. 

Stranger than Dichtung.

Has the German-speaking world missed an irony to mock, right under its nose, on Amazon?

Colle BaronIt has to do with a certain Karl Theodore zu Guttenberg.   A certain Baron Karl Theodor Maria Nikolaus Johann Jacob Philipp Franz Joseph Sylvester Freiherr von und zu Guttenberg.

That name should be plenty to snigger at.  He skives off more feast days than a Catholic kindergarten, plus he is both Karl of Guttenberg, and he's Karl at Guttenberg. But there's more.

Zu Guttenberg was German defence minister, a real star of Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union, until he suffered a humiliating fall from grace.  It turns out he plagiarised vast slabs of his doctoral thesis. (Title: Constitution and Convention, Stages of Constitutional Development in the US and EU.  That should have been a clue.)  His excuse?  He was busy.

He has since taken up a position as Distinguished Statesman at the Center for Strategic and International Sudies in Washington. He lives in Connecticut.  Those who see no irony in this, should really have their funnybones checked.

There's more.  It turns out that the hapless Baron published his thesis.  You can buy a copy on  

Like the Wenger knife, the price tag raises a laugh in itself.  At €490, perhaps it's cheaper to assemble it yourself from the component plagiarised parts.

FussnotenUnlike the Wenger knife, only a handful of German speakers have taken the opportunity to joke at the author's expense in the buyers' comments.   Most are sarcastic rather than witty, though one did suggest that university assessors appreciated the brilliant Dadaism of the Baron's work.

The most delicious irony lurks beneath the reviews.  If the algorithm smiles upon you, in the window where Amazon says what else folks bought, you might see a book written by a previous Baron zu Guttenberg, another Karl Theodor.  He was the current Baron's grandfather, also a prominent conservative politician and published author.

The subject of the grandfather's book?  The art of the footnote.  

Here in German-speaking Europe, irony is no joke.  It's a way of life.

EDIT: The ever-watchful John Carter Wood, co-author of Obscene Desserts, points out a splendid piece about the German sense of humour by Andrew Hammel.  (Here's another by Andrew)  A complex subject, which is an elephant in the room during many conversations between Germans and others. 

And American writer Scott Stephenson tries to make sense of English-Language humour for Germans, in German.  Good luck.

FURTHER EDIT: After zu Guttenberg's disgrace, universities examined several other doctorates held by German politicians.  Jorgo Chatzimarkakis and Silvana Koch-Mehrin both found themselves stripped of their academic titles, when both were found to have copied more than 50% of their theses.  The two are members of a right-libertarian party, the FDP.  Perhaps this will teach them a little lesson in the need for regulation.

comments powered by Disqus