Friday, February 20, 2009

Die Ente bleibt draussen

I've never been able to tell a joke properly. For some reason, I simply can't remember the order in which the elements come, or I forget the premise entirely. I remember the punch lines more often than not, but wreck the joke by leaving out the one detail that makes the punch line funny. This was a serious handicap when I was a bartender and I can remember a lot of punch lines from the time, but not the set up. I've been thinking about one of those jokes a lot this year, trying to remember how it went. It was one of those really dark, evil jokes that turn a tragic current event into an opportunity for a cheap laugh. The punch line was, "Sunny, and von Bülow."

It was based on the trial in which Claus von Bülow was found guilty of the attempted murder of his wife, Sunny. He was later acquitted in an appeal and his attorney, Professor Alan Dershowitz, wrote a book about the trial, Reversal of Fortune. Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close played Claus and Sunny respectively, in the film that followed quickly on the heels of the book. I'm thinking about the case now after 30 years because another scion of the von Bülow family is so often in the news here in Germany: Vicco von Bülow, better known under his pseudonym, Loriot. Loriot is a phenomenal performer, artist, writer, and comedian. He's 86 this year and his life's work is being celebrated with museum exhibitions, magazine articles and a good TV documentary, which I watched last night.

Loriot's work, even more than that of other comedy writers and performers, is so closely tied to language, and the German language in particular, that he never made a career outside of the German speaking world. He loves the stiff formality of official German, in German it's called "Amtsdeutsch," and uses it to devastating effect in his work. That work includes TV sketches, film, cartoons, books and live performances. A music lover from an early age, he has even been invited to direct opera performances. Almost everything I've seen from Loriot is based on the tension between a specific use of language, often a formality made possible by the use of Amtsdeutsch, and a situation which is completely at odds with the way language is being used. My personal favorite is Die Herren im Bad. Watch it by following this link to YouTube, but be prepared: if you're not a German speaker, it will probably be a big disappointment. The premise is that a hotel guest climbs into his bath, only to find that it's already occupied by a stranger who has mixed up his room number and entered the wrong room. The two men are faced with a situation that would send most of us running, but they never lose their formality. Take this line for example:

Aber jetzt wissen Sie, dass Sie in einer Fremdwanne sitzen und baden trotzdem weiter.

I am by no means a trained translator, but in my opinion, a sentence like this can't be written in English. And if it could, it certainly wouldn't be funny. In German on the other hand it is a sentence that even if he had never written another word, earns Loriot my undying respect. For economy, it's on a par with the Gettysburg Address. For humor I'd compare it favorably with President Wagstaff's speech to the faculty of Huxley College. That means an eleven on a scale of one to ten.

Loriot has a special appeal to a visual artist, having been educated at the Hamburg Kunstakademie. One of his fellow students was Horst Janssen, another excellent artist not well known outside the German speaking world. Janssen stuck with drawing and painting, but Loriot parlayed an opportunity as a cartoonist for Stern into a career that allowed him to do essentially whatever he wanted. I'm envious and imagine I too could have been a big success if I had just had a chance at directing film or writing for television. But let's face it, I can't even tell a simple joke properly. If anyone remembers the premise for the von Bülow joke, please let me know.

And for those of my readers who are not German speakers, Loriot put together the following sketch which is almost all physical comedy. It needs no explanation.

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