The Null Device


Writing in the Graun, comedian Stewart Lee examines the foundations of the stereotype that the Germans don't have a sense of humour; he finds that it comes from the structure of the German language making certain types of humorous devices impossible:

At a rough estimate, half of what we find amusing involves using little linguistic tricks to conceal the subject of our sentences until the last possible moment, so that it appears we are talking about something else. For example, it is possible to imagine any number of British stand-ups concluding a bit with something structurally similar to the following, "I was sitting there, minding my own business, naked, smeared with salad dressing and lowing like an ox ... and then I got off the bus." We laugh, hopefully, because the behaviour described would be inappropriate on a bus, but we had assumed it was taking place either in private or perhaps at some kind of sex club, because the word "bus" was withheld from us.
But German will not always allow you to shunt the key word to the end of the sentence to achieve this failsafe laugh. After spending weeks struggling with the rigours of the German language's far less flexible sentence structures to achieve the endless succession of "pull back and reveals" that constitute much English language humour, the idea of our comedic superiority soon begins to fade. It is a mansion built on sand.
The German phenomenon of compound words also serves to confound the English sense of humour. In English there are many words that have double or even triple meanings, and whole sitcom plot structures have been built on the confusion that arises from deploying these words at choice moments. Once again, German denies us this easy option. There is less room for doubt in German because of the language's infinitely extendable compound words. In English we surround a noun with adjectives to try to clarify it. In German, they merely bolt more words on to an existing word. Thus a federal constitutional court, which in English exists as three weak fragments, becomes Bundesverfassungsgericht, a vast impregnable structure that is difficult to penetrate linguistically, like that Nazi castle in Where Eagles Dare. The German language provides fully functional clarity. English humour thrives on confusion.
(The last part also nicely demonstrates something else mentioned in the raft of German-themed articles in today's Graun: the English tendency to associate Germany with Nazis. But I digress.)
Third, for the smutty British comic writers, it seemed difficult to find a middle-ground between scientifically precise language describing sexual and bodily functions, and outright obscenity. There seemed to be no nuanced, nudge-nudge no-man's land, where English comic sensibilities and German logic could meet on Christmas Day and kick around a few dirty jokes in a cheeky, Carry On-style way. A German theatre director explained that this was because the Germans did not find the human body smutty or funny, due to all attending mixed saunas from an early age.
And here is a survey of German television comedy programming. It includes knockoffs of British and American shows, character-driven sketch shows, as well as more conceptual programming, such as the show that once broadcast 20 minutes of silence with the lights out.

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America may soon have its own Eurovision-style song contest. Of course, with America being, in its own eyes, the extent of the world, the contest will be between the 50 states. And since the states don't have their own national broadcasters, it will be run by commercial TV network NBC. In other words, it will probably turn out like American Idol or something, with little of the cross-cultural weirdness that makes Eurovision the kitschfest it is; expect to see big-haired Christians from down south, the odd multiply-pierced freak from San Francisco and a lot of standard saccharine ballads/MTV-style R&B-pop with perhaps a bit of local colour thrown in (that'd be banjo picking or tex-mex or perhaps the odd Celtic Mood, and not Balkan folk melodies or anything quite so leftfield), not to mention an excess of the sort of cloying earnestness America leads the world in.

Is anybody else reminded of this Onion article by the idea?

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Tonight, I went to the Barbican to see Os Mutantes. They were brilliant.

For those unfamiliar with them, Os Mutantes were a Brazilian psychedelic rock band formed in the late 1960s, combining traditional Brazilian samba styles with electric guitars and rock'n'roll. They were part of the Tropicalía movement, then went vaguely prog before breaking up in the early 1970s. Their music, however, was profoundly influencial on the arty/experimental edge of popular music, influencing the likes of Talking Heads, Stereolab, Beck and Architecture In Helsinki, to name four.

The version of Os Mutantes that played at the Barbican was a reformed one, including some 10 musicians, some of whom looked too young to remember the original band, though was fronted by Sérgio Baptista, the original frontman. They kicked off with a song that was a patchwork of chaos; a few bars in one style, then suddenly shifting to another, and so on, with the musicians changing instruments seamlessly. It worked rather well. The remainder of the songs varied between poignant acoustic melancholia, driving samba rhythm, psychedelic rock-outs and Beatles/Beach Boys-style melodic pop (and often combinations thereof); they did Cantor de Mambo (which they introduced as being about Sérgio Mendes in Los Angeles), starting off as a grooving samba and taking it into full rock mode, El Justiciero (with an introduction lambasting Bush and Blair, to the crowd's applause), Baby (the English-language one), a version of A Minha Menina with English lyrics, and quite a few songs, many of which I didn't recognise. The crowd loved it; first the Brazilians stood up and danced and eventually everybody else joined them. They finished off with a version of Bat Macumba (with Devendra Barnhart joining them on vocals, looking like a cross between a university lecturer and a mediaeval portrait of Jesus) and the crowd singing along (which is not hard), followed by a version of their art-pop/musique-concréte piece Panis Et Circenses, complete with the part where the tape slows to a halt.

The support band was a more recent Brazilian outfit named Nacao Zumbi, who were somewhere between Not Drowning Waving and Faith No More. They had five drummers on stage, with the expected amount of rhythm, a vaguely heavy-rock aesthetic and lilting Brazilian Portuguese vocals over the top. They sounded a bit murky; I'm not sure how much of that was intentional and how much was bad mixing. Anyway, the overall effect was a bit like a heavily armoured post-apocalyptic samba float.

This gig was being filmed as well; there were massive TV-studio-type video cameras positioned all around the auditorium, and as Os Mutantes played, several cameramen scurried around the periphery of the stage, mustering the self-discipline to stand still. I wouldn't be too surprised if this gig came out on DVD at some stage.

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