Some Thoughts on Germany and the Art of the Cartoon
by Frank HOFFMANN, FECO-Germany
There are innumerable ways of worming your way through life, most of them connected with your character, be it constitutional or acquired. As far as humour is concerned, we find that it adds to any way of life found everywhere and anywhere, which does not necessarily mean that everybody has a sense of humour or regards it as something relevant. On the contrary, it is on the humourless that the humorist will focus his attention so as to find out what is funny, absurd or ridiculous about them. Life as the Theatre of the Absurd – that is the cartoonist´s theme (…)
Thus we may ask, what does humour – as presented by cartoonists, photographers, cabaret artistes, theatrical performers, comic designers etc. – have to offer? Causing an amused smile, hilarious laughter, moments of relaxation, making people recognize themselves in the subject presented and – above all – realizing that we are all rum customers.
German humour is often said to be non-existent. True or not, an opinion like this may be due to German individualism – but then our humour might be, let´s say, some kind of individualistic humour. Claiming that Germans do not have any sense of humour would mean missing the point. The German character is hard to define – much more so than the French, British or Russian characters. Are there, then, things which may be called typically German? Diligence, punctuality, reliability, obedience, discipline – forget all about these, they are but obsolete clichés; looking at contemporary Germany will set you straight at once. A nation of poets and philosophers? Moonshine. Individualism, extreme as it may be at times, is one aspect of the German character; a strong desire for unity, just as extreme, is another. Nothing to worry about? Well, there wouldn’t be, if the (typical) German could keep this dualism in balance, but he can´t, and it is this inability that makes it appear dangerous: like a pendulum, he swings from one extreme to the other, being totally convinced that the extreme he has eventually reached is the ne-plus-ultra. And then he tries to convince the world, too.
As for humour, there is a similar dualism. The humour published in German magazines (there are hardly any dailies that publish gag cartoons, not even at weekends) is meant for the common man, satisfactory on a low level. On the other hand, there is a highly intellectual kind of humour, frantically and tensely funny. In between, you will hardly find anything. Apparently, the German does not know the amused, relaxed smile. While international cartoon contests seem to prove the opposite presenting quite a number of German cartoonists with a relaxed sense of humour, German cartoonists do not count for much in their own country – only a few can make a living from their cartoons. Cartooning is simply not thought a serious occupation, and the German is very serious about matters of culture including light entertainment.
Nevertheless, the humorous drawing – particularly in the field of social and political criticism, but not exclusively – has had a long tradition in Germany: Wilhelm Busch, for instance, was not as harmless as many believe, he was bitterly satirical; George Grosz and Otto Dix were biting critics of society during the Expressionist period; and there were, of course, the caricaturists of “Simplicissimus”, probably the most widely known satirical magazine of all – it ceased to exist in the 1960s or 70s. Today, there are two such magazines, “Eulenspiegel” in Berlin and “Titanic” in Frankfurt/Main, both known to relatively small readerships.
Yet, where are the cartoonists like Bosc, Chaval, Mose, Loup and Quino – to mention just a few? Whether contemporary German humorists like Loriot, to me the grand master of exquisite humor, are known abroad I do not know. The younger generation of German comedians, anyhow, prefer overstatement to understatement; by fidgeting, pulling faces and making voices they often try to jazz up mediocre jokes. When I was a student nearly fifty years ago, one evening (during the carnival season) there were three or four of us sitting together in our usual pub; we were wearing cardboard noses and talking about some philosophical subject most seriously until we suddenly realized the absurdity of the situation and doubled up with laughter. There was no joke in it, it was just the discrepancy between the profound topic of conversation and our appearance that brought about such an effect.
An old friend of mine, a poet and writer (sometimes in between, I write short prose pieces), obstinately keeps cramming a rule into me: a funny story must not be told in funny language!
The greater the discrepancy, the greater the effect. Which takes me back to our comedians: funny things or jokes presented on stage do not need cardboard-nosed comedians pulling faces.
Every year, on New Year´s Eve, most German TV stations broadcast an old comedy sketch picked up in a British seaside resort half a century ago by some German: The Ninetieth Birthday. The story is simple – an old lady has outlived all her friends but on her birthday the table is still laid out for all six of them and the ancient butler has to represent them in matters of drinking to the lady´s health at each course. One can easily imagine how the whole thing ends.
There we have it again: the scene is played in deadly earnest. Discrepancy, that is it.
Jean Paul, a German novelist of the 19th century, once stated that humour is a flower on a dark bed of sorrow. And Wilhelm Busch had it as follows: Humour is when you laugh in spite (literal translation!). This adds a new quality to discrepancy: humour is a way – perhaps the only one – of coping with life´s adversities. Instead of going to war, that is.
Last but not least, I would like to add a few remarks on male and female humour. There has been plenty of research into the field of humour internationally; some of it is occupied with differences between male and female humour. On the male side, there is, e.g., a somewhat Darwinist theory, which says that humour is a male attribute: as a result of sexual evolution it may be compared to the antlers of the stag or the peacock´s fan – women fall for the joker. On the other hand, there are women theorists who associate female humour with education.
In Germany, there are very few women cartoonists, which may partly be due to etiquette manuals setting the tone to the sixties of the last century: if a woman wanted to be thought a lady she was, for example, advised not to crack jokes at the table. The number of lady cartoonists seems to be rising, though, and this might have something to do with emancipation: more and more women enter into traditional male jobs and thus are increasingly confronted with problems and difficulties that traditionally were typical of the male field. Referring to the younger lady comedians in this country I am under the impression that, in matters of specific humour, they do not differ much from their male counterparts. This might hold for our contemporary lady cartoonists, too. Nevertheless, I do maintain one general difference: while male humour ranges from clowning via irony and hilarity to utmost viciousness, woman´s humour does not expand into the vicious area so often; it is more subtle: obscenities are at least avoided as long as men are around. Men seem to prefer jokes at other people´s expense, whereas women laugh at situations rather than at people.