Max & Monty. A Short History of German and English Humour
Hans-Dieter Gelfert, Max und Monty. Kleine Geschichte des deutschen und englischen Humors. (Max and Monty. A Short History of German and English Humour) München: C.H. Beck 1998, 203 pp.
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In Typisch englisch. (Typically English) (1995) the author tried to explain why humour plays such an important part in English culture and society. In his new book he suggests an explanation why English humour differs so markedly from its German counterpart. Assuming that humour is an anthropological strategy to prevent, alleviate and release psychic tension and in view of the fact that such tensions chiefly arise from social intercourse, it follows that the specific type of humour in a given society depends on the value system of the latter. Up to the 17th century English and German humour did not show much difference.
In both societies, as in the rest of western Europe, the urban middle classes had begun to assert themselves against the authorities of the church and the aristocracy. And they did so by laughing at them. Laughter is a leveller, it has the tendency to raise the laugher and to lower the person laughed at. In the 14th and 15th century, German humour showed all the qualities that nowadays are considered typically English: it was disrespectful, rebellious and anarchic. Reineke Fuchs, Till Eulenspiegel and Der Pfaffe von Kahlenberg are prominent examples. The two last-mentioned books even exported German humour to France as the words l'espiegle and calembourg still give proof of.
In the 18th century, however, the Germans adopted a totally new system of social values with the emphasis on social stability and national security. Since then German humour has tended to ridicule the disturber of social order and to create an atmosphere of a tension-free zone. Thus, it is either moralizing or gemütlich. In either case it corroborates the authority of society as a whole. This is exactly what the two typically German forms of entertainment, the political cabaret and the Saturday family shows on TV, are still doing. The English value system has continued to emphasise the freedom of the indivudual. Thus, English humour laughs at everyone and everything and shows disrespect to any kind of authority, its four most typical forms being:
- eccentricity (against the authority of social conventions)
- wordplay (against the authority of serious discourse)
- nonsense (against the authority of sense)
- black humour (against the authority of morals).
Since English humour strives for freedom instead of any positive values, its most characteristic feature is bathos, while the fact that the Germans did not adopt this term as a foreign word is equally characteristic of their national attitude. This is the gist of the book. The rest is additional material illustrating the basic thesis. In particular, there are chapters on German and English cartoons, on English understatement and the German preference for overstatement and on a number of direct comparisons between apparently similar matters looked at through German and English eyes. The book concludes with a look at the present situation, which shows the vanishing of the former type of German humour and its steady replacement by the English type, or, to put it in terms of the book's theoretical frame-work, a return from the later German Staatsbürgerhumor to the earlier Stadtbürgerhumor.