Yes, the Germans laugh, even at themselves. Funny about the English though

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The Independent Online
Several years ago I became involved in a series of programmes for Radio 4 called It's a Funny Old World in which the producer Anne-Marie Cole and I looked at the national sense of humour of different countries. We thought that Germany would be one of the hardest subjects to tackle, as we suffered from the usual British conviction that the Germans have no sense of humour, but this turned out predictably not to be the case - among other things, the Germans have a strong sense of Schadenfreude in their jokes, a strong tradition of jokes about the people of Ostfriesland very reminiscent of our Irish jokes, and even an equivalent of our Essex jokes in the form of jokes about people who drive Manta cars.

But the most unexpected thing we discovered was that the Germans watch the same funny film every year on New Year's Eve. It lasts about 20 minutes, it is called Dinner for One, James, and it is British. I have never seen it on British television, but every year on German TV it is shown to an audience that knows every joke in it by heart and looks forward to seeing or hearing each gag again. There are only two characters in it, an aged lady and her butler, played by the half-forgotten English comedian Freddy Frinton, who gets gradually drunker and drunker during the dinner, as he drinks all the drinks poured out for the absent guests ...

Now, this is obviously something we can all curl our lip at. The very idea of any nation being content to watch the same little film at the same time every year - how desperately predictable and unimaginative! The only snag in all this is that on at least two occasions I have encountered people who possessed videos of Dinner For One, James, and I have watched it, and I think it is one of the funniest films I have ever seen, and that if I had the chance to watch Freddy Frinton's inspired performance as the gradually intoxicated butler every year, I would leap at it. And that the Germans are to be envied for their good taste in humour.

One of the items that Anne-Marie Cole dug up for our Radio 4 programme on Germany was a recording of a German comedian called, I think, Loriot, who had done some routines in English for Channel 4. One of them started more or less as follows:

"Hello. My name is Loriot. I suffer from what you would call a disability. You see, I am German. Well, someone has to be ..."

This is startlingly similar to the famous Bill Bryson opening, "I come from Des Moines, Iowa. Well, someone had to ..." but I think that the Loriot line is better, because it applies self-deprecatingly to a whole nation, and also because Germany plays a larger part in our national awareness than Des Moines does.

In fact, I remember that the Loriot routine went on to apologise for the unpopularity of the Germans in a sophisticated and rueful way that few British or American comedians could manage. Everyone resents the Americans abroad, in the same way that the British used to be resented, though now that our power has faded we are just seen as quaintly irrelevant. But when did you ever hear an American comedian make fun of the image of the American abroad, the insensitive, ignorant, linguistically challenged loud American abroad? When did you last hear a British comedian knock the British abroad? We British make jokes about the Germans abroad getting up at dawn and reserving pool-side places with their towels, but when did you ever hear a British comedian make fun of the atrocious image presented by the British abroad? Including our obsequious habit of respecting towels laid down at dawn by imperialistic German families...?

I gather there is a new smash hit film in Germany which does indeed look at the drunken and bad behaviour of the Boche abroad. I can't remember the name of the film but it seems to be very much like Men Behaving Badly in Mallorca. If so, it sounds suspiciously as if the Germans are capable of laughing at themselves after all. This should worry us. The British have always prided themselves on being able to make fun of themselves, though the evidence for this has always been hard to find. It might be worrying if the Germans turn out to be better at it.

Meanwhile, couldn't we be shown Dinner For One, James on British TV, if only once? I don't like to think of the Germans being offered funnier programmes than us every year on New Year's Eve.