This article in the Guardian, on British versus German alleged senses of humor, reminds me of one of those furious non-fact discussions you used to hear in bars before the Internet became popular, where no side in the argument had any clue what the hell they were talking about. The author, some sort of British ha-ha guy, claims deep linguistic differences between the two languages cause a difference in national styles of humor -- the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis as applied to comedy. Of course the article reeks of bogosity. There are six overt jokes in the article, two supposedly British, four supposedly German, all supposedly funny. Let's go through them. Joke 1: The German Child, a British joke about Germans. Except it's not: it's a joke that can be successfully told without any ethnic identification at all -- and it is, in its American form. The tension in the joke comes from a recognition of parental anxieties about childhood linguistic development, not from stereotype. Joke 2: A British joke, presented as an example of an English-language joke style, that ends "... and then I got off the bus." It's a type of joke that ends with an incongruous short kicker to an elaborate set-up. Lee calls it a "pull back and reveal," and the kicker the "failsafe," and claims it can't be performed in German because of German sentence structure.
Except the humor in this type of joke is almost entirely dependent on delivery, not language. Read the paragraph in the article again; see how lifelessly the words connect on the page. The comedian has to inflate this apparatus from scratch, and the humor comes from how quickly they can deflate it. You could do this by mime. Also, it's not a popular American joke style. (There's a tired tired quip British pundits like to make, that Americans don't speak English. It was old in John Maynard Keynes' day. It was probably old in Joe Miller's day.) If I had to guess, its genealogy comes from the shaggy dog story, also not so popular here. The recent movie The Aristocrats basically hammered this one into the grave. Joke 3: From Schleswig-Holstein. Actually, I've come across this joke in a history of the New Orleans red light district, presented as observational humor of the era. "Naughty is when you use a feather. Kinky is when you use the chicken." No call-and-response in that version. Joke 4: From Stuttgart. A combination of a typical cop-and-drunk joke and a typical animal story. The fox and the rabbit don't have iconic roles in the U.S., so it's a little mysterious at first glance. (What sort of animal jokes do Americans make anymore? Bear jokes; dog jokes.) Joke 5: From Bad Toelz. It's the same type of joke that Lee claimed couldn't exist in the German language. There might be a pun missing; doesn't matter. Joke 6: From Lower Saxony. Except for the Evangelical pastor -- and in Wisconsin this would still work, although the theological content would have to be revised -- there's nothing about this joke that couldn't be told in any American supper club to polite laughter. Maybe a little too edgy for Reader's Digest? Maybe not. Also, Americans wouldn't include the dog dying. (Possibly these jokes were made up by Lee. If so, WTF?) There is one hilarious joke in the article, however.
I looked back over the time I had spent in Hannover and suddenly found situations that had seemed inexplicable, even offensive at the time, hilarious in retrospect. On my first night in Hannover I had gone out drinking with some young German actors. "You will notice there are no old buildings in Hannover," one of them said. "That is because you bombed them all." At the time I found this shocking and embarrassing. Now it seems like the funniest thing you could possibly say to a nervous English visitor.The quip made by the young German actor is amusing. But the real joke is... Lee didn't get it. And then wrote about how he didn't get it, but now he gets it, in such a way that you know he still doesn't really get it, although he thinks he gets it. Because he's down with the brothers. Who are German. That's funny. Maybe Lee meant to do that.