German kids have to go outside for an hour every day.
One hour. Every day.
I may have misunderstood biology class but I think it has something to do with photosynthesis, like Germans have more chlorophyll than everyone else. Also I’m pretty sure it’s part of the Grundgesetz (German constitution). Germans don’t even question this. It’s a total normal part of raising kids in Germany, like feeding them, clothing them and regretting having them.
Back when my kids were little, if it started getting late in the day and they hadn’t been outside, my German wife would start getting panicky as if she were Cinderella and it was 11: 59 p.m. (that’s 23:59 to Germans).
“Hase, meinst du, du kannst mit den nur eine Stunde um den Block gehen?” she would ask (“Honey, do you think you can walk around the block with them for an hour?”). And I would, because I’m always worried she’ll see her mistake in marrying me so I try to keep her happy.
Also: I didn’t want to see my kids turn into pumpkins.
My kids and I would always end up on one of two playgrounds, swinging and sliding in blackness with a few other dads.
“Married a German?” we’d ask each other.
Parenting like a German
I sound like I’m deriding it here but I’m not: Kids do need to be outside for an hour every day, regardless of the weather. It seems to air out their tiny brains. It’s like rebooting them after you opened too many windows in their browser inside. It’s such an obvious truth that they’re trying to institute it in America now too, via our equivalent to the German constitution: Professional football.
The must-go-outside thing doesn’t stop when kids go to daycare either. German daycare teachers are expected to make sure the kids get their hour of sunlight per day too. And daycare teachers are happy to oblige because they know a secret: Kids are way easier to deal with when they’re outside. Especially when they’re outside and on the far side of the playground.
This often leads to two or three hours of outside time for daycare kids every day, which ingratiates the teachers even more to the parents and allows the teachers even more time to Snapchat.
Through this requirement I discovered that I do better with some outside time every day too. Maybe I got some chlorophyll with my German DNA.
This weekend I was trying to think of the things I love about Germany in the summertime. I mean, beyond getting all of May off because of a succession of legal holidays based on some guy known as Jesus. And then getting all of August off because that’s what Europe does.
The answer: Ice cream. In America, ice cream is all about quantity. One scoop is a meal and two will feed a family of four for a week. And it costs accordingly.
But in Germany, you have Eisdielen (ice cream stores) where you get a single Kugel for (scoop) for about $1 and it’s enough ice cream to enjoy but not make you think you have to go to confession (even if you’re not Catholic). Germans only get two scoops on special occasions, like getting married or winning a Nobel Prize.
But they also have Eiscafes (ice cream cafes), which are like every other German cafe with coffee and cakes but also one of the most important publications of a German’s childhood: The Eiskarte (ice cream menu). The Eiskarte is full of frozen creations that involve several scoops of ice and cream and about anything else you can add to ice cream.
The Eiskarte is so creative, it’s subdivided into categories such as “tropical”, “alcoholic” and “brittle” with half a dozen items in each. But I’ve never been interested in any of those. Any time I’m confronted with an unfamiliar Eiskarte I quickly scan it until I find one of Germany’s most fantastical inventions: Spaghettieis (spaghetti ice cream).
And then I order it.
So this weekend, we went to the grocery store and got all the ingredients and, for the first time ever, made Spaghettieis.
*This post was originally published in German over at Frau-Mutter, a great blog about mothering in German. And by that I mean both mothering in the language of German and mothering by being German. Also, she happens to be in Germany, so all bases covered.
We raised our kids bilingually. All the recommendations we read said each parent should speak their native language with the kids and the kids would learn the languages naturally. One language per parent. Our kids only have two parents so they were limited to just the two languages – German and English. I’m American. My wife is German.
Even though I speak pretty good German, it never occurred to me to want to communicate with my children in anything other than my native language. Mostly because my kids are half-German and I knew what would ultimately happen if I tried German with them.
Eventually we’d be having a simple discussion and my daughter would stop me mid-sentence and roll her teen-age eyes.
“Dad, Jesus,” she’d say. “Your German is so embarrassing. It’s dative. It’s ‘dem’ not ‘den’.” And then I’d lose the argument and I’d have to buy her an Xbox after all.
Just because I conjugated incorrectly.
We have two kids. I spoke only English with them. Every time they said something to me in German I’d say, “I don’t understand. How would you say it in English?” I always felt guilty because I did understand them and – you may not believe this – but we have the two smartest, cutest kids ever. Yes, smarter and cuter than your kids. So it was hard to act like I didn’t understand them.
But I did it anyway. And I kept waiting for them to call my bluff.
“Come on Dad,” I thought they’d say, “We just heard you and mom talking about the merits of laser vs. pulse propulsion in German. I’m sure you understood me asking to be pushed on the swings.”
But they never did. They always believed I never understood them and answered in English. Like I said, they’re the best kids. Ever.
When my daughter was five I read a piece about bilingualism in kids. It said parents should speak in their native tongue because using a second language robs parents of spontaneity. True. Plus it’s also easier to yell in your native language.
There’s other problems with not speaking your native language with your kids.
Making kids bilingual
My kids have always been in bilingual schools and nurseries in Berlin. Many of the kids have German helicopter parents who think it’s vital their kids grow up bilingual even though both parents are German. These parents also follow the mantra of one parent, one language. That means that I’ve been subjected every day to adult Germans trying to speak to their children in English with German accents.
Respect for the parents for knowing a second language but not with their kids. In English, the parents sound like a mix of Boris Karlov and Ariana Huffington speaking to a cardboard box full of kittens. That may work on stage but imagine it in the cloakroom. Or on the playground. Or telling a kid to come sit on their lap.
We’ve even run into a few German parents that gave their kids English names even though they can’t pronounce them. For two years I thought a girl at our kids’ school was named Selma. It turned out her name was Thelma. Her parents couldn’t pronounce it.
I often thought the bi-lingualism would come in handy if I needed to say something in secret to my kids. Once, in the Rocky Mountains, we were in the changing room for a hot springs. A real cowboy walked in – cowboy boots, cowboy hat and giant belt buckle. Probably enough guns in his truck to arm a small Caribbean nation.
“Wow,” I said to my son in German. “I bet you didn’t expect to see one of those here.”
My son looked at me weird. “Dad, why are you speaking to me in German?”
There’s a new saying for whenever someone finds themselves in a strange position: “There must be a German word for this.”
I’m not a big fan of the saying because of course there’s a German word for it. Not because the language is so expansive or all-encompassing. But because if there isn’t a word for it, you can make one. German, as the joke goes, is the Lego of languages. You can take entire words, weld them together into compound words and then open an amusement park full of your wonderful creations.
Want to express a prevailing funk affecting everyone? Weltschmerz (pain of the world)! How about a dry, precise definition of your current love interest? Lebensabschnittpartner (life segment companion)! Wet-dry vacuum? Nasssauger (wet sucker)! Wanna talk about the captain of a steamboat on the Donau river? Donaudampfschiffs… ach, never mind. No one actually wants to talk about him, they just want to point out the length of his, ahem, title (one of the longest German words).
But my favorites are the casual ones. The ones that are used in everyday conversation at the water cooler or in the Biergarten (See? Compound German words are everywhere!). Verschlimmbessern – which means to make something worse despite trying to improve it. It’s a mutant of the two words verschlimmern (make worse) and verbessern (improve) but contains the DNA of as many as half a dozen words. At least that’s what I’ve been told. I wasn’t at the autopsy.
Verschlimmbessern is something anyone who’s ever worked in a committee can identify with. Also, anyone who ever had a boss.
Wichtigtuer is perhaps the only German word for which we have a single word: Poseur.
Ok, the French have a single word for.
And then there’s Jein, which is the child of the inevitable romance between ja (yes) and nein (no). There might actually be twins but it’s difficult to tell.
People who use jein are sometimes the subject of derision, much like anyone with a penchant for dad jokes (dads, for instance) and Millennials who literally have too much love for the word “literally”. There’s even a compound word for these kind of people: Warmduscher (someone who takes a warm shower because they’re not tough enough to take a cold shower, like a German).
However, most people accusing Jeinsager (people who use the word “jein”) of being Warmduscher often have to resort to using jein because, like most German compound words, jein can be so ideal for a particular situation.
I know. I’m one of those people.
“Were you happy with today’s blogpost Drew?”
There must be a linguistic reason why the German language is so good at cementing words together to create bigger meaning. But you’ll have to find someone with a real degree and a measurable IQ to find the answer. I’m just here to tell you the lay of the land, ergo the Gesamtsituation (the current situation, though the German seems more exact).
To be fair, we do something similar in English. It’s just that instead of devising single words, we form complete sentences. Like humans. An American comedian – Rich Hall – once tried to adopt the German practice to the English language. He called the Frankenstein words “Sniglets”. But in the end it was more Spassmacherei (forced fun) than Verbesserungsvorschläge (suggestions for improvement).
When I was an exchange student sometime in the past century in Germany, I discovered a secret to learning German. I mean, besides the crushing loneliness and hours of boredom.
Before I arrived I had taken two years of middle school German (shout out to my fellow malcontents in Ms. Cathcart’s German class at Laredo Middle School) and one year and some change of high school German. In modern lingo, this equates to about one Youtube beginning German course or an hour on Duolingo.
My German wasn’t great.
After landing in-country, I discovered that, when actual Germans spoke German, I couldn’t tell where one word ended and the next began. It was a lot different than just some voice in cheap headphones in Smoky Hill High School’s language lab. And when I could tell the words apart, I would write down the words I didn’t understand. Often they were names. Silke, Thilo, Sebastian and Thörsten were all new to me.
I actually looked them up in a dictionary. Really.
But then, in a cupboard in the room I was staying in, I found a stack of comics. “Asterix und Obelix” was scrawled across the front. When I began reading, I discovered the comics were slightly goofy but somehow funny and, anyway, I had to bridge the time between dinner and falling asleep somehow.
I know all the comic nerds out there are freaking out about how Asterix and Obelix comics aren’t German. I know, Besserwisser (know-it-alls). But at the time, I didn’t need to learn French and they were all in German. And, as a foreigner, you often mistakenly see the country you’re currently in as an item’s country-of-origin. I made the same mistake with Nutella and the world does it with that Adolf guy.
But every night for a month or so, I cranked up the Simple Minds on my Walkman and got to work. The formula made the learning easy: The Romans were bad, the Gauls good. And Asterix was fat, lovable and didn’t know his own strength. Obelix was the brains. Or was it Asterix that was fat and Obelix was the brain?
It didn’t really matter.
The comics were perfect because they presented me simple German sentences in a childish context. Too much of the German being thrown at me at the time was too high-brow. Reading a newspaper didn’t help because I barely knew who Kohl was let alone Genscher, Honecker or Herbert Grönemeyer. And books weren’t any better. It just confused me.
Asterix and Obelix was just the ticket.
Plus they gave me a cultural hook for starting conversations with Germans.
“Ja, Asterix und Obelix sind schon geil (Yes, Asterix and Obelix are great),” Mark Bonitz said to me on the smoker’s patio, helping me learn German slang. “Probier es mal damit (Try this),” he said, handing me a thick Donald Duck comic. Though I could never get into the Donald Ducks.
Thilo in Leistungskurs Chemie (Advanced Chemistry) was a little different.
“Ja, Asterix und Obelix. Habe ich auch gelesen (I read Asterix and Obelix too),” he said. “… in der dritten Klasse (… in third grade).”
I learned a valuable lesson from Thilo that day too. That it was better to spend time on the smoker’s patio even though I didn’t smoke.
Today is my daughter’s first birthday outside of Germany. She’s not happy. During the run-up it seemed like she might not even celebrate. We were worried she was going to hold a lonely wake instead.
But then my wife had an idea. Partly because, as I’ve discussed before, she’s a Jedi. But also because she’s a mother and making children happy is a special talent of moms. Like making sandwiches. Dads on the other hand – I’m not sure we really have any parental talents. Except maybe being the parent without parental talents.
“Why don’t you have a German-themed birthday?” my wife suggested to my daughter. It worked better than any Jedi Mind Trick ever. Though have Jedi Mind Tricks even been invented yet? (Note to self: E-mail George Lucas about first Jedi Mind Trick).
My daughter exploded with enthusiasm for her birthday. We’ve spent the last two weeks convincing her to not invite the entire seventh grade. At the moment, she’s a better German ambassador to the U.S. than Peter Wittig (Germany’s ambassador to the U.S., if you didn’t know. I didn’t.).
The point of this game is to find your prize. When it’s your turn, the prize already legally belongs to you but your friends want you to earn it. So they blindfold you and then hide your prize underneath an overturned pot. Seems mean – it’s your prize – but Germans define “mean” differently. They tuck the pot and prize off in a corner of either the yard or the living room, depending on the weather and the current mental state of the host parents. Next, you are given a wooden spoon. Your task is to get on all fours and divine the location of your prize by whacking the spoon against objects to find the pot.
Your friends help by bellowing “kalt!” (cold!) or “warm!” (warm, dummy) depending on your current trajectory and the location of the prize. Many wooden spoons, vases and parental shins have suffered during this game. But as of yet, everyone got their prize.
I know, sounds like a Hunger Games the Oompa Loompas hold for kids who lose their way in the Chocolate Factory. But it’s not. First, a chocolate bar (preferably Milka) is wrapped up in newspaper and then kids crowd around a table. They take turns rolling a dice until someone gets a six. The sixer then has to put on adult winter gloves, a scarf and a winter hat and attempt to unwrap the chocolate with a knife and fork. Once unwrapped, the sixer can eat all the chocolate they can.
All the while the other kids continue to roll the dice. Should anyone hit a six, they then have to take the winter clothes and cutlery off the previous sixer and either continue unwrapping or eating the chocolate until the next six falls.
You’re right. Maybe the Oompa Loompas did invent it. Yes I know the band Veruca Salt got its name from the film.
Mumie Einwickeln (Wrap the Mummy)
Up until I found out about this game I thought Germany was the most environmentally conscious country on the planet. I now realize they only do it to make up for playing this game.
Two teams of two face off in this game that requires one team member to wrap the other up in toilet paper. The winner is the team that entirely covers its mummy first. Not even a thought of the player can show through. The winning team gets a prize and the toilet paper gets discarded.
Though, to be honest, we may not allow this game this year because of the environmental concerns. And because toilet paper costs twice as much in America (really!). We may substitute it with Sackhupfen (Sack Race) or Der Plumpsack geht rum (Pass the Falling Bag), which sounds horrible in both languages but is just a modified version of Duck, Duck, Goose.
At the end of a German birthday each kid leaves with a gift bag full of treats and the parents get to begin another tradition of German kids’ birthday parties: Heavy drinking. It’s also a tradition we’ll be following here.
Settle an old argument for me. My wife and I have fought about this since our youngest was a baby. It’s become a dispute bigger than the East Coast/West Coast beef in American rap or whether Didi Hallervorden or Fips Asmussen wrote the first-ever German one-liner. Think Kramer vs. Kramer.
It’s important I get this settled today because it’s our 13th wedding anniversary.
It started when our first kid was just a year old. My wife offered her a Nutella-laden spot of Brötchen (bread roll).
“What are you doing?” I demanded. “Do you want to get her hooked on chocolate at this early of an age?”
My statement seemed to puzzle my wife. She looked at me as though I had suddenly turned into a cloud of semi-transparent gas that was whispering commands to her in a language never before heard in this solar system. She didn’t know whether to laugh at the discovery of a talking gaseous mass or cry because she was obviously hallucinating.
“It’s just Nutella,” she said. “I’ve eaten it my entire life and look at me.” I don’t actually know if she said that “look at me” bit but it’s what I always hear when we talk food because I’m clearly the American in the relationship, if you know what I mean. I’m overweight, is what I’m saying.
She’s obviously the European.
“It’s chocolate and that’s a baby!” I hollered. Despite insisting that my kids carry both a blue and a red passport, I’ve inwardly always hoped that they would adopt their mother’s eating habits but get everything else from me. On that day, the half a square centimeter of Brötchen with a drop of Nutella was about to ruin that.
“It’s Nutella and I’ve eaten it my whole life (and look at me),” she said again. Then she leaned into her wife-of-an-American toolbox and said: “Plus, you were giving her peanut butter yesterday and there’s no difference.”
Which is where you come in. Have you ever heard anything so absurd? Me neither.
Nutella and peanut butter are in different galaxies. Peanut butter in its purest form is crushed peanuts – straight from the earth – mixed with a dash of salt. Ok, you might mix in some butter and two dashes of salt and the peanuts are actually roasted but that’s it. It’s food so pure Adam and Eve probably dined on it before partaking in a pomegranate. Neanderthals maybe even ate peanut butter and they weren’t capable of sin because all of that hadn’t been invented yet.
Peanut butter is pure and natural.
Nutella, on the other hand, was invented by an industrialized society trying to trick people into believing hazelnuts were chocolate. It worked! Nutella tastes great! But it’s a chocolate made by heavy machinery and should only be consumed for dessert or as a treat. Heavy machinery is nothing for babies or the main course.
I tolerate it on the breakfast table because I know an entire country would revolt if I expressed distaste but I don’t really believe that anyone – not even Germans – would believe that it’s the same thing as peanut butter.
“Honey,” I now often tell my daughter, “maybe one Brötchen half with Nutella is enough.” She’ll be a teenager soon but the Nutella poisoning took hold. She loves the stuff.
My wife will scowl at me across the breakfast table.
“So you get to have two or three Brötchen halves covered in peanut butter but she only gets to have a half with Nutella?”
I get it. The Internet loves these lists. Listicles. But I didn’t do five things. I did four. Because I’m punk. And because I couldn’t think of any more. I avoided the clichés every blogger, publisher and even news agency has thought of. I included only things I really believe. Maybe surprising things. Some things others won’t agree with.
In fact, I’ll probably lose a few friends. Friends who want to change Germany to make it just like back home.
“If they try to change you,” my mother always said, “they’re not your friends.” Actually, my mother never said that. She wouldn’t have even said that, I don’t think. And she always seemed to like my friends more than I did anyway. But I’m sure somebody’s mother said it.
Here are the four things. I hope your mom likes them.
Dogs don’t need leashes
I am not a dog person. I tell every dog I meet that we will never be friends. It’s not a problem. There are lots of dog people and lots of animals who like me. The world is big! And as someone who doesn’t enjoy the company of dogs, I’m always annoyed in the U.S. when two people walking dogs on leashes meet. The dogs are going to bark and snarl. And then bark and snarl some more. Shut up already! There is no barking and snarling in Germany. Because dogs are free to sniff each other’s butts. Leashes do to dogs what steering wheels do to men: Turn them into beasts. I realize there are loopholes here – dog owners have to be responsible and dogs have to be well-trained. But as a whole, I’ve been less bothered by German dogwalkers than their Uncle Sam counterparts.
Pass on the left, drive on the right
(or if you’re from one of those places that goes against God and drives on the left, do the opposite)
On Germany’s Autobahn it’s illegal to pass on the right. You only pass on the left. Are you passing on the right? You don’t pass on the right. It’s illegal. Conversely, are you going slow? Move over to the right so people can pass you on the left. It’s the law and it’s what (most) Germans do. It’s what everyone should do. This behavior on the Autobahn transfers to surface streets and makes driving orderly and pleasant in Germany. In America it’s different. Driving on American highways feels like being a bison in a stampede. There are buffalo everywhere, going every speed and in every direction. Changing lanes requires an act of whoever your God is because cars could be zooming past on both sides. We’re not bison, we’re humans. Humans pass only on the left.
Shake hands as a greeting
Just bumped into your friends at the Kaiser’s? Shake everyone’s hands. Showing up for a group beer? Go on, shake their hands. It’s the Teutonic way of saying: ‘Hey, I’m here,’ and acknowledging the presence of everyone else. It also ensures you’ll be introduced to anyone you didn’t already know. It’s a symbolic way of saying, ‘We are us.’ It’s a gesture and makes everyone feel welcome. Even your ex-girlfriend who you didn’t know was going to be there. And her new boyfriend. Shake his hand too. Also try to impart an Incan death spell during the brief meeting of your flesh with his. In Germany if the gathering involves really good friends, you don’t need to shake hands. You should hug. Don’t be so afraid of physical contact. Germans aren’t. Show some emotion for once. You’re among friends.
(Almost) Every store is closed on Sundays
Ever wonder what it would feel like to be Will Smith in I am Legend (or Charlton Heston in The Omega Man)? On Sundays in Germany you can. (Almost) Every store is closed. Retail areas are deserted. Ex-pats hate this. Apparently it’s very difficult to make sure you’ve got enough dishwasher detergent and basil. Planning a few hours ahead is very hard for ex-pats. Although Sunday closings started because of God, it’s now about something different. It’s about saying commerce isn’t always king. The customer isn’t always right. And the almighty dollar (or euro) isn’t always mighty. It’s about doing a day differently. And it’s nice.
Warning: This is a blog about off-color language. And, as such, it uses off-color language. I’ve used the linguistic equivalent of TV’s black bars – the asterisk – to censor what I could. But if you’re easily offended, sit this one out. Don’t blame me. The Germans led me to this.
Germans love English swear words. They throw them in between the cases and conjugations of their German. They’re total potty mouths. They’re f*cking sailors.
The first time I experienced it was way back in 2000 at my first job in Berlin. A German co-worker told me to f*ck off for no reason. He was disagreeing with me over something completely banal but he shouted it at me across the office. Inappropriate.
I felt insulted but I tried to help Karsten with his use of pejoratives – it’s always the Karstens.
“Eigentlich benutzen wir ‘f*ck off’ in so eine Zusammenhang nicht (We wouldn’t use f*ck off in that context),” I told him.
“F*ck off,” he bellowed.
Karsten 1, Drew 0.
But it’s a problem that comes up often. Out of the blue a German will throw in an English cuss word in the wrong setting or an awkward context and give me the feeling that my father is about to scream threats of washing my mouth out with soap.
Or at least warn me about the kind of company I keep.
“She’s a nun,” I’d tell him. It wouldn’t matter. Nothing matters when a father has made up his mind.
I’ve been sworn at in casual German conversation by the family physician, by Beamte (bureaucrats) discussing the state of the office printer and even prospective employers reviewing the competition in a job interview.
Even worse, Germans go straight for the dirtiest of the dirty words. My church-going grandma could stomach the occasional “damn” and who doesn’t need to utter “asshole” once or twice a day?
But it’s all f*cks and sh*ts with these foul-mouthed Teutons. And by “foul-mouthed Teutons” I mean every German under aged 60 – and a good many over.
They casually use English Schimpfwörter (swear words) so bad I can’t bring myself to type them here with the asterisks.
Do they kiss their Mutter with those mouths?
Don’t believe me? Check out this recent video from German bad-boy comic Jan Böhmermann (I don’t agree with the overall theme of the video, but that’s a different f*cking blogpost):
And a few years ago they started making grammar mistakes while swearing. Ugh. “F*ck”, unbeknownst to me, is apparently an adjective, which makes for some odd linguistic – ahem – bedfellows. The “f*ck Fussballspiel” in derogatory Deutsch is a crappy soccer game, for example. Though tempted, I won’t elaborate more.
(Secret to German readers: Its either “sh*t Fussballspiel” in U.K. lingo or “f*cking Fussballspiel”. Thanks.)
It’s not that I don’t understand. Invectives can be fun. 90 percent of the reason the 10-year-old me wanted to be an adult was to have the ability to swear at will. It seemed as cool to me then as it apparently does to Germans now. And I get it – they’re used to watching mob films, American comedians and British tourists. They think everyone talks that way.
But man I wish they’d be a little more aware of the impact. These aren’t just Wörter to native English speakers, they’re actual words, emotions and a childhood of scolding.
I guess Germans see them as novel, two-dimensional bits of language. But I often try to point out that they wouldn’t use the German equivalent so easily. Ok, you say, but they do it while they’re speaking German. It’s a different cultural context.
Au contraire mon Frere. They even throw them in with their English.
Swearing in German
Several years ago my father visited and he asked some Berliners for directions while I dealt with my misbehaving kids. The Berliners didn’t agree with each other on the best way to get to Curry 36.
“Zose are bullsh*t directions,” a middle-aged Berliner said in order to correct the initial set of directions provided by his compatriot. He was visibly proud of his English abilities. “I give you better f*cking directions.”
I turned bright red and muttered something about the guy being drunk (I’m pretty sure he wasn’t).
My father and I never discussed the incident.
But he tells everyone I told him Germans spoke pretty good English.
I just finished reading Er is wieder da. For those not in the know, Er ist wieder da (Look Who’s Back) is a fictional take on Hitler coming back to life in central Berlin in 2011.
It’s humorous fiction. Really.
And for those doubly not in the know, they made it into a movie in 2014. And that movie will debut on Netflix in non-German-speaking parts of the world on April 9.
And for those triply not in the know – I’m in the movie. So, like, my Netflix debut is Friday.
Back in 2014 I got a call from an acquaintance in the movie business. He asked if I had any interest in playing comedy coach for a mysterious someone. My answer was: Not really. I’m only skilled at two things and neither of them is comedy coach.
He then asked if I, instead, had any interest in writing jokes for the mysterious someone.
“Maybe,” I said.
“When should I be there?”
A couple days later – a Wednesday, I believe – I found myself sitting with comedy friends on the set of an unrelated TV show in a studio in southeastern Berlin. Near that airport that never opens.
The acquaintance who invited me introduced to us to someone who claimed to be a director.
The director reminded me of Animal from The Muppet Show. At the very least, they had the same taste in fashion.
He asked us if we knew about the book. He said he was making the film.
“We’re not supposed to tell you,” he said, “but it seems to work better when you know.”
We were going to be writing jokes for Hitler, he said.
I wondered if I was living in a Mel Brooks play. I debated singing Springtime for Hitler.
But soon Christoph Maria Herbst showed up. If you’re quadruply not in the know, Christoph Maria Herbst is a big-time German comedy actor who actually played the lead in the German version of The Office (called Stromberg, for those keeping score at home). Just think of some middle-aged comedic actor you’re familiar with.
Are you thinking of that actor?
Good. Christoph Maria Herbst isn’t that famous. Because Germany.
But you get what I mean: it was cool to see him.
He was in character. He said he had a guy with him who either was or was not Hitler but either way would be getting a TV show and we should write jokes for that TV show. Nothing was sacred he said and, during a group brainstorm, made clear the direction he wanted us to go with our humor.
It’s a direction everyone goes, just not in front of cameras. But if cameras, then probably for a lot more than they were paying us.
I was starting to get nervous.
I wasn’t sure the jokes that were forming in my head were OK.
When it comes to borderline culture questions in Germany, I turn to a select collection of Teutonic friends. They have similar political and humanistic leanings as I and I trust them to answer my questions in sticky German situations.
Like if it’s OK to participate when someone asks you to write jokes for Hitler.
One of those friends was sitting next to me on that set – a comedian and filmmaker named Georg – so I figured it was OK.
But it was more than just the day’s task that was making me nervous.
The entire time two beefy security guards had been circling the set, looking unhappy.
Were they part of the scenery? Or had the production company hired them just in case some lefty activists decided to drop in on Hitler?
They were either perfectly cast and were playing their part very well or were beefy security guards with questionable political beliefs.
I couldn’t stop sweating.
Christoph Maria Herbst (you couldn’t not write all three of his names every time either) had us each write five jokes and then he read them aloud. I don’t remember any of the ones I wrote. He then picked his favorites and left to get the man who was either Hitler or a man pretending to be Hitler.
In the book, he’s Hitler. That day on set, he was actor Oliver Masucci. But I still tried to imagine what it would be like if Masucci really were Hitler.
My imagination apparently isn’t good enough. Because I couldn’t.
Look who’s back: And he was
Hitler asked for our advice on his humor and was not amused when I suggested he go for self-deprecation. The Führer making fun of himself would be hilarious, I assured him.
He assured me that wouldn’t happen. Even though he wasn’t really Hitler he was still very menacing, like if Vladimir Putin was standing right there but without the ability to cause you to have a car accident on the way home.
About this time Georg started freaking out. He started telling everyone how he would have no part of this. That it was unfair to Germany’s past (or something like that).
I started wondering what I had gotten myself into. I decided that if Georg stormed out, I would storm out too, like two Clark Gables in Gone with the Wind. Or maybe Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
To hell with the money. I had principles (though I would be a bit disappointed because I’m pretty sure no one ever remotely as famous as Hitler would ever ask me to write jokes for them again).
But Georg stayed and so did I.
Animal the director showed up a few more times and I eventually got escorted off by the security guards for offending Der Führer with my self-deprecation suggestion.
This was a bit unnerving.
They say if you’re ever kidnapped you should make yourself more human to the kidnappers by telling them about your personal life. After finding myself behind the set alone with the hulking, clearly-miffed security guards, I figured humanizing myself might prevent any beatings they were contemplating.
“So, uh, are you guys actors or security guards?” I inquired.
“Das hier ist alles scheisse,” the blonder of the two barked back (“This is all bullshit.”) I considered checking to see if my health insurance card was in my wallet.
I still have no idea what he meant.
Afterward, standing in the sun, I asked Georg if we were ethically OK or if the whole thing went too far.
“What are you talking about?” he asked.
“In there. You were freaking out.”
“That? I knew what was going down all along.”
“Holy shit! I thought you were totally against it! I was ready to leave with you!”
“Yeah,” he said, pulling on his e-cigarette. “It’s called acting.”
Months later, after my wife saw the film, I told her what I just told you.
“They’re really good,” she said. “You can totally see that that’s what you’re thinking. But your joke is one of the best in that section.”