Common Market, But No Common Sense of Humor

The Guardian runs its annual story about the German fascination with an ancient 18-minute British comedy sketch featuring Freddie Frinton called “Dinner for One”. (As far as I can tell the Guardian runs some version of this story almost every year, always saying that no one in the UK has ever heard of the skit….)

At 7.40pm on New Year's Eve millions of Germans gather reverently round their TV sets to watch Dinner For One – an 18-minute British comedy sketch featuring Freddie Frinton as drunken butler James and May Warden as his elderly aristocratic boss Miss Sophie.

….

Since it was first shown in 1963 the sketch has achieved a cult following in Germany. It is one of the country's most successful TV programmes – no mean feat given that it is shown in a language that most Germans don't actually speak. But nobody in Britain has ever heard of it.

It's an amazing example of cultural non-comprehension: the Germans think the UK sketch is so funny that it has become a major Christmas tradition, complete with (optional) drinking game. The British, well the English anyway, don't think the sketch is particularly funny and can't understand why the Germans think its such a riot. The Germans can't understand why the English don't understand just how funny it is. Both nations conclude that the other nation lacks a sense of humor. (Or humour.) There's no question that the British (and especially English) sense of humour is quirky: witty repartee, check, funny skits (think Monty Python), check, jokes, nope. But although there is much to admire about Germany, I would have to say that German humor is to me about as inscrutable as it gets. There's a certain taste for slapstick, a form of 'humor' I always think is too mean-spirited to be funny. There are a few jokes, but I hardly ever get them. And otherwise its just not funny.

Here's the full script of 'Dinner for One', complete with the famous final lines as Frinton carries Warden up the stairs:

“Same procedure as last year, Madam? – Same procedure as every year, James.”

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3 Responses to Common Market, But No Common Sense of Humor

  1. Kevin Hayden says:

    Well, thanks for the great Florida wit you’ve provided. I can’t defend the slapstick lovers, far preferring the Cleese-Idle-Chapman crowd. I hope you’ve had a great holiday and keep up the good work in the new year!

  2. Niemand says:

    FWIW, the Clesse-Idle-Chapman crowd does have quite a cult status in Germany, too, but usually with people who don’t get the humour in “Dinner for One”, either.

  3. Observer says:

    As an aside, the Pythons created a couple German language shows during their heyday (they were Oxford/Cambridge educated and multi-lingual). I saw these shows while living in Germany many years ago and, while the shows were popular, the humor was cruder, more physical, and meaner than normal Python. The skit where Cleese is a Barvarian waiter serving an American tourist couple was a great example. The non-German-speaking Americans would to agree to anything the waiter suggested without understanding it, so he suggested they order awful food to be served by throwing it at/upon them, and he then proceded to do just that while the audience whooped with laughter.

    Also: given that this is an annual Guardian feature, I wonder if “Dinner for One” still has the same popularity in Germany, or if like “Rocky Horror Picture Show” the reputation for popularity continues although the reality does not. I remember that “Dinner for One” was very popular when I lived in Germany long ago, and at the time the English phrase “same procedure as every year” might be dropped into German conversation from time to time for a laugh. However, I also noticed that the then-younger generation wasn’t as entertained by it as the baby boomers.

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