Terrifying German Culture Hour: Dinner for One

If you’ve ever spent new years eve in germany, you probably have encountered this: Dinner for One

This sketch, performed by two british variety actors (and tumblers) is a german ritual for generations by now – despite the fact that it is indeed performed in english, without any german subtitles.

Millions of germans will devote about 15 minutes sometime at new years eve to watch this clip. Slavishly. If there is no TV, modern germans will happily gather in a corner of their chosen party location, huddle around the biggest phone screen they can find and fire up YouTube.

Why?

For once, this sketch is hilarious. I mean, look at the butler stumbling over the stuffed tiger, that is solid comedic gold. And the voices he makes!

The other reason? Frankly, I have no idea. Ritual. Like the thing with the Berliner, Pfannkuchen, Kreppel, Krapfen that we insist on gobbling down at the same time. (The vast regional variety of names for food is another post. Rest assured that when ordering a Pfannkuchen, you’ll get vastly different things, depending on where you order it)

But that aside, if something is beloved, there will be copies, hommages.. remixes. One obvious thing of course is recreating it in german language. As I wrote earlier, if it is foreign tv in germany, we dub it, or, even better, remake it:

If you didn’t understand a word, even though you learned german at school, you’re forgiven. This is Kölsch, one of the many wonderful german dialects.

There’s also Bayrisch:

Fränkisch:

with well-known comedians (Miss Sophie is portrayed by the musical genius from this earlier post)

And only germans can appreciate the genius of Downfall for one:

Netflix, savvy as they are, recognized the cultural significance of Dinner for One and made a YouTube ad in this vein:

It becomes slightly problematic if someone confuses the seasons and performs this sketch during the fifth season (which is the Karneval. Another post for a later time):

And to get the german kids hooked young, we also have a version with our beloved depressed square loaf, Bernd:

Terrifying German Culture Hour – Ad Breaks!

While I was doing research for Terrifying German Culture Hour, something occurred to me:

German TV, especially in the 70ies and 80ies had way less advertising than comparable shows in the US.

That sounds like a trivial „so what?“ insight, but it is actually huge:

For starters, they did of course import TV shows from the US and aired them (dubbed) in Germany. But, where the US original would have three to four ad segments, the german one would have one or two.

And those blocks would actually be in the mathematical middle of the show, not where the showrunners intended them to be. So, we would watch the A-Team, the van would race through some gate, a rocket launcher gets cocked, the screen goes black… and then comes back to show the conclusion. No ad-break. We thought those pauses were normal!

On the other hand, the german ad-breaks would then happen kinda mid-sentence. „yes, I love it when a plan comes… “ ad-jingle, Mainzelmännchen, a few advertisements, possibly with Prilblumen, more Mainzelmännchen, then „yes, I love it when a plan comes together. Get ‚em B.A.!“

Again, we thought that was normal.

The completely other thing: Anything that got aired after 20:00 came without any advertisement. So when the germans took Love Boat and remade it as Das Traumschiff, or General Hospital, remade as Die Schwarzwaldklinik, they not only made these things so very very german, but..

…also expanded it to about 90 to 120 minutes, sans ad breaks. In case the implications aren’t immediately clear to you: Love Boat is a show that has a one-hour slot. That means 40 minutes plus advertising, with the arc of suspense optimized to having three mini-cliffhangers and a satisfying finale.

They took this format, stretched it to more than double the time and reworked the arc of suspense to not have the three mini-cliffhangers. The result was rather plodding and, compared to anything from the US, slow.

The real kicker here is that due to the bureaucracy of german public tv stations, this sort of plodding and timing became the defacto standard of german tv productions for decades. The main production company is still adhering to the formulas laid down in that era, instead of doing more KLIMBIM:

Yes, kids could and did watch this.

Terrifying German Culture Hour – The other Punk Edition

Even germans often mistake the phenomena known as „New German Wave“ for just an assortment of weird stuff. In reality, this cambrian explosion of new styles and bands paved the way for a variety of genres in Germany. Most bands went away quietly afterwards, some got (in)famous, and others stuck around for the next few decades.

Even americans probably know Trio and their „Da da da“, the stereotypical german nihilstic dadaism – after all, it featured in a Volkswagen ad.

What people didn’t quite know is that Trio basically did all the things that you would expect from avantgarde punk. And, because this is germany, they of course included axes in their performance, as well as Bommerlunder:

But the most iconic artist of this era was probably Nena, with all her 99 balloons…

Awesome, isn’t it? Alas, this takes us away from the punk I wanted to point out today, so I won’t go into the details of her (in my opinion) much better song. Listen to it anyway, I might have something to say about it at some other point…

Contemporaries of Nena, and probably as iconic were Extrabreit, and their gleeful song about a burning school hyped schoolkids of at least two generations:

And yes, we have guitars, plastic trousers and seditious lyrics – the people who were responsible for taping this didn’t realize it yet, but this is a true german punk band!

The lines between punk and wave were still pretty blurred at this point in time, so we should certainly not forget DAF and their „Dance the Mussolini“:

And then there’s KIZ, I actually have no idea where to put them:

But the point of this particular post is Punk, and I would fail you if I wouldn’t mention the two big fishes in the small pond of german punkrock: Die Ärzte (out of Berlin!) and Die Toten Hosen, hailing from Düsseldorf (Not Cologne!) Fans from either band tended to maintain some sort of snobbish rivalvry against the other band, firmly believing that „their“ punk gods were clearly superior.

In style, Die Ärzte were definitely a bit more silly, whereas Die Toten Hosen could get outright political and serious at times.

To illustrate, see this Toten Hosen song about daddy hanging himself in the attic, dressed up as santa claus:

And compare with Die Ärzte and their Peace Tank:

(the monologue at the beginning? The german dub of Leslie Nielsens speech in the second Naked Gun movie. I’ll get into the pecularities of dubbing a lot later…)

As you can probably guess by the toilet humour, Die Ärzte were afraid of nothing when it came to lyrics, so they had funny and life-affirming songs about

  • incest
  • bestiality
  • the monster in the closet
  • the german chancellor beating up his wife
  • spontaneously exploding people
  • bondage
  • people being literally scalped

and so on. Unsurprisingly their albums got banned quite often, to „protect the youth“. The only possible answer to that, of course, was a song explaining all the BDSM fetishes in clinical detail, set to a video of dystopian censors destroying their stuff:

Die Toten Hosen meanwhile recorded a song with britains Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs:

Terrifying German Culture Hour – „Music“

Music is the universal language, they say. And every country and culture has their equivalents of grand symphonies, dirty ditties and horrible songs. Germany is no different…

…you’d think. And you’d be wrong. Especially in the 70es and 80es, there was a union of music, showmanship and.. well, humour, creating a blend that might be a bit hard to understand. On top of that, there was the perceived need to have songs in german language.

Let’s have a look at the results, shall we? Americans will probably have heard „The Battle of New Orleans“ at some point. I mean, Tommy Horton and even Johnny Cash performed it.

Well, considering that it is a song that commemorates the victory over the british, it is a bit surprising that Les Humphries changed the lyrics to some sort of complete nonsense when he landed this hit in Germany:

One of the many singers involved here is Jürgen Drews, who, much later in life, become King of the Mallorquins:

The need to localize was strong, and spanned all genres of popular music. With an utter disregard to the source material. Enter Cindy & Bert, germanys very burgeois and tame Sonny & Cher, performing their version of Black Sabbaths Paranoid:

(In case your german is failing you: They are indeed telling the story of the dark Hound of Baskerville)

But fear not – there was originality in german music, even at that time. And some songs even got sung in english. But with more showmanship than any broadway production could ever hope for – exhibit a: Genghiz, err, Dschinghis Khan, singing… Dschinghis Khan:

This song was as big a hit as the production makes you think it is. Really, it was the number one hit in germany for 29 weeks! Produced by Ralph Siegel, they immediately also took Moscow by storm:

Still, you can’t have terrifying german music without acknowledging that germans are actually able to build more terrifying things on top of it. Enter german 70es prime comedian Otto, conducting a live orchestra performance of Dschinghis Khan:

Do not be fooled: This man is a musical genius, who can take the names of the dissidents & dictators and beat box ahead:

A propos Ralph Siegel. This guy is a titan of the german music business, responsible for the production of what feels like 95% of all terrifying german culture. Europeans might remember his very weltschmerz-driven plea for „a little bit of peace“:

I should let you enjoy that peace and end this blogpost at that point, but remember, this is Terrifying German Culture Hour after all. So here, have another cover song, this time based on Grease’s You’re the One that I Want – a title that german ears easily mishear as the equivalent of „the bathtub is full“. Yes, german is a weird language, I know:

And next time, I’ll explain the connection between cartoon bikers and two grown men in sailor suits.