Meet the German Comedian Whose Racist Joke Caused an International Crisis

jan-boehmermann
Germany is a country with many problems — ineffectual politicians, right-wing violence, the dismal living conditions of refugees — but right now, its hottest debate centers around a dumb, pretty gross, maybe-racist joke some guy told on TV. The joke, aimed at Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has caused an international crisis: Turkish representatives called the joke “a crime against humanity,” the guy who told it could go to jail, and Chancellor Merkel has to weigh freedom of speech against diplomacy. All because of some German comedian.

His name is Jan Böhmermann, and the joke he told on his weekly satirical news show Neo Magazin Royale was indeed very crass. After Turkish President Erdogan — under whose regime the press in Turkey has become more and more government-controlled and who many feel has brought the entire country closer to Islamism — complained about another German show mocking him for just that, Böhmermann felt he could top his colleagues. He recited a poem he himself introduced as “defamatory” that included lines about Erdogan being not just a dictator but also a pedophile, the Turkish Charles Manson who has sex with goats, all while sitting in front of a Turkish flag.

Because Böhmermann is very good at being meta, during the entire bit he is told by a “media lawyer” that this is not satire but defamation. The bit clearly tried to be as outrageous as possible, though the aim itself wasn’t clear. Was it indeed about the difference between satire and defamation? Or how European countries shouldn’t kowtow to Erdogan’s whims, whose cooperation they need to resolve the refugee crisis? Or was it in fact not about Erdogan but about the outrage it was likely to cause? After the poem, Böhmermann’s sidekick quips that his network is gonna delete the clip.

Which is exactly what happened: after the show aired, Böhmermann’s TV network ZDF took down the clip, saying it failed their quality criteria for satire. (The ZDF is a public network — public like BBC, not like PBS.) One possible reason was the racist undertones of the poem; “goatfucker” being a slur that in European contexts (and definitely in German-Turkish contexts) refers to Muslims.

Despite all this nothing would have happened had German prosecutors not realized that the poem could be illegal under an obscure law that specifically bans insulting foreign heads of state. Meanwhile, Turkish representatives also complained about the joke. Chancellor Merkel had to calm down Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in a phone call.

Turkey has now officially filed a charge against Böhmermann, who might be fined or even go to jail. Whether Böhmermann will actually be tried is now up to the German prosecutors, though it’s likely the decision could be made higher up. Merkel can’t strain German-Turkish relations too much while still respecting Germany’s “indivisible” freedom of speech to not face domestic outrage. So a gross joke has caused an international crisis. How the fuck did that happen?

One reason can be found in the job title “German comedian,” which already seems like an oxymoron. What is that, a guy in lederhosen making jokes about square angles who kicks his audience if they don’t laugh? You’d be both wrong and right to think that. Wrong, because Germany has access to Netflix and YouTube like everybody else. Among pop culture nerds Louis CK is as much a household name as he is in the US, and Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee and whatever latest nostalgia act Jimmy Fallon has come up with go viral here as well. Germans do know what comedy is, and they like it.

But even as a generation of young comics try to emulate their mostly American idols, be it on stage or on TV, they still struggle with some fundamental challenges. To be blunt, whatever cliché you’ve heard about Germans not being awfully good with emotions is true. Warmth and empathy, as elemental to good comedy as aggression and edge, is a rare quality. Germany might have its own The Office, but its own Parks & Recreation is not likely to be made anytime soon. They are good at kicking down, but they constantly break one of the ethical principles that drives so many great comedians: that they’re ultimately the butt of the joke.

Now consider Jan Böhmermann, a lanky totally average guy in his mid-30s. His Neo Magazin Royale is that perennial favorite, the TV show that almost nobody watches but that spawns thinkpieces and viral videos on a daily basis. Few of his stunts translate to an outside audience, like his parody of German street rappers — yes, just like German comedians these exist too; unlike them some of them are actually really dope — or his claim that his show had doctored a video showing Greek ex-finance minister and idol of the new left Yanis Varoufakis flipping the bird, a claim that briefly had the entire German media fooled.

It seems that Germany is getting too small for Böhmermann’s ambitions and he’s been looking to expand. A recent Rammstein parody called “Be Deutsch” advised the world to follow Germany’s example and become good, after a period of being not-so-good. The video’s in English and he’s hinted that a US late night show has booked him as a guest. Maybe it’s Fallon, whose History of Rap format he’s shamelessly stolen in the past.

Despite his hunger for international attention, Böhmermann’s comedy remains very German. It is fundamentally about us vs. them. “Us” in this case means other solidly middle-class, vaguely left-liberal Germans who feel bad about the fact that their great-grandparents were Nazis. “Them” could mean anyone from dumb white trash who vote for Neonazi parties to dumb migrants who rap about selling drugs. In fact, it’s always about intelligent vs. dumb, with Böhmermann and his audience flicking their nose at everybody beneath, deservedly or not.

There’s an ugly side to all this: unlike the US, Germany hasn’t started thinking of itself as a community based not on origin but self-conception until recently. Minority voices here, be they Turkish, Arab, Jewish, queer, or black truly have to face a damn nigh impenetrable white German bloc of self-righteousness and indifference. Böhmermann, in his own way, is part of that bloc. While he pretends to present the “new” and “better” Germany, his writing staff does not actually include any of these new Germans, meaning people whose parents or grandparents came from Turkey, for example.

Maybe that’s why his Erdogan poem, beyond all justified aggression at an apparent dictator, possessed this nasty ethnic tone — because no non-German was around to tell Böhmermann that criticizing Erdogan for his crackdowns on the press is fine but peddling anti-Turkish stereotypes, even against him, isn’t. Though it’s not clear that such a person would stick around anyway, since Böhmermann has made it clear he doesn’t want to listen to anybody but himself. Which, to be fair, is exactly how he presents himself: as an asshole who doesn’t take anything seriously.

This makes it especially bewildering that he’s often compared to Jon Stewart, who during his time hosting The Daily Show could not have been more sincere and self-deprecating. Neither sincerity nor self-deprecation are Böhmermann’s strong suits. His public persona is so based on irony that for a while people thought even the latest Erdogan ruckus was just a fake, set up by Böhmermann himself.

Apparently it’s not, as made evident by some genuinely frightened sounding press statements and the fact he has skipped both his radio and his TV show. Whatever the outcome of this — whether he’ll be prosecuted or gets off — his cynical persona is irreparably damaged. For once, the joke’s on him.

Fabian Wolff is from Berlin and writes in German and in English about old books, new music, and vice-versa. He’s working on his first novel and can be found on Twitter @oneluckyjew.

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