'My First Zonen-Gaby': An Exegesis of Two Famous Rude German Jokes

Trigger Warning: This post contains discussions of racial stereotypes and East German hairstyles.

After the Charlie Hebdo attack, there were cultural misunderstandings galore about whether the French satire magazine was an obnoxious racist rag. Some of the Charlie's satirical cartoons contained stereotypical depictions of black people and Muslims, which was enough for many non-French speakers to denounce the magazine. Those who spoke French and knew the French media landscape countered that the editorial line of Charlie Hebdo was left-wing. The use of rude caricatures -- whether of blacks, Catholics, gays, or royalty -- is simply par for the course in the rollicking, adolescent world of European satire. To those in the know, which includes me, there is no debate: the latter point of view is correct.

Here's another magazine cover that's sure to provoke controversy, this time in Germany. I will now explain the background to you before the controversy erupts. I happen to have learned a lot about Germany, even though I've lived here for over a decade.

The roots of this joke go back to November 1989. The Berlin Wall had just come down, talk of unification was in the air, and thousands of East Germans were traveling freely to West Germany for the first time. The West German satire magazine Titanic decided to weigh in with a cover. Titanic, you should know, follows the dictum (g) of Kurt Tucholsky: Was darf Satire? Alles. (What is satire alllowed to do? Everything.)

Here is their November 1989 cover:

Zonen gaby

The title reads: 'Zonen-Gaby (17) overjoyed (BRD) : My First Banana'. Let's unpack the cultural signifiers. First, the name. Gaby (short for Gabrielle) is a common name all over Germany, but was especially popular in the East. Zonen-Gaby refers to the fact that she comes from East Germany. Now, there is a whole code governing how one may refer to residents of the former German Democratic Republic. The most polite way is 'People from the New German Federal States'. Quite a mouthful. Then comes East Germans. By the time you get to Ossi, you're in the political-correctness danger zone. And that brings us to Zonies. Right-wing Germans, who never accepted the notion of East Germany as a legitimate, independent state, referred to East Germany as the 'Soviet Occupation Zone' to emphasize its temporary and non-democratic character.

'Zone-Gaby' is 17, and now residing in the BRD, the German initials for West Germany. She has several characteristics of people from the East, including the half-hearted perm and unisex denim jacket. East Germans were very much into these things. If you don't believe me, just look at the footage from the fall of the Wall. East German women were also delighted by geometric plastic earrings. There were lots of dangling red plastic triangles. Gaby has what looks like a peach-colored plastic wind-chime hanging from each ear. Also the teeth. Basic medical care in the State of Workers and Peasants was quite good, but there was neither the money nor the will to provide comrades with bourgeois fripperies like cosmetic dentistry.

And finally we come to the cucumber. Bananas were rare in East Germany, and one of the stereotypes of East Germans coming for a visit to the West (which was allowed under strict regulation) is that they ran to the nearest grocery store to devour exotic tropical fruits unavailable in the East. Poor Zonen-Gaby is evidently unfamiliar with bananas.

This is, without a doubt, the most famous Titanic cover in history, perhaps comparable to National Lampoon's 'If You Don't Buy this Magazine We'll Kill This Dog.' The number of people who found it grossly offensive was outnumbered only by the number who found it funny, which was only outnumbered by the people who found it both.

And now, 25 years later, Titanic has just outdone itself:

Refugee joe

Even if you're not German-Powered™, you can probably see where this is going. The more sensitive among you should click away now. I'll give you a few seconds.

OK, we're back. I will now continue to dissect the joke, solely in the name of cross-cultural understanding, and perhaps Science. Our old friend Zonen-Gaby is back, this time in the company of 'Refugee Joe.' The title reads: 'Refugee Joe (52 cm) overjoyed (asylum): My First Zonen-Gaby'. As we also see, Zonen-Gaby is (still) overjoyed at meeting her new friend. Her thought bubble reads 'Hee-hee -- Banana Joe'! The black band promises 'Even more asylum critique in the magazine!'

The reference to 52cm should be self-explanatory. Although I should note for accuracy's sake that the current owner of the world's longest penis is an American (of course) and his glistening missile of sin is only 13.5 inches, or 34.2 cm long. Erect.

Experts, Schmexperts

While we're on the subject of expertise, a study finds that blindfolded violinists preferred new violins to the supposedly ineffable old Italian fiddles:

Many researchers have sought explanations for the purported tonal superiority of Old Italian violins by investigating varnish and wood properties, plate tuning systems, and the spectral balance of the radiated sound. Nevertheless, the fundamental premise of tonal superiority has been investigated scientifically only once very recently, and results showed a general preference for new violins and that players were unable to reliably distinguish new violins from old.... In this study, 10 renowned soloists each blind-tested six Old Italian violins (including five by Stradivari) and six new during two 75-min sessions—the first in a rehearsal room, the second in a 300-seat concert hall. When asked to choose a violin to replace their own for a hypothetical concert tour, 6 of the 10 soloists chose a new instrument. A single new violin was easily the most-preferred of the 12. On average, soloists rated their favorite new violins more highly than their favorite old for playability, articulation, and projection, and at least equal to old in terms of timbre. Soloists failed to distinguish new from old at better than chance levels. These results confirm and extend those of the earlier study and present a striking challenge to near-canonical beliefs about Old Italian violins.

Add this to the mountain of evidence that professional wine tasters can be influenced by all sorts of extraneous factors: 

Colour affects our perceptions too. In 2001 Frédérick Brochet of the University of Bordeaux asked 54 wine experts to test two glasses of wine– one red, one white. Using the typical language of tasters, the panel described the red as "jammy' and commented on its crushed red fruit.

The critics failed to spot that both wines were from the same bottle. The only difference was that one had been coloured red with a flavourless dye.

As Kevin Drum puts it succinctly, if you're an expert but can't do your thing blindfolded, STFU.

[The video is a legendary 1988 episode of the German TV show 'Wetten, dass...' (Bet that I can...) in which Titanic (g) magazine editor Bernd Fritz claimed to be able to detect the color of markers (g) by tasting them.]

"Who Knows This Man?"

There's only one publication in Germany that can intentionally make me laugh out loud, and that's Titanic, the monthly satire magazine to which I am a proud subscriber. Its subtitle proclaims it to be "the ultimate satire magazine", and that's true in any number of ways. Among them: nobody in Germany goes further than Titanic. According to occasional contributor Oliver Maria Schmitt, the magazine's motto (g, paywall) is "A resounding 'Yes' to 'No'!". Titanic's doesn't just slaughter the sacred cows, it tortures and mutilates them first. Which brings them endless lawsuits (g), usually based on quaint German laws making it a crime to insult people or otherwise injure their honor or dignity. Naturally, Titanic wears these lawsuits with pride.

The latest Titanic escapade is particularly rich. To understand the joke, we must first review some recent German history. On the 4th of November, an apartment burned down in the East German city of Zwickau. Nearby, in Eisenach, two right-wing extremists shot themselves in a mobile home after a botched bank robbery. During searches of the apartment and the mobile home, police found evidence linking both sites to a team of two men (Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, the ones who killed themselves) and one woman (Beate Zschärpe) who together constituted a right-wing terror cell called the National Socialist Underground (g). Unbeknownst to police, the NSU had, since 1998, been on a nationwide murder and bank-robbery spree (g) killing at least 10 people in targeted assassinations -- mostly immigrants, but also a young policewoman, murdered execution-style. All of the shootings were committed with the same weapon. The group also set off at least one bomb, in 2004 in a crowded street in a heavily-immigrant section of Cologne, injuring 22 people.

In the rubble of the Zwickau apartment in November 2011, the police found a truly astounding 15-minute video in which the group -- using a mash-up of Pink Panther animation clips -- took explicit credit for the mayhem (g) and mocked both victims and police. Even shortly after the discovery, people began asking how a group could go on killing and bombing undistiurbed in an advanced, well-policed nation such as Germany without being detected. But the facts that came out later made the question even more urgent. It turns out all three suspects were known to the police in the 1990s as neo-Nazis. The men had criminal records for violent attacks on foreigners and bomb threats. The three even ran a small bomb workshop in Jena in Zschärpe's garage. They narrowly escaped arrest in 1998 after a tip led to the workshop's detection. Despite the fact that they were all known to the police by name, appearance, and affiliation, they were able to go underground and elude detection for 14 years. When police investigated the immigrants the NSU had murdered, the cops generally discounted the idea that right-wing violence might be behind the killings, and instead suggested that the victims were targeted because of their involvement with drug-smuggling or immigrant mafias.

During the entire neo-Nazi terror spree, the German domestic spy agency (rather pompously called the Verfassungsschutz, or Agency for Protection of the Constitution (APC)) released report after report announcing that there were "no signs of right-wing terror groups" in Germany. The APC had infiltrated dozens of paid snitches into right-wing groups, but still didn't uncover the extensive network of accomplices that made the 14-year murder spree possible. After the vicious 2004 nail-bomb attack in Cologne -- in which a white man can be seen in a surveillance video depositing the bomb -- interior minister Otto Schily denied the very next day that there was any evidence it was a right-wing anti-immigrant attack. All of the murders and bombings, of course, went unsolved. In fact the murder of the policewoman was attributed to a mysterious female super-criminal who, according to DNA traces, had committed an astounding number of varied crimes all over Germans from 1993 until 2009. Until it was found out that the DNA actually all came from a police lab employee who had contaminated (g) crime-scene samples.

The mind, as they say, buggers. The whole sordid episode has sparked a controversy in Germany which has dominated headlines for weeks and shows no signs of abating.

Titanic felt the need to intervene. Here its its current cover:


The caption reads: "The APC Needs Your Help: WHO KNOWS THIS MAN?" Meanwhile, according to the Sueddeutsche Zeitung (g) newspaper a citizen in the small Bavarian town of Taufkirchen had reported sightings of a "poster" displaying the markings of an "organization hostile to the constitution" (in this case, a rather large portrait of a controversial Austrian statesman). The police immediately swung into action, confiscating five more copies of the "poster", cunningly hidden among racks of magazines in various retail stores across town. The police surmised that the guilty parties must have come from "right-wing radical circles", and perhaps wanted to taunt the APC.

After further analysis, the police determined that the "right-wing posters" were copies of Titanic. (h/t MW).

German Word of the Week -- Plus!: Moralin and Gulaschkanone

This week's German Words of the Week is not only a twofer but also -- an example the kind of fabulous positive-plus synergy which makes this blog world-famous -- coupled with What I Learned from Tatort. Wow! I can hardly wait to type the post!

Last week, I dutifully switched on my television to watch Tatort. Every Tatort plays in a different German city, and this one was in Kiel, a port city way up north on the Baltic sea. Unfortunately, the detective who features in the Kiel Tatorts is Borowski, who has all the charisma of a sea cucumber. Yes, I know, his waxen flesh and papery monotone are supposed to convey the legendary taciturnity of Germans from the north, renowned as the dullest, stuffiest, and most reserved of all Germans. Which, believe me, is saying a lot. My pragmatic Anglo-Saxon mind entertains the heretical notion of whether these Ent-like humanoids should be the subject of televisions shows that purport to be "entertainment." The most brutal blow was the casting of gorgeous Turkish vixen Sibel Kekilli in a supporting role. She stole every scene she was in, and made the viewer desperately yearn for her to suddenly break into the other scenes, which mainly featured North Germans bitching and seething.

But I digress. I should have known I'd be in for something special this time, because the entire week, the main German public-television station had been highlighting proper nutrition with various specials and cooking shows. And that meant that this week's Tatort had to Teach us about Proper Nutrition. As Christina Sieben observed in her review, the "die Gulaschkanone" of high-minded educational public TV was set on "constant bombardment." Now, a Gulaschkanone is basically what it sounds like: a goulash cannon. The term originally referred to military field kitchens, for obvious reasons. But here, in context, the cannon is spouting edifying lessons like a Stalin's organ. In Sieben's summary:

Artificial colors have to be, because nobody will buy white energy drinks. Cows are always chained up in the dairy. "Research Institutes" are in the pocket of industry. Good food costs money, but people are too cheap to pay for it. The old organic farmer in the show knows all his cows by name. Everyone wants to earn money. And, at the end of the day, it's all our fault. Bon appetit! 

Sieben goes on to predict that with Public Television Nutrition Edification Week over, the next Tatort will contain slightly less Moralin. You know, Moraline (not to be confused with Betweenanene (Screwene)). Like Adenosine, Guanine, Cytosine, Adrenaline, or Methamphetamine. Moraline bonds with plot elements in public-television dramas, causing the narrative to coalesce in ways that offer edifying lessons to the benighted, easily corruptible audience.

Thanks to Moraline, we learned all those valuable things about food and nature from last week's Tatort (although strangely enough, the topic of lavish cow subsidies (g) was barely mentioned). Moraline additive also helps us understand, for example, that unemployed people want to work, alcoholics and drug addicts roll like they do because of childhood trauma, women can do everything men can, family-run firms are the only halfway-acceptable form of free enterprise, and that Scientology, nationalism, plastic toys, wars, lobbysists, and nuclear power are evil.

If you watch too much German public television, your moraline levels may reach toxicity: You may begin to use phrases like "our fellow-citizens of the Islamic faith" or "food-chain-renewability enhancing measures" in everyday speech. At this point, you'll need to spend a few hours in a secure, moraline-free environment. The most reliable place is Titanic Magazine (g), which, is 100% moraline-free and whose motto is "Ein klares Ja zum Nein!" (A clear Yes to No!).

In Which I Rocket to Superstardom

Those of my readers who are subscribers to Titanic, the essential accessory for positive-plus top-lifestyle hyperachievers like us (you are Titanic subscribers, aren't you?) may already have seen that Max Goldt has seen fit to mention GJ in his piece of the real estate.  Indeed, he's paid this blog the ultimate compliment of taking a few weak, half-baked meanderings spewed out here and turning them into something actually worth reading.  Many thanks.

To welcome the shiny new reader(s) that will stop by in the next few days, I've planned a very special series of ultra-accessible posts.  Stay tuned for selections from dictionaries of German prison slang and obscene words, and uncensored pictures of an actual unopened book about a French Catholic reactionary!  Can you feel the Germanjoysmentum?

P.S.  For the worthless parasites out there who have not yet subscribed to Titanic, you may -- nay, must -- repent, posthaste.

The Lenny Bruce(s) of Germany

A few months ago, I noticed a picture of a little girl pasted onto the wall between the elevators at a small regional airport in Germany.  The girl was Madeleine McCann, who was apparently abducted from a Portuguese resort.  Ever since that time, I've seen her face plastered all over the front pages, even here in Germany.  News stories usually report the latest speculations of the hapless Portuguese police, who seem to ricochet comically from theory to theory.  The story has it all -- an adorable child in danger, articulate, good-looking, middle class, media-savvy parents, lots of contradictory clues.  Plus, it happened in England, home to the most ravenous yellow press in the advanced West. 

Titanic Magazine sensed an opportunity for satire.  Claiming it had discovered secret plans by a discount store to exploit the case, Titanic published a two-page spread in which Maddie's picture -- now one of the most recognizable images of this young century -- is slapped on various consumer products.  Someone has apparently shown the Titanic satire it to the missing girl's parents.  Their lawyer pronounced (G) them "deeply offended," and is apparently reviewing the family's legal options.

Martin Sonneborn, writer for Titanic, gave an interview (G) to the Sueddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) about the dust-up.  After making the obvious point that the target of the satire was not the parents but the media frenzy, Sonneborn addressed the possibility of a lawsuit:

SZ:  Is there another lawsuit coming down the pike for you?

Sonneborn:  We basically encourage anybody to sue us.  Helmut Markwort, Benjamin von Stuckrad-Barre, and the Social Democratic Party can sing you a song about that.  Although in the end, the results are usually negative.  Björn Engholm ripped us a good one a few years ago, we had to transfer 40,000 marks to his account.  Fortunately, we're able to wrap up other cases with small sums.  Not even the Social Democratic Party got any money, although we put [party chairman] Kurt Beck as Bruno the [Problem] Bear on the front cover with the title "Blow the beast away!"

SZ:  But you were forbidden from selling that issue.

Sonneborn:  No, we just couldn't deliver extra copies.

SZ:  Do you now think there will be big diplomatic problems between Germany and the UK?

Sonneborn:  No, but it would be wonderful if that happened.  In any case, we'll certainly be happy to do our part.

A fine post on the affair by Spiegelfechter reports that Sonneborn told the Stern magazine: "I would go so far as to call it a declaration of war on England."

Continue reading "The Lenny Bruce(s) of Germany" »

Hairy Politician Sues Fearless Satirists

The day job is distracting me from the important things in life, but I thought I would write a short entry to express my "unlimited solidarity" with the good people of Titanic magazine in their time of need. They are being sued by humorless politicians, and need our help.

Brief background: a few weeks ago, middle Europe was obsessed by a bear called Bruno. Bruno was the first bear spotted on German soil for almost 150 years (or something like that). Trouble is, Bruno was a "problem bear," as the forestry officials put it. He ran around smashing things, eating lambs, and scaring people. Long story short -- after many attempts to catch Bruno peacefully, Bavaria allowed a team of hunters to shoot Bruno down.

The next day, tabloids featured a hand-drawn reconstruction of poor Bruno's last moments. The beast grimaced in agony, as a dinner-plate-sized blood-spatter rosette spurted from his shoulder. Maria, the Croatian woman who sells me my morning whisky mineral water, confessed that she had cried upon hearing of the "massacre" of poor old Bruno.

Ruthlessly_murdered_bearAdorable_social_democrat_mascot The lads over at Titanic noticed resemblances between the leader of the German Social Democratic party, Kurt Beck, and Bruno. Both are big, both are hairy, and both scare campers, kill small mammals, and propose complex healthcare  reforms. They put a smiling Kurt on the front cover of their latest issue, and with the subtitle: "Problem Bear Out of Control!"  In large letters underneath, the satirical request: "Shoot the Beast Down!"

Continue reading "Hairy Politician Sues Fearless Satirists" »

Tips for World Cup Tourists

So you're thinking of coming to Germany for the World Cup? Fabulous! I'll probably be leaving for Rome. If you'd like advice on how to behave, here's an archive of tips written by foreign residents of Germany for you, courtesy of the Spiegel magazine.

But why rely on foreigners? Instead, I'd advise looking at page 36 of this month's Titanic, which contains valuable hints written by actual German Mark-Stefan Tietze. What follows is my slightly abridged, and very very loose, translation, of this important contribution to cultural understanding:

Don't even think about it!

As a World Cup tourist from some underdeveloped region of the world, you should know: not all Germans are Nazis, some of them just want to make a nice profit from you. Nonetheless: there are also tourist traps in Germany, and plenty of behaviors you're better off avoiding:

Blathering on pointlessly

In Germany, communication is always goal-oriented ("Out of my way!" "Show me your papers!" "Give me the money!").  Things that might count as charming banter in your culture ("May I help you cross the street?" "What glorious rainy weather!" "By the way, I come from Burundi") will be regarded in Germany as superficial blather and a waste of time.

Turning down invitations

If a German actually manages to invite you to his home to show you his own personal recycling system, you must never turn down the invitation. Otherwise, you'll make another enemy, and what it means to make enemies of Germans you can learn from any history book.

Speaking during meals

It is considered improper to speak during meals in Germany. According to old German custom, you should poke around the plate gloomily for a while, then suddenly choke it all down in one fell swoop. As soon as you see the German national dish, "Sludge with Goo and Meat," before you, you'll know why.

Conceal your fears

In Germany, culture, economy and cuisine are traditionally based on fear. Germans are accordingly proud of their fears and delight in spreading them. Currently, Germans are afraid about their pensions, dying-out as a nation, and being eliminated in the first round. Don't be afraid to talk about your own fears (floods, nuclear war, sauerkraut) -- but always admit that your hosts' fears are more important.

Inappropriate Appearance

An inappropriate appearance can injure religious feelings in Germany. Of course, nobody will complain if Catholic Brazilian girls visit churches in their traditional costume of sequined bikinis. However if you happen to be in East Germany, you should avoid provoking the natives by having an unusual skin color. The ancient Germanic gods that are worshiped in these areas strictly forbid it.

Remaining sober during the evening

During the day, Germans like to appear lifeless and stony. During the evening, however, they drink several liters of beer and then suddenly go out of their minds and begin screaming like banshees. You should absolutely join in! Anyone who doesn't will quickly get smacked in the chops. Of course if you join in, you'll also get smacked in the chops, but you won't notice it as much.

Forgetting to mention the war

Never forget to mention the war to Germans! Germans love to prove, in hours-long conversations, that they know a lot about the rather unfortunate parts of their history, and that they've learned important things from it. As a follow-up, they'll be happy to explain to you all the things that suck about your country, and which genocides you should feel responsible for.

I hope this helps apprehensive tourists.  Welcome to Germany, and don't forget to root for Togo if Germany gets eliminated!

Communist Christmas-Cake Revenge

As most of this blog's readers probably know, there used to be two Germanys, the user-friendly capitalist West and the unsettling Communist East. Long story short: Evil empire collapses, Germanys rejoin. Former West transfers 9.34 quadrillion marks to former East, to try to help them "catch up." Doesn't help much. Like a grumpy old married couple, the two Germanys complain about each other endlessly, but wouldn't think of separating.

Now, from the most recent Titanic, comes this chilling tale of East-West revenge, courtesy of former East German Nils Heinrich. Apparently all those Christmas care packages sent by Westerners to relatives in the East were just as ineffective as the 9.34 quadrillion marks. Here's his stomach-turning tale (very freely translated by yours truly):

Christmas Care Packages sent "Over There"

During Christmas, we also spared a thought for our dear relatives in the "other" part of Germany, and sent them lovely care packages.  In our packages for "over there," we put East German Christmas cakes. Yes, good old East German Christmas cakes.  The cake was baked -- and I can tell this from personal experience, since I saw it as an apprentice -- during lonely night-shifts, by unwashed high-voltage alcoholics, in shabby little bakery-joints which were positively crawling with vermin. 

The cakes weren't baked with quality ingredients. They were baked with whatever happened to be lying around. For instance, the East German marzipan-substitute Legupan. It was green because it was made of peas, sort of like falafel with sugar. Legupan and the East German orangeat, called "Kandinat," which was made of half-cooked carrots, was mixed together with blocks of margarine and other East German food-substitutes and plenty of sugar. And the relatives in West Germany had to choke all this down!

That was our revenge for the Westerners sending us care packages filled with nothing but junk from Wal-Mart, or used "Jinglers" jeans, which looked uncool even in "Karl Marx City." Oh yes, we knew how to strike back, we sure did.

And let me just tell you one more thing: It's too late to puke now!