What's So Funny About Racism? Germany's New Minority Comics
A new generation of comedians with foreign roots are shining an irreverent light on the prejudices they encounter in Germany. But when it comes to the integration debate, do their brash, cliché-rife performances do more harm than good?
In one of Jilet Ayse's signature rants, she takes on the subject of domestic violence -- something of which she is wholeheartedly in favor.
In a YouTube video that's been viewed more than a million times, the heavy-set woman with long dark hair and a pretty, expressive face sits on a sofa dressed in a black-and-white Adidas track suit, enormous dangly gold-plated earrings hanging down past her shoulders, and energetically defends her boyfriend's right to beat her.
"I really deserve it, too," she adds in her exaggerated Turkish-accented Berlin dialect, five cell phones laid out on the table in front of her, "sometimes you have to put woman in her place, you understand, like dog."
After all, says Ayse, the boyfriend, Ayak, is worth it. He's "like Scarface, Tony Montana," always buying her "Adidas, Madidas, and so on," she says, plucking out the shoulders of her track jacket. He evens wants children at some point -- eight or nine of them, to be precise.
Ayse says she is so worked up about the issue because her sister, "that integration whore," who is married to a German, wants to deprive her of her freedom to be beaten. The tirade lasts a full six minutes. She is rude and loud, punctuating her slangy speech with aggressive hand gestures toward the camera.
Jilet Ayse is a product of Thilo Sarrazin, the prominent politician who penned the controversial 2010 bestseller "Germany Does Away With Itself," criticizing the impact of Muslim immigrants on German society. When actress Idil Baydar was given the book, which many accuse of stirring up hatred against Muslims, she came to a conclusion: "You want your Kanakin, well now you're going to get her," she says, using a German pejorative for a Turkish immigrant. So Baydar created the character of Berlin ghetto bride Jilet Ayse.
A New Wave of Minority Comedy
Baydar, 38, is part of a young generation of comedians whose parents or grandparents immigrated to Germany. Their subject is life as a minority in Germany. They don't fill stadiums or reach millions, like Bülent Ceylan and Kaya Yanar, two comedians of Turkish descent who put their foreign backgrounds to comedic use in more palatably mainstream ways. The stages of these new comedians are YouTube and the digital channels Eins Plus and ZDFneo. From there, they dish out the prejudices and animosities with which they are often confronted.
Their performances are all the more unsettling when juxtaposed with recent German efforts to extricate racist terms from common usage, from the renaming of a dish widely known as Zigeunerschnitzel (Gypsy schnitzel) to the redacting of outdated terms from classic children's books.
But the new minority comedians expose differences instead of covering them up, breaking down barriers in the process. "We put the prejudices where they belong," says Baydar, "into the realm of the ridiculous."
Baydar is familiar with the serious side of prejudice, from her years in school and her experience teaching German to the children of Turkish immigrants, for a while at the notoriously violent Rütli School in Berlin's Neukölln neighborhood.
She met girls who spoke much the way her character Jilet speaks. "There are adolescents like that. They're not the majority, but they are the loudest ones."
She saw how children were disadvantaged because of their ethnic background, and, with a mixture of amusement and anger, she fielded praise like that of a Berlin lawmaker, who once told her she spoke "quite good German." German, of course, is her first language.
'Some Turks Think I'm Awful'
Baydar was born in the northwestern state of Lower Saxony, to parents who had immigrated from the Turkish capital Ankara in the 1970s. "My only migration was out of my mother's stomach," she jokes. Nevertheless, she says, she feels like a foreigner in Germany.
Yet for someone intent on dismantling prejudice, it might seem strange to some that Baydar has aligned herself with one of the most avid disseminators of cultural stereotyping by producing weekly Jilet videos for the website of mass-circulation tabloid Bild. Baydar explains she chose Bild because she wants to reach a broad audience -- even at the risk of some things not being understood the way she intended.
"Some Turks think I'm awful, because they believe I'm betraying our culture. But Jilet is a product of Germany, not Turkey. She would never have turned out this way in Turkey," asserts Baydar.
She says that she rarely gets xenophobic reactions, and when she does, she fires back. When someone wrote something on her Facebook page to the effect that someone like Jilet would have been sent to the gas chamber in the past, she responded with a link to a self-help group for neo-Nazis. She uses her character Jilet to handle everything else. In one video, for instance, Jilet berates Germans, saying it's time they starting producing more children, and not just old people. "Who are we going to laugh about when you cease to exist?"
Irony or Servile Self-Caricature?
An essay published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung magazine at the beginning of the year raises the question of whether ethnic comedy may actually be hampering the immigration debate, rather than encouraging it. The magazine also suggests that "these so-called comedians are not breaking down stereotypes, but in fact are confirming, reproducing and solidifying them."
As it happens, however, a joke is not a physical experiment, which always has the same result under the same conditions. A comedian can't protect himself against misinterpretation of his punch lines, the way a cautious trapeze artist is protected by a net. And political correctness is often merely synonymous with boredom.
Comedian Abdelkarim offers his own assessment: "A normal adult is going to understand what part of my act is irony and what part isn't. Of course, someone comes along now and then who doesn't recognize the irony right away, but luckily my audiences have always made a clever impression."
Abdelkarim, whose parents are from Morocco, presents both German resentments and the full spectrum of Muslim clichés. As with a cunning penalty-kicker, one never knows which corner the 32-year-old is about to shoot into.
During a performance at Hamburg's Quatsch Comedy Club a few weeks ago, he began by talking about an incident at a supermarket, in which he had asked an older man if he wanted to go ahead of him in line, the man replied: "No, I'd rather keep you in view."
The next minute, Abdelkarim is joking about how his father wanted to forbid him from playing chess: "The queen can go wherever she pleases? What's that about?" his father raged. But then he calmed down, says Abdelkarim, when he explained to him that players could also knock the queen down.
- Part 1: Germany's New Minority Comics
- Part 2: Making Comedy from Bigotry