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Photo Gallery: The New Generation of German Minority Comics

Foto: Melanie Marten

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.

Making Comedy from Bigotry

About 80 percent of what he says on stage, Abdelkarim says he takes from his own life. When he runs into people in the dark, he says, they often switch to the other side of the street, partly due to his foreign looks, but also because of his brawny build and the leather jacket he often wears. When he recently stepped off a train in the town of Wattenscheid, an older woman on the platform promptly wrapped the strap of her bag around her wrist several times.

"Now that wasn't an experience that qualifies as one of my 10,000 most beautiful moments at German train stations, but I can't exactly blame her for being afraid," says Abdelkarim.

The woman is hardly part of the target audience for the show "StandUpMigranten" (Migranten is German for "immigrants"), which Abdelkarim hosts every second Saturday on the Eins Plus digital TV channel. In each episode, he greets four young comedians in a Munich hookah bar. They have Jamaican, Egyptian or Russian roots, and it's the first TV appearance for many of them. The program was originally supposed to be called "Migranten-Stadl" (Immigrant Shack), says Thorsten Sievert, who devised the concept for production company Constantin Entertainment, but it turned out that the name was already in use in cabarets.

The idea came to Sievert during the "Comedy Grand Prix," a comedy contest he produces for RTL. At some point, he noticed that the majority of contestants were the children of immigrants. "They have an easier time of it on stage," Sievert says. "A German has to search for a subject to talk about, but they can just draw on their own experiences. They're different, and they've often been made to feel it in life." Bullying as seed capital.

Reclaiming the Punch Line

For many entertainers, the marginalization they experienced as adolescents is the key to their comedy. For those who were bullied as children, fleeing into comedy was often their only remedy. Those who are picked on need to make a decision, says comedian Tedros Teclebrhan. "Either you let that sort of thing stop you, or you make something out of it."

Teclebrhan, who was born in Eritrea but grew up in Germany's southwestern Swabia region, arrived on the scene two years ago, when a video he posted online went viral. In it, he plays Antoine, a cliché of an African immigrant who agrees to take an integration test when stopped on the street by a pollster.

Antoine believes the German chancellor's name is Angelo Merte and is the direct successor of Adolf Hitler. He continues to botch every answer in the survey. The video has received more than 22 million hits on YouTube to date. Teclebrhan, who goes by the name "Teddy," went on to receive his own show on ZDFneo last year.

Teclebrhan likes to talk about his humor, but not about his personal life. When asked how he and his mother fled the civil war in Eritrea and came to Germany when he was seven months old, he says: "Business Class." And his father? "Well, he wanted to come here for the coffee."

'I Don't Want Them to Pity Me'

The truth is that the 30-year-old comedian has never met his father. He also doesn't like to talk about fleeing to Germany. "I don't want people to have my story in their heads. I want them to see the characters, not me. I don't want them to pity me."

Years ago, when Teclebrhan was working as a waiter in a wine bar to pay for acting school, a guest thought it would be funny to order a "black Riesling" from him, the black waiter. Teclebrhan once told the story to a journalist. Today he says it's not worth overdramatizing the incident, because it didn't feel that bad to him at the time.

When asked about his experiences with racism, Teclebrhan says: "Take a look at Ernscht Riedler."

Ernscht is another character from Teclebrhan's box of clichés. Dressed in traditional southwestern villager garb, Ernscht is the typical Swabian, tight-fisted, conservative and provincial, his horizons limited to the low Swabian Jura mountain range. At the local pub, his favorite hangout, he tells a dark-skinned woman not to "steal anything -- right, Africa?" adding in his thick Swabian accent: "You have to tell them that!"

When Teddy plays Ernscht -- the clever satirist playing the narrow-minded villager -- one is struck by the feeling that the Swabian character is more foreign to today's Germany than the Eritrean playing the part.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan