In one of the routines on his weekly TV comedy show, Kaya Yanar, 27, plays a mustachioed Turkish driving instructor giving a large, blond fall guy a driving lesson somewhere in Germany. "Wait, you have to do it the Turkish way," says the
instructor. Whereupon several members of his extended family in their skullcaps and headscarves pile a heap of furniture and mattresses on top of the car and then
boisterously cram themselves into the back-seat. "O.K.," the instructor tells the incomprehending German, "let's go."
Clannish, noisy Turks? Oafish Germans? Isn't that a flagrant perpetuation of negative stereotypes? You bet. But like much of Germany's new comedy style, Yanar's show Was guckst du?-Whaddaya looking at?-practically celebrates stereotypes. Call it ethnocomedy, multicultural humor, a plunge into political incorrectness. By whatever name, the new genre denotes a refreshingly disrespectful spoofing of the culture clash between Germans and foreigners that is enlivening the TV scene. And in a country that is super-sensitive about foreigner issues, the trend is seen as a healthy way of exposing a raw nerve as well as striking an underutilized funny bone.
Ethnocomedy in Germany likely originated with Turkish actor Hilmi Szer, who played the sidekick of a beer-swilling German tourist in Majorca in Ballermann 6, an over-the-top 1997 comedy film hit. It grew more popular with the low-comedy antics of the German-Turkish team Stefan and Erkan and the dialect routines of Turkish stand-up comic Django Asül. Then this European winter Was guckst du?, with a weekly audience of 3 million, put ethnocomedy into the mainstream.
The thornier the issue, the more fun Yanar pokes. Controversy over a government plan to invite Asian info-tech specialists to immigrate to Germany, for example, prompted him to introduce Ranjit, a character with the face and attire of an Indian. He appears before a German immigration official to plead for political asylum.
"Rejected!" barks the official.
"But my house was burned down and my family displaced ..."
"Oh, but I forgot to tell you, I'm fluent in Java and html." At that, the official thrusts a bouquet of flowers at Ranjit and declares worshipfully, "Welcome to Germany!"
The third-generation grandson of Turkish-Syrian immigrants, Yanar says his caricatures are based on the pals he used to impersonate growing up in Frankfurt's multiethnic Konstabler Wache section. After he dropped out of philosophy studies at Frankfurt University, they encouraged him to perform his stand-up routines at local fairs for $25 a gig. After two TV producers caught his act at the 1999 Kuppers Beer Comedy Competition in Cologne, they put their heads together with Yanar and cooked up his one-man show. "There've always been Mustafa and Ali jokes told in private," says Yanar. "Now it's out in the open, where maybe it can even help knit Germans and foreigners closer together." One rule is to skewer with sympathy: he says his takeoffs "are really declarations of love." Another rule is to be utterly evenhanded. After all, concludes Yanar, "we're all funny."
Some editorialists reckon that his decidedly young audience-mostly under 30-represents a potent generational shift. Many older Germans are still hung up by Germany's racist past, says executive producer Godehard Wolpers, 33. "But younger people are getting over it. They're more relaxed about foreigners." John Doyle, an American comedian who has lived in Cologne since 1991, thinks Yanar is symptomatic of a long-overdue improvement in Germany's sense of humor. "He's a reflection of a looser, more self-confident younger generation that's saying, 'Hey, we can be cool too.' They want Germany to lighten up."
Naturally there have been protests. A number of Muslims called the network, Germany's private sat 1, and complained that Yanar had offended Islam when he spoofed Madonna's American Pie video using a huge Turkish flag and a stand-in woman wearing a hijab. Yanar apologized. Greeks, on the other hand, grumbled about being left out and demanded that Yanar make fun of them too. He obliged with a gig about a Hellenic astronaut named Costas with a big Zorba mustache and a sheepskin vest over his spacesuit. Ah, these intolerant American astronauts, gripes Costas from his weightless perch in the International Space Station, they keep making him go outside to smoke.