The Times, May 3, 2003
Germans Encouraged To Laugh By The Ministry Of Silly Walks (Excerpt)
By Roger Boyes
Germany’s long, relentlessly scientific search for its national sense of humour may at last produce dividends this weekend when hundreds of psychotherapists and teachers meet to discuss the nature of laughter.
The International Humour Congress in Stuttgart is the latest symptom of a comic revolution in Germany. Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G now appears on German television - with the help of remarkably coy subtitles - and Mr Bean and Monty Python have developed strong followings.
Last month the British Embassy hosted an Anglo-German comedy summit, with makers of television series including Absolutely Fabulous exchanging ideas and punchlines. The two countries now seem to be laughing at roughly the same subject, though the Germans still experience some time-lag.
Now, under the guidance of the psychotherapist Michael Titze, there is a concerted attempt to discover whether humour can be socially useful. If the therapists in Stuttgart find in its favour, humour could well be introduced as a more or less permanent feature of German society. If not, well, there is always Mr Bean.
The lectures at the congress include the compulsory topic «Laughter and Discipline», which will offer tips on how to motivate employees. Gerhard Schröder, the Chancellor, shunned for months by President Bush because of his opposition to war against Iraq, could well benefit from the lecture series on «Humour - the best weapon against violence».
Germans are to be taught to discover their inner clown. Participants have been instructed to wear gym shoes. The lectures dedicated to «Clowning around in hospital» may explain why schadenfreude remains almost untranslatable.
The most intriguing part of the congress could well occur tomorrow, which is World Laughter Day. Pastor Helmut Mueller will celebrate communion for the delegates, taking as his theme «Humour in the Bible». The minister was adamant yesterday that «God has a sense of humour». The Immaculate Conception, though not a joke, displayed the Virgin Mary’s humorous side, he said. «And after all, God laughed at the builders of the Tower of Babel.»
Humour in German churches, he told The Times, stretched back to the Middle Ages, when the success of a priest was sometimes measured by the laughter he prompted. «When you laugh at death, you are overcoming your fear of it,» the pastor said.
There are now almost 50 laughter clubs in Germany, and they have their own website. «At these clubs, activities are strictly non-verbal,» Dr Titze said. «There is no discussion, no jokes are told, people just play - and laugh.»
Laughter trainees are taught to stick out their tongues or chatter in imaginary languages. Some later graduate to political life or (in at least one case) to the Foreign Ministry. This may also help to explain the present state of the transatlantic relationship.
Businesses and supermarket chains have been sending employees to smile-and-laugh courses. The logic is not to please the customer - indeed, German customers are rightly suspicious of smiling sales staff - but to reduce absenteeism.
«They realise that people who laugh a lot fall sick less often,» the psychologist Thomas Holtbernd said. He will be teaching irony at the Stuttgart congress.

FreeRepublic, LLC, PO BOX 9771, FRESNO, CA 93794 is powered by software copyright 2000-2003 Robinson-DeFehr Consulting, LLC.