Comedian who made Germans laugh at themselves dies at 87

A German comedian may seem like a contradiction in terms, but Vicco von Bülow refuted the cliché that Germans have no sense of humour. The country's greatest humourist died this week at 87.

In this 2003 photoraph, German comedian Vicco von Buelow is framed by two of his potato-nosed cartoon figures in Munich.
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BERLIN// Germany is mourning the death of its greatest humourist, Vicco von Bülow, who taught the nation to laugh at itself by poking fun at Teutonic traits with TV sketch shows, cartoons and films that, obituary writers claim, will make him as immortal as Goethe.

To many, a German comedian may seem like a contradiction in terms, but von Bülow, whose stage name was "Loriot," refuted the cliché that Germans have no sense of humour.

He died at 87 on Monday in his lakeside home in Bavaria, and Angela Merkel, the chancellor, led an outpouring of tributes to the refined aristocrat who reduced generations to tears of laughter.

"His work will make young people and old laugh for a long time to come - and give insights into the nature of Germans," Mrs Merkel said in a statement. "We will miss Loriot's unique ability to affectionately hold a mirror up to us."

He became a household name in the 1960s and 1970s with TV sketch shows including one featuring a typical German family celebrating Christmas, where the son gets a "Build Your Own Nuclear Power Station" kit which ends up going into meltdown, while the grandfather sits in the corner listening to Prussian marching music.

His characters lampooned the pedantry of the German middle class, summed up in a legendary cartoon in which two intransigent gentlemen sit in a hotel bathtub arguing about a rubber duck.

One of his most famous sketches shows a classroom of middle-aged Germans studying for their 'yodelling diploma.'

"It took Loriot to make the Germans realise that we've got a sense of humour," one of the country's leading newspapers, Süddeutsche Zeitung, wrote in an obituary.

Loriot would probably be amused at the thoroughness with which his compatriots are now dissecting his humour. Some claim that he helped, during the post-war period when Germany was struggling to get back to normal, to rehabilitate the middle classes, which were tainted by their support for Adolf Hitler.

He did so by portraying their orderliness and efficiency in a way that made those foibles strangely endearing.

Many of his characters were authoritarian, fussy, middle-aged men in suits and ties whose desire for order is thwarted by everyday life. In one sketch, he plays a gentleman who inadvertently wrecks a room by trying to straighten a picture on a wall.

He gave the German petite-bourgeoisie a fresh identity by casting a

benevolent spotlight on it," Dr Burkhard Meyer-Sickendiek, a lecturer on German literature and scholar of German humour at Berlin's Free University, told The National.

"He played a very important role with his refined, observational humour that was always polite. The Germans loved him like no other comedian."

Vicco von Bülow was born on November 12, 1923, in the town of Brandenburg near Berlin, to an aristocratic Prussian family that had supplied the Iron Kingdom with military officers for centuries.

His talent for drawing and mimicry became evident at school and he worked as an extra in theatre productions and films until the war.

He was called up to the army in 1941 and spent three years with a Panzer division on the eastern front, rising to the rank of lieutenant and winning the Iron Cross medal.

Asked by Der Spiegel, a news magazine, what was his most striking memory of the war, he said in 2006: "Not the experience itself, but the later shameful realisation of having accepted and come to terms with the horror of war - like the night in the collapsed trench when something in my face interrupted my sleep. It was the hand of a dead man that had stroked me."

Humour, he added, had nothing to do with life experience. "It is a characteristic just like any other thankworthy or regrettable gifts a person is endowed with," he told the magazine.

His humour was, sadly, unique, as many commentators have been pointing out. Even in his 80s, he was unmatched, and came first in a public ranking of favourite German comedians as recently as 2007, one year after he retired from TV work.

The generations of German comedians that have followed never reached his calibre.

"His is a huge loss. Such observational wit is very rare," said Dr Meyer-Sickendiek. "But it's unfair to say humour is underdeveloped in this country. The Germans have done a lot of catching up on humour and Loriot had a lot to do with that. There's almost too much of it now. And they have got better at dealing with sarcasm than they used to be."

But beyond all the analysis, his sketches were simply funny and remain so, even though many of the idiosyncrasies they caricature are no longer so evident.

In one, he declares his love to his girlfriend Hildegard in an Italian restaurant, unaware that he has a little piece of spaghetti on his chin that he inadvertently shifts around his face, to her growing horror.

In another, he is an elderly gentleman who goes to a marriage counsellor with his wife.

When ordered to kiss his wife, he refuses, opting instead to kiss a kissing machine, which he does with a little too much passion.

"Loriot's death was absolutely unnecessary," wrote Spiegel. "He had long since become immortal. And will remain it."