Tag Archives: humor

Hello, Lenin? (Berlin, 1997)

East Berlin, August 1990. Image by Sludge G (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Rebecca Schuman | Schadenfreude, A Love Story | Flatiron Books | February 2017 | 10 minutes (2950 words)


This excerpt was adapted from Schadenfreude, A Love Story: Me, the Germans, and 20 Years of Attempted Transformations, Awkward Miscommunications, and Humiliating Situations that Only They Have Words For, Rebecca Schuman’s memoir of her adventures in German culture.

* * *

Ostalgie. n. Longing for the good old days of the German Democratic Republic, from east and nostalgia.

My German flatmate was named Gertrud, and I lived with her in the former East Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg, which was, according to Herr Neudorf, my professor back in the U.S., where “all the punks lived.” Gertrud was from Chemnitz, a town in the former German Democratic Republic that was once called Karl-Marx-Stadt. And while she definitely possessed her genetic allotment of efficiency — she was punctual everywhere she went; she never ran out of or misplaced anything; she traveled everywhere by bicycle, even in the dead of winter, and knew how to maneuver through traffic with a deft mixture of caution and aggression — her tenure as my mentor, cultural ambassador, and only German friend led me to the greatest epiphany about the Germans of my short life: It wasn’t that Germans didn’t like me. It was that West Germans didn’t like me.

East Germans (Ossis) like her were patiently curious about the way I did certain things — walked around barefoot, answered the phone “Hello?” instead of barking my last name into it, failed to stand up and move toward the train door a full stop before I was due to exit the U-Bahn — whereas West Germans (what we would now consider “Germans”) could be mortally offended if I changed from my outdoor shoes to my indoor shoes (Hausschuhe) five minutes too late for their liking. According to Gertrud, this was not because, as I had assumed before, I was a patently offensive person — it was because Wessis were spoiled pains in the ass, who assumed they were better and more cultured than their Eastern counterparts just because they’d had uninterrupted access to Coca-Cola for the last half-century.

Look, I’ve seen Good-Bye Lenin! and The Lives of Others more times than I can count. I’ve taken a tour of the Hohenschönhausen Stasi prison led by a former inmate, who described in excruciating detail the time she was made to sit in the water-torture machine for seventeen straight hours. I am aware that the division of Berlin ripped families apart and killed people. I know the Stasi were among the most brutal surveillance forces ever to exist. But I’m just saying: there were things about the Ossi mentality that I very much preferred. Things that had less to do with guaranteed employment and lack of toxic late-capitalist morality than people being way less uptight about all of the things I did wrong, such as drink water from the tap.

It turns out I wasn’t the only one suffering from early-onset Ostalgie. In this I was joined by a rather sizable demographic — one that has, alas, all but disappeared in the intervening decades. This disappearance is not, as you might think, the natural result of twenty-first-century German capitalism’s sensible-suited dominance, but rather it owes to the whims of Mother Nature herself. I speak here of the venerable extinct creature known as the East Berlin Oma, or granny: violet of hair, slow of gait, thick of dialect, crotchety of disposition. If, in the late 1990s, you happened upon a purple-coiffed Dame of Friedrichshain, Prenzlauer Berg, Treptow, or Lichtenberg and asked her about reunification, chances are she would tell you without hesitation she preferred things the way they were before. Read more…

The Moment Jon Stewart’s ‘Daily Show’ Changed Course

KAHANE CORN COOPERMAN(field producer, later co-executive producer, 1996-2015):

I produced a field piece, with Stacey Grenrock Woods as the correspondent, about a guy, Alexander P., who had been a rock star in Ukraine and came here and was now a waiter in a hotel restaurant in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This piece may well have been in the works before Jon arrived. But it airs, and after the show you have a postmortem. And Jon was not happy. He said, “Your targets are just wrong. They shouldn’t be people on the fringe. Our targets need to be the people who have a voice, and that’s politicians, and that’s the media.”

STACEY GRENROCK WOODS(correspondent, 1998-2003):

I heard Jon was very unhappy with that piece, and I don’t blame him at all. I didn’t like it, either, but it was given to me. I think it ended up being a policy-changing piece.

-From a new oral history of The Daily Show, by Chris Smith, excerpted in Vanity Fair.

(Wo)Man vs. Mozzarella: What Happens When You Commit to ‘Endless Appetizers’

Paul Francis (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

11:34 a.m. My first plate arrives. The mozzarella sticks are golden, dense, and huge. Each one is greater than the width of two of my index fingers. As a frequent and enthusiastic consumer of mozzarella sticks, I estimate that these are about twice the standard size. They are softly cuboid, not cylindrical, for reasons I assume are obscure and related to the maximally efficient, foolproof method by which they are packaged, shipped, and cooked. They arrive in herds of six, lightly dusted with shavings of “Parmesan” and “Romano” and flakes of parsley. (Over the course of several orders, this coating will become increasingly patchy, as TGI Friday’s and I stop standing on formality.) An order normally costs $7.50, which means I will have to eat at least two in order for TGI Friday’s Endless Apps to qualify as a “good deal.” Each plate of six contains 1,100 calories.

They taste like goddamn garbage.

I would prefer to stop eating after the first one. I seriously regret not getting the potato skins, which appear on the menu alongside the word “FAV” printed inside a white circle with scalloped edges. A key at the bottom of the appetizer page explains that the presence of this symbol indicates the potato skins are a “House Favorite.” The spot next to the mozzarella sticks listing that could conceivably be occupied by a “FAV” badge is vacant.

I do not blame the waitstaff of TGI Friday’s for the taste of the mozzarella sticks, which, for the entire length of my stay, will be marched to my booth piping hot and accompanied by an inch-deep cup (two, if I so request) of marinara sauce, as advertised.

Nor do I blame the kitchen staff that cooks the mozzarella sticks to what must be called, thanks to their menacing consistency across the span of the day, a kind of perfection, every time.

I blame the TGI Friday’s test kitchen executive chef (a prepaid cellphone that Guy Fieri texts recipes to while high on whippets) for making the prototype of these sticks accidentally one full moon—for by accident is the only way such an item could ever have been deemed suitable for human consumption—and then never copping to the mistake.

12:00 p.m. I order my second plate.

— Caity Weaver spent 14 hours alone in a TGI Friday’s restaurant, testing the boundaries of the restaurant chain’s “Endless Appetizers” promotion and chronicling the experience for Gawker. In the end, the only things that were truly tested were her sanity and waistband.

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Home for the Holidays

"Christmas Lights" by anthony92931. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

As soon as we’re finished, Thad shuffles to the garage to grab two 150-or-so-gallon black garbage bags. We stuff all of the presents inside, double-knot the bags at the top, and drag them to the front door, confident that the next morning, not one of our kids — not even the nine-year-old — will wonder what’s inside them, much less think to ask whose dead bodies we’re transporting to Nana’s house this year.

“This is insane,” Thad says, every single year. He acts as if he’s referring to the sham of it all — to the ends that we go to to perpetuate an illusion (i.e., lying to the three people who trust us more than anyone else in the world). But I know what he’s really talking about. The absurd effort, the familial displacement, the marital stress that inevitably leads to absolutely no mistletoeing — all so I can go home for the holidays.

Vicki Glembocki, writing in Philadelphia Magazine, casts a critical eye on her yearly Christmas pilgrimage to her parents’ house in a funny, blunt reflection on how we understand “home.”

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Joan Rivers on Humor and Loss

GROSS: What are some of the most painful things that have happened to you that you’ve ended up making jokes about on stage?

Ms. RIVERS: Oh, where do you start? My husband’s suicide.

GROSS: Right.

Ms. RIVERS: Some man, 60 years old, that couldn’t take the business and went and killed himself. How do you deal with that? How do you deal with that when you’ve got a 16-year-old daughter who gets the call? Huh?

And I’ll tell you how you deal with that. You go through it, and you make jokes about it, and you continue with it, and you move forward. That’s how you do it, or that’s how I do it. Everyone handles things differently.

-Joan Rivers, in a 2010 interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross.

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More interviews in the Longreads Archive

Photo: Steve Rhodes, flickr

Gary Shteyngart on the Highest Form of Tragedy

The funnier you are, the more I think there’s a tragic undercurrent. … I think humor is one of the highest forms of tragedy there is. People talk about the serious novel and these sort of hallowed tones and how important it is, but I think a lot of humorous stuff — books by writers like Sam Lipsyte and even writers like Mordecai Richler in Canada, who is no longer with us — these are some of the most funny and tragic books I know because humor doesn’t work unless you’re making fun of something that keeps paper cutting you throughout your life, something that keeps hurting and hurting you; and that’s why parents, and relationships, and the political system are all such delicious targets.

—Gary Shteyngart, author of Little Failure, on the To the Best of Our Knowledge podcast, talking about humor as tragedy. See more podcast picks.


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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“Getting Stuffed: A Tale of Love and Taxidermy,” David Sedaris, The Guardian.