Going to Jail for a Joke: A Contemporary American Look at German Comedy

jan_bohmernann_photo6The saying that America is a ‘free country’ is something that Americans in the comedy business in contemporary times would probably appreciate better than most people. But in other places, however, thanks to their laws, comedians actually live in a different world and in some cases can actually go to jail for the content of their comedy. Perhaps surprisingly, Germany is one of those places.

Take the case of comedian Jan Bohmermann. In March 2016, Bohmermann, a German insult comedian and host of the satirical talk show Neo Magazin Royale took an offensive shot at Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Sitting in front of a Turkish flag and a portrait of Erdogan, Bohmermann read a poem in which he suggested, among other things, that the Turkish leader had sex with goats and watched child porn. Ouch! Well, perhaps this was great comedy for his audience but the offensive gag did in fact run up against an actual law in Germany which forbids anyone from insulting a foreign leader. The punishment? Up to three years jail or a fine.

Not surprisingly, the reaction of the Turkish government was swift and harsh. In demanding that Bohmermann be immediately punished for his action, the Turkish government denounced the satirical poem as a “serious crime against humanity…that crossed all lines of indecency” as well as an insult to all Turkish people’s honor. For her part, German chancellor Angela Merkel (under pressure to preserve her country’s refuge deal and overall fragile relations with Turkey) also condemned the poem as “deliberately offending,” and noted that Germany’s freedom of the media was not an unlimited right. Sensing that it had stepped into it, Germany’s ZDF, the public broadcaster that carries the comedian’s talk show, yanked the video from its website as well as on YouTube.

In contemporary America, it is taken for granted that something like the Bohmermann situation cannot happen here and indeed that is true. Thanks to the First Amendment’s prescription for “uninhibited, robust and wide-open” debate on matters of public concern, it is difficult to imagine any situation where a contemporary American comedian can be arrested and charged for the content of their comedy. Usually, if it should happen that some foreign leader doesn’t like a particular joke made by some American comedian, well, tough luck! No wonder it is said that the First Amendment is the comedian’s best friend and that America is the freest place on earth where a person can do comedy, gadflies like Bohmermann included.

Yet, in perspective, the American cultural landscape wasn’t always such a danger-free zone for any comedian who would push the envelope and thereby ruffle neatly arranged feathers or step on sensitive toes. The legendary American comedian Lenny Bruce is remembered as much for his heroic advocacy of free speech as for the tragic price he paid for doing so. Bruce was the classic iconoclast who never hesitated to attack the conventions of the American society of his time in a bid to expose what he considered as their hypocrisy, whether the conventions concerned religion, sexuality, race, the flag, and more. Consequently, between 1961 and 1964, he was arrested for obscenity in places like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. The encounter in New York ended in an actual criminal conviction. (By the time he died in August 1966 of a drug overdose, his conviction was yet to be overturned on appeal. He was finally pardoned in 2003 by the governor of New York.) Today, thanks to Lenny Bruce and his leadership in the free speech battles of his era, no American comedian since then has been charged with a crime for the content of their comedy.

Speaking of Bohmermann, it happened that this past fall, the German authorities who had been weighing an indictment against him, opted not to do so, citing lack of evidence. For what it is worth, they claimed that since Bohmermann’s crude poem was simply an example of what would constitute overstepping the boundaries of freedom of opinion rather than him actually expressing his own views about Erdogan, he therefore didn’t violate the law after all. In other words, whatever Bohmermann was doing with his poem was OK as long as he had not expressed his own personal opinion about Erdogan. Now, for anyone who really cares about free expression, the trouble with this kind of reasoning is that Bohmermann was saved from going to jail precisely because he did not in fact (allegedly) express his own personal views about the subject he was dealing with. Translation: as German law sees it, not saying what is on one’s mind is actually the way to avoid trouble and jail. Really? Well, let’s just say that Americans, whether they are comedians or not, simply do not see freedom of expression in this way.

The other intriguing fact here is how even Bohmermann himself perhaps seems not to quite grasp the deeper implication of the prosecutor’s decision. To be sure, he was right (as a free speech advocate) in railing against the authorities for launching the investigation at all as well as for stating that “if a joke triggers a state crisis, it is not the problem of the joke, but of the state.” Only problem is, Bohmermann would have to be living in a place like America where that kind of protection exists as a fact of life for comedians courtesy of the First Amendment. Given the way things actually work in Germany where he lives, it is obvious that as long as this particular law remains unchanged, a joke which triggers a state crisis could indeed land a comedian in jail if that joke happens to be his personal opinion on the subject. Especially when such a joke rubs prickly foreign leaders like Erdogan the wrong way. Not a happy picture!

Still, it isn’t all fun and games in American comedy today and indeed may not be so any time soon. Although nothing quite compares to going to jail for doing a comedy act, as it was in the Lenny Bruce era, it remains true that the current culture of political correctness does present quite a headwind for the advance of American comedy. Where a comedian in the 1960s would have worried about a cop in the audience arresting him for, say, obscenity, today’s comedians rather worry about their act offending the so-called PC police on social media and other forums in the public square. Incidentally, the growing clout of the PC police has caused some famed contemporary comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock to opt to skip doing shows on college campuses where PC seems now to be almost a religion. However, to America’s advantage in the American-German match-up, we’re really talking about the impact of an actual penal law versus a mere social phenomenon that comedians, admittedly, find unpleasant. A night and day difference, it seems. Besides, it’s not as though German comedians themselves also don’t have to worry about PC, just like the Americans. They actually do! Not least because Germany for all its free speech deficiencies is still (get this!) another western society and an advanced democracy that exists in the 21st century.

In the end, the Bohmermann situation in Germany is something that really ought to be a big deal whenever an American comedian counts his or her blessings. For although the impact of PC is something like a rain on the parade, it is still safe to say that compared to other places, including similar western societies like Germany, doing comedy in contemporary America is an experience like no other. As they say, it’s a free country, live in it! And bring the comedy with you!

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