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'My First Zonen-Gaby': An Exegesis of Two Famous Rude German Jokes

Trigger Warning: This post contains discussions of racial stereotypes and East German hairstyles.

After the Charlie Hebdo attack, there were cultural misunderstandings galore about whether the French satire magazine was an obnoxious racist rag. Some of the Charlie's satirical cartoons contained stereotypical depictions of black people and Muslims, which was enough for many non-French speakers to denounce the magazine. Those who spoke French and knew the French media landscape countered that the editorial line of Charlie Hebdo was left-wing. The use of rude caricatures -- whether of blacks, Catholics, gays, or royalty -- is simply par for the course in the rollicking, adolescent world of European satire. To those in the know, which includes me, there is no debate: the latter point of view is correct.

Here's another magazine cover that's sure to provoke controversy, this time in Germany. I will now explain the background to you before the controversy erupts. I happen to have learned a lot about Germany, even though I've lived here for over a decade.

The roots of this joke go back to November 1989. The Berlin Wall had just come down, talk of unification was in the air, and thousands of East Germans were traveling freely to West Germany for the first time. The West German satire magazine Titanic decided to weigh in with a cover. Titanic, you should know, follows the dictum (g) of Kurt Tucholsky: Was darf Satire? Alles. (What is satire alllowed to do? Everything.)

Here is their November 1989 cover:

Zonen gaby

The title reads: 'Zonen-Gaby (17) overjoyed (BRD) : My First Banana'. Let's unpack the cultural signifiers. First, the name. Gaby (short for Gabrielle) is a common name all over Germany, but was especially popular in the East. Zonen-Gaby refers to the fact that she comes from East Germany. Now, there is a whole code governing how one may refer to residents of the former German Democratic Republic. The most polite way is 'People from the New German Federal States'. Quite a mouthful. Then comes East Germans. By the time you get to Ossi, you're in the political-correctness danger zone. And that brings us to Zonies. Right-wing Germans, who never accepted the notion of East Germany as a legitimate, independent state, referred to East Germany as the 'Soviet Occupation Zone' to emphasize its temporary and non-democratic character.

'Zone-Gaby' is 17, and now residing in the BRD, the German initials for West Germany. She has several characteristics of people from the East, including the half-hearted perm and unisex denim jacket. East Germans were very much into these things. If you don't believe me, just look at the footage from the fall of the Wall. East German women were also delighted by geometric plastic earrings. There were lots of dangling red plastic triangles. Gaby has what looks like a peach-colored plastic wind-chime hanging from each ear. Also the teeth. Basic medical care in the State of Workers and Peasants was quite good, but there was neither the money nor the will to provide comrades with bourgeois fripperies like cosmetic dentistry.

And finally we come to the cucumber. Bananas were rare in East Germany, and one of the stereotypes of East Germans coming for a visit to the West (which was allowed under strict regulation) is that they ran to the nearest grocery store to devour exotic tropical fruits unavailable in the East. Poor Zonen-Gaby is evidently unfamiliar with bananas.

This is, without a doubt, the most famous Titanic cover in history, perhaps comparable to National Lampoon's 'If You Don't Buy this Magazine We'll Kill This Dog.' The number of people who found it grossly offensive was outnumbered only by the number who found it funny, which was only outnumbered by the people who found it both.

And now, 25 years later, Titanic has just outdone itself:

Refugee joe

Even if you're not German-Powered™, you can probably see where this is going. The more sensitive among you should click away now. I'll give you a few seconds.

OK, we're back. I will now continue to dissect the joke, solely in the name of cross-cultural understanding, and perhaps Science. Our old friend Zonen-Gaby is back, this time in the company of 'Refugee Joe.' The title reads: 'Refugee Joe (52 cm) overjoyed (asylum): My First Zonen-Gaby'. As we also see, Zonen-Gaby is (still) overjoyed at meeting her new friend. Her thought bubble reads 'Hee-hee -- Banana Joe'! The black band promises 'Even more asylum critique in the magazine!'

The reference to 52cm should be self-explanatory. Although I should note for accuracy's sake that the current owner of the world's longest penis is an American (of course) and his glistening missile of sin is only 13.5 inches, or 34.2 cm long. Erect.