October 5, 2016

Germany drops charges against comedian for poem full of Turkey jive


The bomberman himself. Via Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Franz Richter.

The bomberman himself. Via Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Franz Richter.

You know it’s a weird year for planet Earth when the words “German” and “comedy” keep cropping up in the same sentence. But a weird year it is, and crop up they have, most recently in reference to thirty-five-year-old Jan Böhmermann.

Böhmermann is a TV comedian well-known in Europe for what the BBC’s Damien McGuinness has called his “head-spinning self-referential irony.” He is also well-known in the United States for inspiring Bomberman, a beloved folk hero (that’s bullshit, obviously, but, in my defense, I reeeally wanted to write it).

If Böhmermann has a signature move, it’s probably recording comedy routines about the leaders of countries with whom Germany is engaged in protracted and uncomfortable diplomatic negotiations. Last year, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel was busy telling Greece to suck it up in the face of a collapsing economy, he achieved widespread notoriety with V for Varoufakis, a music video in which he sang the sultry praises of then-Greek Minister of Finance Yanis Varoufakis, adopting the little-deployed mode of “thunderous self-effacement.” It definitely might be funny, and it seems somehow adjacent to awesomeness. Here:

More recently, Böhmermann made waves on German TV last spring by reciting a poem about Turkish President (and notorious jerk) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, accusing him of “fucking goats and suppressing minorities, kicking Kurds, hitting Christians, and watching child pornography.”  As Alison Smale wrote then in the New York Times, the incident “hand[ed] Merkel a tough diplomatic tangle and a dilemma over the limits of free speech” when Erdoğan, a key player in European plans to control the flow of Syrian refugees across the continent, demanded Böhmermann’s prosecution under an obscure 1871 German law that criminalizes insults to foreign heads of state. (The Palme von Gold for best response to the whole fracas surely goes to John Oliver, who asked, “Why doesn’t he just do what the rest of us do about poetry — listen to it politely, because it’s how Sarah has chosen to cope with the divorce?” That’s pretty funny. The world is a vampire.)

But as Melissa Eddy writes in yesterday’s New York Times, a court in Mainz has now decided to drop all charges against Böhmermann, finding, in as German a sentence as has ever been written about calling someone a goat-fucker, that “it is characteristic of the art form of satire and caricature to work with exaggeration, distortion and disassociation,” and that the poem ought to be considered in that light. Eddy writes:

The decision was resoundingly welcomed by journalists and widely celebrated by many Germans over social media. “This is the only correct decision,” said Frank Überall, the head of the German Journalists Association. “It makes clear that in Germany, the freedom of satire is valued above the touchiness of an autocrat.”

Erdoğan has also filed a separate action, an injunction against the poem itself, with hearings expected to begin in Mainz next month. Let’s hope nobody makes fun of him, though. He’s very sensitive.



Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.