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Meet the German Comedian Behind the Global Trump Roast

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    German comedian Jan Böhmermann divides opinion with his outspoken style, and has tested the limits of free speech in a country where courts can limit satire.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Böhmermann, who hosts his own show on public television, orchestrated a global round of spoof Trump videos.
    • His deliberately offensive poem about Turkey’s president Erdogan triggered a diplomatic row.
    • A court ban remains in place on re-broadcasting parts of his poem.
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    Audio

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Jan Böhmermann is Germany's most controversial television comic. Source: laif

It started with a viral video and snowballed into a global phenomenon. Earlier this year, the Dutch TV comedy show Zondag met Lubach released a four-minute clip singing its country’s praises and taking jabs at America’s new president: “We totally understand it’s going to be ‘America First,’ but can we just say ‘the Netherlands second?’” Since then, more than 30 countries have come up with similar spoofs, each modeled on a tourism ad with a braggadocio narration from a Donald Trump impersonator.

What marks them out is that they are unsparing parodies of Trump’s own infuriating foibles. The Dutch brag about their “great, great wall” (a sea dike) that keeps out “water from Mexico,” while the Israelis claim to help Trump keep Muslims out of the U.S. (“more Muslims in Jerusalem, less Muslims coming to your America.”) The Germans boast that they have “hosted two world wars in the last 100 years” and “won both of them, bigly” (and that “anyone who says anything else is fake news.”) The Danes, in turn, advertise Hans Christian Andersen, “whose made-up stories filled people with hope and joy, just like yours.”

But this was no spontaneous parody fest. What most viewers around the world won’t have realized is that the grand Trump roast was quietly coordinated by German satirist Jan Böhmermann. The team behind the controversial comedian’s own late-night comedy show, Neo Magazin Royale, contacted producers of similar programs worldwide to suggest they each produce their own take on the Trump-baiting video. Never afraid to rile big-name political figures, Böhmermann was striking again.

He found plenty of willing collaborators. “We saw the Dutch video and liked it, and thought, ‘What a shame we didn’t come up with it ourselves,’” said Mathias Zsutty, managing editor of Welcome Austria. “Then Jan Böhmermann’s team came to us about starting a big campaign.” Now Böhmermann’s team is running a website, everysecondcounts.eu, where the videos can all be found together.

The Germans have been reticent about taking the credit. “The whole movement was a common effort, with the Dutch starting it and everyone else following,” says Gilda Rahebi, Böhmermann’s spokeswoman (he declined to be interviewed by Handelsblatt). The only visible clue to the originator’s identity lies in the website’s contact email – the same as that for the German show’s production company.

Such reticence is hardly in keeping with Böhmermann’s reputation as the limelight-loving, anything-goes scourge of the famous and powerful. Since its launch four years ago, Neo Magazin Royale has established a name for making waves with a raunchy brand of political humor that has nothing in common with the bland and formulaic comedy shows of the past.

Now 36, Böhmermann began his career in his hometown of Bremen, as an 18-year-old reporting and presenting for the local public radio station. He went on to study arts at the University of Cologne, but by 2004, was working for the public broadcasters in Cologne and Hesse. His big break was an award-winning radio series called “Lukas’ Diary,” mocking German soccer player Lukas Podolski, to such effect that it prompted an unsuccessful lawsuit.

But it was with the launch of Neo Magazin Royale that Böhmermann hit his stride. Within a year, he was at the center of a national row when he posted a video clip of former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, in which the flamboyant politician appeared to raise his middle finger to Germany. In the so-called “Fingergate” controversy that followed, Böhmermann simultaneously claimed and denied that he had doctored the original footage. Unfunny confusion reigned.

Far worse was to follow. In a deliberately outrageous attack last year on Turkish leader Recip Tayyip Erdogan, he read out a poem on air accusing the president of a range of vices, from watching child porn to beating girls and bestiality, as well as persecuting Turkey’s Kurdish minority. By Böhmermann’s own admission, the verse was defamatory. He was setting out, he said, to test the limits of Germany’s legislation protecting free speech.

If true, he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Broadcasts of Neo Magazin Royale were briefly suspended, and an immediate chill in bilateral relations threatened Turkey’s crucial refugee deal with the European Union. Erdogan insisted that Germany bring criminal charges under an antiquated law intended to protect foreign leaders from public insult. Alarmed at the diplomatic breakdown, Chancellor Merkel issued an apology to Erdogan, although later appeared to regret the gesture.

Over time, the affair has fizzled. The case against Böhmermann was dropped last October for lack of evidence and the government has moved to scrap its so-called lèse-majesté law. Yet a ban on re-publishing 18 of the poem’s most offensive lines – imposed after Erdogan launched an additional civil suit – remains in place, upheld by a court in Hamburg in February.

Inevitably, Böhmermann has divided opinion. To some, his humor is infantile, light on substance, and too often directed at easy targets. He’s certainly no German Jon Stewart. But with much of the younger generation, his popularity is beyond question, and the wider German public was unhappy at the idea of his prosecution. One poll found that 77 percent opposed any criminal proceedings while 66 percent were against removing the offending clip from the website of broadcaster ZDF.

Like him or not, it’s beyond dispute that Böhmermann has managed to provoke debate about the role of satire in a country uneasy with its past attitude towards roasting the powerful; the satirists of the 1930s, after all, were high on the list of Hitler’s victims. Böhmermann’s own take on his role is straightforward. “It is my job to ask questions, to initiate debates, and to draw attention to problems.” And if he causes problems along the way, he doesn’t seem all that bothered.

 

Barbara Woolsey writes for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: b.woolsey@vhb.de

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