Stock characters in entertainment television are well known to all of us: the wise old man, the nurturing mother, and the rebellious teenager evoke images in our mind, accompanied by a set of character traits and flaws. They are stereotypical depictions of societal roles, which help us navigate through the story and set up certain expectations. Producers script their behaviour and their ways of talking into the characters, in order to meet audiences’ expectations. These fictional stereotypes are thus based on real-world people and thus encapsulate political power. The often-repeated depiction of a certain social group might lead to practices of real societal inclusion or exclusion, dependent on the likeability of the fictional character. This becomes even more relevant when the stock character of ‘the foreigner’ is introduced to a television show.
One special form of foreigner, ‘the immigrant’, is painted in a rather diverse manner, at least on German entertainment television. Following ‘established’ cultural and national stereotypes, in particular serial fiction blatantly refers to stock characters. For example, Germany’s longest running daily soap opera Gute Zeiten, Schlechte Zeiten (Good Times, Bad Times) broadcast since 1992, which is set in Berlin, features several second- and third generation Turkish immigrants. When it comes to their ‘occupations’, they are presented as owners of small convenience stores or are shady, small-time crooks. Germany’s weekly crime drama Tatort (Scene of Crime), dealing with the underworld of major German cities, often depicts migrants as perpetrators. Contrary to the aforementioned show, the producers of Tatort frame these fictional criminal activities in regard to the social background of the characters and even feature detectives from migrant communities, thus depicting them in a more positive light. This ‘reframing’ of the stereotypes associated with the migrants is taken to the extreme by the weekly soap opera Lindenstraße, running since 1985 every Sunday evening. The show is set in a suburb of Munich and features a Greek family, which runs the local bar/restaurant Akropolis – the heart of the social life of Lindenstraße’s neighbourhood. A nearby Turkish fast food venue serves the same purpose, showing ‘fully integrated’ migrants, contributing to the social life of their community. All these examples depict them as blue-collar, working-class people, with no ambition, or possibility, to liberate themselves from these positions, thus perpetuating established stereotypes. Nevertheless, since these are fictional stories, there should be at least the possibility for these characters to go beyond their limitations and start to thrive. Thus, fictional entertainment on television is a double-edged sword, as far as the (re-)presentation of the issue of migration and the stereotypical depiction of migrants are concerned.
The migrants genuinely do not have a say in their mediatised depiction, they have to live with the real-world consequences of these media images. Yet, there is a way of subverting and re-inventing these stereotypes – through comedy, which allows the migrants to reclaim their voice and talk about the processes of estrangement and othering.
Comedy in general can be constructed as a form of communication which provides a ‘social shelter’, which is free from established power constellations, making it save for the communicators to voice certain opinions or topics, which are otherwise a social taboo, as Dutch sociologists Anton C. Zijderveld argues in his Sociology of Humour and Laughter (1983). This form of shelter necessarily only lasts a certain amount of time, as it deconstructs the established social and symbolic orders and shows their arbitrariness. This form of communication has a rich history in Germany and the German-speaking countries, leading to a variety of institutional forms, such as carnivals and cabaret. Their mediatised offspring is television comedy, which is an important part of German television programming, especially for the public service media. Political comedy, or cabaret, takes on political issues and their mediatised images as well.
With regard to the issue of migration, one show especially stands out: the comedy show “StandUpMigranten” (StandUpMigrants), broadcasted every other Saturday in a prime-time slot on eins|plus, a smaller public service channel, provides its own take on the issue of migration and migrants. Running since 2013, it is now in its 3rd season. Hosted by the German-Moroccan comedian Abdelkarim, each episode features up to three stand-up comedians with a distinct migratory background. A shisha bar in Munich serves as a makeshift comedy club, rich with ‘ethnic’ and oriental decor for the comedians that perform in front of a live audience. The comedians’ shtick is usually taken from their own life and experiences as migrants (or second or third generation immigrant) in Germany. Thematically, their routines deal with all aspects of migratory life, such as language difficulties, or the German administrative system. Nevertheless, they take on their stereotypical depictions as well. They reinforce German prejudiced stereotypes of Turkish migrants selling Doner kebab, fundamentalist Arab migrants, and imperialistic Americans. But these comedians need to build upon these stereotypes in order to break them down through humour.
Take for example Idil Baydar (age 40), famous for her character Jilet Ayse, an obnoxious, loudmouth, 18-year-old, 3rd generation Turkish immigrant in Berlin and regular guest on StandUpMigranten. She portrays everything you know (or think to know and maybe fear) about Turkish migrants in Germany. She does so, in order to express her seemingly erratic behaviour by explaining it – her way of dressing, acting, her cultural background and of course, her life as a teenager. Thus, she fills her character with life and a backstory, which gives insights into the life of a Turkish teenager, far beyond the established stereotypical forms of depiction.
StandUpMigranten seems to have a clear political agenda. It gives a voice to the often-silenced groups of migrants, which mostly appear in entertainment media as crooks and troublemakers. The (migrant) comedians build on theses stereotypes and subvert them, by placing their characters in everyday situations, which are familiar to German audiences, but narrate them through migrants’ eyes. They take on their own stereotypes of Germans as well – with their seemingly endless words, their complicated grammar, their highly regulated administration, and of course their lack of humour. Thus, they place these everyday situations in a new context and disturb the established routines of everyday life on both sides. These deconstructions may only last until the laughter is gone, but nevertheless contribute to the public discussion of migratory life in Germany.
Dr. Martin R. Herbers works at the Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen, Germany. Other than getting great views of Lake Constance, he spends a lot of time watching television, especially comedy. In “Ridiculing Stereotypes”, his on-going research project, he analyses the contribution of “StandUpMigranten” to the public discussion of the issue of migration in Germany. Based on content analyses of the stand-up routines by the comedians, he investigates the routines of (de)constructing the established stereotypical depictions of immigrants and the accompanying subversion and re-interpretation of these stereotypes. In a second line of research he conducts guided interviews with the show’s production team in order to grasp underlying editorial processes. Results will be available in Spring 2016.