The killer joke
This week's Friday funny, composed by author and journalist Eugene Byrne, brings you "the funniest joke in the world", according to Monty Python. The joke is set in the Second World War and demonstrates how humour was used as a propaganda tool against the Germans
Wenn ist das Nunstück git und Slotermeyer?
Ja! Beiherhund das Oder die Flipperwaldt gersput!
Yes German-speakers, you're correct. It makes no sense at all. Absolute Quatsch.
Readers of a certain age may recognise it as the "funniest joke in the world" from a Monty Python sketch first transmitted by the BBC in 1969. A shorter version also appears in the Python film And Now for Something Completely Different.
The sketch, set in the Second World War, has the British army developing a joke so hilarious that anyone hearing it will die laughing. Following tests on Salisbury Plain, the joke is first deployed in combat in 1944, with British soldiers only allowed to recite one word of the gag each to avoid injury to themselves. The joke is so effective that the Germans try to develop an English joke which fails miserably. ("There were zwei peanuts, walking down the strasse, und one was assaulted ... peanut.")
But the funny thing behind the Pythons' silliness is that of course the British did use jokes against the enemy during the Second World War. Not in combat, of course.
The British propaganda effort, particularly the Political Warfare Executive (PWE) created and collected jokes, which were often translated into several languages and disseminated verbally or by leaflet in enemy, occupied and neutral countries. So for instance:
Q: What should the new master race look like?
A: As thin as Goering, as blond as Hitler and as tall as Goebbels.
It may have been a British creation, or may even have originated in Germany itself.
One PWE joke in particular was to achieve near-immortality. The spectacular defeats of Mussolini's army in the Western Desert in the early stages of the war due to poor leadership and logistics gave the Italian army a completely undeserved reputation for cowardice. So that hoary old one about the new Italian tank with one forward gear and five reverse gears may well have been created for the PWE. It was certainly spread by the PWE throughout Europe, apparently first being told by British agents in Turkey.
You can read more of Eugene's historical jokes and comedy tales at www.historyextra.com
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