Today we stray a little from our normal methodology here in the “Bewegtbilder” arena. Usually I take the opportunity to introduce the English speaking world to lesser known movies of German origin and language, but today I will introduce you to a German New Year’s Eve tradition: a classic TV skit — in English. Furthermore, I will babble a lot about the media. Consider yourself duly warned.
You can say a lot of bad things about TV. Such as… Nothing good is ever on. Even the commercials get worse every year. They cancel good shows and continue the crap. In today’s world, TV becomes more and more redundant. The selection is too big. The selection is too small. The news are controlled by media companies that could not care less about being neutral.
[ad#longpost]Yes, you can — more or less rightfully so — say all those bad things about TV. While most of these statements apply to today’s world of television, some of them are as old as the tube itself. This brings up the question: TV, what is (was?) it good for? Now, before you break into song and yell out “absolutely nothing,” think about it for a moment. Even if you put the quality of the content aside, TV, and before that radio, were very good at one specific thing: providing intersubjective memories.
The Super Bowl, the finale of a show like Seinfeld or M*A*S*H, The Beatles or Elvis as guests on the Ed Sullivan show, the moon landing and even the dreadful casting show finales, they all provide topics of conversation for the majority of a TV nation. This fodder for watercooler talk and cab ride conversations is very important to any society bigger than a dozen. After all, we can no longer talk about the bison we hunted and ate the other day anymore.
Among the shared memories those that are connected to recurring events — or are recurring themselves — are even more special. In America, Dick Clark accompanies millions into the new year and I am sure almost every nation has their own TV tradition when it comes to celebrating the end of the old and the beginning of the new year.
Ever since the year 1963, Germany’s traditional New Year’s celebration includes a TV skit that is only eighteen minutes long, is insanely simple but also highly effective. The British comedian Freddie Frinton plays a Butler named James who is in charge of arranging the 90th birthday of Miss Sophie (May Warden). Although the old lady has lost her four best friends over the years, she insists on having a long birthday dinner with them.
Year after year, families and friends gather in front of the TV to witness once again how Miss Sophie turns 90, looking “younger than ever” as one of her friends insists. The skit is loaded with running gags, slapstick and other classic comedy elements that don’t require much understanding of the English language but nevertheless, in the first few minutes, a German presenter explains the basic premise of the birthday party.
Get that? Someone gives the audience an introduction that almost explains the joke in advance. And still we silly Germans piss ourselves laughing come New Year’s Eve. Sober or drunk, old or young, I don’t know of anyone who hasn’t enjoyed repeated viewings of this often copied–but never equalled–bit of sketch comedy.
“Dinner for One” is such a successful program that all regional governmental TV stations show it at different time slots, giving the modern cable TV audiences the opportunity to watch it several times in one night.
I am almost sure that nobody who grew up outside of Germany will ever truly comprehend why this country is so in love with that simple piece of comedy…I am not even sure I do. Let me know what you think, both of Freddie Frinton’s skit and our obsession with it. I hope you had a guten Rusch ins neue Jahr (a good slide into the new year.)