It is a hot summer day on Vienna’s Donauinsel, where an elderly couple is enjoying the sun and paging through an U-Bahn tabloid.
“Have you heard?” the wife reads, raising an eyebrow. “Vienna has been ranked again as the world’s most livable city?” “Are the others that bad?” retorts her husband, in broad dialect.
Welcome to Wiener Schmäh: Take something that is good, filter it through a (slightly twisted) Viennese perspective and turn it into a joke. It also works the other way around, by taking something bad and transforming it into something playful – after all, even death loses much of its fierceness by laughing about it. Take the famous schöne Leich’ (a beautiful corpse) so cherished by the Viennese – the beloved laid out in a bed of satin, plumped up and wrinkle-free, festooned with flowers and celebrated with song – all essential to easing the way to the Great Beyond.
Joking about one’s final rest is, in fact, one of the predominant subjects of Wiener Schmäh. “Sickness and death are crucial [topics],” says cabarettist Alfred Dorfer. “By its nature, Schmäh is not necessarily funny, but can be seen as a way to cope with the meaninglessness of life.” To the Viennese this dismal subject, like many others, is best handled by just not taking it too seriously.
So the locals handle their Schmäh with lightness and spontaneity, juggling it around with the ease of natural born acrobats, looking for occasions to work a funny remark into the most tedious everyday conversations.
Whether you are an artist, a politician or working the cash desk at a bank, in Vienna, getting to the top of a political party or storming the charts on radio Kronehit is next to impossible without equipping yourself with a bit of Schmäh on your rhetorical tool belt. It is an unwritten rule that promotions in many companies don’t happen based on performance metrics (which the ordinary Viennese is way too lazy to analyze in detail anyway) but rather on how likeable and funny an employee is in his communication with co-workers and superiors. Someone who has the Schmäh also has to be a good manager, marketer, PR representative, editor, director or whatever else is out there.
For foreigners, it’s a double whammy. On arriving in Vienna, they are faced with not one, but two languages to master at the same time: That oh-so-horrible German language that tormented Mark Twain, and the even trickier Wiener Schmäh, which, on top of everything else, gets delivered in the local dialect. Many foreigners don’t even realize the Viennese are trying to be funny, but simply find their behavior boorish and “grantig” (grouchy), at times even openly hostile.
MAKE IT HERE, MAKE IT ANYWHERE
But don’t get me wrong; we’re not anti- foreigner. Vienna has always been an immigrant city. It’s just that being a newcomer in the Austrian capital makes you suspect. Where in New York everybody is a New Yorker the minute he signs his lease; in Vienna, it can take years, if not decades, to throw off your guest-visa status as a “Zuagraster” (new arrival), and earn your right to be considered local.
Understanding – and going along with – Schmäh is key. But it is being able to do it yourself that puts the final seal of approval on your citizenship papers.
Travel blogger Carly Hulls relocated to Vienna from “Down Under” five years ago and has made great strides in adapting from the Aussie “Ace!” to the Viennese “Schauma mal!” (“Let’s see!”) way of life.
One thing, though, that particularly annoys her Australian friends (besides the awful weather) is the service, “which they regard as very poor” compared to the casual, palsy-walsy, approach at home.
“However, the way I look at it,” she says, “you get a free-of-charge comedy show served with your Melange!”
Not everybody slides into the mood so smoothly – which is not surprising when you look at its roots: According to Duden, the word Schmäh comes from the Middle High German smæhe, which translates to an “insult” or “contemptuous treatment.” Indeed, the nature of Wiener Schmäh is not always amicable; it’s not a friendly tease, but more a full-on insult, barely hidden behind a playful smirk.
And it is not only foreigners who have trouble coping with all the Viennese rudeness. Other Austrians, moving to the big city from the provinces, are also jarred by such harsh treatment.
“In Tyrol, people treat each other in a friendlier way in everyday situations,” says Stefan, Carly’s Tyrolean husband. “We are also not as formal as the Viennese; the ‘Sie’ form basically doesn’t exist in western Austria. But if I dared to address my waiter at Café Dommayer with a casual ‘du,’ he would probably kick me out of the place!”
HOPELESS, BUT NOT SERIOUS
So as we can see, Schmäh is not so much Austrian, but rather, deeply Viennese. And so often, the people who seem to have the most trouble blending in here are the Germans. Of all those Zuagraster, it is the one group that speaks the (seemingly) same language and has the (seemingly) same culture that often has the most trouble blending in. Many a poor soul from Hannover or Würzburg has left their neighborhood Billa in tears after being yelled at for requesting a “Tüte” (German word for shopping bag; the correct word, of course, is “Sackerl”).
Christoph Waltz, Vienna’s most famous actor (awarded an Oscar for taking Wiener Schmäh to Hollywood) put his finger on the German-Austrian culture gap in a now- famous interview on American television: “The difference,” the actor said, “is like the one between a battleship and a waltz.” While the Germans go for head-on collision, and lack melody and grace in their daily interactions, the Austrians have understood that, first of all, you make life easier by being polite, and second, by not meaning it.
If you don’t speak German but want to understand Wiener Schmäh, a good place to start is with Waltz’s performance in Inglourious Basterds, where he plays the role of a Nazi officer, who gives a twisted smile as he sends people off to the gas chamber. Unable to deal with the horror of what he is doing, and too weak to do anything else, he retreats into a mélange of black humor, self-hate and a dint of “is eh scho wurscht” (what difference does it make?), because everything is so bad anyway, and what should he do about it? This is, of course, Schmäh the dark version!
However, there are countless other (gentler) examples, Viennese who went out into the world to proselytize their prized humor. Alice Frick, whose film Das geheime Sexleben der Frauen (The Secret Sex Life of Women) premiered in Austrian cinemas in October, is a comedian and actress who moved to the UK and worked her way up doing standup comedy. Her schtick: Putting herself up as a target, and making fun of what it means to be Austrian: When she tells people she is from Austria, they gush: “Ah Austria! Beautiful country! Lots of mountains! Good chocolate! Nice people…” She just smiles: Obviously they mean Switzerland.
“One crucial aspect about Wiener Schmäh is that you have to make fun of yourself to a degree that it’s almost self-degrading.”
According to the Viennese, we have done a lot of things right, contributing some of mankind’s most important achievements: Like coffee, Kipferl (Viennese croissant) and Schnitzel. So as, in truth, we came up with none of those things, it should come as no surprise that we take it for granted our monopoly on dark humor as well.
But as Frick confirms, “Wiener Schmäh and the much more famous British satire are similar with their love for absurdity, sarcasm and darkness.”
So let’s sum up what we have learned so far: Wiener Schmäh is being polite without meaning it; it is insulting without acknowledgment; it is flirtatious but also intrusive; it is irresistibly charming by the agile, but bruising by the less adroit.
BILL MURRAY MUST BE VIENNESE
Vienna worships its Schmäh artists such as Josef Hader or Alfred Dorfer – the two figureheads of the Habsburg humor – and many other lesser-known comedians, actors, musicians and artists of all kinds who manage to make a living from it in this appreciative city. Musicians such as Seiler und Speer have stormed the charts by putting Wiener Schmäh into song lyrics, acts such as Der Nino aus Wien and Voodoo Jürgens have become the darlings of the local indie scene – even conquering big brother Germany with their poetic “sudering” (whining) to the strumming of their beat-up acoustic guitars.
A website called Wiener Alltagspoeten (Viennese Poets of the Everyday) is dedicated to collecting snippets from Vienna streets and publishing them on the web (shameless self-promotion from this writer, who runs the project).
And then there is Bill Murray, who just has to be Viennese, even though he won’t admit it – but nobody born outside the great Habsburg capital could turn a boring piece of filming like Lost in Translation into a masterpiece just by staring into the camera for two hours with a blank look of desperation at the senselessness of existence.
While the Viennese take immense pride in their Schmäh, they seem to be aware that the outside world might not yet be ready for it. Vienna still markets itself with the same old pictures of palaces, emperors with velvet coats and long hair and glorious museums, working overtime to conserve the city’s traditional image. Not surprisingly, the Vienna Tourist Agency has mixed feelings about their take on the Wiener Schmäh: “The Wiener Schmäh is profound, manifold and hard to define,” muses spokesman Walter Straßer. “It unites humor, sarcasm, melancholy, charm, Grant and sometimes also wickedness or morbidity.” Still, it is fun. So while it can probably only be fully understood by the Viennese, “we do sometimes use it to attract tourists.”
As an example, Straßer mentions a campaign in which hipster Emperor Franz Junior, the fictive great grandson of Kaiser Franz Joseph I, gives a few recommendations for what to do on your trip to Vienna. In a Youtube video, “KFJ” wears stylish shades, dances through Schönbrunn in his underpants and gets wasted overlooking the Gloriette. It’s the attitude. Now if you actually did do that…
But while the city is tongue-in-cheek imposing its Schmäh on tourists, the Wiener Linien go full throttle: A Viennese institution designed for the locals, they are considered one of the best organized, punctual and affordable public transportation systems in the world – by non-Viennese at least. We, who actually have to live in this intolerable “chaos,” know better and are eager to complain for weeks if the unthinkable happens: Say a line gets shut down for an hour or, even worse, if we have to wait for more than five minutes for the next train. I mean there are limits!
While we could argue about what constitutes punctuality, nobody would challenge their approach to spicing up otherwise dry service announcements. Wiener Linien press speaker Kathrin Liener explains: “We like to add a little Schmäh to our message – getting it across is much easier if you put a smile on people’s faces.”
A few years ago, a subway campaign “101 Excuses that Won’t Work” was aimed at (young) people, who seemed to see it as a challenge to ride schwarz, i.e. without a ticket. One example: “My brother has my ticket, but he’s in another car!” A second favorite: “Actually, I live in New York and am only here by chance.”
Currently, passengers riding the U-Bahn are being entertained by the announcement that “Little kebab and his smelly friends pizza and burger are asked to leave the train,” as they work to combat one of the system’s most serious problems, the smell of warm and gooey fast food. And once you get off the tram, the Schmäh doesn’t end: In this town, occasions include picking up your dog’s poo (Nimm ein Sackerl für mein Gackerl – “Take a sack for the crap”), putting your trash in the bin (Ihre Papiere, bitte! – “Your papers, please!”), tossing your cigarette in the appropriate container (Host an Tschick? – “Got a cigarette?”) without encountering our (in)famous humor.
GRUMPY OLD MEN
Wiener Schmäh can correctly be seen as a metaphor for the Viennese as a whole: permanently torn between being funny and rude, dark and light, and perpetually undecided (“schauma mal” – “Let’s see” – being one of the most important local expressions). While Vienna has been upgraded to the world’s pleasantest city to live in by yet another ranking agency, it struggles with the fact that it no longer has much political, economical or cultural relevance on a world scale.
This makes the Viennese cling even harder to their beloved Schmäh: If we have nothing else, at least we are charmingly irrelevant. But as much as Luke Skywalker has a Darth Vader inside of him that he struggles to keep in check, Wiener Schmäh has its evil-twin father figure in the form of the Wiener Grant, the Viennese grouch. It is hard to understand how, in a city that is so easy to live in, where rents are low, incomes relatively high and free-of-charge top entertainment is available every day, people still act as if they’re living in a war zone.
The light and dark sides of Vienna coexist in an uneasy balance: On a good day, a Viennese has his Schmäh, on a bad one, he is just grantig. Still, without the Grant, there could probably be no Schmäh. So, while Vienna will never become the world’s friendliest city, we will smile and give a disarming shrug while demanding a second register in the checkout line.