“Wiener Schmäh is saying Schlagerl (mini-stroke) instead of Schlaganfall (stroke). It’s a way of being obsessed with death without ever talking about it.”
Hannes Duscher and Roland Gratzer host an evening show on radio FM4 called Vorglühen (Preparty Buzz). For those tuning in for the first time, it’s surprising to hear them bantering in a fairly unrestrained form of dialect as they take call-ins from listeners or interview special guests. It’s not purely Viennese – Duscher is Upper Austrian and Gratzer is Styrian – but it’s a cozy mix of all three, “pan-Austrian humor,” as Gratzer puts it.
Although it might go over the heads of beginners in German, this approach is somewhat groundbreaking when it comes to Austrian media, which is generally delivered in a standard form of High German. Duscher and Gratzer are the first ones to pull this off successfully.
It took some convincing at first.
“We had a lot of meetings about it in the beginning and they were really against it, but we persuaded them to take the risk,” Duscher said. “And it paid off.” Perhaps they used a bit of Schmäh.
“We do use it in meetings occasionally to get a point across, and 90 percent of the time, it works. It’s a way to joke and go over the top even when you’re serious. It’s like a joke within a joke,” Duscher said.
This approach has worked for them across a diverse spectrum of media and culture – they’ve done radio, TV, theater, art performances and music. It has also helped them to blur the previously unbreachable line between “E” and “U” art, serious (ernst) art and entertainment (Unterhaltung).
“I don’t get this distinction at all. People think when it’s art, then, oh, that’s serious. But no, modern opera can suck just as much as underground theater can,” Gratzer said.
Schmäh seems to play a key role in this navigation, and, according to the duo, the grand master was the late Helmut Qualtinger, the renaissance cabaretist of Wiener Schmäh who defined and embodied Viennese humor and pathos in the late 1950s-early 1960s.
“First, he was the funny guy playing the comic songs, then he was the asshole who spoke the truth about Austrian history, then he was the artist, then he was the drunk who finally died from drinking,” Gratzer said.
“And then he was the good Austrian and a cult hero because he was dead!” Duscher added, which is Wiener Schmäh with a vengeance.