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Loriot and the art of miscommunication

Just how difficult and pointless communication can be when people talk at - rather than with - each other is illustrated by Loriot’s sketch ‘The astronaut.’ The presenter of a radio programme is supposed to interview an American astronaut. After just a couple of sentences in halting English it emerges that the interviewee is neither American nor an astronaut: he is German and a pen pusher by profession.

But instead of breaking off the interview, the presenter decides he has started so he will finish and continues to work through his list of questions. When asked ‘What is the greatest height you have experienced to date?’ the conscientious office clerk duly answers, ‘Our offices are on the fifth floor.’ To which the presenter replies: ‘And you were never frightened that you would not be able to get back down again?’ There is nothing wrong with the questions per se, nor with the answers: they just don’t go together, even though both parties are trying hard. The whole interview gets gradually more and more nonsensical – yet they carry on with it to the bitter end.

Loriot and the struggle for dignity

Things get even more complicated when the communication has an emotional dimension. Be it a father trying to tell his son the facts of life, a bungled marriage proposal or a failed attempt at a bit of hanky panky on the rug  – Loriot’s portrayals of people desperately searching for words and talking at cross purposes are a sheer delight. Of course, the whole interaction always remains polite and proper; the worst verbal faux pas a character played by Loriot ever committed was a half-whispered ‘You fat slug,’  and that was just because he was inebriated. It is great fun watching these emotional belly flops – not least because with Loriot, there are no losers. No matter how muddled the situation is, everyone involved always manages to extricate themselves in the end with a degree of dignity.

Loriot, German teachers’ pet

For a long time now, the famous Reclam publishing house has published Loriot’s works, which is as good as saying that Loriot is a fixture on the school curriculum. And not just in Germany, because the Goethe Institute disseminates the writings of the German comedian – along with those of Goethe – to all four corners of the world. Loriot’s writing is predestined for teaching German to foreigners. No other texts could better illustrate how intelligent wit, proper manners and good grammar are in no way mutually exclusive. Goethe already demonstrated that, but Loriot is quite simply more up to date. Vicco von Bülow, Loriot’s real name, felt honoured and showed his gratitude to the Goethe Institute by personally ensuring that its libraries acquired the lending rights for his collected television and film works.

Why is Loriot funny?

It is not easy to answer the question of what is so funny about Loriot that some people are not able to describe one of his sketches because they are quaking with laughter even before they start. Loriot shows ordinary people who are unable to cope with a seemingly ordinary situation. Loriot’s characters are normal in an almost unbearable way - and so are their lines. Their efforts to succeed in a world where things somehow never quite work as they expect them to are as untiring as they are fruitless.  It is the scenes of futile communication, with people unswervingly talking at cross purposes, that make Loriot’s work so unmistakeably Loriot. He shows that successful communication is about more than just sending a verbal message. The environment, the people engaged in the conversation, the overall situation also need to be right. The tiniest anomalies can make our attempts at communication fail dramatically and make any perfectly normal situation become comical. But Loriot’s humour takes no malicious pleasure in other people’s misfortunes. It relies on precision and timing instead of crude remarks and heavy-handed effects.

Author: Birgit Stelzer


Bernhard-Victor Christoph Carl von Bülow, called Vicco von Bülow, artist's name Loriot, German comedian, actor, cartoonist, director, stage designer (1923-2011).

December 2011

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17 December 2016

What a wonderful face! Reminiscent of C.G.Jung in his later years-thank you for that photo!

Gerald Mwesige
28 December 2011

Dear Birgit,thank you for the summary and collections of Loriot's input in communication.
How I wish some of his collections could be availed to all the Goethe Instituts so that we can equally have a catch on his experiences.
I believe he did mentor some one, is there someone continuing with his work despite it being relatively different?

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