The editors of the Süddeutsche Zeitung began their series of 20 books in or involving Munich with a local icon, Siegfried Sommer. They finished the set with Karl Valentin, who was born in Munich and grew up in the city but went on to become a national icon as a comedic star on stage, in silent films, and in the talkies. He has sometimes been called the Charlie Chaplin of Germany, and he was a formative influence on Bertolt Brecht.
In Die Jugendstreiche des Knaben Karl (The Youthful Pranks of the Boy Karl), Valentin recounts 92 pages worth of short anecdotes from his childhood and apprentice years, with just a few towards the end from when he started working on stage in 1902, the year he turned 20. I presume that his stage and screen presence contributed substantially to his comedy because I found very few of the tales in the book to be funny.
Valentin comes close to acknowledging as much at various points in the book. After describing various things that the young terrors did to animals in the neighborhood, or how they used animals to shock, surprise or annoy people, he wonders why kids don’t naturally have more love for animals. (p. 18) Some stories have particularly unhappy endings. He tells of the excitement of skating across thin ice on the river Isar one winter, the kids telling each other not to be a mama’s boy. They barely make it across, but Valentin’s friend Ade says, “Get out of the way, I’m doing it again!” Valentin follows; the ice breaks; Ade goes under. “I break through as well, but I was able to stop, boards were passed to me, I am rescued. My comrade Ade is taken out the next day as a corpse. He’s buried in the East Cemetery. He caught his death and I caught bad asthma that’s with me to this day.” (p. 9)
The anecdotes are all quite short, and may have been among the stories that Valentin told from the stage. Few are more than a page; most pages have two or three items. Valentin groups them thematically, and more generally chronologically. Headings include “Explosive effects,” “The Terrors of the Au” (a Munich neighborhood), “What a Circus,” “School Stories,” and “Smelly Bits.” The section titled “Mother’s Fears” has six anecdotes over three pages. The first is about two-year-old Karl hammering on his mother’s Renaissance furniture. Next comes an item about how he got his head stuck and had to be sawed out by a passing workman. Speaking of saws, the third is about how he tricked his mother into thinking he had been injured by a circular saw as a carpenter’s apprentice. Hilarity does not ensue in the other three either.
Here’s one that I did like, from later in the book when he was already working with his long-time cabaret partner Liesl Karlstadt:
One time my partner bought a pound of plums at the Vittles’ Market [in downtown Munich]. Then we both got on a tram, but acted as if we didn’t know each other. At one point she spoke to me: “Look at this, Mr Neighbor, just now at the market I wanted to buy myself pears. But the lady selling fruit made a mistake and instead of pears she gave me apples.” “Oh no, Miss,” I said, “those are not apples, those are some sort of apricot.” “Ach why,” she said, “I didn’t even ask for apricots.” “You know,” I added, “I don’t really know all that much about fruit, maybe those are pienapples or bananas, although they seem a little bit too short for that.” She answered: “Ach, those are definitely not bananas. Oh, I know it now, they’re gooseberries.” “Nah,” I countered, “gooseberries have geese, and what you have in the bag there are all smooth.” … And so the deliberately very dumb discourse kept going. Suddenly an older woman, definitely a Munich sales lady with a big market basket on her lap, stood up and said, “I have to go now, I can’t stand it any more, I’ve never seen two such cows in all my life, they don’t even know what plums are.” (pp. 88–89)
A film version of the book was made in 1977. Judging from the German Wikipedia description of its plot, it has a better framework and probably a better selection of the actually funny bits.