Harald Schmidt: Germany's Comic Blitzkrieg

Berlin may be agonizing over its soured relationship with Washington after the war in Iraq, but German comedian Harald Schmidt has reason to celebrate. His late-night talk show has gotten a shot in the arm thanks to its mocking coverage of the war, complete with satellite feeds from a correspondent in a far-off suburb of Cologne.

Schmidt, who models himself after America’s David Letterman, made his big splash on German television in 1995, when his program premiered on SAT 1. Blending cynicism and slapstick, he soon became known as Germany’s funniest man. “Tall, charismatic, brilliantly irreverent, Schmidt’s ego normally towers as high as the spires of the Dom in Cologne, from where his nightly wit-fest is broadcast,” London’s Financial Times commented last year. The debut of the “Harald Schmidt Show” was propitious, coming at a time “when harassed Germans,” facing the highest unemployment levels in 50 years, were “desperate for light relief,” The Times of London reported.

Schmidt, 45, studied acting in Stuttgart and performed in nightclubs before making his television debut, in 1988, with a comedy show on Germany’s Channel 1 (ARD).

“ ‘The Harald Schmidt Show’ has never been as wildly popular on SAT 1, Germany’s [satellite] entertainment channel, as during the Iraq offensive, or as he calls it, the ‘Rumsfeld Polonaise,’ ” Vienna’s Profil magazine reported on April 14. When war broke out, Schmidt sidekick Manuel Andrack was enlisted as a front-line reporter.

“ ‘I’ve lost eye contact with Andrack,’ growled Schmidt, seated 10 feet away at his desk. ‘What’s it like in Köln-Mülheim?’ (headquarters of Schmidt’s production company). ‘Eerily quiet here,’ Andrack replied. Schmidt continued: ‘That would seem to fit the situation. How long do you guess you can stay in Köln-Mülheim?’ ‘Well, we’ll report back to you as soon as there are developments or, more likely, when there aren’t any.’ ”

In her biography of Harald Schmidt, published this year, film critic Mariam Lau seeks to remove the idol from his pedestal. She upbraids Schmidt for taking a foggy moral stand after Sept. 11, 2001. While his sarcastic American doppelgänger actually shed a tear in the wake of the tragedy, Schmidt, according to Lau, merely kept away from dirty jokes for two weeks and walked around “rubbing his hands as if nothing were wrong.”