If you’re a semi-famous Hollywood TV actor and you want to raise your profile in Germany, you could ask your agent to book you on one of the country’s most popular talk shows. Even better: You can complain about that experience when you’re back in the United States. Last week, Will Arnett, who is only marginally known in Germany, was on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” when the conversation turned to Arnett’s recent appearance on “Wetten Dass..?” The show, whose title translates more or less to “Wanna Bet,” is a uniquely German two-and-a-half-hour-long combination of talk show, variety show, and game show, broadcast live about six times a year.
Arnett told Kimmel that “Wetten Dass..?” was “the craziest TV show” he had ever seen. “They brought out 50 dogs,” he explained, “and I would motion to one of the dogs, they would throw a Frisbee, and the dog would catch it and bite it, and the people would have to guess which dog it was.” When Kimmel asked him what the show’s name meant, Arnett said “I think it means: What the fuck is happening?”
Arnett hit a nerve back in Germany, where the mediocrity of its TV—and “Wetten Dass..?” in particular—is currently a particular source of national insecurity. Whereas other European countries, like Denmark and France, have impressed international audiences with high-quality shows like “Borgen” and “The Returned,” TV in Germany remains dominated by talk shows, schlocky crime procedurals, mediocre miniseries, and, well, “Wetten Dass..?”—or as a New York Times headline from last year described it, “Stupid German Tricks.”
The day after the Kimmel appearance, most major German outlets had some coverage of Arnett’s remarks. “Will Arnett about Wetten Dass: ‘What the Fuck is Happening?,” announced Der Spiegel’s website. While some Germans took offense, many others shared his irritation. Some tweeted that Arnett’s comments “would be funny if they weren’t true,” or that it was time to rename the show “#whatthefuckishappening.” One Hamburg newspaper wondered whether it was time to create a support group for Hollywood stars who had been traumatized by the show.
There are plenty of scarred survivors to choose from. In 2012, Tom Hanks complained about having to wear cat ears on “Wetten Dass..?” while Markus Lanz, the host, jumped around in a potato sack. “In the United States if you are on a TV show that goes for four hours, everybody responsible for that show is fired the next day,” he said. Halle Berry supposedly once almost walked off the show after Lanz tried to get her to kiss a male guest (she later described the experience as feeling “lost in translation”). And YouTube boasts endless clips of Hollywood celebrities—from Paris Hilton to Kevin James—looking around the show’s set with a combination of boredom, confusion, and horror.
Their reactions are understandable: Not only does the 33-year-old “Wetten Dass..?” seem to confirm a lot of the world’s less generous stereotypes of Germans—e.g. humorless, weird, with terrible taste in formalwear—its concept is also awkwardly difficult to explain. German broadcaster Frank Elstner supposedly came up with the show during one sleepless night. The concept: Invite a mixture of German and Hollywood celebrities onto a live stage, interview them, and then make them wager whether a number of ordinary Germans can complete a series of stunts. In the show’s current incarnation, if the people successfully complete their stunt, which they perform with utter earnestness, they have the chance of winning a 50,000-euro prize. If the celebrities wager wrong, they are then forced to do something embarrassing, like wear a dumb hat or teach the host how to hula hoop.
Unsurprisingly, this has resulted in some surreal television over the years. Last year, Gerard Butler struggled to keep a straight face while watching a man try to break 50 walnuts with his ass in one minute (the man succeeded). Boxer Vladimir Klitschko once had to wager whether a man could identify the make of several toilet seats simply by sitting on them (he could). An unimpressed Naomi Campbell once had to watch a man try (and fail) to change the wheels on a car while floating above a wind machine. Last year, the show’s host asked 50 Cent what it was like being shot, then made him stand around while a man tried to identify car tires based on their smell (nope).
The show’s other cringe-worthy hallmark is its breathtakingly inane and often impressively tone-deaf interviews, made all the more uneasy by the need for simultaneous translation. In 2012, the show’s smarmy longtime host, Thomas Gottschalk—a man with an impressive resemblance to Willy Wonka—was replaced by the more shellacked and considerably smarmier Markus Lanz. For Hollywood stars used to appearing on “Kimmel” or “Conan,” Lanz’s interview techniques—which often involve commenting on female stars’ appearance—can seem jarringly unpleasant and often sexist. When a baffled-looking Cameron Diaz appeared on the show this spring, Lanz asked her to stand up from the couch so two young boys could get a kiss from “one of the most beautiful women in the world.” She instead gave them high fives and awkwardly and silently sat back down.
And yet, for whatever reason, the show’s peculiar formula has long had a particular appeal in German-speaking world. Perhaps it’s because of the show’s gimmicky twist on celebrity (for once, it’s Denzel Washington watching the plumber from Frankfurt perform, instead of the other way around), or the rare pleasure of watching Germans be silly, or some as yet unexplained secret German passion for wagers, but for much of its three-decade-long run, “Wetten Dass” has been a ratings juggernaut: At its height, 23 million people tuned in throughout Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. The Pope once even agreed to come on as a guest (the producers turned him down, because he would only appear via video link).
In recent years, the show has hit tougher times—not only because TV viewership in Germany has splintered, just as it has elsewhere, and driven down ratings, but because the show suffered a remarkable string of bad publicity. In 2010, a man trying to jump over a car fell and broke his spine, ultimately paralyzing him. The accident was broadcast live, and when the paramedics arrived, millions of viewers were treated to the horrified faces of the in-studio audience. And last year, Lanz challenged Augsburg locals to dress up like Jim Knopf, a black German children’s book character. Fans converged on the show in blackface, smiling alongside Boris Becker. Anti-racism groups were, of course, outraged. This spring, animal groups voiced their anger when a poodle was killed mid-show by hitting its head.
On a cultural level, the show has also become a symbol of Germany’s continuing struggles to create good television. As television has emerged internationally as the new medium for sophisticated storytelling, public criticisms of the show, and German TV in general, have sharpened. In 2012, Spiegel published an interview with a top German media critic under the headline “Why are German TV shows so lousy?” Unlike the U.S., television in Germany is highly subsidized by the public. Its two biggest channels ARD and ZDF (which produces “Wetten Dass..?”) are among the best-funded public broadcasters in the world (any German household with a television, radio, or Internet connection must pay 18 euros a month to support them), which makes the terribleness of German TV not only a question of taste, but of public policy.
Even if you ignore stunty shows like “Wetten Dass..?,” German narrative offerings have lacked the nuance and verve of high-end British, American, or Scandinavian productions. “Tatort,” the country’s most popular program, is an uneven cop show that often feels several decades out of date, and most other fictional TV shows perpetually reshuffle a few familiar elements (blonde doctor, romantic woes, rural hospital, Bavaria). As Lothar Mikos, the media critic, told Spiegel, the problem isn’t monetary, it’s the opposite: German broadcasters’ enormous bureaucracy and generous funding have largely insulated them from the need to innovate. And since younger people tend to watch American or British shows online anyways, there’s little to dissuade networks from creating more low-quality schlock for aging viewers.
Even so, ZDF announced this spring that this December’s episode of “Wetten Dass..?” would be the show’s last—at least, for the foreseeable future—because of declining ratings and because “the format had lost its appeal.” That news probably comes a relief to any American celebrities with 2015 German publicity tours, though the German media have also floated persistent rumors that the show’s demise is only temporary. Frank Elstner, the show’s creator, also told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung he believed the show would return.
If that’s the case, American guests would be well-advised to follow the advice of Michael Buble who appeared on the show this summer and had to perform a song while wearing a cat mask. “This show is a strange show,” he told Lanz. “I’ll be honest with you, if I’d known it was going to be this weird, I would have smoked pot beforehand.”