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Of mice and Portnoy

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Of mice and Portnoy
A mouse show on aviation from 1999. Photo: DPA
13:33 CEST+02:00
In the latest installment of Portnoy's Stammtisch, The Local's column about life in Germany, Portnoy lauds the enduring genius of the country's very own cartoon mouse children's show.

Years ago, the woman-who-would-eventually-become-my-wife was ecstatic when we woke up a bit early one Sunday.

“It's only 11!" she said. "We can get some brötchen and watch the show with the mouse!”

“What show with the mouse? Mickey's Fun House? They have that in Germany?” I asked.

Though I was more interested in finding other things to do awake in bed, I was eager to learn more about German culture, since it was looking more and more like I'd be staying here awhile. Plus, I'm American. I can always watch TV.

“Mickey's Fun House?” she said incredulously. “No. The show with the mouse! It was my favourite show as a kid.”

“What's it called? What's the mouse's name?” I asked.

She looked at me, confused.

It seemed odd to me that this woman had forgotten the name of her favourite childhood show and, moreover, couldn't even remember the name of its main character. Though I never watched Mickey's Fun House, I never forgot the name of my childhood faves. Blinky's Fun Club. Mighty Mouse. Captain Kangaroo. M*A*S*H.

She grew impatient with me. “The show is called ‘The Show with the Mouse'. The mouse doesn't have a name.”

After running across the street to get some bread and grabbing some cheese, Schinken and butter from the fridge, we hunkered down to watch what I thought was going to be either a half-hour animated series or thirty minutes of a bad sitcom with a stop-action rodent.

What I ended up seeing was a really cool educational piece on how jeans are made - interspersed with animations of an elephant goofing around with a mouse (yes, the mouse). Once the completed jeans had been loaded on a truck, the show ended with a small skit about Captain Blue Bear, a seagoing buffoon, and his first mate Hein Blöd, which translates to Hein Stupid. According to Captain Blue Bear's stories, he's had a hand in every major historical event in the past 2,000 years. His three grandchildren roll their eyes as he spins his yarns.

While the play on his name is obvious, Captain Blue Bear is also a bit of an homage to the German saying, “Don't let him tie a bear to you.” It means to be wary of the storyteller's lies.

As it turns out, Die Sendung mit der Maus was born the same year as my wife – 1971 – and has been on ARD nearly every Sunday since at 11:30 am (it used to get bumped for winter sports but now moonlights on Kids channel KiKa during bobsled season). The Show with the Mouse is so successful that it's made mini-celebrities out of founder Armin Maiwald, who also narrates it in an air traffic control monotone, and one-time director Christoph Biemann. They both seem like your Uncle Phil, who spent too much time in the cellar with his remote control airplanes.

My wife just reminded me that while the show doesn't have much of a real formal name, it's also got a subtitle: “Lach- und sachgeschichten” which, translated, means “humorous and factual stories.” That's the educational bits and the mouse and elephant, respectively, I guess. The show isn't immune to progress – as long as progress is defined as one minor change in 38 years. For about a year, Shaun the Sheep, from the creators of Wallace and Gromit, has occasionally replaced Captain Blue Bear.

Although he's the star, the mouse only plays a fleeting and insignificant role. Once you become a fan (as most of this country is), you realize the best bits are watching giant machinery spin shoelaces or a workshop in the countryside compress black powder into bottle rockets. The mouse is more a canard. Just as Armin and Christoph aren't your usual animated kids' show presenters, the Show with the Mouse is the exact opposite of a US children's show. It's all content with very little packaging save for a blue elephant and a orange mouse.

It's just exactly the kind of show you'd expect the cliché German who always waits for a green crosswalk light to love. But it's one everyone else can dig too because it answers questions everyone must have - just how exactly do they make things?

Since we've had kids, my wife and I get up early enough every Sunday to watch The Show with the Mouse. I can't wait until my kids are old enough to get the bread themselves.

Since a good German Stammtisch is a place where pub regulars come to talk over the issues of the day, Portnoy welcomes a lively conversation in the comments area below.

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