Saturday, April 12, 2008


Welcome to the official blog for the book Schadenfreude, Baby! coming out soon from Lyons Press. I am your host, Laura Lee.

Schadenfreude has taken hold in the American vernacular. This German word translates, roughly, as "pleasure taken at someone else’s misfortune."

The Windsor Star named it "Word of the Week" this week. It notes that the word was used in the final rounds of the 2007 AARP National Senior Spelling Bee.

(Picture to the left from an article on Schadenfreude on Fox Sports blog)

Because English lacks German’s nifty ability to stick nouns together and call it a new word a la “Fahrverneugen” we’ve gone ahead and adopted this great import. This is not to say that we didn’t have the concept, even if we have vastly different views on which stories produce Schadenfreude and which are just sad.

Is it a sense of superiority, the leveling effect, pity or painful empathy? Whatever the reason, we keep laughing when the clown gets a pie in the face. If you’ve ever read scholarly analyses of what makes humor funny, you know that it’s best to enjoy it and not to think too much.

Feeling guilty? Tell yourself this: Dusseldorf, Germany psychoanalyst Claudie Sies says Schadenfreude is actually healthy since it "relieves stress because it can lead to a hearty laugh that helps people relax." Targets of laughter, she says, should just laugh along with them. She should know. She's German.

The Broadway msucial "Avenue Q" used the most basic definition of Schadenfreude, using anyone's misfortune as a reason for celebration: ("Human nature/Nothing I can do/It’s Schadenfreude/Making me feel glad that I’m not you.") Its lyrics go on to express joy in a waitress dropping a tray full of dishes and other such everyday examples.

We all feel fairly guilt-free when the object of Schadenfreude is a bad guy who gets poetic justice from the fickle finger of fate. Case in point? The recent story, reported in the Associated Press, of the clumsy, would-be suicide bomber who tripped going down the stairs and blew himself up.

But Schadenfreude has become most closely associated with reveling in the woes of someone who seems too big for his britches. The people we elevate the highest seem to be the ones we most want to level. Whenever CNN is staked out to watch a vehicle headed to a courtroom, you can bet a little Schadenfreude is at play.

While some people argue that celebrity gawking is the ultimate meaning of Schadenfreude, my personal feeling is that most of it doesn’t quite qualify. When we’re gossiping about who JLo is dating this week, or how much Heather Mills got in the divorce from Sir Paul McCartney, I believe we’re enjoying the spectacle as a living soap opera. It’s not Schadenfreude, baby. It’s gossip. So the book includes a walk through of some of the celebrity downfalls we've reveled in, but focuses more on political figures, historical blunders, loveable losers and the works of the least adept criminal minds.

One of the things about Schadenfreude-watching is that it is ephemeral. Paris Hilton's arrest is SO last year. Eliot Spitzer was Shadenfreude currency last week, but his star has already waned. Next week there will be something new. That is why I started this blog to keep up with some of the stories that come my way after press time.

And also to plug my book. Lovers of Schadenfreude will note that I lost out on the name Schadenfreude for the URL for this blog. It was already taken. Seems fitting somehow. Anyway, the book comes out in May, and I would love to get you a copy the moment it comes off the presses. Anyone who places an advance order now will not only get one of the first available copies, but I will also send an absolutely free copy of my earlier book Bad Predictions. That's two books for the price of one. Plus they come autographed. What online book seller can beat that? Look at the link to the side to order, and enjoy the Schadenfreude stories and discussion as they appear here.