‘Dinner for One,’ a German New Year’s TV Tradition, Moves Online

“OK, the butler’s setting the table,” the YouTuber Ryan Wass begins, skeptically.

In his video “American Reacts to ‘Dinner for One’ (First Time Watching),” which he uploaded 11 months ago and now has 180,000 views, Wass takes a look at the beloved cult comedy short on the recommendation of one of his followers. It’s part of a longstanding tradition for the creator: On his YouTube channel “Ryan Reaction,” Wass films himself being introduced to local German idioms, customs and old movies and TV programming from the perspective of an unwitting American viewer who responds with confusion and awe.

But “Dinner for One” is no ordinary slice of quirky German culture. The 18-minute, black-and-white comedy of manners, filmed in 1963, is about a quintessentially British butler orchestrating a solo birthday celebration for his 90-year-old employer, the cheery Miss Sophie (May Warden), whose closest friends and customary guests have all long since passed away. (The butler, James, played by the comedian Freddie Frinton, is obliged to fill in for the missing attendees, including quaffing each of their drinks.) It’s very British in style and setting, and, apart from a brief German introduction, the action plays out in English.

“I have more questions than I did before it started,” Wass says as the screening comes to an end, burying his face in his hands. “Like, how is this a German tradition?”

“Dinner for One” first debuted on the British stage in the 1930s, and Frinton and Warden started performing their version as a duo in 1945. The German entertainer Peter Frankenfeld saw it in the early 1960s while looking for material that might resonate with a German audience, and organized a live taping in Hamburg. After airing sporadically over the next several years, the film lucked into being a fixture of New Year’s Eve TV programming in the early ’70s, and “Dinner for One” has been considered a German cultural landmark ever since. (Over the decades, the tradition has spread: It also plays annually in Sweden, Denmark, Austria and elsewhere.)

In Germany, “Dinner for One” screens on the TV channels of the country’s many public broadcasters, sometimes several times a day on Dec. 31. Merchandise clogs German supermarkets and novelty shops in the months leading up to Christmas: You can find “Dinner for One” tea towels, “Dinner for One” puzzles, even an elaborate, fan-made “Dinner for One” board game. Its ubiquity is unrelenting. If you own a TV in the country, you really can’t miss it.

But what about people who don’t? A generation of cord-cutters has also discovered the charms of this comedy short on their own, sharing, analyzing and critiquing the movie across social media. The ubiquity of “Dinner for One” on these platforms suggests that the show is more than an antiquated holiday custom — it is a living, breathing tradition that’s being carried forward by members of Gen Z.

Wass’s experience with “Dinner for One” is far from the only one of its kind. All over YouTube, “Dinner for One” reaction videos have become popular, racking up tens of thousands — and in some cases hundreds of thousands — of views. The most successful videos tend to follow the format established by Wass: A foreigner, having heard about this quaint German tradition, records themselves experiencing it for the first time. The comment sections are routinely packed with Germans delighted to see their national tradition celebrated. “This made me (as a German) so happy. Thank you for reacting,” reads a typical comment.

On TikTok, too, young viewers have been discovering “Dinner for One” and sharing their enthusiasm. The show’s simple, theatrical comedy lends itself to short-form video content, meaning scenes from the film posted out of context have a tendency to go viral, appealing to a combination of curious first-timers and nostalgic Germans. As the butler continues to drink the imaginary guests’ wine, he gets more and more soused, eventually stumbling around in a broad, farcical way. It’s easy to see the appeal for TikTokers — and also easy to see why it might have been so accessible for Germans who don’t necessarily speak English. Everyone understands falling down.

TikTokers aren’t just sharing clips from “Dinner for One.” They’re also staging their own intricate parodies, making lighthearted spoofs that riff on the familiar format, or make another German joke or recombine the conventions in a new way. The soccer team F.S.V. Mainz 05 has turned the film into a meme to troll competing clubs. Another TikToker took a scene from the film and recreated it as a puppet show. Clearly, a younger audience wants to keep the joke going — whether that means turning an annual viewing party into a hard-core drinking game or imagining what “Dinner for One” might look like if it were directed by Quentin Tarantino.

Wass, for his part, said in an email that after his experience reacting to “Dinner for One,” the film “really stuck with me.”

He added, “I’ll be watching it again this year.”

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