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I came across a joke that I don't get.

Wie kommt ein frisch gebackenes Brötchen nach Amerika? –– Altbacken!

What does altbacken have to do with America?

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The joke

Wie kommt ein frisch gebackenes Brötchen nach Amerika? –– Altbacken!

would translate to

How does a freshly baked roll come to America? – Stale!

The wie asks for both, potentially: 'mode of transportation' and 'condition on arrival'.

Since we tend to interpret that first as relating to 'mode of transportation' the surprise is when the answer shifts that to 'condition on arrival'. So the wie is asking ambiguously but answered unambiguously, only in a typically unexpected way. A little stumble in understanding.

What has altbacken to do with America?
This joke is probably old. Coined in the age of sail? Unlike French rolls German rolls take more than a few hours to go stale. Going by boat would ensure a stale condition, flying over not so much now.

But now this joke gets a few subtleties for German speakers.
While when the joke was invented America was seen mostly as modern and progressive, a promise of the future, constructing even more contrast within the joke.
This has changed quite a bit. American politics are now largely seen as quite backwards oriented, or colloquially: 'conservative'. This is a re-orientation on the old, which is alt-. Couple that with newly created categories of alt-right, alt-left and for a German speaker with interest and concern in or for American politics. Judging German news of late, American politics are often painted as dominated by conservative, right-wing or alt-right views, positions and politicians. Then the alt-backen strings a few additional chords.

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    Importent last paragraph! – Iris Oct 1 '18 at 9:10
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    nice layering of meanings! – perpetual Oct 1 '18 at 10:08
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    I really appreciate your (re)interpretation of that joke in a very contemporaneous context. I wondered about the joke initially; I found it too shale, lacking depth. But with reference to the current frenzy of alt things, especially to alt-facts, the joke indeeds makes suprisingly much sense. Especially when you take the step to re-refering the quality of altbacken to US American so called conservatism (which rather is alt-oritarianism). – Christian Geiselmann Oct 1 '18 at 13:40
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    +1 for adding the current "alt-" aspect. As a matter of fact this joke was new to me (German native) and just to show how much one's perception can be influenced by what one reads/watches: it took me a second or two to even realise that it's supposed to refer to staleness. Reading "alt-", my brain immediately assumed this was supposed to be a joke on US politics and was confused how "-backen" might make sense in that context... – Mac Oct 1 '18 at 15:26
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    ... may I however add that most probably the author of the joke did not have at all in mind the phenomenon of alt things in the US. It is just a very weak joke. LangLangC's (successful) attempt to recontextualize it in a meaningful way is just a telling example for the tendency of the human brain to "make sense of things", i.e. search for relations between things until someting more or less credible appears. Hence, by the way, the tendency to see a "God" sitting behind things and controling them. – Christian Geiselmann Oct 1 '18 at 17:13
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The "joke" is based on the ambiguity of "wie kommt?" that could both be asking for mode of transport (assumed in the question) and condition when arriving (answered in the answer).

You could translate the sentence to English as

How does a fresh roll reach America? Stale.

Just as "funny".

For the purpose of the joke, "America" stands for "somewhere far away" only and is of no relevance beyond that.

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You're right, it could also be China. The »Wie« asks for the condition of the roll after a long journey, not for the way it is transported.

start of the journey (roll is fresh) => journey (freshness decreases) => arrival (roll is unfresh (altbacken))

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    No. The wie asks for both, potentially. Since we tend to interpret that first as relating to 'mode of transportation' the surprise is when the answer shifts that to 'condition on arrival'. So the wie is not asking but answered in the way you describe. – LangLangC Oct 1 '18 at 7:29
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    @LangLangC: Womit die nach oben offene Zahl der Wortklaubereien wieder um eins erhöht wäre. – Pollitzer Oct 1 '18 at 8:20
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America is proverbially far away, so what was fresh at the start of the journey will have become stale by the end. I'm afraid that's the entire (rather feeble) point.

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