Dutch courage

After the murder of his friend and collaborator Theo van Gogh, comedian Hans Teeuwen inherited the t

Some comedians have nothing interesting to say about the world - and say it interminably. "Their message," says the Dutch stand-up Hans Teeu wen, is that, "'We have so much; in Africa they have nothing. Oh, the injustice! Let's be nice to each other.'" Teeuwen is the opposite: he has urgent, insightful things to say about the world, but (at least in his comedy) refuses to do so. His absurdist stand-up set was the most electrifying comedy at last year's Edinburgh Fringe. Yet its most remarkable quality was its silence on matters political, given that Teeuwen has been a militant campaigner for free speech in the Netherlands since the assassination of the film-maker Theo van Gogh, his friend and colleague, by Mohammed Bouyeri, a Muslim zealot, in 2004.

Van Gogh's killing has become a cause célèbre in the tortured tale of Dutch multiculturalism, as have the controversial careers of the politicians Pim Fortuyn (who was murdered in 2002) and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, with Holland emerging as the stage on which the drama of Europe's accommodation with Islam is being most vividly played out. Van Gogh was first shot and then had his throat slit with a kitchen knife on an Amsterdam street after collaborating with the lapsed Muslim MP Hirsi Ali on a film, Submission, that attacked the treatment of women under Islam.

The murder fired up Holland's already high-octane debate about "multi-culti" and Enlightenment values. It also turned the spotlight on those who, like Teeuwen (who made the film Interview with van Gogh in 2003), shared the slain director's passion for plain speaking and might react angrily to his death.

Teeuwen's response was a curious one. Since van Gogh's killing, Holland's best-loved comedian has not performed comedy in his home country. Nor will he do so again. He denies this is in protest at the murder, claiming simply to be seeking new challenges - such as launching an English-speaking stand-up career and rebranding himself in Holland as a Sinatra-inspired lounge singer. Last summer, his fellow Dutch comedian Theo Maassen told me, "[Hans] is scared about what might happen if he says what's on his mind", and Teeuwen admitted that "we're running out of big mouths in Holland, and some people look at me as the next big mouth in line". But he later broke his silence to speak at the opening of a memorial to Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam, where his a cappella burlesque on religion ("Christians and goat-fuckers, everyone participates/Jesus and Muhammad on a public toilet") reassured doubters that this is one big mouth who won't be shut up for long.

What he won't do is address politics in his comedy. "Artistically, for me, that's not interesting," Teeuwen says. Judging by the 20 minutes he performed at Edinburgh (his forthcoming London show will be an hour long), he prefers Dadaist nonsense - albeit nonsense performed with such psychotic commitment that it feels as urgent as the Apocalypse. "When you do surreal stuff," says Teeuwen, "you have to give it some sort of necessity." In Edinburgh, he applied this rule to a routine in which his failed-magician father struggles to teach a rabbit to talk, to a wickedly catchy ditty about Nostradamus, and to a remarkable aural symphony of indecision as the comedian is forced to state a preference between black-and-white or colour films.

I usually have zero tolerance for so-called "surreal" stand-up, but here I was pinned to my seat by the G-force of his comic personality. That doesn't surprise Teeuwen, a scholar of humour who thinks hard about what makes nonsense funny. His aim is "to constantly think, 'What state is the audience in now? What do they least expect?'" This is not an intellectual process: "Comedy is more interesting when you don't know what it's about but somehow it strikes a chord." Instead, Teeuwen scores his act like discordant music. "There's a rhythm in the way people talk - all those gestures and intonations and pronunciations. And I use that rhythm without any logic. It's fucking with the laws of how people communicate.

"It's like when you're sitting on the back of a motorbike, and you take a turn. You anticipate the bend. But then the rider suddenly does this . . ." - and he yanks the bike in the opposite direction. If you're coming to his show, he seems to be saying, wear a helmet.

What doesn't interest him, he says, is "making people think. The highest you can achieve is to confuse people, so they have to start thinking for themselves. If you want to control what the outcome will be, you become a dictator." Teeuwen has a phobia for dogma, which stems as much from real life as comedy. He recently debated free speech on a Dutch TV show called Bimbos and Burqas. "I insulted these three Muslim girls on television!" he says. In fact, he spoke eloquently about his conviction that "everything with a certain status has a certain power", including religion. "Power always tends to corrupt and has to be ridiculed. If you can't do that any more, you get creepy situations - a dictatorship or something. That is why it must be done."

The very existence in prime time of such a programme, which pits trashy modernity against conservative Islam, shows how public and confrontational is Holland's discourse on multiculturalism. "The elevation of bluntness to a moral ideal," writes Ian Buruma is his book on the van Gogh killing, Murder in Amsterdam, "is a common trait in Dutch behaviour." Teeuwen, it seems, has inherited from van Gogh the title of defender-in-chief of free speech in the Netherlands. "Not that I was seeking a role in the public debate," he says. "It forced itself on me." As his anti-religion song - which has received more than a million hits online - suggests, he can be just as provocative. "Sometimes if you're being over-polite you don't get a message across," he says. "You just sit, and everybody agrees, and nothing changes."

Teeuwen insists on the right to offend and is ready to be offended back. But van Gogh's murder has made people scared to speak out - even more so than before, the comedian says, when Holland's centre-left orthodoxy prevented criticism of multiculturalism, for fear of appearing racist. Holland is in some ways a victim of its own equable, anti-authoritarian reasonableness, he argues, because, in practice: "Both sides have to be willing to reason. If one side says, 'Fuck that, I'm not doing it', then you really have a problem. All your intelligence, all your empathy skills, are powerless. And how do you deal with that?"

How does tolerance deal with intolerance? In Murder in Amsterdam, Buruma argues that Bouyeri, who is Dutch-Moroccan, was motivated by alienation from an unwelcoming host culture. According to Buruma, Europe must allow its Muslim citizens a greater stake in their adopted countries: must ask, not what they can do to be more like us, but what we can do to help them feel part of this culture. Teeuwen agrees only in part. "We need to find a way to connect with young Muslims," he says - but mainly to "explain to them separation of church and state, to explain equal rights of men and women".

There needs to be a conversation, he believes, from which the Dutch Establishment must stop "protecting" minorities, because "it's protecting them from something they don't need to be protected from. Religions will change for the better through conversation. Islam is not the same as it was two hundred years ago, and it will be different a hundred years from now. But some people will lose power when it changes."

The attempt by powerful elites within Islam to silence their critics is what Teeuwen objects to. For him, free speech is non-negotiable - and is a responsibility as well as a right. Which makes it all the more surprising that, in his comedy, he keeps his opinions to himself. "It's just not my type of humour," he says. "Even in art, I don't find political messages interesting. I find Apocalypse Now a much more interesting movie than Schindler's List." Fair enough - but what about Dr Strangelove? I would love to see Teeuwen's absurdist comedy and his politics come together and make sparks. "Maybe it will happen," he concedes, hesitantly. "But first I concentrate on being funny. That's the art. That's what makes people come and watch me. It's not easy to be funny in an original way. So you have to take that very, very seriously."

Hans Teeuwen performs at the Soho Theatre, London W1, from 18 January to 2 February. More details: www.sohotheatre.com

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obama unmasked