"You can't just take a comedy act and stick it into Google Translate!"

Henning Wehn on silly puns and why Stewart Lee is wrong about joking in German.

Henning Wehn styles himself as "Germany's comedy ambassador", intent on defying stereotypes and proving that his country can produce comedians. I spoke to him about German puns, silly words and performing stand-up in a second language.

How did you learn to be a stand-up?

By doing it, really. I came over to the UK nine years ago, and was working in football marketing for Wycombe Wanderers. Then one night I walked past a pub that said "Tonight: Stand-up Comedy" and thought, I'll have a look. I watched it and thought I'd like to have a go, so I treated the headliner - Gary Delaney - to a few beers. In return, he wrote me down a few phone numbers for open mic nights. It became a hobby and then, two years later, a job.

What was the first gig that you did like?

It was the Purple Turtle on Essex Road. It was a rough place and a half. The pub dogs were barking more loudly than any of the acts. But I realised the concept of standing on stage worked, and I was hooked.

The idea of doing jokes in a foreign language seems incredible to me. Did it worry you?

Not really, as the gig I watched, most of the acts were appalling. I was fortunate that my first contact with comedy was horrendous - if I'd gone to the Comedy Store things might have been different.

Have you done stand-up in German?

I haven't, for no other reason than to do that I would have to back to Germany and go through the clubs and build up and polish an act. You can't just take a comedy act and stick it into Google Translate! The reference points have to be known for the comedy to make any sense. I don't have the time and energy to do that. Whenever I've performed in Germany it's been for international audiences who want a gig in English.

I remember a Stewart Lee piece where he suggested it was harder to joke in German because of the sentence construction.

Much as I respect Stewart, that's not true. He suggested you couldn't make a pun in German, but you can. And I contest the idea that there's no humour in the German language.

Is there anything in the idea that humour varies with nationality?

Certainly. The "pub jokes" in Britain and Germany are the same, but in the UK there's more importance attached to humour - in adverts, you'll see "good sense of humour". The idea of self-deprecation, too, that's a massive difference. In UK, you can make any mistake at the workplace, as long as you can then tell the tale in an entertaining way, you'll be all right. Whereas in Germany, people would say, "First, you messed it up and now you're trying to make light of it". That would make it twice as bad.

Britain has a better developed "humour industry" too. There are comedy clubs in every small hamlet; there are comedy clubs for kids - aimed at pretentious parents who'll drag their spoilt kids to an arts centre to listen to some jokes they won't get! It's a very British thing to say: even the kids have to learn how to laugh. It's every little bit as wrong as it sounds.

What is day-to-day life actually like as a stand-up?

You're self-employed - actually, the German translation works better. It's selbständig - on your own constantly. You're the managing director of your company, and you have to move the business forward. I've always got a pen and paper with me, and I have a box at home where I chuck all my loose scraps of paper. Once a month, I type everything up and process it.

For something like the Edinburgh festival, where I have a one-hour show to write, I approach it knowing the show title - No Surrender this year - and a vague idea of the narrative arc, and I have to find stories that go hand in hand with that. That's a more methodical approach.

For a radio panel show, you'll get a topic. I did QI, and they were doing The Puritans, which was a subject I knew nothing about, so I had to do the background reading and think about it. Now I have material about the great bestiality panic in New England and no idea when I'm going to get to use it again!

Best man speech?

Maybe.

Are there too many panel shows?

The answer has to be no. As a performer, the impact of being on a show is diminished by their being so many of them; but then again, because there are more shows, more people get on them. It's a double-edged sword.

How's the Edinburgh show coming along?

Last year's show was called My Struggle, about my struggle being the German Comedy Ambassador to Britain for the last nine years. No Surrender will deal with success, failure and authenticity - although I'm not sure I should use something that's got a "th" in it.

It's largely inspired by my trip to Australia earlier this year. I was at the Melbourne Comedy festival. I've never really been to Australia, so there was no hope in hell I would get good houses. On the first night, I said to the woman who ran the venue, "How are we doing for tickets?" I didn't expect to have sold any. She said we had sold 60.

On the opening night, I stood at the entrance, waiting to shake hands with the 60 people who are coming, and [there were] eight people. Eight. I asked her why she had told me 60, and she said: "I didn't want to bring you down before your first show." You should always lower other people's expectations. She should have told me she sold two.

German has plenty of words British people find amusing -- "Handy" for mobile phone. Are there any English words that sound ridiculous to you?

Helter skelter? At least it's your own word, though. I hate it when people act as if they don't have a language of their own. In English, you have "bum bags" and in German, we just say "body bag". I'm sure we should be able to find our own word.

Henning Wehn's show No Surrender will be on at Edinburgh between 4 and 28 August. For more details, visit his website.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution