"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.

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear