"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?


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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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State