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.