Henning Wehn, self-styled 'German Comedy Ambassador,' is based in London, England. After The Munich Eye's intrepid reporter Robert Johnson attended Henning's show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the two sat down with Otto Kuhnle (Issue 3's Comedian) to talk about Henning's roots, life in London, and perception in the German media.
So where you from?
[Hangs head in frustration]
Just kidding... When you decided to come over here [to the UK], you had never done comedy in Germany?
Why did you go to England? Was it for another type of work or was comedy in your sights?
I came over for work. I was actually working in marketing.
Were there any comedic influences before you came here?
I liked some German comics.
So, Komiker and not comedians?
I don't quite know what the big difference really is. People have tried to explain it to me. But, if it's funny, I like to laugh.
What made you start then? What got you started?
I walked past a pub and they had a sign up saying "Tonight Stand-Up Comedy." I was intrigued. So I nipped in and saw the headliner of the night, Jerry Delaney, treated him to a beer after, and in return he wrote me down a few phone numbers of open night comedy gigs. And then I picked up the phone and went to my first few gigs.
So you picked up the phones and just went for the throat?
Had you done anything like that before? Was it a Eureka moment or had it been brewing for a while?
No. And neither of (the) two. I just saw what the boys and girls did and I said, "Yeah, I would like to give that a go." It was not a moment of clarity, 'Now I have found what I am meant to be doing,' or anything. It was just, 'I would like to give that a go.' Like earlier on, we were considering which beer we would drink. There was no master plan.
In your show, you said, "I have never had a bad show because there's always either been funny or I have proved and confirmed the national stereotype." Is that true, you feel like you've never had a bad show?
Well, what scenario would there be where that's not true?
Good question. You tell me. After the show we just saw, I could easily see it as being true. But you start off at an open mic night and you've never even thought about it before? And you just look at it and say, "I could do this." What were the first few gigs like? Do you remember feeling, 'Ok! That went well'? Or do you remember thinking, 'I see, that needs work' or...?
The main focus that I have had from day one... I had the approach of a gliding average of performance really, that the individual gig doesn't matter. What matters is that the gliding average gets better. That takes the pressure off you to judge individual gigs. I think it's quite a helpful approach. It's certainly a recipe for keeping your sanity.
What else could I say about the beginning? Obviously, when you start out you don't know what you are doing. And you could get booed off stage, it could happen tomorrow. It's not likely, but it can happen. You never know.
So it went ok. There was never a period, where you thought, 'OK, maybe this isn't a good idea'? It's always pretty much worked.
Yes. The comedy circuit is a meritocracy, certainly the live stand-up circuit, which means that you tend to play only gigs you can do because the promoters see to that. I said years ago, "You want to end my career overnight, stick me on at Wembley Arena, sell all the tickets and say, "Now do 90 minutes." To have done that would have been the end of my comedy career. Now I could probably do it, but I wouldn't feel... even now I wouldn't feel ready. I wouldn't see the need.
It's a matter of not being promoted above your level of competence. You could almost call that the invisible hand of the market?
Do you feel, like you said in your show, that you have been "trapped inside the German thing"? The British define themselves against the backdrop of Germany. It used to be France, particularly for the English. And in the British Empire the English were the controlling factor, but now, it's really the Germans as the national foil. It's a friendly rivalry most of the time, but it's still a rivalry...
So are you trapped in that? We took down a list of everything you took the piss out of, and the list is representative of somebody who understands the British comedy psyche from the inside. It's topical. You are on top of current events. In terms of the things you are talking about, it wasn't "Ha Ha Ha, aren't ve funny vis our sausages."
Yeah, there are other acts here that do that. So I don't need to do that.
I live in Britain. On stage, I can talk about what I like. It's a necessity to talk about what you like. So people can always have a perception, I mean, if that's what you deliver. But I have been sending out a monthly bulletin for seven or eight years. And that always has some social commentary and my take on funny things in life, so whoever receives that will know what to expect. So it's not just some wacky nonsense.
Have you always shook hands and greeted every single person who has come to your show? Tonight you shook hands and gave a postcard and pen to 154 people and you shook hands and said goodnight to 154 people. Not counting two reporters. That was very impressive.
Otto (Kuhnle) and I, we have done that together and we... [Aside to Otto] Sorry for dragging you into this. That's been a feature of solo shows for as long as we've done them. I mean, it has to be manageable, in this instance, it's one entrance. But if it were a two-entrance room, it's already out the window.
Yes, I like my audience. What can I say? By the way, thank you for writing this feature.
You are welcome. You've been in the UK for 10 years. It has affected your language. You do talk onstage about the way that you talk and the fact that you do use London slang. Is that on purpose? Is it not affected?
No. This is how I talk now.
Did you notice that London was creeping in? Or did you invite it in?
You can't help but assimilate on one level. I had the advantage that my English wasn't very good when I came over. That meant I soaked everything up a lot quicker. Unlike people who come who already speak perfect English. When they have that highly educated English, well, I haven't got that. I really learned everything once I was here. I didn't learn it from a book but from people. So that means I speak with a lot of colloquialisms, and, in a way, I think it's a benefit. Also I think that, generally speaking, whether it's English or German or whatever language, to speak a bit more colourfully is always nicer to listen to. That's why if someone reads out of a book of law, that usually puts you to sleep. It's very dry and formal language.
I am assuming that this might seem like a silly question. Do you like living in London?
Yeah! It's great!
Even though the flats are small and the prices are ridiculous?
Lovely. It's lovely. I have nothing bad to say about London. Nothing.
Understood. What do you like the most about living in the UK? Had you lived anywhere besides Germany before you got here? Had you travelled?
I was working as a tour guide. I was living in the Mediterranean in the winter and living in the Alps in the summer.
What do I like best about Britain now? I like how unregulated the country is. It's all ups and downs and you have to take the rough with the smooth. On the one hand it's great that there are so few regulations; everyone can do what they like. The downside of that is that the quality of work is not always what you would expect. Especially in regards to plumbing or God knows what else. But I like it just the same.
Do you ever miss Germany? How often do you get back?
Oh, five or six times a year. It's just an hour on the plane, isn't it?
You don't recycle the show. You do a new show every year. Obviously the good thing about being a social commentator is that everybody does part of the work for you?
Well, yes, but you still have to put it all together. And you have to find the take on it. Well I think you have to have a value system and see what fits with your value system and what doesn't. Yeah, so you can feed yourself off the daily news. But if you don't abstract it to the next higher level, then it will just be out of date before you know it. Everyone will say, "What?! What the devil is he talking about?"
I found it interesting when you brought up John Smeaton (Scottish Foiler of Terror Attacks) in terms of topicality. For a time he literally was everywhere. I was in a band named after him in Germany.
Of your jobs and experience, is comedy the most fun? Is there any thing else, like TV presenter or writing, or doing columns for the Guardian or the Telegraph?
I have done all that already. But that's all sub-elements because the bread and butter job is stand-up.
Do you still enjoy it?
Oh very much! Very much. The stand-up has three aspects to it. It's the performing, the writing, and the travelling. And I do enjoy all three.
Living out of a suitcase doesn't bother you?
The London comedy circuit and the British comedy circuit is different form the American and Australian where you are always on a plane and in hotels. Here is more that you can get back to London or go home by mini-cab. That's the other good thing. The system of mini cabs is quite cheap, that is really good. So I can usually get home quite easily.
You used to work with Otto Kuhnle. For about five years?
Yes. We would occasionally do the festivals together and do runs in London. But Otto is based in Berlin and very successful on the German circuit. So there is the question of how much time can he afford to spend in the UK. But I always enjoy it when we work together. And I love to see his solo show. It's great the Otto keeps coming back. Let's see where it gets us and then we'll know what we do for next year.
A couple more questions?
Are you planning on coming back to Germany with your work?
If I go back to Germany at the moment it's for corporate gigs. I do them in English. And they are an interesting thing. Because the psychology changes. I am no longer endearing foreigner. I am incredibly rude host. It's tough to do the transfer. Imagine being flown to, let's say, Munich, to do a show for Brits, who are living in Munich. Most of the time I spend in the UK. And there I am suddenly working as a stand-up comedian in Munich. Who is going to make that transfer? They are thinking, 'I live in Munich! Welcome to Munich Henning, enjoy Munich.' What do I do with that? I tried this, getting that transfer, and it's pretty tough.
Which language do you think in onstage?
Well, English. Anything else would be suicidal.
Fair enough. I've tried to switch thinking languages on stage and ugh...yes. Suicide is a good way to put it.
Well at least you have the advantage that the Germans will understand English. If I start rambling on in German it could be fatal for some of the punters.
The act was very cerebral and at the same time accessible. Do you get a bad reaction to the politics or social commentary? The Fringe Press Corps loves your work. Are you surprised you don't get more press in Germany?
My shows are always about issues like that. The perception of my act in the German media is different. There is nothing I can do about that. Let them write and do whatever they like. They can go on and call me this that and the other. The reality is what the people know and see over here. Ideally, I would like to see a bit more positive recognition of what I do in the German scene, but I mean it's nothing that will cause me sleepless nights.
Well let's hope this feature opens up a few people's eyes to the excellent work you are doing overseas. So that's that. Thank you for your time. It was a pleasure to see the show and to meet you.
Lovely. Lovely. Thank you very much.
Hello Gentle readers. This was the first of a series on German comics working abroad. Beginning literally with one of the best. We at the Munich Eye hope that you enjoy these interviews. Stay tuned in weeks to come for Otto Kuhnle, Christian Schulte-Loh, Paco Erhard, Alice Frick, The Entire Berlin Comedy Scene, Magician Tom Lauri, and Munich's own Michael Mittermeier!
For gigs, announcements, and Henning's mailing list, check out www.henningwehn.de
October 6, 2012 - LINCOLN - Drill Hall (Lincoln Comedy Festival)
October 9, 2012 - HARROGATE - Harrogate Theatre
October 19, 2012 - LEAMINGTON SPA - Royal Spa Centre (Comedy Festival)
What a great interview (and subject) - interesting and intelligent questions asked respectfully.