Germans have no sense of humor. At least, that's what many Brits tend to think. Now, Henning Wehn has named himself 'German comedy ambassador to the UK' and hopes to beat the stereotypes by making light of them.
Wehn is not afraid to play on British stereotypes of Germans
Deutsche Welle: What started you off in a career in comedy?
Henning Wehn: I went to a comedy night in 2003 after I moved to England to work for the football club Wycombe Wanderers. It was just out of sheer curiosity, but I really enjoyed the concept of someone standing on stage and telling a few tales. I thought, "Oh I would like to give it a go." So I got a few numbers, rang round and got started. At first, it was a hobby, then it was more than a hobby.
How was it just starting a comedy act out of thin air?
Well, I was quite fortunate in that when I started out my English was so bad I couldn't understand any of the heckles. That made it a lot easier! It gave me the chance to be completely unhindered.
So you thought the hecklers were being nice and supportive?
To start with I just took everything literally, so I didn't understand how the English speak in codes. For instance, if someone came up to me and stressed that "I" enjoyed the show, I thought they were being nice, but it turns out they mean everyone else didn't enjoy it.
How would you describe your act?
I see myself as a social commentator, in the style of classical political cabaret. Most of my jokes are based on blunt statements which I subvert with a twinkle of my eye. Whereas everyone else on the circuit describes me as "that German bloke."
Being one of the only Germans on the UK circuit gives Wehn his own niche
How have you found performing in your second language? Do you use your accent for comic effect?
Up to a certain extent, accent sells, as they say. It makes it slightly endearing if you get it ever so slightly wrong. But still, I think it's better if you know what mistakes you make, so you can make them deliberately, rather than having no idea what you're saying. Then you can't comprehend why some joke isn't working or if someone is offended.
As for the accent, let's say you're on the British circuit and have an American accent, Irish accent or whatever. Then it gives you a unique selling point. But the difference is, for them it's all a first language. But if it's your second language - and I don't want to whine - but it's just a matter of fact that you are limited in how you express yourself.
How have you found British audiences?
I've found them to be quite good, but I must admit I've never done stand-up in Germany. Never, ever. I'm not good enough to cut it in Germany.
You see, in Britain it's very easy to do stand-up, because in Britain to be successful as a stand-up all you have to do is loads of swearing. And in Germany we don't swear at all. Reason being: things work.
But British audiences have welcomed you?
The Brits are good to us foreigners. Here in Britain, they "tolerate" us. They don't welcome us, they tolerate us. It's a good distinction, isn't it? They're thinking: "We would like to chop you into pieces and chuck you in the open sea, but these laws are preventing us from that. So, feel tolerated!" (laughs)
Is the perception of Germans having no sense of humor fair? Is there a "German" sense of humor?
Of course they have a sense of humor! If you compare the pub jokes in Britain and Germany they are exactly the same. The difference in regards to humor is the social importance placed on humor in the UK - for example, self-deprecation. You can really mess up in your job and get away it by telling a tale of your underachievement in an entertaining fashion. That's a very British trait. That wouldn't wash in Germany. They would say a) you messed up and b) you are trying to make light of it. What's wrong with you?
There is the idea in Britain that a sense of humor is the most sought-after qualification for a job. So it's more to do with the social importance than the actual sense of humor.
The Brits and the Germans are actually quite similar in many ways. Do you deliberately try in your comedy to play on the British not realizing how similar the two nations actually are?
The Brits and the Germans are both part of Europe, and Europe's getting more and more united, whether Britain likes it or not. If an ambassador wants an audience with the premier of China, and it's the French, German or British ambassador - who cares? If it's someone from Europe, then that has more authority to it. Who in China has ever heard of Belgium or the Netherlands? We have to understand that we're all Europeans, not out of some fancy-thinking, but out of necessity.
What's next for you? World comedic domination?
Oh course I'm after world humor domination - and feel free to leave the word humor out! I'm off to the Edinburgh comedy festival again this August, and looking forward to it. Last year's show was called "My Struggle," because it's so difficult to be the German comedy ambassador to the United Kingdom. This year's show will be called "No Surrender."
Interview: Catherine Bolsover
Editor: Kate Bowen