Henning Wehn: Four World Cups And One World Pope

Note: This review is from 2006

Review by Steve Bennett

Review of London run, Novmber 2006

Geman comedy? That’s an oxymoronic joke in itself, isn’t it?

Well, that arrogant British view of our own comic superiority won’t prevail for much longer if Henning Wehn, the self-appointed German comedy ambassador to the UK has his way.

In his first act of chuckle diplomacy, he has brought over German variety star Otto Kuhnle – as he did at the Edinburgh Fringe – for a display of ‘Teutonic jollity’. We can only wonder if as part of the same cultural exchange, Stan Boardman is currently in Frankfurt cracking his Geeeerman gags.

Kuhnle gives a musical introduction to the show – after all, he looks like we think a German should, complete with Bavarian hat and oompah accordion – but it’s Wehn who properly gets things going, with a blip of his stopwatch to measure precisely his joke-cracking productivity.

Yes whenever Wehn is on stage, the familiar imagry so beloved of a generation of football mobs and tabloid editors is never far away. Germans are unemotive, humourless, clinically efficient warmongers who secretly harbour ambitions to return to the ‘glory days’ of the Third Reich – that is if they’re not slapping each other’s lederhosen in time to the latest David Hasselhoff chart-topper.

Wehn could, if he wanted, play up to this as a broad caricature, becoming a sort of Al Murray diatribe made flesh. But thankfully he’s more original than that.

Instead, he uses the stereotype quite cleverly: by telling the most mirthless gags, then assuming that the silence is because the audience – who he takes to be as pathologically logical as himself – need the joke explained. It’s in this deadpan deconstruction that the laughs lie.

Such an approach only works for a while, mind, and in his second set, Wehn takes a more conventional approach to stand-up, with straightforward jokes about ruthless efficiency and the like, which prove more hit-and-miss.

His heavy accent and the fact he’s working in a second language mean he’s never going to be a fluid, conversational stand-up – but his best throwaway lines display a savage cruelty that fits the ruthless German image he previously mocked. Wehn even uses his unfailing logic to come up with a robust intellectual argument for racist gags but, advisedly, stops short of giving a practical demonstration - save for a none-too-sly dig at the French surrender monkeys.

While Wehn’s comedy is from the head, Kuhlne’s is from the soul; preferring a more physical, sillier approach to clowning. So he juggles a broom, introduces a daft gnome circus, turns a few magic tricks and even treats us to an aria sung in eye-watering mezzo-soprano that could almost grace the Covent Garden stage.

It’s the way he subtly contorts his initially respectable face to show all manner of emotions that sets him apart – and never more so than in his ridiculous non-trick of the disappearing ping-pong balls that hilariously transforms his features into a cartoon grotesque as he struggles to stashes the props in his mouth.

Some of his more elaborate set pieces – the silly stunts of the gnome circus included – don’t translate all that well, but his best stuff proves him a talented vaudevillian with many tricks up his sleeve. Expect to see him on a Royal Variety Performance before too long – after all the Royals should appreciate some entertainment from their fatherland.

The evening is brought to a close by a traditional slice of German folk – the sort of rousing music you really should be clashing steins to – that breaks through the British reserve that’s even more indomitable than the German one.

As unlikely as it may seem, this night of Teutonic humour does make you feel rather jolly. My, comedy ambassador, with this entertainment, you are really spoiling us.

Henning Wehn and Otto Kuhlne are at the New End Theatre, Hampstead, until Saturday.

Steve Bennett
London, November 22, 2006

Edinburgh review, August 2006

Henning Wehn was the late Malcolm Hardee's last great comedy 'find'. At least, that's what Malcolm thought. I was never too sure myself. But, after this show, I am.

It is, in fact, a double-hander with Otto Kuhnle, apparently winner of Germany's most prestigious comedy award but, on this display, a cracking variety act.

On stage, Henning claims, 'Comedy is quite easy in Britain if you're German - all you have to do is mention the war.'

True enough, but he expands his repertoire of old gags like My father died in a concentration camp - he fell out of the watchtower' to include amiable attacks on British Muslims 'Those teetotal terrorists don't know how to party' and commendably sexist references to women. 'The biggest insult,' he argues, 'must be to be too inferior to be mocked.' So good-natured racism is fun.

Henning's stereotypical Germanic humour is alternated with Otto's musical interludes, broom-juggling, a magic act with knife & balls and what he does while singing Love Me Tender is not original but was masterfully timed and genuinely had people doubled over in laughter.

All this plus gnome acrobatics, a rousing musical finale and such Henning Wehn lines as, 'What is football without nationalism and sectarianism? We might as well play bowls' make this superbly-paced feelgood show ­ top-notch entertainment for most, if not all, of the family. Like the war, you had to be there to fully appreciate it.

John Fleming

Review date: 1 Jan 2006
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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