An evening with Henning Wehn, the self-styled German Comedy Ambassador, is never going to be a comfortable experience. For a start, English is Wehn’s second language, which always leads to a certain amount of tension as the audience wait to see if he can get his words out properly (he can). Second, Wehn likes to push the boundaries of acceptability with his humour, adopting a right-wing xenophobia to test our preconceptions of Germans (he hates the Dutch, the Poles, the Danes and the French) and sprinkling his act with references to Jews, Hitler and the Blitz.
His appearance at the Lincoln Comedy Festival on Saturday was uncomfortable for other reasons too: he opened his show by admitting that as he hadn’t performed for six weeks since Edinburgh his act might be a little rusty; and he was pestered throughout by an overbearing, moustachioed and apparently unselfconscious heckler sitting in the middle of the front row.
Wehn managed to keep the heckler quiet for most of his act, and all things considered he went down well with his early-evening audience, but his show never truly hit the heights – he was too busy pushing the boundaries for that. His Milly Dowler joke in particular elicited a sharp intake of breath, but he persevered regardless. He doesn’t mind whom he offends; in fact, challenging preconceptions is what his act is all about. He likes to explore British stereotypes of Germans and German stereotypes of the British, and he takes a fatalistic pleasure in the fact that 70 years on we are still obsessed by the war – after all, it’s an obsession that keeps him in business.
He gives a telling example: in 2006 he returned to Germany for the World Cup, which his compatriots organised with skill and flair. Returning to the UK he worried that the British might have begun to see Germany in a new light, but when he picked up a newspaper at Gatwick and saw the headline ‘Did the RAF save Britain from Hitler?’ he knew his act was safe for a few more years yet.
That’s not to say that Wehn’s act is all Wurst jokes, Lederhosen and ‘Hitler bombed our chip shop’. He gave us an outsider’s view of ourselves, pointing out that our freedoms in the UK are both a strength and a weakness. “In Britain if you want to be a stand-up, you just go and do it. Start tomorrow. Unfortunately the same applies if you want to be a plumber, which you leaves you knee-deep in s**t in next to no time.” In Germany, he says, things are more boring: if you want to be a plumber you have to undergo years of tedious plumbing exams…
He also teased us about our famous tolerance of immigrants and incomers. “You Brits are very tolerant,” he said. “If you tolerate something it means you don’t like it but you can’t be bothered to do anything about it.”
You have to admire Henning Wehn for his fearlessness. Whether it’s trying to get a laugh out of the Holocaust or pointing an accusing finger at the likes of Harry Redknapp, Ken Dodd and comedians Jimmy Carr, Sean Locke and Sarah Millican, he seems to relish confrontation and the power of his words to shock. Not a comfortable evening, for sure, but one with its fair share of laughs.