Speaking to Sam Pryce, the self-styled German Comedy Ambassador discusses starting out in standup, appearing on ‘Question Time’, and his thoughts on – ahem – Brexit.
When Henning Wehn first came to the UK in 2002, it was to work for Wycombe Wanderers Football Club in the marketing department. The story goes that, one night, he was walking past a nearby pub, which was hosting the Laughing Horse Comedy Club – an evening of standup. Not knowing what this word ‘standup’ meant, Henning decided to go in: “I watched it and I thought, ‘Well, I really like the concept of what I’m seeing here, and I wouldn’t mind giving that a bash’.”
And quite a bash he gave it too. After meeting fellow standup Gary Delaney, he was able to build up a network of contacts on the circuit and, after a few years, became a warmup act for the likes of Stewart Lee. Nowadays, with six major standup tours behind him, he’s a regular face on all the panel shows, from Have I Got News For You to Would I Lie To You?. Was any of this imaginable when he came here all those years ago?
“No, it definitely wasn’t. Living in England? I’m properly chuffed about that, and still haven’t got my head round it. Doing standup comedy? And not even that, but doing it in English? That would’ve been inconceivable, but that’s how life goes, isn’t it?” He’s not too bothered about dwelling on what might’ve been, had he not wandered into that pub that night. “If you could predict the future, nobody would get divorced.”
Listening to Wehn, there’s more than a hint of Cockney in his accent, not to mention all the British colloquialisms he uses freely. “I think to learn a language, you really have to live in a country and just use it,” he tells me. “It’s important to socialise. I played 11-a-side football, went down the pub and what have you. I had no contact with any Germans at all. I’m not sure there were any Germans anywhere in Buckinghamshire, to be honest.”
Later, having established a presence in comedy, Wehn also made a brief foray into voiceover work, in the hope that companies might like a German accent to sell their products. He didn’t get very far though, when his clients complained he “didn’t sound German enough”. “They were always like, ‘He can’t be German – he doesn’t sound like the Germans from ‘Allo ‘Allo!’”
Political commentary has always been closely related with Henning’s approach, so much so that he appeared as a panellist on BBC’s Question Time last year. “The hardest thing about that was knowing that it is recorded as live. So, if you say something incredibly stupid, there’s no editor who can save you,” says Wehn. “Luckily, the political debate in Britain at the moment is fairly predictable, in regard to the subject matter,” he adds, with a cackle.
The way that Question Time puts our politicians on a platform to be criticised seems to me like a very British phenomenon. Henning concurs: “That’s the thing about British debating culture – say, in the House Of Commons with the two sides, just constantly shouting abuse at each other,” he laughs. “In Germany, the parliament is a bit more restrained.”
With the Brexit transition period finally upon us, it seems that Wehn’s latest tour Get On With It! is more relevant than ever. “I named this show in early 2017 – and even then, you knew that [Brexit] would not be resolved by 2020, or 2030 even,” he says. “It’s certainly not time for Was It All Worth It? yet.”
Has it been a challenge, then, updating the show based on events since then? “Yeah, I had to update the name of the Brexit Secretary on a regular basis,” he says. “But I think the basic premise hasn’t changed. Public debate hasn’t really changed over the past three years. I mean, if you look at the election results, it’s still 50/50, as it’s always been. So, it’s like people want some sort of closure, rather than any more squabbling.” Wehn might not be able to break up the fight, but he can certainly get us laughing at ourselves.
Grand Theatre, Swansea, Thurs 26 Mar. Tickets: £22.50. Info: 01792 475715 / www.swanseagrand.co.uk