Flying Dutchman

 

A HANS TEEUWEN gig is quite an experience. The Dutch comedian, who performs in English, divides the room like no other. Fifty per cent of an audience travels with him on his surreal storytelling journey. The other 50 per cent just look at him blankly, thinking the whole affair is some sort of performance art hoax, writes BRIAN BOYD

Quite a star in his native Netherlands, Teeuwen is also known as an actor, singer and film director. He was always quite content performing in Dutch until 2004, when his close friend, the film-maker Theo van Gogh, was shot dead by a Muslim extremist. He gave up performing for a while and during this period he decided he needed a new challenge: performing in English.

Successive trips to the Edinburgh Festival were very well received (Teeuwen also did a short theatre run in London) and he was brought to the attention of Irish audiences this year with his debut performances at Kilkenny’s Cat Laughs festival.

“I faced the same problem at Kilkenny as I did in Edinburgh,” he says. “You tend to get a good few heckles because people have no idea what this strange Dutchman on stage is trying to do. I really have to work hard to try to convince the audience that I can actually do this.

“The big problem I have is my sort of humour; I really have to suck them into that absurdist world. So much of humour is about recognition – it’s how comedy works – that if you don’t recognise anything in my set you can feel very left out. I do usually manage to suck some people in, but then you can get the situation where half the audience are laughing and the other half are looking at them wondering what they are laughing for. It can be quite divisive!”

Teeuwen describes his material as “about 80 per cent absurd and surreal and about 20 cent more about reality. I find that the more abstract stuff is more interesting from an artistic point of view. I used to do a lot of autobiographical stuff back in Amsterdam, but not so much anymore. Religion, though, still features – but I tackle that from quite a dark standpoint.”

Prior to going international, Teeuwen had sold half a million DVDs in the Netherlands, and he says it found it quite a comedown when he had to start all over again outside his country.

“My ego really suffered. I was used to playing big theatres with swanky dressing-rooms and the audiences were always full and they knew what to expect. Then I had to go to these tiny venues in the UK, where there were tiny crowds and nobody knew who I was. I got one good review in Edinburgh early on, though, and that really helped.

“The language barrier wasn’t quite as big a problem as I thought it would be. As Dutch people, we’ve been hearing English for as long as we can remember, and we do speak it well. But the first time I did the show in English, I did feel a bit awkward. It really is the case that you undergo a slight change of personality when you speak another language. At first you don’t really know who you are; your accent sounds strange to you. What I found was that all the routines in my head were, obviously, in Dutch, so I had to think a lot before instantly translating them. And it takes some time to transfer it properly.”

Although heavily influenced by Dutch comics growing up, Teeuwen also had slight obsessions with Richard Pryor and Monty Python(the latter explains much of the tone of his material). “It was more that I was obsessed with everything to do with humour. Even films, although my big influences there would be the Coen brothers.”

Teeuwen, now 42, began as a comic in the early 1990s but more as a cabaretier(a stand-up who also sings and performs – a raconteur basically). He had five major comedy shows over the years and became a sort of Tommy Tiernan figure in the Netherlands. But after the death of van Gogh in 2004 he felt unable to perform as a comic. He became a nightclub crooner – a quite successful one – and even appeared at jazz festivals.

“Coming back to comedy after I stopped was only possible by doing something like performing in English,” he says. “It wasn’t just Theo’s death, it was the fact that I felt I needed to do something new. That and my blind ambition and lust for world domination!”

As he performs in English-speaking countries, Teeuwen often finds a good few Dutch people in the audience who are surprised to see him doing his routines in a different language. “It’s funny. Sometimes they shout out for a particular routine and it’s always something I don’t do in English.”

The big change, according to Teeuwen, is that he’s pulled back on the religious/political themes of old and goes now for a surrealist take on all manner of contemporary phenomena.

“I think you can be more controversial in doing absurdist material as opposed to political material. But it’s all in how you do it. What I find with this approach is how it really infuriates people who don’t get it. They see other people in the audience getting into it and they think it’s their fault that they’re not getting it. But it’s not – you either enter into that strange world or you don’t. And I really don’t know how to make that connection for people.”

- Hans Teeuwen performs as part of the Carlsberg Comedy Carnival in Iveagh Gardens, Dublin, July 23rd-26th. www.carlsbergcomedy.com