This article is from 2009.
The highly strung Dutch star Hans Teeuwen has quit comedy back home to bamboozle UK audiences. Jay Richardson hears how his act is based more on rhythm than jokes
In Holland, Hans Teeuwen is such a legendary entertainment figure that grown men imitate his comedy routines to the point of driving their daughters mad. Or at least that’s the plot of Just Hans, a forthcoming Dutch film in which Teeuwen appears as a ‘semi-autobiographical’ version of himself. Still, the fact that an open casting call went out to all men aged between 35–50 who knew every Teeuwen song and sketch by heart, suggests that the film, shooting shortly before he arrives in Edinburgh, isn’t too far divorced from reality. Of course, reality is a mutable concept for anyone who converses on stage with a rapist sock puppet.
‘I think my shows are more about acting than other comedy shows,’ Teeuwen reflects. ‘Someone once described me as an actor that pretends to be a comedian. Which is confusing because I am a comedian but also an actor playing a very bad comedian. Or a very confused comedian, or a comedian on an LSD trip, or something like that.’
Since making his Fringe debut two years ago, Teeuwen has divided audiences: some people perceive him to be one of the funniest, most daring and accomplished absurdists on the planet, while others see his humour as simply self-indulgent, offensive and incomprehensible. ‘My ultimate goal is always to convince as many people as possible that what I think is funny, is funny,’ he explains. ‘So while I would never change my material, I might change the order of routines, give the audience a little more time to get used to me or use more energy perhaps. It’s not my goal to chase people out of the theatre. But if it happens, it happens, I’m OK with it. The more controversial the material, the better I need to perform and make it impossible for them to not look at me.’
In semi-exile since he quit performing comedy in the Netherlands in 2004, partially because of the murder of a friend of his, the filmmaker Theo van Gogh, Teeuwen was supposed to meet me at the Carlsberg Comedy Carnival in Dublin, but he pulled out due to illness. Such is his artistic dedication, his fellow comics were convinced he must have swine flu. ‘It wasn’t, but I was really sick,’ he explains to me over the phone. ‘I could hardly walk, let alone perform.’
Despite making only six appearances in Edinburgh this year, notwithstanding ad hoc spots as part of the Amsterdam Underground Comedy Collective, he’s become immeasurably better at ‘making the English language my bitch’, writing almost exclusively original material instead of translating half of his set from old routines. Ruminating on religion and death, his ‘travels in the fairytale forest’ and with his eye-popping surrealism, puppetry and piano playing, he’s a highly strung perfectionist who concedes he finds the Fringe physically and mentally exhausting.
‘I stay in my hotel room, eat, go to the gig and be very nervous,’ he says. ‘Afterwards, I go home quickly, recuperate and just do the same the next day. I tend to take it too seriously and not enjoy it as much as I should. I hope to change that but it takes a lot of concentration and energy to perform well in another language. Normally when I do shows I have 30 or 40 try-outs first, but now I have like five. So I have to work harder and it’s frustrating, because in my head I have a perfect show and I want it to be as good as I know it can be.’
Even so, he recognises that ‘there’s something attractive in seeing someone manic. Sometimes it can be a little too much if it’s combined with real nerves because then you miss some of the nuances. But a total madman sweating and screaming has entertainment value. I’d just prefer to have a little more control.’ Modest about his varied talents, which include film directing and jazz singing, Teeuwen acknowledges that performing in smaller venues in the UK is both humbling and an incentive to work harder in front of audiences who don’t know him. ‘It reminds me of how it was when I started in the Netherlands with people walking out in disgust; that division between those who like it very much and those that don’t get it.’
A frequent crooner in Dutch nightclubs in recent years, singing Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday standards, he continues to apply a beat-conscious rigour to his comedy. ‘If I don’t have the right concentration or energy I can fall completely flat, because surreal material is based more on rhythm and ideas than jokes. A show can really swing if you have it in your fingers and are comfortable with the material. Then you can lift it a bit higher and it starts to resemble jazz. I’m constantly thinking, “OK, I did this routine, so what kind of state are they in now?” or “I can’t do that because it resembles this one too much, then they’ll be able to see through this” or “I really should do this one now because then they won’t expect that!” The better I’m performing, even the most controversial content can be given credibility. I can make people swallow quite a lot, much more than they would have imagined, when the rhythm makes it accessible.’
Hans Teeuwen, Udderbelly’s Pasture, 08445 458 252, 13–15 and 26–28 Aug, 11.35pm, £14.50 (£12.50).