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Comedy: Henning Wehn shows how an outsider's perspective is useful in joking about Britain

Myths of nationalist supremacy can inspire ugly behaviour, as German comedian Henning Wehn appreciates all too well. Taking the stage in Billericay, Essex, he found the entire audience wearing Hitler moustaches. Chuckling, he recalls: "That wasn't menacing. That was the Great British sense of humour. I thought it was hilarious they thought they were the first to come up with it."

Smug assurance in Britain's comedy pre-eminence, that the world laughs at us above all others, is a pomposity he delights in puncturing. Growing up in a Germany that imported Monty Python, Benny Hill and Mr Bean, "there was always the stereotype, 'Oh yeah, the Brits have such a good sense of humour,'" he explains. "But equally we thought you all lived in castles."

More so than football and world wars - although they are as deeply entrenched in Wehn's material as they are in our culture - with stand-up he's taken us on at our own game, embracing efficient Teutonic typecasting by timing his sets with a stopwatch. A German comedian is perhaps the ideal comedian, creating "a win-win situation where I'm either funny or I live up to the stereotype".

A counterpart to Al Murray's Pub Landlord character, with all his Little Englander bigoted bluster barely masking his insecurities, the self-styled "German Comedy Ambassador" is a character study in hubris. His current show, originally performed in the subterranean "bunker" of the Edinburgh Fringe's Underbelly Caves, is My Struggle - an allusion to Hitler's Mein Kampf, but also to the fact that he still finds performing in his second language "a right old struggle".

Wehn is from Hagen in the Ruhr Valley, an area similar to Yorkshire insofar as its citizens are characterised as plain-speaking. He laughs, confessing: "I would probably describe myself as a high-status comic with the English grasp of a bumbling village idiot, that combination of knowing the answers to everything but not having the ability to express them properly."

His stand-up career began eight years ago when, while working in marketing for Wycombe Wanderers FC, he saw an open mic night and decided he could do better.

"A big advantage was that my English was so poor, I couldn't understand any of the heckles. And being German got me more media attention than I deserved.

"But on the circuit it had the opposite effect, it was, 'Oh, he's a German comedian, he can't be any good.' So it was easy for me to get media exposure but difficult to get gigs." Today, radio panel shows give him the chance to improve his bantering skills.

In My Struggle, Wehn shows off his mastery of such British humour standbys as whimsy, self-deprecation and puns, deriding them as easy.A sometime support act for Stewart Lee - who has remarked on the relative difficulty of performing comedy in German, where opportunities for double-meaning and wordplay are diminished by the precision of the language - Wehn cites Lee and Mark Thomas as exceptional in the UK, practitioners of a very European strand of theatre that Wehn feels part of.

"I would say I do social commentary in the classic European political cabaret style," Wehn says. "Most of my jokes are blunt statements that I try to subvert with a twinkle of my eye."

"Stewart is the closest thing on the British scene to the social commentators overseas; his style, which is almost unique, is dictated by a narrative arc. He puts a lot of thought into how to visualise certain elements of the show and get a change of pace, because you have to be slow at times to be interesting again, you have to be dull sometimes to be interesting again. Going joke, joke, joke, joke, is a different approach but, for my money, that's not a show."

Like Lee, Wehn creates moments of palpable tension, stilted awkwardness and confrontation in his hour, which before 2010 was tempered by the variety of his yodelling, juggling, Lederhosen-sporting countryman Otto Kuhnle - as in the memorably titled 2006 production Four World Cups and One World Pope. In part, that's because his impressive English remains limited - "it still feels like my first day at the office" - though he can invariably revert to football chants and clichs to illustrate his points.

It also registers in the frisson of routines where a German comedian hails British pensioners in the Blitz as Nazi heroes through cruelly pragmatic logic.

Wehn also questions the immediate bestowal of "hero" on soldiers who died in the line of duty. Unlike many of his peers, Wehn's mockery of sectarianism in Scottish football goes beyond expressing a habitual fear of violence in Belfast or Glasgow.

The hero routine is "the one that I had to chop and change all the time, where I needed so many different approaches so that it doesn't sound like a rant against soldiers, as if all soldiers are scum. Because that's not what I mean."

He scrabbles for the word to define the precise target of his critique and settles on the notion of "infallibility", for which he adds: "It's a tricky one to pull off. If there are any squaddies in the audience that can potentially become quite feisty."

Wehn undoubtedly benefits from the rough-and-tumble tolerance and robustness of our Great British humour too.

The exaggerated "foreignness" of his persona allows him to get away with calling Greeks "f***ing lazy" or East Germans freeloaders. He echoes Tony Blair's view of the British media as "a feral beast out of control, because anyone that stands up to them risks getting slaughtered", yet hails a tradition of printed satire, that stretches from Private Eye to Viz, quite unlike anything in his homeland.

Indeed, his Edinburgh Fringe show this year is tentatively titled No Surrender.

But he's considering calling it Scheissenromp!, a Viz coinage that owes more to British toilet humour than the genuine sexual preferences of Germans.

• Henning Wehn: My Struggle is at the Tron, Glasgow, tonight, 10pm, as part of the Magners Glasgow International Comedy Festival. www.glasgowcomedyfestival.com

 
 
 

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