Interview: Hans Teeuwen

HANS Teeuwen picks up my tape recorder, holds it close to his lips and says: "I love Scottish people." He sounds like a heavy-breathing telephone stalker.

It's disconcerting. The Fringe, I say, quickly, casting around for a change of subject. What do you think of the Fringe?

"Love it. Can't wait to get back. I'm also very shrewd about publicity."

It's a survival strategy, when interviewing comedians, to be able to work out when they're taking the mick, but Teeuwen is harder to read than most. Is he being funny or threatening, cynical or just shrewd? All four? You never know exactly where you are with him, and that's how he likes it.

For the last two years, people in the know about comedy have been raving about this man. He appeared on the Fringe for the first time in 2007 on a mixed programme of Dutch comedians, a fully formed talent with a taste for the absurd and a style which shifted from incisive satire to surrealism to slapstick sock-puppetry in the blink of an eye. He was original, subversive. Comparisons to Bill Hicks and Doug Stanhope were bandied about.

Teeuwen, 42, was one of Holland's best-known comedians before he quit the business there in 2004. Three years later, he announced a return to the stage, but that he would now work only in English. He shrugs. "I'd made five shows in Holland, sold out all the theatres several times, it was getting repetitious and I needed something else to happen. I have to go somewhere with my life and my career. Broaden my horizons. Blind ambition. Lust for world domination. You know, the usual stuff."

Was he surprised that he was suddenly the Next Big Thing? "Surprised? Well, it was my goal. If I wouldn't have done well, what's the point of doing it? Because it's very difficult, there's a lot of pressure. I could just as well stay in Holland."

So what's the plan for world domination? "First, kill all the intellectuals. After that, it's more organising and I'm not very good at that so I'm just going to do the speeches." Suddenly, his voice softens, his face creases into laughter: "I'm really not sure."

A conversation with Teeuwen can be as intense and unpredictable as his shows. There's 'Engaged and Serious' Teeuwen. There's 'Bored and Wanting a Cigarette' Teeuwen. There's Teeuwen holding court about his plans to get the world to kiss his ass ("I want to be a household name all over the world, even in Nigeria. I want little Nigerian kids waving at me when I pass through in my jeep.") I suspect he finds talking about comedy as useful as dissecting a songbird to find a tune, but he is, as he says, "very shrewd about publicity".

When I suggest that he's subverting the genre of stand-up, he just shrugs. "I don't really have an interest in analysing it myself. I'm just following my instinct and trying to come up with something I find funny."

After taking a solo show to the Fringe last year, he is back this August with a brand new show, for five nights only. To tell you what's in it would spoil the surprise, but I will say that at one point he plays Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik on his cheeks with a plastic bottle top. Don't ask me how, but it's brilliant.

Watching him, you become aware of how finely crafted his work is. He carries his audience with him right up until the point he twists a whole idea on its head. He knows exactly how far he can pursue any given line, then takes it that little bit further. There's a whimsical segment that wouldn't be out of place in a children's show, and there are other parts that make you want to hide under your seat.

He is also an immensely talented musician, even if he does apply to his piano playing the same intensity and recklessness that he applies to everything else he does. At the keys he has been described as "Duke Ellington, Les Dawson and Animal from the Muppets" – all at the same time. Since quitting comedy in Holland he has made a career for himself as a lounge singer doing Sinatra and Billie Holiday covers. "And in France I'm a mime artist. And in Spain I'm an orthopaedic surgeon. A very bad one.

"I've been interested in anything that makes people laugh for as long as I can remember. You get bored with the old patterns so you start to look for new ways of getting the laughter, new ways of being funny, more surreal, more abstract. I'm intrigued by David Lynch, or the humour in the Coen brothers' movies, stuff like that."

He grew up watching Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton, graduated to WC Fields, then took advanced studies at the university of Monty Python. He loves Alan Partridge and The Office.

The idea of a man at a mic shooting the breeze on the issues of the day, or making pithy observations on the absurdity of everyday life, doesn't interest him. "If somebody's really, really, really good at it, why not, but there's a lot of people who aren't good at it, and it's just more convenient because the subjects come to you.

"As a style it interests me less, especially when it becomes moralistic. There is a tradition that you are expected to be, you know, leftish. That it's good to laugh about things, but every now and again you have to show the audience that you mean well with the world, especially with the underprivileged. I hate that, actually. I mean why? That takes the sting out of everything."

And there should be a sting? "Well, it should be amoral. For me the most interesting thing is if you can make people laugh and they don't know exactly why. You're walking a tightrope because you don't want to alienate them too much, but on the other hand you want to move away from the clichs, from anything that's predictable. You want to keep them a little bit in the dark about who you are and what you're about. They don't have to get it completely, but they have to be intrigued."

Teeuwen began his career in the early 1990s, as one half of Heist, one of Holland's most successful comedy duos. When his stage partner, Roland Smeenk, was killed in a car crash, he withdrew from the business of comedy, but eventually returned as a solo "cabaretier" (in Holland the genre describes performance which mixes talking, stories, songs and poems), going on to become one of the most famous in the country.

He has also dabbled in acting and film-making. He helped devise the idea for Theo Van Gogh's film Interview (recently remade in the US by Steve Buscemi). His decision to retire from comedy for a second time happened at the same time as Van Gogh, a friend and collaborator, was murdered by a Muslim extremist after the release of his controversial film about Islam, Submission, though Teeuwen says that he had made his decision before Van Gogh's death.

Though he no longer does comedy in Holland, he is a passionate advocate for free speech. At the unveiling of a memorial to Theo Van Gogh in March 2007, he sang a song making fun of religions, including a sexual innuendo about Muslim women (it also included the line "If a bearded man shoots me, I hope he misses"). He was later called to defend his comments to Muslim women on Dutch TV show Bimbos and Burqas. His justification: "Because it was funny."

The longer explanation is that he believes that power must always be ridiculed. Any party which can't bear to be laughed at is potentially dangerous. "I never trust people who say, 'Of course I believe in free speech, however…' Everything that comes after 'however', don't trust it. Only people who want to have a monopoly on the truth have something to fear from freedom of speech."

Yet none of this touches his comedy. Ask him about whether he's trying to make a point, shocking people to make them think about their attitudes, and he looks mystified, saying only that he wants to make people laugh. "I just enjoy the atmosphere it creates. But saying things that people might consider very controversial, and saying them in such a way as to suggest you're completely unaware of the heaviness surrounding it – there is something funny about that."

&#149 Hans Teeuwen is at Udderbelly's Pasture, today, 15, 26, 27 and 28 August, at 11:35pm.