It’s been six years since Hans Teeuwen last performed in the UK, which is a long time to wait for one of the most exciting comedians in the world. Since he left, vowing to pursue his other life as a lounge singer, we fans have fed on scraps – such as his out-of-the-blue contribution to the row earlier this year around German comic Jan Böhmermann’s prosecution for insulting President Erdoğan of Turkey. In an interview with Dutch TV, Teeuwen claimed – without a flicker of irony – to have had sex with Erdoğan while the latter was working as a “boy whore” in an Istanbul brothel.
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The Netherlands, like Germany, has laws against insulting foreign heads of state, and Teeuwen, 49, might have fallen foul of them. But on some issues he refuses to stay silent. “I very rarely come on TV,” he says, “but I thought we needed to strongly send this message, that you cannot intimidate our comedians. And I thought all comedians should stick together, like a brotherhood.” So did they? “Once there is risk or personal sacrifice, or even having to think longer about subjects, suddenly the line of people queuing to fight for freedom of speech becomes very small,” Teeuwen reports, “as I have experienced.”
I first met the Dutchman in 2007, before his opening assault on UK comedy as part of the Amsterdam Underground Comedy Collective. Back then, the buzz about Teeuwen – already a star in Holland – was that he was boycotting comedy in his homeland after the 2004 murder of his friend, the film-maker Theo van Gogh, by a Muslim zealot. (Van Gogh had made a film, Submission, critical of Islam.) Away from the stage, Teeuwen became a vocal campaigner for freedom of speech – and against Islam, which he sees as opposed to it. On stage, in those debut UK gigs, he mainlined a demonic, demented absurdism, and made no explicit reference to politics whatsoever.
Now is not the time to mellow. It’s much more a time for a rebellion against political correctness
These were, though, some of the most electrifying, confounding comedy shows I’ve ever seen: deeply odd, ruthlessly committed dadaist cabarets, frequently in poor taste and featuring – in dizzying succession – songs (Teeuwen is a gifted musician), silences, poems, hand-puppetry, tonal switchbacks, jazz piano, fairytales, and anything else that could guarantee surprise and unease in just as liberal doses as laughter. Is he mad? Is it an act? Is this acceptable? He won’t let you decide, but his routines – the one about his grandfather failing to teach a rabbit to speak the words “thus” and “nevertheless”; his sound-symphony of hums and hahs when deciding whether he prefers colour or black-and-white films – will haunt your dreams.
At least in comedy circles, the Dutchman made a huge splash – although he professes disappointment that his English-language career didn’t quite take off. “I had a burning ambition to break through and be famous in England and America. And then I realised that ‘Let’s go see a Dutch comedian’ is not a very commercial proposition.” He pauses. “I think there’s a bit of chauvinism on the part of the English there.”
Second time around, he cares less. He’s spent a few years crooning (“And I can now tell you, nobody wants to hear me sing”) before returning to comedy in Holland, where he’s just performed a 60-date tour including a festival gig to a 20,000-strong audience. Oh, and he’s had a daughter, now aged three.
So, has Teeuwen – blazing-eyed, unstable, provocative Teeuwen – mellowed? “No,” he says flatly. “Now is not the time to mellow. It’s much more a time for a rebellion against political correctness.” Really? Is that what he sees himself as being engaged in? “That’s one thing a comedian can do,” says Teeuwen. “To tell morally uplifting stories is far less fun than to rebel against taboos.”
It’s important to Teeuwen that his work supplies that “fun”. His standup has tended to eschew “meaning” and message: it does its work rhythmically, or with aggressive inconsequentiality. “The highest form of comedy,” he once told me, “is if the audience is laughing and have no clue why.” He adds now: “The way I see it is, I get my material from my subconscious, and what’s in my subconscious is inevitably affected by how I view the world and the times we live in. But the focus will always be, if I can’t make it funny, I’m not going to do it.”
His new English-language set will draw on the recent Dutch show – which was “more accessible, a little less absurdist” than his previous work. It included two comic characters “who tended to be the hits of the show”; a section in which “I try and use the words ‘skin colour’ as much as possible”; and “a story that was almost 100% autobiographical. Which felt weird. But my shows have always been in a variety of styles, so I thought: why not include that one?”
“And of course,” he says, “I cannot avoid the subject of Islam.” Making no distinction between moderate Islam and extremism, he describes it as “still the most dangerous subject there is, the biggest taboo. And, I’m afraid, the biggest enemy of free speech. As a duty to humanity, I have to incorporate that into my show. But I did find a way to make it funny.”
His is a very Dutch approach to a complex issue. “The elevation of bluntness to a moral ideal,” wrote Ian Buruma in his book on the Van Gogh killing, Murder in Amsterdam, “is a common trait in Dutch behaviour.” Not for Teeuwen the kid-gloves sensitivity – he would say timidity – that characterises UK conversations on multiculturalism. “The moral confusion on the left,” he says, “is staggering.” He cites approvingly the UK activist, author and “David Cameron’s anti-extremism adviser” Maajid Nawaz, who has called for a Muslim reformation.
To tell morally uplifting stories is far less fun than to rebel against taboos
Is he concerned about appearing Islamophobic? “Fuck ‘Islamophobia’,” he replies: “I hate that word. There’s nothing irrational about fearing a belief system that’s violent everywhere it appears.”
But there’s a distinction, surely, between Islam the religion and something like Isis, which claims to be inspired by it? “In my show, I mock Islam,” he says, “but rarely do I mock Muslims. That distinction is important, between the hatred of a set of bad ideas, and the hatred of people. I won’t encourage xenophobia, which is real and more dangerous than Islamophobia.” Teeuwen’s take on Islam is monolithic, resistant to nuance, and it gives other religions a free pass – but it’s not hateful. And it’s animated by a zeal for free speech and free thought that’s understandable, given his profession, not to mention the murder of his friend.
But in any case, says Teeuwen, “I don’t aim to please anyone any more. If they don’t like it, OK, they don’t like it.”
- Hans Teeuwen: Real Rancour is at Soho theatre from 29 September to 1 October and 5-6 October, then touring.
- The headline on this article was amended on 17 October 2016 to change the emphasis to Teeuwen’s views on political correctness