Henning Knows Bestest, Henning Wehn – Nuffield Theatre, Southampton – April 28, 2013
Coming towards the end of a run of stand-up comedy I’ve seen, Henning Knows Bestest was probably the show I laughed at the most, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was the best show.
I’ve heard Henning make contributions to plenty of radio shows – Fighting Talk, The Now Show, The Unbelievable Truth – as well as appear on a couple of TV shows like QI, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I know what to expect from a live show of his, and one of the most delightful things in stand-up comedy is to be taken by surprise, which, I think, is the key to why I found this so funny. But let’s back up a little first…
So, Henning Wehn is a German who came to England 10 years ago to work in media & marketing (I think) before taking a chance at stand-up comedy, a concept that was pretty alien to him. An initial burst of publicity centering on the (self-promoted) ridiculous idea of a German stand-up comic perhaps pushed him a little too far too soon, but now he has easily caught up and is able to sell out good sized venues such as the Nuffield and leave the place shaking with laughter.
However, there are two types of comedy on show here. The first is the one that deals with his origins and links to the titles of previous shows of his – German Comedy Ambassador, My Struggle, No Surrender, The World Cups and One World Pope. These are the jokes that centre on his German-ness and make the kind of cheap and easy punchlines that most people could complete themselves. They are drawn from the easy laughs to be won from a Jongleurs audience filled with mildly xenophobic stag-dos and can be related to the type of cake or cock related humour from Jo Brand and Graham Norton respectively – the type of comedy that says “You’re going to insult me for this thing I am, so I’ll do it first and steal your thunder”. There’s nothing wrong with that, but for a more sophisticated audience who aren’t judging the performer based on size, sex, sexuality or nationality, it can become a little tiresome.
Fortunately Henning Wehn does, indeed, know bestest and uses these jokes as a way to hold a mirror up to the audience, steering us into territory which exposes any xenophobia we may have and questioning many aspects of our society. Why are the British so obsessed by the war? First he points out that, despite the plethora of wars that have since then, we all know which war is “The War”. Then, he brings up the fact that the war was nearly 70 years ago and is basically irrelevant to a modern society. The majority of those who sing about two world wars and one world cup weren’t alive when any of them happened, certainly not the first two. Are we obsessed because, he argues, it was the last time this country was relevant on a world scale? And it’s hard not to agree, at least in part.
Living in Britain we can be very blinkered, buying into the view that, after America, we are the country that matters most, and Henning is here to burst our bubble. Far from merely pandering to the crowd with jokes about the British rivalry with Germany which allow us to go away with our world view intact (“England v Gemrany is always a big game. For Germany there are usually bigger games to follow”), he tries to recontextualise our position (“We don’t have sterotypes of the British like you do of the Germans because we don’t really care about you.”). And while there is a shared comedy language between America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK, it is fascinating, enlightening and, frequently, hilarious, to hear a fresh voice with a fresh perspective.
Henning Knows Bestest isn’t a perfect show, but it suggests that one day Soon Henning may come up with a show which is. In the meantime, this will more than suffice.