I first saw the Dutch absurdist Hans Teeuwen in Edinburgh in 2008. It’s an unnerving, discombobulating, exhilarating experience.
It’s like watching a hilarious snake slowly digest a rat, while pulling funny faces and playing The Horst Wessel Lied on a tin whistle. You’re thinking: “I wouldn’t call this a pleasant experience. I feel a bit sick and worried, and I really hope the snake doesn’t catch my eye, but it’s the FUNNIEST thing I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s obviously some kind of snake genius. I just need to trust the snake. It’s all meant to happen. I hear this snake is really big in Snakeland. That horrible rat will be digested soon and then it will do something else funny, like do a character of a shy penis, or get all caught up in the microphone cable and then spend 20 minutes disentangling itself while trying to convince us of its moral and cultural superiority.”
Teeuwen describes himself as apolitical. He once said he wasn’t interested in politics in art, and that he concentrates on being funny and original, and that having a message is “boring and unintelligent”. When his friend, the Dutch film director Theo van Gogh, was killed by an Islamist extremist in 2004 for making a film that criticised the treatment of women in Islam, Teeuwen was an outspoken advocate for freedom of speech, but he didn’t do a show about it. Instead, he wrote a funny song about Nostradamus and played the theme tune to Popeye the Sailor Man by tapping on his cheeks.
It’s true, Teeuwen never makes his position clear or his opinions explicit, but it doesn’t mean they’re not in his act, however well he’s hidden them. More often than not, there genuinely is no subtext. It’s not satire, it really is exactly what it looks like. A grown man, in a suit, with a sock on his hand, mashing up a Mars bar.
Teeuwen’s Respecting Women routine (a sophisticated and brilliant routine about women’s role in society and FGM) is hugely political. He doesn’t say “this is stupid”, but chooses instead to become a conduit for the ludicrous opinions of misogynists by passing them off as his own.
Crucially, you never get the sense Teeuwen is doing a “character”. There are no winks to the audience, no costume, no indication whatsoever that he’s in on it with us. Not only does he never break the fourth wall, we’re not even entirely sure there is one. Or what he would use one for. We are in a constant state of thinking: “Who and what the fuck is this bloke?”
I’ve not yet worked out the funniest way of communicating my ideas to an audience. My ant character, A Ant (a metaphor for women in comedy), was getting somewhere. Ridiculous and idiotic, but about something. At the moment, I am just a person, speaking. For me, there’s a missing element. Teeuwen has nothing missing. He is the gold standard, and the comedian I most admire.