Dutch Courage: After the Murder of His Friend and Collaborator Theo Van Gogh, Comedian Hans Teeuwen Inherited the Title of Holland's Defender-in-Chief of Free Speech. He Talks to Brian Logan
Logan, Brian, New Statesman (1996)
Some comedians have nothing interesting to say about the world--and say it interminably. "Their message," says the Dutch stand-up Hans Teeuwen, is that, "'We have so much; in Africa they have nothing. Oh, the injustice! Let's be nice to each other.'" Teeuwen is the opposite: he has urgent, insightful things to say about the world, but (at least in his comedy) refuses to do so. His absurdist stand-up set was the most electrifying comedy at last year's Edinburgh Fringe. Yet its most remarkable quality was its silence on matters political, given that Teeuwen has been a militant campaigner for free speech in the Netherlands since the assassination of the film-maker Theo van Gogh, his friend and colleague, by Mohammed Bouyeri, a Muslim zealot, in 2004.
Van Gogh's killing has become a cause celebre in the tortured tale of Dutch multiculturalism, as have the controversial careers of the politicians Pim Fortuyn (who was murdered in 2002) and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, with Holland emerging as the stage on which the drama of Europe's accommodation with Islam is being most vividly played out. Van Gogh was first shot and then had his throat slit with a kitchen knife on an Amsterdam street after collaborating with the lapsed Muslim MP Hirsi Ali on a film, Submission, that attacked the treatment of women under Islam.
The murder fired up Holland's already high-octane debate about "multi-culti" and Enlightenment values. It also turned the spotlight on those who, like Teeuwen (who made the film Interview with van Gogh in 2003), shared the slain director's passion for plain speaking and might react angrily to his death.
Teeuwen's response was a curious one. Since van Gogh's killing, Holland's best-loved comedian has not performed comedy in his home country. Nor will he do so again. He denies this is in protest at the murder, claiming simply to be seeking new challenges--such as launching an English-speaking stand-up career and rebranding himself in Holland as a Sinatra-inspired lounge singer. Last summer, his fellow Dutch comedian Theo Maassen told me, "[Hans] is scared about what might happen if he says what's on his mind", and Teeuwen admitted that "we're running out of big mouths in Holland, and some people look at me as the next big mouth in line". But he later broke his silence to speak at the opening of a memorial to Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam, where his a cappella burlesque on religion ("Christians and goat-fuckers, everyone participates/Jesus and Muhammad on a public toilet") reassured doubters that this is one big mouth who won't be shut up for long.
What he won't do is address politics in his comedy. "Artistically, for me, that's not interesting," Teeuwen says. Judging by the 20 minutes he performed at Edinburgh (his forthcoming London show will be an hour long), he prefers Dadaist nonsense--albeit nonsense performed with such psychotic commitment that it feels as urgent as the Apocalypse. "When you do surreal stuff," says Teeuwen, "you have to give it some sort of necessity." In Edinburgh, he applied this rule to a routine in which his failed-magician father struggles to teach a rabbit to talk, to a wickedly catchy ditty about Nostradamus, and to a remarkable aural symphony of indecision as the comedian is forced to state a preference between black-and-white or colour films.
I usually have zero tolerance for so-called "surreal" stand-up, but here I was pinned to my seat by the G-force of his comic personality. That doesn't surprise Teeuwen, a scholar of humour who thinks hard about what makes nonsense funny. His aim is "to constantly think, 'What state is the audience in now? What do they least expect?'" This is not an intellectual process: "Comedy is more interesting when you don't know what it's about but somehow it strikes a chord." Instead, Teeuwen scores his act like discordant music. "There's a rhythm in the way people talk--all those gestures and intonations and pronunciations. And I use that rhythm without any logic. …