Heard the one about the drainage system?

Raoul Heertje is Holland's 'best circumcised' comedian. That may be so, says James Rampton, but what is he doing here and what does he want with our politicians?
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The Independent Culture
name a famous living Dutchman. It's not as difficult as naming a famous living Belgian, but go beyond Johann Cruyff and Ruud Gullit, and most British people would struggle. Well, we may soon have a third name to add to that list, and he's not a footballer, but, believe it or not, a stand-up comedian.

Raoul Heertje is the most celebrated comic in Holland (admittedly, there's not that much competition for the title) and with an appearance on Have I Got News for You tonight and a current tour of Britain, he looks set to become quite well-known here, too. Like nearly all Dutch people, he speaks English better than the English. He fits seamlessly into Anglo- culture - "I've even started drinking tea," he boasts. In his highly topical act, he makes references way over the head of your average John and Jean Bull.

In Manchester the other night, he cracked a joke about Sir Jerry Wiggin which was greeted by stony silence. "They looked at me like 'who's Jerry Wiggin?'," Heertje laughs. "Another comedian told me 'you have to understand that you know what's going on in Britain, but that's probably the first time this audience have heard about the story'."

In America, he stunned Joe and Josephine Six-Pack with his allusions to the US national debt, gays in the military and the invasion of Grenada. Can you imagine an American comedian making gags in fluent Dutch about cycle-paths or drainage systems in the Netherlands? He went on to consider that peculiar form of American torture which involves putting children in Country and Western outfits for the 4th July celebrations. "In Holland we've got a problem with child abuse too, but this is really serious."

The one drawback of Heertje's act is that he can stray into the territory of hectoring Ben Elton-esque: "a little bit of politics, ladies and gentlemen" preachiness. He closed his set in the US by musing: "I think it's a beautiful country... now I understand why you stole it from the American Indians." The comedian reveals that his wishy-washy liberal opinions about gun control did not play well in Texas. Once they got over the apparent contradiction in terms represented by a comedian from the Low Countries - by his own admission "nobody can imagine the Dutch being funny" - British audiences have been more charmed by Heertje. They have been particularly taken by his outsider's view of them.

"They like it when someone from the outside looks in," he says. "I can show them things they've seen all their lives but have never questioned before." He points to the absurdity of having an arrow accompanying the "Look Left" sign at a zebra-crossing. "If you need a drawing to tell you what right and left are, you shouldn't be out on the streets at all."

He also finds humour in comparing the two countries. "All the Dutch are known for is drugs and football. All the British are known for is combining the two." Heertje's chief source of gags, however, is our enduring delusions of grandeur. "The British want to be a superpower, they feel everyone should choose them as a leader. Mrs Thatcher was saying that just the other day. I hate to tell you this but you aren't a superpower anymore." Our Euro-scepticism - or should that be phobia? - is equally comical. "Nobody wants to be part of Europe," Heertje reckons, "it's the same in Holland, but we don't make such a fuss about it. In England, they're more afraid, they feel they have to defend themselves against something that's not going to happen anyway. You won't suddenly have to eat French food. We're not as paranoid as the English."

Heertje is well aware that he is probably being set up as a Tub-of-Lard- type butt of the jokes on Have I Got News for You tonight. Even as we speak, Angus Deayton will no doubt be polishing up his lines on Dutch caps and red-light districts. "I'm sure they'll try and make fun of me. I'd do the same if they came to Holland," Heertje acknowledges. The prospect does nothing to dampen Heertje's enthusiasm for the satirical news quiz, which is broadcast - unsubtitled, of course - in Holland every week. Heertje is being lined up as a team captain for the Dutch version of HIGNFY which is being piloted in August. Stand-up is still in its early days in the Netherlands. Five years ago it was unknown and even now there are only a dozen venues in the country - including Heertje's own Comedy Train in Amsterdam. The infancy of Dutch stand-up is perhaps best shown by the newspaper coverage. The only description the daily Algemmen Dagblad can come up with for the Jewish Heertje is that he's "the best circumcised comedian in the Netherlands".

Unlike Heertje, it must lose a lot in the translation.

Raoul Heertje appears on 'Have I Got News for You' tonight (10pm BBC2)

His tour continues at the Balham Banana, the Bedford, 77 Bedford Hill, SW12 (0181-673 8904) tonight and tomorrow, and at the Clocktower Arts Centre, Croydon (0181-253 1030) on Sunday