Wim Helsen: ‘I don’t have such a talent for being proud of myself’

“I grew up in this proud, humble country,” he said solemnly. “If I could tell my side of the story now,” he said agitated. “I’m already sad that everyone sitting here will eventually die!” he said/laughed. And anointing he said: “As you see, I came alone today.”

These are the opening sentences of the cabaret programs by the Flemish comedian, actor and television presenter Wim Helsen (53), from You are being listened to (2016-2018), via Sorry, sorry, sorry (2012-2014) and The hour of the fool (2008-2010) to You are safe with me (2005-2007). Each and every one of them are performances with which Helsen sucks you into his funny and bizarre world of thoughts.

Only his latest show Not my monkeys, not my circus is still missing, but that should remain a surprise. And the first Today Soup!with which he first appeared on stage solo in 2002, twenty years ago.

Do you remember the first word from your very first show?

“Bastards! But first I sing a song actually, King Kong Five by Mano Negra. I think I still remember the first intelligible sentence of every performance I’ve played, because knowing how to start is important. Then you know how to get on stage. The first important sentence of Sorry, sorry, sorry was: “If I could tell my side of the story?!” With a sentence like that you immediately make a lot of assumptions. Then someone came on stage and came to defend himself, and nobody in the room knew what against.”

I always agree with myself: tonight I’m going to have a lot of fun with the performance myself

At the end of March we are sitting by the water on a sun-drenched terrace of the Middelheim Museum in Antwerp. At the top of my questionnaire is a note: Sorry† Last year, Helsen said in a podcast that he doesn’t like newspaper interviews, because the conversation is usually fun, but the written fallout almost always turns out to be a reconstruction with quite thick answers. The night before I saw Helsen’s new show in Maasmechelen. Important theme: guilt does not exist. How that is so, we can best let Helsen explain in his characteristic parable style in the form of ‘an enormous joke’. But no apologies anyway. Let’s look back.

Below is a fairly condensed reconstruction of a nice conversation.

Are you good at looking back at your own shows?

“I’ve never actually done that, but I’d like to give it a try. Although, my first three shows have since been published as a book. For that I had to puzzle together the text into something readable. My publisher wanted the same with the fourth and fifth performances, but I couldn’t afford it anymore. When a show is finished, I don’t really care anymore. That show is finished. But just look at it, ah that could be cool. Sometimes people talk about a joke from my show and I think, what are they talking about? Then they show me on YouTube and then I think: ah yes, that’s actually a good idea. That’s great.”

I also noticed yesterday that you refer to previous shows for the first time in your new performance. Get bread at the bakery. Few helpful service providers. The beetle Gregor.

“Ah yes that is true. That struck me when I was making the show. That was not a conscious choice, it just happened. There are even literal quotes from previous performances. I thought for a moment: oh, is that possible? But they are building blocks that apparently still mean something to me. I arrange them differently, give them a different meaning, that’s how I experience it.”

Did little Wim once have the ambition to become a comedian?

“Yes, since I was fifteen. Or well, not necessarily to become a comedian, but to invent things and play them in front of an audience. I didn’t know in what form yet.”

What if that fifteen-year-old now sees twenty successful years?

“He would find everything logical on the one hand, but he would also certainly be surprised. I dreamed of it, but it took me until my thirties before I started. That fifteen-year-old would think: how did you start with that? My world is so small, I don’t know anyone.”

Would he be proud of himself?

“Wow. I don’t have much of a talent for pride. I also don’t understand what people mean when they’re proud of me. You can be happy for someone who shines and shines. But pride feels like making something of someone else out of yourself. People who are proud of me better be proud of themselves, of what they have contributed to me. But being proud of myself, no, it’s no use to me.”

Looking back and pride is therefore not much for a person. To what?

“On movement. You came to Maasmechelen from the Netherlands yesterday, then to Antwerp this morning. On the train you had time to think, write, listen. You probably had some problems, maybe the bus was late, you had to solve that. I would have liked to do that too. Then you feel that you are part of all the movements. The goal is the movement.”

That sounds a bit like what Midas Dekkers said when he was a guest in winter time [het tv-programma dat Helsen sinds 2015 presenteert op Vlaamse televisie, waarin bekende Vlamingen en Nederlanders een favoriet stukje tekst komen voorlezen, red.]† Do you remember what that was?

laughs. “Courage sideways! [naar wat er op de luifel stond van de voormalige Amsterdamse boekhandel Schimmelpennink, red.]† Yes, that’s related to it. I very much agree with the idea that you don’t have to move forward.”

But surely you have developed yourself in one way or another in the past twenty years?

“Naturally. But I don’t like doing that. It is pernicious to compare yourself to others, or to your former self. You can only end up with more than or less than, but you become nobody with it.

“That doesn’t mean I always manage not to compare myself to myself. After a performance where you feel understood all evening, that you are in your element, you are again in front of a different audience the next day and it is rarely magical twice in a row. Then the comparison is in every cell of my body. While I play I start to think: I play less freely, the audience reacts less. And every time that happens, it gets in the way even more.”

What if I ask you to name something?

“I can invent answers, which may not be completely false, but I formulate them more to please you than to correspond to a reality.”

Okay. But as a spectator I noticed a development in myself yesterday. One of the things you stand for in your shows, with weird sounds, dances, personas, is that awkwardness is allowed to exist. In your previous shows I felt super uncomfortable when you started a dance like that. Now you did it again and I thought: yes, now a dance, logical.

laughs. “Are you serious? Oh but that’s good!”

Everything you identify with will disappear. In my case my being an artist

The new program Not my monkeys, not my circus should have premiered in Amsterdam at the end of January, but corona prevented that. As a result, the current performances are now a kind of bonus try-outs, until the postponed official premiere on April 9 in Antwerp.

Do you use that extra time to fine-tune the performance?

“A performance is always changing. For example, there always comes a time when I start playing a show automatically because everything is in my body. Then the enthusiasm about what I’m telling drips away and I’m just imitating the night before. While what I tell must also come to life the hundredth time, must be true. I bring that life back by rediscovering with new words the feeling that I actually meant.”

All your previous performances were successes in Flanders and the Netherlands. Does the fear that the next show will not suit you still haunts you?

“Anyway. I always imagine a worst case scenario to allay that fear. If I take that very seriously, I get to a point where I don’t think I can do this job anymore. Then I remember that before I was on stage I liked to do all kinds of things. I have already found the peace, should it happen that I can no longer do this. That is very liberating.”

Are you saying you mentally said goodbye to your comedian before every new show?

“Yes. It is a ‘this too shall pass’† A memento mori. Everything you identify with will disappear. In my case my being an artist. But I always agree with myself: tonight I’m going to have a lot of fun with it myself. And if the performance is a success, I immediately forget all that.”

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