On August 10, 2021 Kees van Kooten will be at the top of the list trending topics on Twitter. In the hit list of the social network site, he beats entrepreneur Sywert van Lienden and also Formula 1. Fans massively congratulate Van Kooten that summer day on his eightieth birthday. birthday. The man who made satirical radio and television programs with his bosom friend Wim de Bie (82) for almost forty years has not been forgotten. More than 23 years ago, on Sunday evening March 22, 1998, the duo stopped working on television. The exhausted Van Kooten wanted to ‘clear his head’. But still his admirers lustily reminisce about the founder of The Simplistic Covenant. It pleases the old Van Kooten.
“Delicious. Great,” he exclaims modestly.
On the advice of his GP – “I am in the highest risk group” – the interview is held via Zoom. That does not have to harm the quality of the interview in any way, he assures the journalist in advance by e-mail, who insists in vain for an old-fashioned, physical interview. Van Kooten even promises a “smashing” exchange of ideas. “I’ve been in front of the cameras for fifty years and I don’t know anywhere else that I feel so good, loose, energetic and sharp.”
His hair is white, his T-shirt is gray and he looks somewhat brittle. Off screen, his wife Barbara Kits listens in. You sometimes hear her prompting lovingly. Occasionally Van Kooten gets up and walks with the laptop through his Amsterdam home to show via the computer camera that he is busy cleaning up his office. “Eighty does make you think. Here are a little under a thousand more books and I’m sure I won’t read nine hundred more. I want to make a selection because time is limited. You want to leave things decently for the children.”
Van Kooten takes the surplus books to a nearby antiquarian bookshop and the thrift shop.
How are you?
“Very well. radiant. We escaped. Barbara had corona for a while but that has gone. I had to sleep in the guest room for the first time since our marriage in 1968. I strictly follow the rules and I feel good otherwise. It’s clean in the head. It is a very strange time and I dare not say that we are now rid of it. It is all so uncertain what is and is not allowed now.”
Has the corona time brought us deeper insights?
“Maybe if we do the math afterwards, we’ll conclude that the pandemic has brought people closer together. But the separation of minds from the madmen department has also widened. I read this morning that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro says that if he loses next year’s presidential election, it must be the result of fraud. That is also a new variant in brutality. And for a dance teacher to beat recognized epidemiologists in some people these days is kind of weird. At the same time, I noticed that the people who are grateful that they did not receive corona radiate a new form of cordiality to each other. When testing at the RAI and also when we got the shot in Badhoevedorp, I saw a very pleasant, striking courtesy among people. That works very well with that common enemy.”
Have you recovered well from the heart attack in 2014 and the stroke that struck you two years ago?
“After that heart attack I had five bypasses and then things went well again quickly. That TIA works crosswise. On the right was the TIA and since then on the left the signals no longer come through completely. So every now and then I change things up a bit. I have to be careful when I step off the curb to estimate the height correctly. But that is all part of the blessed age of eighty.”
This special age also includes a new book: The Eighty Years of Peace. It is an illustrated collection of a selection made by Van Kooten from the 27 works he published at De Bezige Bij over the past 52 years. He has rewritten the stories “to some extent.” “A stubbornness to which, considering and boasting at my age, I believe I am entitled to,” he writes in the foreword.
In the first story, Van Kooten reconstructs his birthday. A day after he was born as a Sunday child in the Roman Catholic obstetrical institution Bethlehem in The Hague during the war, his parents placed an advertisement in the Haagsche Courant. They express the hope that Kees ‘will become a real Dutch boy’.
Was that advertisement a subtle act of resistance?
“Of course. My father hoped that the Germans would soon settle down and that we would just live in Holland again. Kees is of course also a nice Dutch name. There are not many more of that.”
Has Kees van Kooten become a real Dutch guy?
“I feel like a Dutch boy of eighty.”
Wishing a real Dutch boy would probably no longer suit everyone?
“Now it would immediately be argued that it is racist. Because why not a Surinamese boy and does a Dutch boy have a tinge or not? It has all become so complex, there are so many compartments in our existence.”
Van Kooten also took such sensitivities into account when compiling his collection. He omitted texts because he found them “too vain” on closer inspection or because the original text was “marked by a smirk and homophobic tone,” as he writes in a footnote.
In the story ‘Becoming a Writer’ – not included in the book – you write: “My parents were afraid I had homosexuality, which was just kind of kicking in at the time”. Is such a joke still possible?
“Well, he’s so fat and so stupid that he can do it again. And then out of ten people there will always be three who don’t understand him and get angry, but they just go for a nice walk hand in hand in the park.”
People are discovering what a good Dutchman is, free from blemishes, but in that search we get a bit lost
Could the racism of your characters Jacobse and Van Es or the sexism of the Dirty Man still be possible in today’s politically correct times?
“It is strange that it is not yet a ministerial post: a minister for cultural criticism, with officials who map out all discriminatory expressions. It’s definitely gotten harder for humorists. Of course. Not to the right-minded people, they can place the wink, but with the large, following crowd the business quickly stands on its hind legs. There is general nervousness and excitement. We have become very critical of each other. Friendships can get stuck on it: ‘no what you said then…’ (sigh). People are discovering what a good Dutch person is, free from blemishes, but we get a bit lost in that search.”
Last month it was announced that your colleague John Cleese is making a documentary about cancel culture and the new one woke generation. Are you looking forward to that?
“Let’s hope he will comment himself because that’s wonderful. He has an authority that speaks for itself and is witty. He’s so believable in his aggravation that I’m really looking forward to it.”
from The Eighty Years of Peace shows how autobiographical his work is. In his own words, Van Kooten has never succeeded in “just writing stories out of thin air”, as he calls it in his book. Koot digs itself autobio.
What is it like to reread your own work?
“I’ll tell you something very intimate. There were stories that I read again after a long time and that made me laugh myself. That is the greatest reward. And then I discovered another corner in the original joke that made it even more fun after surgery.”
What is the recipe for a good joke?
“It is an enlargement of reality that must remain credible. One theory about comic writing is: the bigger the failure, the more fun the reader will enjoy. You try to deliver a pleasant variety of humor: the ironic style, the slapstick, the pitying style.”
Van Kooten prefers to include his wife, his children Kim and Kasper, the three grandchildren and parents and in-laws in his stories. “I’m a family man. I love my close relatives so much that I like to erect monuments to them. However small. I want to preserve the growths of children. That they see how much we loved them and that we had a good time. I want to keep the family firmly together.”
It is striking that you have never written a story about Wim de Bie.
“I call him my ultimate kindred spirit in the book, I can’t put it any better. Wim is so modest, he would rather not have that if I were to write a story about him. Too tacky, he’d say. I also want to keep television work and my writing separate. Wim has always remained a resident of The Hague and he has returned to The Hague. I occasionally visit him. Very cosy.”
What does a retired comedian do when a good joke comes to his mind?
“I don’t remember those jokes. I try to make them. I like to act really stupid or put on a tea cozy, if we had one. But other than that I’ve become a pretty dull type. I am now teaching my granddaughter Puck to play chess. That is of course much more fun than writing a story again.
“What I do like to do is make anagrams. Because we are powerless against the rambling in The Hague, I am always very pleased if I can express my annoyance about a politician in the news via an anagram. The anagram of Mark Rutte – with his effeminate gestures and his fake laugh and his pointing at no one in the audience – is: ‘Kamertrut’. According to Van Dale, a bitch is a woman who neglects her duties and does not clean up the room. This morning I was busy with Wopke Hoekstra, with his vain kickboxing and his horrific and-now-go-on-skating during the election campaign. His anagram turns out to be: ‘Ha Woke Protske’. Because pride is tasteless, vain pride.”
Two days later, Van Kooten still calls an anagram of Sigrid Kaag on request: ‘I like this’. “Dissen is arguing in slang.”
Can we expect a book with a hundred stories on your 100th birthday?
“No, this is a one-off. Eighty has, I don’t want to say something magical, but certainly something milestone. In the past, when someone walked a little crooked or came up a little short of breath after climbing the stairs, they said: you look eighty! Eighty is a limit, which I hope I have set correctly with this book. With ninety I don’t do anything anymore.”
Are the four adjacent burial sites that Barbara and you, together with your friends Remco Campert and Deborah Wolf, selected ten years ago at the Zorgvlied cemetery in Amsterdam, are still reserved?
“Yes, luckily. Safe feeling. Remco lives near here and is now 92. And he has already said a few times: ‘I can’t wait’. Barbara and Deborah visit our place every now and then to see if everything is still in order. The space is almost paid off. Everything is thick together. Cozy.”
Van Kooten laughs. “Sometimes I sit down at that spot at twelve o’clock in the morning and then I try to write a poem for Remco. Just kidding. Look, now in my eighty-year arrogance I already assume that Remco will die before me because he is 92. But luckily that doesn’t mean anything anymore these days.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on September 18, 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of September 18, 2021