Question: What do you get when you cross an 18th century poet with the king and a British hotelier?
Answer: The key to the Swedish sense of humour.
Swedes might often come across as a rather amusing lot. But as a rule, their idiosyncrasies raise a bigger smile than their comic timing.
When it comes to comedy, the Swedes – for once – are usually deemed a rather sober lot. But scratch the surface and you find a rich seam of ribaldry.
Leading the case for Swedish humour is Carl Michael Bellman, 18th-century Sweden’s beer-swigging son of song and prose.
A concoction of alcohol, sex and death was Bellman’s lyrical tipple. Indeed, the joy of inebriation was a particularly common thread in his compositions, which portrayed the lives of Sweden’s lower classes. One hundred years later, he came to symbolize the working man again, but this time in a changing society. Bellman jokes were all the rage in the late 19th century.
“They were really dirty, filthy jokes,” says Jonas Engman, professor in ethnology at Stockholm University. “When industrialization set in, the middle classes introduced a new set of values and attitudes towards bodily functions and sexuality – things that were supposed to be culturally hidden. So for the peasant society, Bellman jokes were a comment on that bourgeoisie culture.”
In the jokes, the jovial Bellman plays the classic court jester, whose pranks are often at the expense of the monarch, Gustav III. Humour meets political ideology, says Engman:
“The simple man of the people poking fun at royalty and the higher classes symbolically turns order and social structure around in an instant.”
One of the more printable satirical yarns involves the sly Bellman secretly slipping the king a laxative ahead of a city jaunt. Soon enough, the king requests a toilet stop and Bellman is happy to assist, lining up the carriages to cover His Majesty’s modesty. But the minute the king’s trousers are down, Bellman whips the horses, leaving a bare royal backside on show to all and sundry.
Sweden’s a bit different these days. And thankfully, so is the humour.
“During the 20th century Sweden transformed rather dramatically, from highly hierarchical to egalitarian,” Engman says. “Swedes tend not to tell jokes about the prime minister or politicians – you shouldn’t make fun of the leaders anymore.”
But some Swedish comedians beg to differ, with the king at least continuing to provide a great source of material.
The third important contributor to Swedish humour doesn’t quite follow in either Bellman’s or the king’s footsteps. For starters, he’s not even Swedish. He is, in fact, a highly strung hotel proprietor from south-west England. You may know him as Basil Fawlty, or perhaps that should be John Cleese.
The kind of humour that really cracks up the funny bones of the Swedes isn’t actually home-grown. “We are culturally oriented towards the British comic tradition,” Engman says.
US sitcoms are also popular but it’s the archetypal British satire that has endured. “Fawlty Towers and Monty Python are as popular today as they ever were,” he adds. Unsurprisingly, Engman cannot provide an academic explanation for the appeal in Sweden of The Benny Hill Show.
But moving with the comedy times, the Swedes turned their attention from early 80s slapstick and double entendres to a modern-day funnyman with transvestite tendencies. When Eddie Izzard played Stockholm’s Cirkus in 2005, tickets sold out in just 12 minutes.
Yet, the stand-up genre was a late developer here. Indeed, the Swedes sat back whilst comedians elsewhere spent the best part of a century refining the art. The scene finally hit Stockholm in the late 80s.
Thomas Oredsson was one of the rookies who organised the first comedy night. “We didn’t really know what stand-up was,” he says. “We went to a restaurant in Gamla Stan and asked if we could so a show, tell some jokes, and we went up that evening. It was a hit from the start.”
They formed S.U.C.K (Stand Up Comedy Klubben) which soon found its home at Norra Brunn on Surbrunnsgatan and has since become Sweden’s comedy Mecca. Nowadays, Oredsson is something of a stand up veteran, with over 1,000 performances to his name. “I think the Swedes are rather funny and humour is a survival kit you need here.” Quite.
There is, however, one essential stand up ingredient that the Swedes find difficult to digest. They haven’t quite managed to master the art of heckling, Oredsson says. “It’s because we don’t like to stand out and prefer to be part of a crowd. We are small farmers in our souls and we don’t talk to strangers.”
Aspiring Swedish stand ups take note; Oredsson explains there are certain subjects that are off limits. “It’s okay to joke about the king being dyslexic,” he says. “But saying the same about the Crown Princess is not allowed. He’s safe on his throne but she’s young and vulnerable.”
“And you shouldn’t use humour to make yourself look better than others.” Here we go again; that reccurring rule of Jantelagen just had to rear its ugly head somewhere. But, wait a minute.
“People from the north are a good source of comedy,” Oredsson adds. “And of course we make jokes about the Norwegians and the Finns.” Presumably then, the Jante law includes a special clause, positively encouraging the mockery of Norrlanders and Nordic neighbours.
Another more contentious target group is immigrants. What was once a definite no-go area has become a way of breaking down cultural barriers. Özz Nujen is part of a new wave of comedians who, as second generation immigrants themselves, are making jokes at their own expense.
“It’s OK to make racist jokes now,” he says. “You’re going to offend someone, no matter what you say. As a comedian, that’s my right.”
But Nujen’s style is not shy of controversy and there are those who definitely don’t see the funny side. “I’ve had death threats from Swedish racists, Muslims and Kurds – my own people,” he adds.
Even your average Svensson can get a bit uptight when Nujen treads on sensitive ground. “Swedes do love to laugh but they can get angry when I joke about the hypocrisy in this country,” he says.
“They can also get upset if I bad-mouth the royal family, but I do that anyway. I like to reveal the truth and there’s not a subject I wouldn’t touch.”
The team of impressionists on TV4’s Hey Baberiba found out that mocking the royals can awaken strong emotions. Their sketches depicting King Carl Gustaf, Queen Siliva and their children were popular among viewers, but were greeted with horror at the palace. A royal spokesman accused TV4 of presenting the royal family as “mentally retarded.”
A somewhat tamer range of topics can be found on the syllabus of Folkuniversitetet’s stand up comedy course. Thomas Oredsson leads the popular laughter classes which cater for more than just budding comics.
“We do have students who really want to get up on stage,” he says. “But then we have priests who want to bring humour to their sermons, and teachers who want to have more fun in their lessons.”
“It’s about getting people to listen and one of the best ways is to make people laugh. I can make them conscious that are funny and give them the tools.”
According to Oredsson it’s not about learning to be comical. “Everyone has humour, even the Swedes,” he says. “Don’t judge us all by Björn Borg standards. We’re really not that dull.”