All for a Nordic chuckle

Zac O' Yeah | Updated on July 31, 2020

Take a joke: Sweden has a subgenre of jokes built around 18th-century court poet Carl Michael Bellman   -  THE HINDU/ VINO JOHN

The four countries in the region — Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden — use humour to cut thin and fragile ethnic ice

The cluster of Nordic countries — Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden — is perceived as a model to be emulated in almost every regard. But growing up in Sweden as an immigrant child, I was habitually the butt of jokes cracked about Finns who allegedly went into their saunas, got drunk and knifed each other on a daily basis. All the same, there was one gag that made me proud of my infamously no-nonsense countrymen: A Swede and a Finn sit in a bar. The Swede raises his glass to toast: “Cheers!” The Finn challenges: “Are we going to talk or are we going to drink?”

Let’s immediately agree that ethnic discrimination is bad. But I see in hindsight why the Finn’s aggressive response would have appealed to me as a victim of bullying. This petty parody — the Swedish eager-beaver versus the anti-social Finn — deflated the hollow core of racism. Besides, in Finland there was an even more politically incorrect stereotyping of Swedes: Slang words for homosexuals had Swedish connotations. An example that comes to mind is Uppsala-ekonoomi, used in phrases such as “he seems to have a Swedish economics degree from the University of Uppsala” to insinuate that somebody’s masculinity is in doubt. The undercurrent is similar: The Swede appears sophisticated; a genuine Finn has his pride intact. Another witticism in the same vein that I recall is the supposed name of the Swedish national poet: Per Verse.

However, as a youth in Gothenburg, the rough harbour town on the Swedish west coast, my life was a double whammy because folks in the royal capital Stockholm considered working-class Goths to be jovial buffoons. It was something of a relief that less-flattering stereotyping was aimed at Norwegians. Goths loved this anecdote: A Norwegian is driving from Oslo towards Gothenburg when he hears a warning on the radio: “A lunatic is speeding against oncoming traffic on the highway!” To this the Norwegian mutters as he swerves to avoid crashing head-on into lorry after lorry: “What lunatic? They’re all on the wrong side of the road!” Such merriments regarding Norwegian stupidity became popular fare in Sweden around 1970, back when nobody saw chauvinistic crudeness as offensive.

When Swedish television (helmed from Stockholm) adapted British 1960s hit slapstick serial Steptoe and Son, it was naturally not filmed in Stockholm but Gothenburg; and their version, Albert & Herbert, became such a beloved phenomenon that it ran for 10 years (1974-84) while another show, Fleksnes fataliteter, was set in Norway with a kooky protagonist (by the same scriptwriter, Ray Galton, who was British and had no issue with either country) and saw an even longer run from 1973 to 1988 — including on Norwegian television!

It might not come as a surprise that, during the ’70s, the humiliated Norwegians in turn started jesting in earnest about Swedes. Most jokes were simply translations, where roles were reversed, which, considering their stereotypical nature, makes the whole thing even more ironical. But original ‘Made in Norway’ jokes actually do highlight how Swedes are perceived as stuck-up, self-important big-brotherly farts — for example, a friend sent me the following, which he heard in Oslo last week: Two boys were talking and one of them wondered why seagulls turned upside down when they flew close to the Swedish border. The other speculated, “Maybe because Swedes aren’t worth a shit?”


The lines are drawn: The Swedish war of words against Norwegians ought to be viewed against the 1905 partition between their countries   -  ISTOCK.COM


This Swedish-Norwegian war of words could be seen as just cheerful teasing between neighbours, but it also ought to be viewed against their 1905 partition, when the two countries separated under not entirely friendly terms. As per the venerable Encyclopaedia Britannica, it’s a basic axiom that “sudden perception of a relation between two consistent but mutually incompatible contexts” is what produces the comic effect. Hence the intrinsic duality of racism fits the bill in a theoretical sense.

Swedes make fun of Danes, too, dismissing them rather paradoxically as xenophobic but otherwise good-humoured chronic drunks, not entirely dissimilar to their above-mentioned view of Finns. By way of a sample: A Danish alcoholic visited a Swedish doctor to get cured from double-vision, and the doctor asked him to sit down on the sofa. The Dane asked: “Which one?” However, I noticed a pattern of attribution and retribution while working in Denmark: The Danes had a propensity for laughing at my Swedish social ineptitude, my boring food habits, and Swedish restrictive views on intoxicants, the general joylessness of Swedish life, and our obsessive-compulsive political correctness, all frequently derided in TV skits. A common tag line for pre-Corona-19 public hygiene, which I spotted in Copenhagen a year ago, went thus: “Keep our streets clean, show Swedes out of the country.”

Joking about Swedes is not only a regional Nordic matter but constitutes a genre in itself, even in Hollywood — google YouTube for “Swedish chef” and you’ll find innumerable clips from the once popular children’s educational programme The Muppet Show (with 120 episodes screened in 100 countries) containing, alongside more famous animalistic characters such as Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, a barbarian restaurateur who makes a mess in the kitchen while speaking gibberish. Interestingly, the chef premiered in 1975 and hence these clips stem from long before foodies started vlogging. Swedes whose sentiments were hurt by this send-up claim that the chef’s unintelligible language sounds exactly like Norwegian.

Blonde bias: Swedish-born Hollywood stars Anita Ekberg. A frequently featured Swedish character — or caricature — in Hollywood is the ‘bimbo’, no matter if she is a vampire victim or a James Bond femme fatale   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES/ PARAMOUNT PICTURES


Another frequently featured Swedish character — or caricature — in American cinema is the ‘bimbo’. Ever since the success of Anita Ekberg, female Swedes were typecast because of their cup-size rather than brain-size. This role was re-enacted in innumerable flicks, ranging from vampire victims to James Bond femme fatales, a surprising number of whom were recruited from Sweden, from big bombshells such as Britt Ekland and Maud Adams, to sidekicks Britt-Inger Johansson and Mary Stavin. Perhaps most memorably, the bimbo became a gag in Mel Brooks’ runaway hit The Producers, which spoofs Hitler and which, in 1969, won Brooks his only Academy Award (for best screenplay). Its cult-factor scene: Blonde Swedish secretary Ulla (incidentally played by a non-Swede) is notable for her lack of secretarial skills but compensates with physical endowments.

Swedes, interestingly, joke about themselves, too. Their national bard, whose status is something akin to a local Shakespeare, is court poet Carl Michael Bellman (1740-95). The witty Bellman gained the posthumous reputation of being something of Stockholm’s municipal idiot and the extremely crude subaltern “Bellman jokes” are not, of course, his own creation but became a popular tradition, eventually making him into a late-19th century folk legend. In these, Bellman either snubs a VIP or does something toilet-related, or both at the same time.

A less offensive subgenre of Bellman anecdotes is about foreigners, perhaps dating to the ’50s, whence ethnic jokes may have originated as a manner of dealing with the increasingly multicultural complexity of society during the post-World War II Cold-War era. A typical joke concerns Bellman, representing the generic Swede, and two foreigners who are in a swimming race to the US and what happened is: The German (or Dane, depending on story version) drowned after a kilometre. The Russian (or Norwegian) sunk after 10km. Bellman went on until he spotted George Washington (or Donald Trump in the latest versions of the yarn) pottering outside the White House, but felt tired so he swam back.

Yet another story that somehow straddles and reconciles some of these Nordic clashes of humour goes like this: Two Danes, two Finns, two Norwegians, and two Swedes are shipwrecked on a desert island. By the time they’re rescued, the Danes have formed a hippie commune, the Finns have turned all the island’s trees into furniture, the Norwegians have tinned the fish in the ocean and exported it abroad, and the Swedes are still waiting to be introduced.

To avoid making this into another shaggy dog story, I’ll try to now reach a potential punch line here. Ethnically tainted joking is maybe not the best way to befriend one another, but it’s perhaps a step towards acknowledging through the medium of laughter that it’s okay to be different — which might be a healthy substitute for aggressiveness. Many immigrant stand-up comedians in Europe today, for example, crack off-colour jokes about people of colour as a way of breaking racial and cultural barriers.

Being able to laugh off unpleasant remarks, particularly if they’re aimed by others at ourselves, is possibly what makes us humane. I guess that’s what ethnic jesting did to me, however painful it was at the time.

Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist

Published on July 31, 2020

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