The Swedish and Norwegian comics hitting the Edinburgh Fringe
Magnus Betnér, Dag Sørås and Lasse Nilsen head up Scandinavian invasion
This article is from 2010.
Magnus Betnér is leading a charge of the Swedish and Norwegian stand-ups playing the Fringe. Jay Richardson meets those who are raising the bar of north European comedy
Victor Borge, Hagar the Horrible and The Muppets’ chef notwithstanding, Scandinavian comedy has a low international profile, give or take the odd cartoon in a Danish newspaper. Recently, though, the likes of Daniel Simonsen, Henrik Elmer, Ismo Leikola and Tomi Walamies have made varying degrees of impact on the UK stand-up circuit. And in August, a veritable longboat of Swedish comedians arrives at the Fringe, recalling the Dutch armada of 2007 that established Hans Teeuwen as a cult act on these shores.
Magnus Betnér has been described as Sweden’s ‘most controversial living comedian’, a reflection perhaps, on the death threats he’s received and material on his suicidal impulses. A former christian, son of a pastor and avowed bisexual who’s yet to sleep with a man, he’s performed scurrilously anti-religious routines in churches and mosques for television and admits that ‘I have a way of pushing some people’s buttons’. He rejects the controversial tag though, insisting that he’s mainstream. ‘If I was controversial, I wouldn’t be selling 1000-seater venues.’
Following some low-key, open spots at the Fringe last year, he’s returning with a show entitled Cum All Ye Faithful! From touring a relatively large country with a small, spread-out population, he relishes Edinburgh’s lively, communal atmosphere, even if he doesn’t want to start feeling too much at home. ‘I just wanted to start over and get some new inspiration, because I write my best stuff when I’m depressed and feeling shitty,’ he explains. ‘And it’s hard to feel shitty when you’re touring big concert halls and living the dream. I’ve done pretty much everything there is to do in Sweden and then some. So I figured I’ll start over and try to do it in English because my English is reasonably good and I thought I could pull it off. It’s nice to be back at the beginning, if only to be nervous. When you’ve filled big halls where everyone’s paid good money, and are there to see you, they’re going to enjoy it and there’s nothing to be nervous about. Whereas in the UK, you can be playing to a couple of strangers who’ve never seen you and don’t care.’
Performing straight after him at The Stand is his friend Dag Sørås, a thoughtful Norwegian with a routine about complaints he’s received, specifically regarding masturbating to The Passion of the Christ. Originally from the northerly Narvik, site of the first Allied victory in World War II and ‘where nothing exciting has happened since’, he’s supported Doug Stanhope and will do so again when the American plays London in September. ‘The challenge is one of the major reasons for doing this,’ he agrees. ‘But then, 70% of the audience don’t know who I am in Norway, either. English is a much richer language and there are so many benefits to performing in it. You’ll start translating Norwegian bits, then something will pop into your head and become something else. The hardest thing is actually the mindset, having to think in English on stage, because if somebody heckles you or something happens, you need to address it.’
According to comedian-actress Agneta Wallin, who forms part of Stockholm Syndrome with the aridly deadpan Aron Flam and Fredrik Andersson, ‘British audiences are a lot more interactive; Swedish people are generally shy.’ Flam concurs: ‘It’s like you have to do CPR on them before you start the show. In Sweden, if they don’t like you, they won’t say anything; they’ll sit silently for the entire show and not even walk out.’
Stand-up comedy effectively began in Sweden in the late 80s when actors simply translated and performed the material of American comics. ‘And they got away with it,’ marvels Betnér, who started his own career as a juggler. ‘After that first craze, it died down; the media didn’t care because they thought it was shit, and to an extent they were right. But for maybe ten years now, it’s been developing into an artform.’
This new rash of Scandic comic is all too painfully aware of the blonde, blue-eyed stereotypes British audiences have about Swedes. ‘I’ll do a one-liner or two about ABBA, just to get it out of the way and, if I have to interact, I’ll tell them, “I’m a Viking, don’t fuck with me!” jokes Tobias Persson, whose show is intriguingly named Call Me Old Fascist! ‘You have to let the audience know who you are immediately,’ reasons Flam. ‘Now, I start out as I started in Sweden, with pornography jokes. Just so they don’t get the wrong impression.’ Also coming to Edinburgh is the mime artist Lasse Nilsen.
Yet a darker side to the Swedish psyche, most obviously expressed through the phenomenally popular crime novels of Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson, perhaps affords an insight into the grimmer, introspection of their comedy. Indeed, where both Betnér and Sørås have found themselves pushing real buttons with British audiences so far, has not been with routines about abortion, nor their criticisms of the war in Afghanistan – in which their nations are part of the coalition – but rather in their material questioning the troops themselves, prompting real disquiet. Sørås’ show is called Outside the Comfort Zone, because, ‘on a personal level, everything that’s really interesting about someone is outside it. It’s said that around strangers, you shouldn’t talk about politics or religion because it’s considered rude. But you should really talk about that from the beginning to see if we’re compatible as human beings. Everything that’s interesting – war, global warming, dark secrets – is uncomfortable, but needs to be done. Plus, I have jokes about sex with animals.’
If they succeed in winning over Fringe audiences, one senses it’ll be chiefly through their onstage vulnerability. ‘You need to dig where it hurts,’ asserts Betnér. ‘In my last show in Sweden, I had ten minutes about me wanting to kill myself and how I was going to do it. People need to hear it from someone on stage, because everybody is fucking miserable from time to time and I think it’s good that we’re up there being honest. That’s the kind of comedian I like and the kind of comedian I want to be. Honest about my opinions, my sexual preferences or whatever. I compromise from time to time because deep down I’m a nice guy. And Dag is too, but when he’s on stage, he’s just fearless.’
With all the bleak humour of an Ingmar Bergman film, Betnér straight-facedly summarises their approach. ‘I have nights where I only do cock jokes. But most of the time, I want to make people think about something, and if that makes them laugh, fine, it helps. But I can manage with ten minutes of dead silence.’
Magnus Betnér, The Stand III & IV, York Place, 0131 558 7272, 6–29 Aug (not 16), 10.20pm, £8 (£7). Preview 5 Aug, 6.40pm, £7 (£6);
Dag Sørås, The Stand III & IV, York Place, 0131 558 7272, 6–29 Aug (not 16), 11.30pm, £8 (£7). Preview 5 Aug, 8.20pm, £7 (£6);
Lasse Nilsen, The Three Sisters, Cowgate, 0131 622 6801, 5–14 Aug, 6pm, free;
Tobias Persson, Edinburgh City Football Club, Baxter’s Place, 0131 556 9628, 15–21 Aug, 9.45pm, free;
Stockholm Syndrome, Meadow Bar, Buccleuch Street, 0131 667 6907, 19–26 Aug, noon, free.