Daniel Simonsen, Magnus Betnér and Carl-Einar Häckner represent Scandinavia at Fringe 2012
This article is from 2012.
Decent weather, proper coffee, the joys of education, enlightenment and engaging with your fellow human being. Just some of the benefits of spending time away from the UK. But what’s the point of learning another language now that so many fine foreign comedians perform in English? Cliché or not, travel broadens the mind. And rewires it. A growing number of comics are refining their acts beyond their native borders, and none more so than those from Scandinavia.
Their ambition to improve themselves as performers is inextricably tied to the challenge of communicating in another tongue. Put simply, you can’t be hack if you don’t know lazy British conventions and couldn’t reproduce them if you tried. Daniel Simonsen certainly never knew of deadpan until he arrived in this country and critics struggled to describe his style. As a description, ‘awkward’ barely does justice to the Norwegian’s dry but rhythmically unpredictable, oddly compelling delivery, which he chiefly ascribes to the fear of performing in English, having to talk ‘a bit slower … and maybe also holding back a little’.
Either way, it suits him. Growing up poor in Bergen on Norway’s west coast, he always felt ‘a little bit different than the other kids’. Although facially expressive, a legacy, perhaps, of his study at the Philippe Gaulier clown school in Paris, the outsider’s role is ‘natural’ to him and ‘something I wanted to keep’. In Norway, he was a storyteller. But lacking a shared cultural history with UK audiences, he became an off-kilter observational comic, with a sizeable chunk of his material focusing on social gaucheness, communication difficulties and comedians’ mannerisms, invariably from a unique perspective.
He can rely on occasional titters from his pronunciation of words like ‘walkie-talkie’ but he’s had to work harder than most new acts, not least after winning So You Think You’re Funny in 2008. Despite that award’s prestige, prize money, additional bookings and the cushion it gave him to ditch a series of dead-end jobs (‘I was working myself to death just trying to survive’), the pressure on him to turn a good five-minute routine into a solid 20 had increased. And now, finally, doing a full hour, he can no longer rely on his crap jobs for material: ‘It’s always good for comedy when your life sucks,’ he enthuses, flatly.
It was toiling in a menial if rewarding period of employment, watching British comics while stacking chairs at the Le Java club in Paris, that Simonsen was advised by Stewart Lee that the UK, and London especially, was a Mecca for stand-up. If he was serious about becoming a comic, then this was the place to come. Yet for invading Scandinavians – of which Simonsen is among the most committed – the dense concentration of gigs, abundant stage time and inspiration of London and Edinburgh have made it seem more like Valhalla and Fólkvangr for those brave souls suffocating on an over-subscribed open mic circuit.
Magnus Betnér scooped a clutch of four-star reviews (including one from us) for his 2010 Edinburgh debut, and is the first of his compatriots to win the ‘Swedish comedian of the year’ award a second time. He believes he achieved that fate specifically for being ‘on the right road to be great in the United Kingdom’, and is aware that ‘the others think it’s a really good thing and a lot of them are now trying to do the same thing after me’.
This Festival, Edinburgh hosts several Scandic stand-up showcases, including Norwegians of Comedy at the GHQ venue, featuring Martin Beyer Olsen, Lars Berrum and Adam Tumidajewicz, pledging to be, ‘free and funnier than the last time Norwegians invaded Scotland’. There’s also the intriguingly named The Dirty Uncle Comedy Roadshow at the Laughing Horse @ The Counting House, featuring Swedish comic Tomas Ahlbeck and friends. Perhaps all this belies Betnér’s assertion that Brits are disproportionately obsessed with grim Scandinavian crime fiction: ‘I suppose it’s interesting to people who are not from Sweden to see the darker side of a society that some think is just perfect.’
Performing more shows in the English language than in Swedish this year, Betnér’s burgeoning career in the UK and elsewhere with speakers of our amorphous, mongrel dialect, has yet to challenge his conviction that as a clinical social commentator, he conceives his best material depressed. ‘At the moment, I have considerably more topical, political stuff because I haven’t had time to do anything fun recently.’
In his homeland, he develops routines on stage. But in English, while he’s increasingly comfortable ad-libbing, it’s not enough for him to simply tease ideas out on the road. For the first time in years, he’s hammering away at a computer. ‘That’s how I started out, like everybody else. I’ve had to start over and do everything from the ground up, which has been a nice process. And I’m sure it’s improved me overall.’
His thoughtful, considered approach couldn’t be more different from fellow Swede Carl-Einar Häckner, a jump-suited buffoon and vaudevillian prop comic with a huge musical and magical repertoire built up over decades entertaining around the world. His reliance on an IKEA theme of collapsing furniture in his show Handluggage might be about as culturally sledgehammer as Cariad Lloyd’s re-imagining of Moominmamma as a hard-bitten Nordic homicide detective. Yet it makes perfect sense. ‘When you perform outside your own country you become aware of how people perceive you and adapt accordingly,’ he says.
Touring the UK as part of the eclectic, frenetic, ‘perform atop a piano’ variety ensemble La Clique, Häckner learned how ‘to make a strong impact in a short amount of time’, his precarious IKEA framework a daft but logical extension for making his chaotic set-pieces and stupid slapstick ‘killer fucking funny’.
His shows are ever more portable, with a decreasing number of (but still countless) props, hence his show title. More and more, he’s connecting with his idiosyncratic inner idiot, ‘trying to discover more of me in the English language. I feel like I’m really finding my voice. With my stories, the complexity of English, because it’s more difficult it gets more interesting’.
Along with his disintegrating guitar and collapsing furniture, audiences factor his limitations with English into ‘the performance process, which can be funny if you build it up to something; it’s one more layer of problems that I have to overcome’. More than Häckner simply being a ‘funny foreigner’, failure is an integral part of his shtick. ‘A little bit of my whole thing is struggling to be understood, even when I speak in Swedish!’ he snorts.
Embracing the challenge of performing outside Sweden was never about conquering the world. He did it to ‘feel the blood in my veins pumping’, which is also why he performs in German. I put it to Simonsen, whose father is Chilean, that he could become a better comedian by learning to perform in his dad’s native doric too. ‘That would be fun actually,’ he muses. ‘My Spanish is really shit.’
Daniel Simonsen, Pleasance Courtyard, 556 6550, 4–27 Aug (not 13, 20), 7pm, £8.50–£10 (£7.50–£9). Previews until 3 Aug, £5.
Magnus Betnér, Assembly Rooms, 0844 693 3008, 3–26 Aug (not 13, 16), 8.45pm, £10 (£9). Preview 2 Aug, 9.30pm, £9 (£8).
Carl-Einar Häckner, Gilded Balloon Teviot, 622 6552, 4–27 Aug (not 13), 7.30pm, £9.50–£10.50 (£8.50–£9.50). Previews until 3 Aug, £5.
Norwegians of Comedy, GHQ, 226 0000, 4 19 Aug, 1.05pm, free.
The Dirty Uncle Comedy Roadshow, The Counting House, 667 7533, 14–17 Aug, 10.45pm, free.