Can I Finnish?
Geographically, Finland is sandwiched between two countries that could not be more different. Its neighbor to the left Sweden took first dibs on the country during the great Northern Crusades of the 12th century. Once its right side neighbor Russia caught the conquering bug in the 18th century, it was only a matter of time before Finland became a Grand Duchy in the Russian Empire. Despite winning its independence in the famed 1920 Treaty of Tartu, Finland would remain nothing more than a poor second to Belgium. That is of course if you take your history lessons from Monty Python — and why wouldn’t you? I whole-heartedly believe Cardinal Richelieu does a killer Petula Clark impersonation and refuse to be told otherwise.
But back to the land of Finns. As far as I was concerned, the best comedy to come out of Finland was its name. Did you see what I titled this article? And you still chose to keep reading? You are too kind. But I challenge anyone to find a country with a riper name for the punning. I’ll be waiting here until your search is Finnish-ed. I rest my case. Finland seems like a perfect candidate for go-to European punch line. Despite a respectable landmass, it has a population of only a little over 5 million and its northern border is the freaking Arctic Circle. There are parts of Finland where the sun never quite sets in the summer. Few people outside of the country speak the language, and it’s not the prime tourist destination of the European Union. Yet naysayers be silenced, Finland has a very distinct sense of humor and a whole lot of comedy to back it up.
Phil Schwarzmann, an American expat comedian who now calls Finland home, describes his perception of Finnish humor on his blog Finland for Thought as follows:
Finns’ humor is dry, dark, cynical, silly, sarcastic, sometimes juvenile, simple (in a good sense)… Finns love to laugh and love to make other people laugh. But unlike the British for instance, Finns don’t have this need to try and be funny every seven seconds… Up until very recently, times were tough here… I think that hard work combined with poverty make society have a bit dryer, darker, and more cynical sense of humor.
In other words, the cold weather and hard times don’t freeze the Finn’s sense of humor, they just dry it out. Schwarzmann, along with fellow expat comedians Australian Louis Zezeran and Iranian Ali Jahangiri, have formed Comedy Finland. Comedy Finland calls itself Finland’s “premiere English-language comedy producers.” They are devoted to programming stand-up comedy from within the country and importing comedy from all over Europe and beyond. The website, linked above, is like a little Comedy Tourism treasure trove not just for Finnish talent, but other Scandinavian comedians from countries we have yet to cover on the tour. If you have an hour to spare, when you should be “working,” give the site and blog a peruse. I guarantee, laughter will ensue(s).
Most people somewhat familiar with Finland know about their President Tarja Halonen’s striking resemblance to American comedian Conan O’Brien, and have heard of their capital city Helsinki. When it comes to comedy, though, the southern city of Tampere is a veritable hotbed. Tampere is considered the cultural epicenter of Finland, boasting many writers and artists as residents. Also located there is the YLE TV2 television studio, responsible for many popular Finnish comedies. And there are many, in general. If you look at original television programming made in Finland over the past three decades, a substantial number of shows were comedy: sketch, satire, etc.
One of the most popular comedic groups to come out of Tampere and onto Finnish television sets via YLE TV2 was Kummeli. Kummeli originated as a sketch comedy group made up of three core members all from Tampere: Heikki Silvennoinen, Timo Kahilainen and Heikki Hela. While their sketch comedy show ran on TV from 1991 – 1995, the cast members have continued to make live and TV appearances. With little traditional comedy training, Kummeli sketches tended to be very broad and often bordered on comic insanity.
Here’s a sketch from their show with English subtitles:
After their TV show, Kummeli made the natural progression to comedy films in the late 1990s. Their first film was called Stories and contained a series of loosely related skits. Their second film Gold Rush had a more cohesive narrative and featured other popular Finnish comedians.
You can watch the film with English subtitles on YouTube. Here’s the first nine minutes:
Their third film was released almost a decade later in 2006, based on a live play members of the group wrote.
Speaking of film, Finland has a rich history in the industry. The Finns have been making films since the early 1900s. Unlike some of their European peers, Finnish filmmakers are not averse to infusing their artsy films with comedy. In 2002, dark comedy The Man Without a Past directed by Aki Kaurismäki won the Grand Prix at Cannes and was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards. Below is a trailer where you can read just how droll and comic the American critics found the film.
On the lower end of the humor brow, though still in the darkest territory, is the Dudesons. You actually may have heard of the Dudesons. They had a show last year on Spike TV, produced by the Jackass boys. Four “dudes” from the Arctic Circle who met at childhood, the Dudesons began videotaping their extreme pranks and stunts at a young age. In 2001, their show “Extreme Duudsonit” began airing on national television and they quickly became stars. Due to the presumed universality of nutshots and things blowing up, the Dudesons began making additional English episodes for international distribution. As of last year, the Dudesons’ show has been seen in 150 countries.
This trailer for Season 2 is not for the faint of heart:
Because the United States wants to be special, Spike TV commissioned its own version of the guys’ shtick called “Dudesons in America.” It appears to have only run for one season. I guess this town is only big enough for one gang of jackasses.
Whether or not you consider the Dudesons to be comedy is debatable, but its status as the most successful Finnish television show to date is not.
I always claim these articles are just a scratch on the surface, but it’s the same story with Finland. In the television category alone, there are dozens of shows since the 80’s — all of which sound macabre and hilarious. Sketch comedy show Putous most recently, but also Pulttibois, aka The Bolt Boys, or Studio Julmahuvi. There are so many dark; weird shows to choose from when it comes to Finnish comedy.
It may seem like a small, obscure country to some, but write off the comedic potential of Finland and the joke is on you.
I leave you with a mysterious YouTube clip I found of a “dark Finnish comedy.” 1000 markkas to the first person to identify which show it is.
Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.