Klovn Your Enthusiasm: The Many Layers of Discomfort in Danish Humor

There certainly is something rotten in the state of Denmark: the dark and twisted Danish sense of humor. So-called “Danish Humor” gained international attention at Cannes this year when provocateur/film director Lars von Trier declared that he was a Nazi to a room full of journalists. Whether or not this comment was taken out of context, Cannes organizers were not amused and declared him a persona no grata to the same festival that has honored him many times. Von Trier would later apologize for his comments, citing the untranslatable nature of Danish humor as the culprit for misinterpretation. He told Israeli publication Haaretz:

“It was a stupid joke. But that’s the kind of humor I use when I talk to my friends, who know me and know I’m not a Nazi.”

Even Salon film critic Andrew O’Heir, who heard the remarks first-hand at the press conference, described it as more of “an ill-advised attempt at provocative humor, not a sincere declaration of Nazi sympathies or anti-Semitic attitudes.” While such jokes may be acceptable in Lars’ home country, France has a zero tolerance policy for Nazi references — a lesson Dior designer John Galliano (rightfully) learned this past year as well.

So were Lars von Trier’s comments misunderstood or just tasteless? It’s possible they were both. I can’t say I was surprised the director of the Dogme 95 dramedy The Idiots, about a group of adults who go around behaving like mentally disabled people in public, would make a controversial statement — at the risk of sounding reductive, it’s kind of his “thing.” However, von Trier probably should have known better that while humor doesn’t always translate, bigotry usually does. So perhaps it was in poor taste he thought his sense of humor would seamlessly translate on an international stage.

But if it was in fact his Danish humor that got him into trouble, then what exactly is this Danish humor? Blogger Maja Held attempts to define just that in a piece for the official website of Denmark, entitled “Danish humor, cozy-racism.” The title is somewhat misleading, perhaps due to the connotations of the word “racism” that might have gotten lost in the translation. What Held discusses is the dark and twisted nature of Danish humor, and how intrinsic this humorous perspective is to Danish culture. Danes rely heavily on sarcasm and irony; sensibilities she claims are “indispensable in our everyday life.”

Held acknowledges the Danish tendency to always push things to the limit, which can lead to intercultural misunderstandings. At the same time, the Danes do possess the ability to tone it down when in public forums. The truly cruel, dark jokes are reserved as a kind of inside joke for fellow countrymen. And this is what Held labels as “cozy racism,” an all-bets-are-off security that when among friends no subject is too taboo. Maybe Lars von Trier forgot he wasn’t among close friends at that press conference, and felt a little too “cozy.” Regardless, he messed up. Which is perhaps why instead of toning it down, he declared he would no longer make public statements ever again.

The Lars von Trier episode is not the first time Danish humor has garnered negative international attention. Denmark also has a long-standing freedom of speech tradition; Reporters without Borders ranks it among the best in the world for freedom of press. Combined with this comfort to explore those dark places, controversy is inevitable. On September 30th, 2005, Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons that would profoundly impact Denmark-Arab relations and continues to be an issue to this day. Entitled “Muhammeds ansigt,” or “the Faces of Muhammed,” the paper commissioned 12 Danish political cartoonists to draw their interpretation of Muhammed as part of a discussion on self-censorship. Most of the pictures were not actually of the prophet Muhammed, but the implication was strong enough to upset the Muslim community. In some Muslim sects it is punishable by death to insult Muhammed, but it is generally considered a huge insult to even depict him or draw him.

The controversy grew to a fever pitch when an Egyptian newspaper re-printed the cartoons in October of that year, along with its condemnation of the drawings. The story was quickly picked up by a slew of European publications, and each reprint just added insult to injury. Because Danish newspapers are privately owned and their free speech protected by law, the government refused to intervene or discipline Jyllands-Posten despite the requests of many Arab leaders and Danish imams. One artist in particular who portrayed Muhammed with a bomb in his turban has been a repeated target. Just last year, a man brandishing knives and an axe was arrested outside the cartoonist’s home for attempting an assassination. The situation has been called the worst international crisis for Denmark since World War II.

I don’t mean to imply that the Danish value “shock” over substance; I don’t believe that’s the case. Rather, they respect the sanctity of free speech and are comfortable in letting their humor guide them to all sorts of disturbing places.

Take for example last year’s film Red Chapel. Part-comedy, part documentary, part-big-balls-stunt, the film tells the story of a fake comedy troupe that travels to dictatorial North Korea as part of a cultural exchange. The troupe features two young men born in South Korea but adopted by Danish families, one of who is a self-described handicapped “spastic.” Filmmaker Mads Brügger also featured prominently in the film as part of the troupe.

I saw the film at the New Directors New Films festival last year. For me, it narrowly walked the line between stark satire and a cruel joke. You can never quite feel sorry for North Korea, but the film pushes you to the brink. And it is also unapologetically uncomfortable at many points  — even in the trailer.

Brügger is no stranger to the satirical (or stunt, depending on your viewpoint) documentary. He posed as a Danish neo-con Bush fanatic during the 2004 re-election campaign and toured the country campaigning for the President with other fellow countrymen under the banner of “Danes for Bush.” The series was broadcast on Danish television, casting Republicans and Bush in a very unkind light. While Brügger might not consider himself a “comedian,” Danish humor and comedy played prominent roles in these two projects.

Klovn: The Movie is another example of the comfort with discomfort playing out in Danish comedy. Based on a successful six-season television show by the same name, Klovn (Clown) came out in Scandinavia last year and was a smash hit, raking in over 12 million dollars at the Box Office. Presumably the film’s insider naughtiness would not translate across the pond, yet it is 2 for 2 on the North American film festival circuit. At Fantastic Fest in Austin it took home “Best Comedy,” and at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal it won Best Feature overall. Could this be the crossover comedy Denmark’s been waiting for? Is Denmark actually waiting for a crossover hit? Do they even care?

It probably helps that the premise of the Klovn television series was heavily derived from the American comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm. It’s a docu-comedy of the lives of two aging stand-up comedians, playing fictionalized versions of themselves. Casper Christensen and Frank Hvam were already well-known comedians in Denmark, having appeared in popular sitcoms like Langt fra Las Vegas and the zany sketch show Casper og Madrilaftalen. Both have also hosted popular radio programs and more mainstream television variety shows.

The film Klovn picks up where the series left off, with the two man-boys planning a boys-only canoe trip that will end at a brothel. Casper labels the trip a “Tour de Pussy.” Things go slightly awry when Frank decides to kidnap his girlfriend’s young nephew to prove he has the chops to be a father. It should be noted he doesn’t actually want to be a father, he just wants to prove he could be. Sounds like Selfishness 101 from the book of Curb or Always Sunny.

Critic Simon Howell reviewed the film at the Fantasia Film Festival, describing it as a “collusion of three recent strains of popular comedy.” Namely the embarrassment found in Curb, the manchild found in Apatow and the “debauched bro humor” of The Hangover. The Danish translation for the “debauched bro” is “drengerøv.” The word essentially means laddish, but really is used to refer to a grown man who does immature things. Sounds about right.

With the success of the film thus far in smaller festivals, there’s speculation it will eventually find a distributor for an American release. While foreign comedies are a tough sell, marketing Klovn as the “Hangover of Denmark” might just be its golden ticket as long as those comedies are still popular in the US. I could only find a high-resolution trailer in Danish, but the Fantasia Fest website had translations, I’ll list those first for context. And FYI, this is definitely NSFW.

They have made your toes curl.

They have ruined your most precious moments.

They have put you through horrendous torments.

They have given you the ugliest experiences of your life.

But now, they’re about to make up for everything.

They have gathered the best team.

To give you the most beautiful and epic family movie.

Life-affirming.

Romantic.

Moving.

……

Success

Eluded them.

“Stick a finger in her ass.”

The shame commences on November 16th.

Please accept our apologies.

In case it was unclear, the same friend who advised sticking a finger in her ass is the one actually sticking a finger in her ass at the end of the clip. Child-endangerment, nudity, sodomy, murder — the gang’s all here. Of the few reviews that exist in North America, they are all overwhelmingly positive. IndieWIRE gave it an A- and called it far superior to recent American attempts at uncomfortable awkwardness like Young Adult.

Because humor is so integral to Danish culture, these examples are only a few of many that exist. But with their affinity for sarcasm and deadpan, perhaps their sense of humor is not so different from ours in America. I once met a Danish fellow in my travels who effused about Arrested Development, claiming it was quite popular in Denmark because the humor was so similar. I can’t base my entire hypothesis on the ravings of one drunk Dane, but I do think it’s safe to say that comedy nerds in America share a strong sensibility with Danish humor. I would go so far as to say we wish we could be as honest, edgy and willing “to go there” as they are.

But there’s only one way to find out: comedy nerd pilgrimage to Denmark!!! Who’s coming with me?

Laura Turner Garrison sometimes writes commercials, she sometimes writes comedy, but she always rights wrongs.

From Our Partners