Comédie sans frontieres?

The national sense of humour, much like national characteristics more generally, is hard to define though often recognisable. This is particularly true of Finland, where the distinctive sense of humour is often one of the first things mentioned about the locals. Having recently moved to Helsinki, I was curious to see what evidence of this dry and self-depreacting wit I could uncover. Obviously this is the work of a lifetime, or at least more than one blog post, but in the interests of making a start I went along to a local alternative comedy night.[i] What was most interesting about the experience was how little I learned about the Finnish sense of humour, and what it suggested about stand-up as a form of entertainment.

The night I attended, Comedy Idiot, had seven Finnish performers out of nine, and what was striking was how like any multi-stand-up night in the UK it was. There were different accents and local references (the politician most sneered at was Alexander Stubb rather that David Cameron), but in terms of themes and the attitudes displayed by the acts and clearly expected of the audience, it could have been Headingley or Hackney rather than Helsinki. Topics touched on included ex-girlfriends, hipsters, Ikea, parenting, growing up in a strict ethnic-minority household, the perils of drinking too much (it may lead to involuntary euthanasia, apparently), plus the regulation edgy material; any of these would have been familiar to UK audiences, and would have been received in much the same way.

The biggest difference was the style of the performances. As might have been expected, few of the performers could have been classed as high-energy. In general they were more understated, and in a couple of cases very dry indeed. But this difference should not be overstated - that style is currently quite popular in the UK, albeit often with a Stewart Lee-esque running commentary on the comedian’s own performance which none of the performers at Comedy Idiot undertook. One other difference, related to the lack of energy, was how few of the performers spoke in any voice but their own; there was very little imitating other people or enacting dialogues. This might suggest something about the Finnish sense of humour, but more likely it suggests that most of the performers did not come to stand-up through university drama or comedy improv.

I can think of two possible reasons for this similarity with stand-up in the UK, apart from the fact that the performances were in English. The first is that the performers might, consciously or not, have been modelling their acts on British or American prototypes. After all, this is often the case with stand-up in the UK or the US, and one of the main reasons for the fact that many newer acts there feel familiar, if not downright derivative. The second reason is a tentative thesis to do with the nature of stand-up itself. As a practice and set of conventions imported wholesale, it may tend to smooth out local idiosyncrasies. The beauty of the format, it has often been remarked, is its simplicity – the performer can in principle say or do whatever they want. But that very lack of technical or co-operative demands arguably tends to make performers, isolated on stage and wholly responsible for their own success or failure, cling to what they know works; and what works is usually fairly familiar and restricted in terms of range and style. None of the performers at Comedy Idiot presented anything avant-garde, let alone a local subversion of the genre, but this arguably tells us less about the peculiarities of the Finns and more about stand-up as a global entertainment form. When you think of the sheer number of active comedians, the percentage who are doing anything particularly inventive or parochial will be very small indeed. Therefore, if I wanted to discover something about the peculiarities of the Finnish sense of humour, a comedy club was the last place to which I should have ventured.

[i] In English. The English-language comedy scene is thriving in Finland – Helsinki is hosting the upcoming Arctic Laughs festival, with a mixture of local acts and UK-based performers. Finland also has a native language comedy scene, which to the uninitiated seems mildly terrifying, like listening to theoretical physicists, or Harry Potter devotees discussing the rules of quidditch.