Icelandic Comedy Gets Existential

'How To Become Icelandic In 60 Minutes'
26.6.2012
Words by Paul Fontaine
The Icelandic self-image has changed dramatically since the crash. Before October 2008, Icelanders could attribute their keen business acumen to their Viking heritage (or so the President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson liked to say), and anyone who expressed doubts was just jealous. Foreign news stories praising the country were accepted wholesale, and there was a boorish, even arrogant, assumption that Icelanders were better looking, more genetically pure and smarter than everyone else. Even when said jokingly, there was still a wink that said, “No, really, we are pretty awesome.”

Today, Icelanders are going through a reassessment of their previous attitudes, considering that maybe their swollen pride was destructive and that maybe the time has come to take stock of what they really value.

A post-crash comedy

The comedy act ‘How To Become Icelandic In 60 Minutes’ is very much a post-crash Icelandic comedy. It plays with older tropes about Iceland while offering a fresh take on what it means to be Icelandic.

The act opens with an animation sequence poking fun at the comedy gold mine that is the Settlement period. Only after the usual jokes about folks killing each other and the country descending into anarchy before being colonised and later gaining its independence do we witness the iconic Davíð Oddsson, flanked by bankers, as he pulls the arm of a slot machine, and wins himself (and the country) a row of three “BANKRUPT” signs. This sets the tone for what is to follow, namely the one-man act of Bjarni Haukur Þórsson.

Bjarni has a manic Lee Evans quality about him. Very much a physical humorist, he also engages well with the audience, kicking things off by taking stock of what foreigners there were in the audience. As it turned out, there were many Americans, some Swedes, some Brits, a couple from India, and a fair number of Icelanders. Bjarni appeared taken aback to discover this, and asked the Icelanders, “What are you doing here? Identity crisis?” He was perhaps not far off the mark. In any event, his caricatures of different nationalities never came across as mean-spirited or archaic, and he was often spot-on (case in point: his imitation of how Danes sound when speaking English).

On being Icelandic

Then, on to the lessons on being Icelandic. Most of these were studies in personality quirks, and he pulled no punches when it came to criticising Icelandic character traits. The first lesson is, for example, “You know best.” If you’re going to be Icelandic, you must always assert your expertise on any given subject and never admit when you are wrong because Icelanders love to argue. “There are 320,000 of us, and we have five political parties,” Bjarni pointed out.

Added to this were such instructions as “Think big,” citing Icelandic self-aggrandizement and “Be rude,” explaining that by this he does not mean that Icelanders are intentionally hurtful people—just that they sometimes speak carelessly, and then don’t apologise, as they feel it would be insincere to do so if you don’t actually feel sorry. He added that the closest approximation for the Icelandic word for “please”—‘vinsamlegast’—is most often said with a decidedly impolite tone.

There were also some interesting physical observations made in the Icelandicness lessons, such as “Talk like you’re dead,” referring to the inflectionless speaking style of many Icelandic public figures, as well as demonstrating “the two walks.” The first is a stilted, stiff-armed shuffle reminiscent of a broken old man, while the second is a chest-puffed, bow-legged stride known as a ‘þúfnagangur’ (literally “tussock walk”)—a reference to being on a farm and having to step over and around the grassy mounds that riddle pastureland.

Throughout these lessons, Bjarni made it a point to refer back to different nationalities that might be interested in becoming Icelandic. Americans, for example, would likely have little trouble mastering the ‘þúfnagangur,’ he observed, while Italians may find it difficult to have to speak in flat, expressionless tones.

There was, of course, some reaching for the low-hanging fruit. There was an extended bit about eating rams’ balls that could have been cut down by half, if not removed from the show entirely, as well as the much-circulated video clip from two years ago of various news people trying to pronounce ‘Eyjafjallajökull.’ The show could have done without these, but they didn’t detract from the overall comedic power of the performance.

Why are we here?

After very successfully condensing the entirety of the Icelandic Sagas into a 60-second dramatisation that is better seen than described, Bjarni posed a rhetorical question to the audience: With all the struggle and suffering that Icelanders have had to go through to survive in this country, “Why are we here?” There followed a video montage of Icelandic settings most of us have seen many times before—mountains, rivers, geysers and glaciers—but within the context of this show, it seemed less Tourist Board-approved and more reflective, almost philosophical.

My mind went back to the beginning of the show, to Davíð gambling with the country’s wealth, and how his party had few qualms with prioritising money over the country’s natural resources. Icelanders are reversing that priority, to the extent that preserving natural resources will be a part of the new constitution. Perhaps it took an economic collapse to remind us of what’s important about being in Iceland—or even, being Icelandic.

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