Silhouetted against the red velvet curtain, mic in hand, Arnór Daði Gunnarsson exudes an irresistible awkward charm. Though you’d never guess it from his easy stage presence, he’s in the midst of his Reykjavík Fringe Festival debut and the premier of his first solo show “Big Small Town Kid”. The hour-long special sees the comedian veer between deadpan self-deprecation and glimmers of childish mischievousness, all the while interweaving observations about parenthood and Reykjavík’s quirks as he regales the crowd with a series of bizarre anecdotes from his rural hometown.
When the Grapevine Comedy Committee convenes some days later in a top-secret bunker of undisclosed location, the decision is unanimous: Arnór is granted the most prestigious cultural accolade in town—the inaugural Grapevine Fringe Award.
Two weeks after his momentous victory, Arnór sits back with a coffee in the Icelandic Street Food Café. He’s mentally preparing for tonight’s show, which will be his first stand-up performance since the festival. “I feel like I’m just getting back up from the dead,” he laughs. “Fringe was so stressful that I didn’t even want to think about comedy for a week, but I’m excited to get back on stage now.”
Lucky (for some)
Arnór is a familiar face on the Reykjavík comedy scene, but this year was the first time he’d braved the Fringe stage, starring in not one, but two shows (one the aforementioned solo extravaganza and the other in collaboration with Huw Coverdale Jones).
“It’s the third year of the festival and every year I was nearly going to do it,” he explains. The first year he felt too new to performing. The second, he missed the application deadline, and if it hadn’t been for COVID-19, 2020 might have been another no-show. “I applied too late so I didn’t get in, but then the pandemic happened and they were looking for people. I got kind of lucky, I guess. It’s bad for the world but it benefitted me,” he laughs awkwardly.
“I feel grateful that I didn’t do a show in those two years because I’ve become a stronger comedian and performer over that time,” he reflects. But while today the comedian radiates a quiet confidence, when Arnór first left his small northern hometown for Reykjavík, that was anything but the case.
Geese and weirdos
Arnór first set his eyes on the stand-up stage at age 18 thanks to the nonchalant ease of Louis C. K. “That kind of style looks easy. I know now it’s one of the hardest to achieve, but back then I thought if he can do it, I can,” he relays, “I just became obsessed, I thought about it non-stop every day.”
But there was one problem: Arnór lived in a rural northern village, hundreds of miles from the open-mics of Reykjavík. In fact, as Arnór emphasises, there was no comedy scene where he grew up and in fact, very little organised entertainment full stop. He subsequently launches into an anecdote about the most thrilling summer of his childhood, the year a goose named Goosey arrived:
Desperate to flee the monotony of small-town life and achieve his aspirations, Arnór made a plan. “I applied to film school as a cover-up to move to Reykjavík to do comedy without anybody knowing,” he explains. “Where I come from, if you say you want to be a stand-up comedian people are not going to take you seriously. They’re just going to think you’re a weirdo.”
After the big move, Arnór a year to finally pluck up the courage to make it up on stage. “I even remember the day: 16th of June. It was on a Friday, downtown at Bar 11,” he reminisces. “I remember everything because I signed up two weeks early and I couldn’t sleep for two weeks.” When he turned up, his audience was a resolutely bad-humoured stag-do from Dalvík.
“I was actually bailing as they introduced me on stage. I was too nervous; I couldn’t think. I had opened up the door to leave, but I heard everyone clap for me so I turned back. Then my mind just went blank. Eventually, I remembered the joke, but the timing was off and I held the mic at my belly-button because I was too nervous to think about my hands and nobody was laughing because nobody could hear me. Even if they could hear me, they wouldn’t have been laughing because the whole thing was just too weird.”
While his debut was, as the comedian himself describes it, “horrible,” the show did give him the confidence to do it again. “I got off stage and I was very happy,” he smiles. “I knew I had bombed, but I had finally done the thing I’d been wanting to do for years.”
“It’s kind of odd to think about it now because stand-up just feels way too normal now. I’m really grateful that I had the balls to do it—I don’t know where I would be right now if I hadn’t,” Arnór reflects. “Sometimes I feel more like myself on stage than in real life. I feel like I have more control over how I feel. There’s nothing else I want to do, everything else is just boring.”
Gotta love those drunk farmers
Though Arnór cut his teeth on the Reykjavík comedy circuit, the first time he felt like he had truly “made it” was at a performance at a Þorrablót celebration for a crowd of drunk farmers in a school gymnasium in his northern hometown.
“It was one of the shows that I’ve been most nervous for because I felt like I had to prove myself. Of course, it was just in my own head — the small town mentality isn’t actually that bad,” he says. “But I did ten minutes and it went really well. I made fun of some locals, which really kills in a small town. I felt like I was doing it for real, like I’d proved to them that I could do comedy.”
At the same time, a new development in Arnór’s personal life has made him more determined than ever to continue honing his craft. “I feel like I have a game plan now that I’m a father,” he concludes. “I used to do comedy at the Secret Cellar every night and drink and not really think about it, but now I feel like I’m on a mission. If you’re leaving your girlfriend and baby to go and do something, you’d better make it count. So now when I leave, I feel like I have to improve every time.”
He takes a last sip of coffee, gives profuse thanks for the award and is promptly off to the Secret Cellar for his triumphant return to the stage.
Check out Arnór Daði on Facebook and watch his recent appearance on the Grapevine’s Love Ísland series here.
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