There is a long answer to that question, but the short answer is that every New Year’s Eve, the Icelandic state broadcaster RÚV puts on a half-hour to forty-five minute long sketch comedy programme that pokes fun at Icelandic politicians and celebrities.
75%–90% of the population tune in to watch it every year.
And the long answer?
New Year’s Eve in Iceland is a carnival. Not in the sense of a bunch of people parading down streets dressed as naked peacock-human hybrids, but in the sense of it being a time when the structure of society is overturned and celebrated and powerful are mocked, and it is considered a good idea to let drunk people play with fireworks.
Drunk people and fireworks. What could possibly go wrong?
Every New Year’s someone gets badly injured; this time a man went to the hospital after getting a firework in his face. In addition to that, twelve minor fires got started in Reykjavík and two grass fires broke out. Luckily, fire fighters had no trouble putting them all out. The end of the annual sketch comedy show actually serves as the starting gun for the fireworks. Icelanders generally gather for dinner with various family members for New Year’s Eve, and before shooting at the sky like angry cowboys cursing God, they get together to watch a sketch comedy show.
And is it any good?
Sometimes it is great. When the show is funny, it lives on in folk memory for years. There are people who speak wistfully of the 1985 edition, and the ones from 2001 and 2002 are considered classics. The bad ones also etch themselves into the popular consciousness, but for different reasons. Watching an unfunny comedy is never comfortable at the best of times, but being forced to endure it with your entire family adds another level of awkwardness. An unfunny sex joke is cringe worthy, and watching it sitting next to your mother and grandmother is even worse.
Why don’t people just turn it off?
It is a ritual as old as time. Well, as old as Icelandic-language television broadcasting. Practically everyone watches it, and hopes dearly that it will be good. So when it is bad, it is like watching a magician who says he will draw a rabbit from his hat, but instead produces a photo of your parents having sex and shows it on national television.
You seem like you speak from bitter experience
I will never forgive Andy “Wondrous” Sandrino for what he did. All made-up public humiliation aside, the end of the year sketch comedy is in theory as simple as pulling a rabbit out of a hat. There are only a few elements that need to be right: 1) The show must make fun of the famous and powerful. 2) It must reference events that most Icelanders will have heard of. 3) The satire must have an edge. 4) It must be funny.
I’d wager it’s the last one that’s tricky.
You would win that bet, though past editions have fallen afoul of the other ones. Satire aimed at un-powerful people is just mean. If it deals with things most people will not have heard of, it will go above people’s heads. And jokes without an edge are just back-slapping in another form; the subjects of the satire must feel the sting.
How do the targets respond?
There are three main strategies. The first and most effective one, taken by ageing rock star and perennial satiric target Bubbi Morthens, is to say that you found it all hilarious. Edda Sif Pálsdóttir, the daughter of the director of RÚV, who was hired by her father’s underling as a television sports journalist, exemplified the second method. She responded with incredulity that anyone would find the idea of hiring the boss’s offspring for a high profile TV job to be worthy of satire. And then there is the third way.
Going peachpit crazy?
As demonstrated by serial presidential candidate Ástþór Magnússon, whose political ambitions this year were ended when it turned out that the signatures he turned in as a prerequisite to stand for office were forged. He responded to being the butt of humour by pressing charges against RÚV director and father-of-the-year contender Páll Magnússon and sending a complaint about the content of the comedy show to the Icelandic government’s media watchdog, claiming it was not funny at all.
Well, was it funny?
It is traditional that everyone shares their opinion of the show with everyone else in the first days of the new year. However, I am not the best judge as I spent New Year’s Eve fighting off a virus. I will say, though, that my sickness was at least momentarily forgotten about as I frantically thought of ways to change the subject when my mother asked for an explanation of a deeply unfunny rape joke. Other than that, I have already forgotten what it was about.