Published April 16, 2015
I’m doing a gig in Selfoss for 17-20 year-olds? This is going to suck, hard. There’s no booze. There’s no one there when I arrive. What was I thinking? I’m in a basement in Selfoss. That sounds like the beginning of a novel by Arnaldur Indriðason.
I was the last one out of the three opener comedians, so when I finished I grabbed a seat in the audience. It’s my first chance to see professional comedy in Iceland…in Icelandic, a language I do not know.
A tall, broad man strides onto the stage. He’s wearing a baseball cap, which is unusual in Iceland—usually a good way to spot a tourist or a celebrity. His face is serious but quickly breaks into a mischievous smile. For the next fifteen minutes, he rocks the crowd—averaging eight to twelve laughs-a-minute.
I am suddenly very conscious that I’m in a different country. Everything seems familiar, except I can’t understand what he’s saying. I can hear the timing, see the gestures, hear the laughter, but I don’t understand. Icelandic stand-up has the same raw timing as English-speaking stand up—just slightly more melodic at times and with more rhyming. You can hear the set-up and then the punch line.
By the end of his set, I’m turning to the other opener comedians and remarking on how great it went. Who is he? He’s Halldór Halldórsson a.k.a. Dóri DNA, a former Icelandic rapper and the grandson of Nobel-prize winning author Halldór Laxness.
Mið-Ísland: the birth of the new wave of stand-up in Iceland
Modern stand-up comedy in Iceland is the result of Halldór Laxness’s grandson owing money to a bar in downtown Reykjavík. Not a bad origin story.
Dóri DNA was a rapper with a talent for wit and humour, which set him apart from the scene, especially in rap battles.
“We were a hard bunch,” Dóri told me. “We were from the suburbs of Mosfellsbær. We were kind of problem teens, so rap came more naturally. I used to compete a lot in battles. Being funny was the thing. Some guys could rap better than me. Some guys freestyle better than me. No one was funnier than me.”
Dóri was doing shows all over Iceland, but he could feel himself growing out of it.
“Being a rapper in Iceland doesn’t involve a lot of money,” said Dóri. “I woke up one morning, looked in the mirror, and thought to myself, ‘You ain’t this rapper type anymore. You’re just not cool enough. You can’t maintain this image.’”
Dóri and his friend Bergur Ebbi decided they were going to start doing stand-up. Dóri owed money at Prikið, a bar on Reykjavík’s famous Laugavegur, and he would pay it off by performing stand-up.
“It was my first time and I did a 45-minute set,” said Dóri. “I just told every joke I ever thought of. It was packed and people were laughing. It went really great.”
In the crowd were Ari and Jói—leaning against the bar and studying the show. As soon as the show was over they approached Dóri and Bergur Ebbi. They wanted to be on the next show.
Back at the basement in Selfoss, Ari strides on stage to steady applause. He’s dressed sharp: slick hair, clean-shaven, and a well-fitting jacket. His voice is steady and quick, with his piercing eyes expanding at his punch lines for emphasis and effect. As a stranger, I can’t imagine him not being a comedian. It’s hard to picture him standing in the crowd at Prikið, inspired to become what seems inevitable now.
“The first time I became aware of stand-up was with Eddie Murphy’s ‘Delirious,’” Ari explained. “My copy of ‘Delirious’ had no subtitles, but I learned it by heart. My friend and I would perform his routines by memory, but the funny thing was that sometimes we had no idea what he was talking about. We learned the timing of humour, when to laugh, even when we didn’t know what we were laughing about.”
Ari has always been working towards having a creative life. As a teenager, he would make films, mostly sequels to blockbusters on a shoestring budget in his mom’s garden. His father, Þórarinn Eldjárn, is a celebrated poet known for his humour and wit. He famously referred to Reykjavík’s pond as the world’s largest bowl of bread soup. Ari had the desire, support, and potential to do almost anything he wanted. He just needed an outlet.
“In the spring of 2009, Dóri posted the Prikið show as a Facebook event. This was back in the day. If 100 people said they were attending, they were,” Ari laughed. “I was interested to see if they would crash and burn. I was all for them doing well. I just wanted to see what would happen. Jói and I stood by the bar and watched. Immediately after the show we approached Bergur Ebbi and told him we wanted to do it too.”
Two weeks after the first show, Ari and Jói joined Dóri and Bergur Ebbi to perform another show at Prikið. Not long after that they formed Mið-Ísland, which would become the first stand-up comedy group in Iceland.
“Bergur Ebbi named the group Mið-Ísland,” said Ari. “He’s a guy who names groups. He’s a group namer. It’s the official term for the highlands. It’s the high terrain where nobody lives. I have no idea why we are named after that. Bergur Ebbi had a band he named ‘Sprengjuhöllin’, which translates to ‘The Explosion Palace.’ Another bullshit name, but it sounds nice and it rings out.”
Mið-Ísland evolved at hyper-speed. In a country where Jón Gnarr, a comedian, was elected mayor of its biggest city, the lack of a stand-up scene was too conspicuous—leading to huge growth and opportunity for everyone, but especially for Ari. He started doing stand-up in spring 2009, and then quit his job in January 2010 to become a professional comedian, which is what he does full-time. Now, only six years since his first gig, Ari is Iceland’s king of stand-up.
Not just a boys’ scene
I’m still in the Selfoss basement when Saga Garðarsdóttir is called on stage. She’s an instant presence, tall and captivating, but the most noticeable features are her energy and voice. She fills the space, as it is said in acting. You can’t help but pay attention. Her timing is rapidfire and her physicality on stage is hilarious, almost cartoonish. The crowd can’t stop laughing and neither can I.
“The Mið-Ísland guys started this boy’s scene,” said Saga. “They asked me and my friend Ugla to warm up for them, but we had no clue what to do. I had never really seen stand-up before. I had seen tiny bits of Louis C.K., but I was not a stand-up fan. We warmed up for them by doing a very weird poetry reading. We took really old Icelandic poems and rewrote them as if a teenager had written them. Then we would ask the audience which poem it was. It was like a weird poem quiz.”
Saga studied acting and was used to performing in sketch comedy. When Saga’s two friends, Ugla and Nadia, decided there should be a women’s scene too, Saga avoided joining. She didn’t feel she knew what to do and her work at school was already overwhelming. That was until Ugla called Saga up and told her, “I kind of booked you on our show next Thursday.”
“‘You booked me kind of?’ I asked,” said Saga. “‘Next Thursday?’ I didn’t have time for that. I didn’t know what to do. Ugla told me that if I was going to continue to be her best friend, I had to perform and be there for her. I was so nervous. I wrote down every humiliating experience I’d ever had, which mostly consisted of me pissing myself.”
Saga’s first show went well, and after that she continued doing stand-up. She’s a regular on the Mið-Ísland show in the basement of the National Theatre. Now, she’s a superstar—starring in movies, plays, and stand-up shows all over the country.
After the show in Selfoss, I needed to see more stand-up in Icelandic. It was strange having to be so attentive at a show. I couldn’t understand the language so I needed to try and absorb as much as I could: intonation, body language, timing, and facial expressions. You start to pick up nouns, places, and verbal ticks, but if you really watch it doesn’t matter too much. You can feel comedy.
The next big event featured famous cartoonist turned stand-up comic Hugleikur Dagsson at Húrra, a hip nightspot. Also on the show was Þórdís Nadia Semichat, a founder of the girls’ scene. Her plunge into stand-up was the usual tale of a belly-dancer-turned-comedian.
“I started belly-dancing when I was around 20,” said Nadia. “I’m shy and when I was younger I was even worse. I found myself through dancing. It made being on stage a lot easier. I discovered I had charisma on stage that I didn’t have in real life.”
At the Húrra show, Nadia comes onto stage dancing—bursting with charisma. Once she starts speaking, the pace is slowed, controlled. She shifts from a still motionless face to a large smile in time with her jokes. I can see the belly-dancing influence in her stage presence and body control—everything seems finely tuned.
“Mið-Ísland was something so fresh,” said Nadia. “It was young guys doing comedy rather than middle-aged actors. I was just disappointed there were no women, so I started recruiting some girls to do stand-up. I planned a female stand-up show, and everyone was like ‘yeah!’ but then no one wanted to do it. They wanted someone else to do it. I never considered myself to be funny, but I decided fuck it, somebody has to do it.”
The show at Húrra was Nadia’s return to stand-up after a two-year break. She had been doing corporate shows (company parties and dinners), but they left her feeling uninspired. However, in the last six months, stand-up in Iceland has started another boom: more shows, more comedians, more interest.
The founders may have started the new scene, but it’s snowballing into something even bigger [Check out this documentary on the Stand Up Girls of Iceland (subtitles)].
The alternative scene: Hugleikur Dagsson and Anna Svava
In such a new and relatively small scene, it’s mostly tongue-in-cheek to talk about a couple people as the “Alternative Scene”—especially when Hugleikur Dagsson is Ari’s cousin. The shows are different, though. Still polished, still affecting, but a different vibe, slower paced and unapologetically personal. Hugleikur, a regular Grapevine contributor, has a big following as a cartoonist and Über-nerd. He knows himself. He wears a suit with Converse All-Stars. He has messy black hair and dark-rimmed glasses. His laugh is infectious and his smile stretches across his face like the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland.
“I thought maybe the Icelandic language wasn’t suited for stand-up,” said Hugleikur. “When I saw Ari do it, I thought maybe I can do it. The worst thing that can happen is I’ll be totally humiliated. I had an advantage, though. People know my books and I can get away with anything, I think.”
Hugleikur might be right. You can hear when he’s crossed a line, or pushed a boundary, but the audience trusts him. The oohs and aahs only last a few seconds. He has a Gluten Schizer joke that ends with a Werner Herzog impression describing the state of a recently used toilet.
“I’m disguising a stupid poop joke as something smart or profound,” said Hugleikur. “The Mið-Ísland group are all different from each other. I’m different from them too. I’m filthier. I talk about edgier topics. I talk about racism. Racism is really funny. I mean the thing itself is terrible. It’s the fact that people are racist that I find funny. We’re a culture of 300,000 people. We can’t afford to be racist.”
Hugleikur performed two shows in February with comedian and actress Anna Svava at Cafe Rosenberg. Anna was almost nine months pregnant at the time. Yet, with her performance, you can’t tell. She holds court and delivers. She’s like your funniest best friend or who you wish your best friend was. She started doing stand-up before Mið-ísland. She might be the precursor to the new wave, the seed of the scene. Maybe.
“I never thought of doing stand-up. I never did it. It would be the same as waking up one morning and being like, ‘I think I’ll paint today.’ If you’ve never painted that would be strange,” said Anna. “I was working with the director of the New Year’s comedy show and we decided to do a one-woman show. It was going to be about my teenage years. One day, he said, ‘Why don’t you just stand there and tell the stories like you do to me?’ It was called the ‘Diary of Anne’. We did the posters just like the cover of ‘Diary of Anne Frank’. People came to the show and said, ‘Wow, you’re doing stand-up.’”
Anna started getting calls from businesses to do ten minutes at parties, and getting paid. They would ask her to tell her own stories plus write jokes specifically for them.
“I did this every weekend for three years,” said Anna. “Maybe a few weeks off in the summer, but I was booked six months in advance. When I started there was nobody. It was 2008.”
Anna performs with Mið-Ísland and Hugleikur. She recently had a child. “I have to perform now that I had a baby,” Anna said. “I have so much more material.”
“I found that in English punchlines tend to be nouns,” said Izzard. “I hit him with a kettle. I hit him with a kipper. It’s all something that’s at the end of a sentence and it’s a noun. The example I gave on stage today was, ‘Caesar, did he ever think he’d end up as a salad?’ Salad is the silly item, so salad releases the laugh. In German it goes, ‘Caesar, hätte nie gedacht (“did he ever think”), dass er einmal (“that he one time”), als Salat enden würde (“as salad end up would have”).’ The verb comes right behind the noun and so you don’t have time to go, ‘well, what are you doing with that noun then?’ It’s a split second behind it. I thought there would be a whole trick to doing different languages. There isn’t. It’s just timing.”
The effects of the new wave: the amateur stand-up scene
The speed of Mið-Ísland’s evolution, from a bar tab to an institution at the National Theatre, feels unnatural. It’s not that stand-up comedy was new, globally. It was just not here, not in Iceland. A void was filled with unlikely strands: poets, a cartoonist, and a bellydancer. The scene seemed to move at hyper-speed to catch up with the rest of the world.
Yet, like in all stories, there were independent pockets bubbling in the primordial ooze, separate strands that are apart of the story, without being the story itself. The new wave of amateur comedians who are aspiring to perform and succeed may draw inspiration from Mið-Ísland, but the man who took the time to run open mic nights, or experimental gigs, started doing stand-up twelve years ago in 2003. His name is Rökkvi Vésteinsson.
I met Rökkvi at Rokkbarinn, a rock bar in Hafnarfjörður, at one of his monthly gigs. He was hosting the night. The crowd was polite, but quiet. He never flinched and kept going until finally, the crowd laughed. He’s never been a professional comic, but he loves stand-up. Over the past twelve years he’s imported comedians to Iceland, performed outside of Iceland in five different languages, and lived and performed in Montreal, Canada. He even entered Yuk Yuk’s Canadian Laugh Off in Ottawa.
“It’s surprisingly harder than I thought it would be,” Rökkvi laughed. “I mean I can speak to people. But there is so much added difficulty to performing stand-up. I tried to do small gigs throughout 2006, but it wasn’t until 2009 that I really started doing amateur stand-up gigs. In 2013, I started regular experimental gigs for amateur comedians.”
Rökkvi has been trying since 2003 to make something with stand-up comedy in Iceland. He’s failed, bombed, and even had a gig in Keflavík where no one showed up, so the comedians had to perform for themselves. He has an affinity for dressing up like Borat and filming himself. There are YouTube videos of him running down Laugavegur in a mankini, not to mention a commissioned commercial for the fast-food drive-thru Aktu Taktu, which has Rökkvi calling himself Borat and reading the menu in English. He does, however, donate nearly all the money he makes at the door to the Children’s Hospital, and Aktu Taktu gives Rökkvi meal coupons to give to the parents of sick children.
“It was quite hard. If things had been easy, I would be doing a lot better right now,” said Rökkvi. “I would get momentum and then lose momentum. I would get the momentum again and lose it again. I get momentum. I have kids. It took a lot of runs at the wall for the wall to break.”
Rökkvi’s amateur shows at Rokkbarinn and, in 101 Reykjavík, at Bar 11, have opened the door for some great new talent.
I first saw Snjólaug Lúðviksdóttir, a regular of Rökkvi’s rooms, perform at Stúdentakjallarinn, in a monthly show she runs with a sponsorship by GoMobile. It’s a large room with students of different nationalities. Her performance is like a rockslide. She starts off slow, controlled, even reticent, but as soon as she hits her first punchline, her energy crashes over the audience. She has a distinctly British style—fast-paced with storytelling.
“I was always funny, but as a writer. I was too shy to be the class clown,” said Snjólaug. “I used to write diary entries and then read them out to my friends. They loved them. I started a blog and people would write me to tell me my blog was funny. That would make my day.”
Snjólaug did a masters in creative writing in London. Her first stand-up gig was in English while she studied there.
“London has a tradition of stand-up. You can go everyday of the week. The audiences are used to it, so you can get away with more,” said Snjólaug. “It’s always been the reverse in Iceland. People are famous, then they get a one-man show. Mið-Ísland changed all that, and now it’s possible to have a career in stand-up comedy—or at least it will be possible soon.”
Snjólaug’s Stúdentakjallarinn show featured two other up-and-coming comedians: Andri Ívarsson and Bylgja Babylons. Both of them got their start through Rökkvi’s Bar 11 shows. Andri performs musical comedy, a niche position in the amateur scene. He plays guitar so well that it becomes funny that he’s doing stand up. He plays such an innocent, lovable guy on stage that he gets away with almost anything—ask him about Type II diabetes.
“I always wanted to be a rockstar. I love videos where the guy is standing on top of a mountain shredding,” said Andri. “I always feel there is a place for a ripping guitar solo. Now, I do that in the middle of jokes.”
Bylgja is no stranger to comedy. She had a web series, which was briefly aired on television. She played in a double act called Tinna & Tota, pretending to be a gym queen. She regularly does YouTube videos giving out humorous beauty tips—like using a vacuum to make your lips poutier, or using packing tape to get rid of wrinkles.
“I wanted to do stand-up for two or three years, but then I heard of this thing going on at Bar 11,” said Bylgja. “There is some momentum. People are seeing you at Bar 11 and offering you other gigs. However, those people want stand-up but don’t know how to host it. I still get brought on stage to, ‘Welcome Bylgja, she’s funny and she’s a girl.’”
Stand-up is so new here that it’s avoided many of the issues other scenes have dealt with. The audiences are well behaved and heckling isn’t very common. Comedians of every gender feel comfortable performing. It’s not male-dominated. Iceland is a fairly PC country—especially with the 101 Reykjavík and university crowd—weeding out possible problems before they begin.
The harshest heckler I’ve had here was in Bar 11 when I was doing a bit that involved Michael Jackson and Mickey Mouse. One audience member thought it was in bad taste and waited till everyone quit laughing to yell, “That wasn’t very nice.”
A question of language: the future of stand-up in Icelandic
If you ask any of the comedians, they’ll say they don’t think there is anything particularly special about Iceland’s comedy scene. It’s too small, too young. Its market is too little to be exciting or glamorous. It’s not New York or London or, even, Edmonton (where?). There is no chance of marketing outside of Iceland. The limits of exposure are clearly defined.
Ari has been travelling to Finland and doing sets in English—along with Hugleikur. Dóri and Ari have both done corporate sets in English.
“I want to have an international circuit that I can be a part of, but I always want to based here,” said Ari. “It’s not about fame or money. I just want to meet colleagues and other comedians. Share a beer with them. Maybe when I’m 60 I can be like, ‘Yeah, I toured with him. That guy was fun.’”
I know what Ari is saying. I have the same feeling here. I have been studying, researching, and becoming involved in this scene for months, and I don’t expect anything from it. I don’t speak the language. I’m a conspicuous audience member and a forgettable fellow performer. This is their show. Yet, I want to be able to say, “Yeah, I met those comedians. They were great. I got to perform with them when they really started to take off. You all should have been there.”
It doesn’t really matter if Iceland’s scene grows or shrinks. It happened and they did it. In a country of 330,000 people, performing in a language spoken by roughly the same number of people, they made something spectacular. They built a creative space. They built an institution. They inspired their friends, family and citizens. It was always for Iceland, to give something more, to be something more.
“My comedy career, professionally, is what I’m most proud of in my life,” said Dóri. “This is the biggest thing I’ve ever done. We started from nothing. We were a couple of guys with ideas and jokes. All of a sudden we have posters and sponsors that meet with us in an advertising agency and present us with a marketing plan. I’m so proud of it. I’m not jaded. I don’t take this for granted at all. We know this is a high spot right now and I know it will eventually fade. It will probably end like every story: We made it. We’re jaded. We fucking hate it. Ha.”
I don’t think the high spot has been reached yet. Mið-Ísland has inspired so many people not only to try stand-up, but also to watch it. There are more shows than ever before and the audiences are filing in. Shows at Stúdentakjallarinn are packed. Bar 11 usually has standing room only. Rokkbarinn in Hafnarfjörður sells out every time. Mið-Ísland’s shows are packed every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday all winter. Hí á Húrra has the energy of a comedy club. Comedy is snowballing and you can be a part of it. By the time you read this, there will probably be a new show started. Hell, if you hurry, maybe you can learn the language by the time the scene actually peaks. I’m starting classes today.