From Iceland — Make Us Laugh, Clown: Ari Eldjárn’s Life Of Laughter

Make Us Laugh, Clown: Ari Eldjárn’s Life Of Laughter

Published May 27, 2019

Make Us Laugh, Clown: Ari Eldjárn’s Life Of Laughter
Andie Sophia Fontaine
Photo by
Hörður Sveinsson

It is impossible not to laugh while talking to Ari Eldjárn. The ebullient and vivacious comedian constantly breaks into dead-on impersonations, reenacts comedy sketches and enthusiastically quotes his friends to a point that you feel you are part of the story. This highly charismatic and generous attitude is the comedian’s trademark. He has been doing standup, writing for television and touring the world for the past decade, and is now known as one of Iceland’s most established working comics.

“I just realised a few days ago that it’s been ten years now,” Ari says, somewhat bewildered. “It hasn’t felt like ten years at all. It’s felt like a brief period of being very active, but it’s actually been a decade. In my mind I’m still just brand new.”

Despite this feeling, Ari is far from being fresh out of the gate. He’s been a writer four times for Áramótaskaup—Iceland’s annual New Year’s Eve comedy revue—has written three television series, and performed at numerous festivals worldwide, all the while being a hard-working local comedian, performing widely and hosting his own annual standup revue, styled after the aforementioned television program. For the past two years, Ari has been performing his one-man comedy hour, “Pardon My Icelandic”, around the globe and he is now in preparation mode for his second run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

West-end boy

Born in 1981 and raised in Reykjavík’s Vesturbær neighbourhood, Ari came from a prominent family in Iceland. His grandfather, Kristján, was the third president of Iceland, and his father, Þórarinn, is a highly respected writer well known for his humorous style. The fourth-born of five brothers (two now deceased), Ari’s older siblings played a huge role in developing his humour.

“It went really well until I finished my material and then I stood onstage while they booed me for twenty seconds and then I got gonged three seconds before five minutes. It was a nasty crowd.”

“I definitely have younger sibling syndrome,” he says. “My oldest brother was nine years older than me. He was really funny, and his friends were super funny, and I really looked up to them. Úlfur, my middle brother, is five years older. I hung around him and his friends a lot. I really liked their sense of humour and I really tried to make them laugh. I remember being really flattered every time they thought I said something funny.”

Class clown

Comedy figured heavily in the household, with his relatives gathering to watch the Áramótaskaup broadcast every year and critiquing it together. At ten years old, Ari and his cousin broke out the handheld camera and made their own ten-minute version of the show. “We forced people to watch it before the programme and they were always really nice like, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s better than the real one,’” he laughs. “Not being honest. I think that’s a very good part of building someone’s confidence. Ah, my poor relatives.”

Ari was an anxious and underperforming high school student at Menntaskólinn í Reykjavík, avoiding homework and being too cool for school while secretly praying not to get kicked out. He also exhibited typical class-clown behaviour.

“Not the funniest, definitely, but I did like my share of attention when I got it,” he says. “I liked the idea of being clever. Not that I was clever, but I aimed to be.” He managed to graduate on time, despite his risky academic performance, and went into working odd jobs for the next few years.

Mic on, mic off

The world of standup found its way to Ari in May 2009, when his friends Bergur Ebbi and Dóri DNA were putting on a standup show at Prikið. At the time, there was virtually no comedy scene in Reykjavík, so putting on shows was a very DIY, grassroots endeavor.

“I was interested to see how it would go because I’d always been thinking about it since I lived in England in 2005 and 2006,” he says. “I did go once or twice to some comedy nights. I remember watching and being like, ‘Oh, it’s interesting. It’s possible to do this.’ I always thought it was not possible. I just thought, ‘Surely there must be some Karate Kid process. You have to wax some cars before you can actually do that.’”

With a backlog of ideas and bits, he threw himself into the ring to perform at their next event and, two weeks later, he was standing in front of a packed room at the now defunct bar Karamba. “And I talked really fast, so fast,” he laughs. “I remember feeling like, ‘My god. One is allowed to do this. This is possible!’ I think it helped me immensely that I didn’t try it until I was 27. So I’d been around the block, so to speak. I had some experiences.”

That year proved quite busy for Ari. He did more comedy events with his friends in the comedy group Mið-Ísland, received private bookings, recorded a comedy album, and wrote the Áramótaskaup for the first time. “I had a couple of sketches that travelled a lot,” he says about the album. “One was a sketch about [famous Icelandic musician] Bubbi Morthens with an impression of him. A lot of people were telling me, ‘You have to hear this Bubbi segment from the radio, it’s really funny! You should do an impression of that!’ I’d say, ‘That’s me. That’s the sketch.’”

“I remember watching and being like, ‘Oh, it’s interesting. It’s possible to do this.’ I always thought it was not possible. I just thought, ‘Surely there must be some Karate Kid process. You have to wax some cars before you can actually do that.’”

Heroes and gong shows

In 2010, he made his next foray into television writing the short-lived series Hlemmavídeó with Hugleikur Dagsson and his comedic hero, Sigurjón Kjartansson, from the local cult series Fóstbræður.

“It didn’t get a great reception,” he admits matter-of-factly. “It’s pretty much gone and forgotten today. It was a really strange and flawed series but it had some moments of brilliance in it. And I got to work with Sigurjón, which was a dream come true for me.”

Ari also began to branch out overseas that year, taking his observational bit comedy over to London thanks to the help of an acquaintance, Snorri Hergill Kristjánsson, who hooked him up with open spots and local comedy contest slots.

“I’d been doing comedy for just under a year then and I did my first English material there,” Ari says. “I remember doing that just to challenge myself. I wound up at the King Gong Show at the Comedy Store. It went really well until I finished my material and then I stood onstage while they booed me for twenty seconds and then I got gonged three seconds before five minutes. It was a nasty crowd.”

This public devastation was enough to keep Ari from venturing back to UK for the better part of a decade. However soon after, he met Finnish comedian André Wickström, who brought him over to Finland to perform, which led to subsequent shows in Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

“I sort of practiced my material there, and as a result it became a lot about Nordic countries but in English,” he says. “It’s originally just Nordic material, but I just decided that I didn’t assume that people knew all the references. I’m just gonna do a version where you don’t have to know anything about the country. It’s fun to get away with telling a very local joke and explaining it enough that you don’t really need to know anything about the countries.”

The world’s stage

This style of Nordic observations in a universal setting gradually became Ari’s international brand, which over the years he has refined and developed into a one-hour show that he took to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2017. Almost immediately upon starting this run, he was spotted and picked up by the prominent Mick Perrin Worldwide agency, which led to Ari being invited to play the Soho Theatre in London and the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 2018.

“It was just fantastic to get an invite from Australia, because the festival brings a certain number of international acts and produces them themselves, whereas in Edinburgh you produce yourself,” he says. “It was one of the greatest trips of my life. Just crazy. I’d never been so far away. And the jetlag—wow! I used to work as a flight attendant but I didn’t really know what jetlag was.”

“You get to meet so many comedians at these festivals, and you realise just how many great comedians are out there that you might have never heard of otherwise,” he continues. “You hear so many interesting stories and see their perspective on gigging. And then you find out that you know a lot of the same people. It just evolves from there.”

The craft of comedy

Although he performs consistently in English, Ari adamantly writes in his native Icelandic. “I’m just way quicker at realising if something is funny in Icelandic,” he says. “I write in Icelandic, and then I translate it. Very little of my English stuff has been written in English only. I don’t have any bits that are conceived and performed only in English. Part of my writing process is just trying to work myself up to finding stuff that’s funny in Icelandic. And then you kind of have to filter out what is completely local.”

Developing his writing habits has also been an ongoing process of fine-tuning, which he still doesn’t feel he has truly mastered. “I go through a period of not writing much and then I will have a really good run of writing,” he says. “My preferred or default way of writing is just talking a lot and at some point I come up with something clever and then I just write that down. Then I start repeating it and fixing it and adding to it.”

“It’s fun to get away with telling a very local joke and explaining it enough that you don’t really need to know anything about the countries.”

He admits that he is a perfectionist, to which he attributes much of the lack of available media of his work online. “I suffer heavily from that, and as a result my output tends to suffer,” he says. “I think maybe the reason that standup proved to be so beneficial for me was that it’s got such a built-in drive. Like, you do a gig and there’s adrenaline and you get instant feedback, and you don’t have this crushing feeling of deadline that you get with maybe making scripts or writing. You don’t really have that if you just do a shitload of gigs because you’re always like, ‘I got a new bit, I’m gonna throw that in!’”

As he now returns to writing for his upcoming hour, “Eagle Fire Iron”, at this summer’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Ari is feeling both dread and excitement at the prospect of crafting new material. “I think that a lot of the confidence you build as a performer just comes from having done the material so many times that you can kind of anticipate what kind of reaction you’re gonna get,” he says. “My confidence will shift and fluctuate depending on where I am with my material at the time. But the most interesting time is definitely when you’re trying out new stuff and you’re struggling a bit. It doesn’t matter how experienced you are, you always have to start over again. I think in the next few weeks I’m gonna be doing a lot of new material. It’s going to be absolute mayhem and then it’s gonna be fun to weed out what I’m going to use.”

Family and fodder

Ari is lucky, however, to have an audience in his partner of 17 years, Linda, with whom he tests out all his material and who is often instrumental in helping him hone his bits.

“She has a massive role and I’m very, very happy that we have this working relationship as well, because it has produced some really good stuff,” he says. “She will not enjoy all of the stuff that I come up with but the stuff that turns on the bulb is stuff that works for her, that’s usually something that develops really fast. If she thinks something is funny, it’s just a gut feeling. And if she doesn’t care for other material, you know, it doesn’t matter. Although she will occasionally say, ‘That’s shit! Take that out!’, it’s usually along the lines of, ‘Oh, that’s really funny! I really enjoy that bit.’”

They currently have their hands full with their second child, a nine-month old girl, and the mayhem of raising two small children is proving itself to be ripe with material.

“Being a parent is so much admin, you just have to do so much stuff,” he sighs. “Every day at the end of the day when we put both of the girls down, they’re both asleep, we usually have to do the dishes and it’s just insane the amount of dirty dishes that we have to do. We’ve started calling this the soap opera of our lives. ‘Doing The Dishes: a new episode every day!’ Every time I do the dishes now I put on The Bold and The Beautiful theme song. Like, ‘Tonight on Doing The Dishes: the dishes!’ We’ve been trying to write a bit about that for months.”

Although his daily life inspires his bits, he doesn’t tend to write deeply personal material, unlike comedians who use the darkest realms of their soul as fodder. “You have to write about your own life a little bit, although I tend to just go with whatever I think is funny,” he says. “Some people I’ve seen at the Fringe have deeply personal shows and I really admire that. I might go for more personal stuff at some point. But at the moment, I don’t really control what becomes my set.”

Holding on tight

Along with getting down to brass tacks of writing his new Fringe show, this year Ari will finally be filming his previous show at Iceland’s National Theatre. “I’m excited about filming the show because, even though I’ve performed it numerous times in Australia, Scotland and England, I don’t really have footage of it,” he says. “It’s fun to do an English show in Iceland because I rarely do it. I think the main challenge is just to film it and be done with it. Some comedians are quite disciplined in a way that they will do specials regularly and do albums and they will produce some content. I want to do a little bit more of that. At this point I’m gonna try, maybe every two years, to do something and have some sort of recording.”

“I think June and July will be a mixture of trying out new material and then having some holidays with family. Then I’m just gonna go to Edinburgh and hold on as that train takes off. Hold on tight.”

Producing recordings has been a challenge for Ari as he has truly been enjoying being a live performer, and letting his material exist in a way that it can shift and change over time rather than remain static.

“For the last four years, I’ve been very happy to focus on standup,” he says. “In a way, your stuff lasts longer. You can polish it for more periods of time, and once you put it on TV so many people have seen it and you start maybe getting insecure about using it.”

The horizon

Ari’s plans beyond this point in time are rather open. He has his hands full with fatherhood, but he has also reached a stage in his career where he has accomplished many of his goals.

Still, he has aspirations on the horizon. He wants to do more experimental shows, trying out new, rough material for a live audience. He would like to venture back into television, sooner rather than later. He would like to work with a writing partner or director to develop a more theme-based show. But for now, Ari is living in the moment.

“I’m gonna try to enjoy the next couple of months,” he says. “I’m just going to start focusing on the new hour for the Fringe. So I think June and July will be a mixture of trying out new material and then having some holidays with family. Then I’m just gonna go to Edinburgh and hold on as that train takes off. Hold on tight.”

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