Jón Gnarr is most famous for his radio show Tvíhöfði, and his award-winning comedy TV show Fóstbræður – shows that established comedy in each respective medium. He has also done theatre, feature films, commercials, an animated TV show, written poetry and prose, and aside from having a hand in writing most of the things he’s starred in, from 1992’s TV show Hegðun, Atferli, Framkoma to 2004’s TV show Svínasúpan, he’s recently penned a play of his own, Naglinn, a play on the realities of being a man in today’s Iceland. In it, the protagonist argues that society has relegated manliness to one room in the house: the bathroom.
Jón is currently writing a book. His autobiography, or at least the first volume of it, to be exact. He says it’s a very honest, candid and altogether splendid book, and he says everyone should read it. So much for being your own worst critic.
/// You recently wrote a play, Naglinn, where you touched on social commentary in quite a serious way, whereas up until recently, all you’d really done is comedy. Do you find that people are unable to take you seriously?
– Of course. When I started writing Christian opinion pieces, a lot of people simply dismissed it as phoney.
I’ve never really agreed with most people’s perception of comedy. I think comedy is a kind of art, an art in and of itself. Not everybody thinks that. Most people think comedy is just a pastime activity, some kind of meaningless entertainment. Until recently, there hasn’t been much of a tradition for comedy, other than Spaugstofan-type satire, or impression and mockery. The main reason I’ve become less attached to comedy and kind of removed myself from it, is so that I can see the divide between (seriousness and comedy), because I’ve never really liked a lot of comedy that’s going on (in Iceland today). There’s not a very high standard for it.
/// Do you mean now, or when you started, or just always?
– Well, it’s kind of selfish or self-centred to say this, but I’ve never really found any Icelandic comedy funny that I haven’t done or been a part of. I’ve never liked anything else. These days I’ve been looking it all over, what people are finding funny today, and I didn’t find anything until I started listening to (talk radio) Útvarp Saga. (Laughing.) That’s the only originally funny thing going on in Iceland that you can really laugh at. It’s unique, really.
/// So I imagine it must have frustrated you when you were doing Tvíhöfði and people were categorising it as just another shock-jock morning show. Did you think that was unfair, seeing as how you view comedy as being an art form, rather than a pastime?
– No, not really, that’s never really annoyed me. What really annoys me is when people call me an ‘entertainer’. I’ve called up papers to tell them “I’m not an entertainer, please do not to refer to me as an ‘entertainer’. Those are the guys with bowlers that do shows at annual balls.”
/// You’ve appeared in pretty much every medium there is. You’ve done TV, movies, theatre, radio, commercials, in pretty much every conceivable way. Have you discovered anything about the nature of entertainment? Which medium reaches people best? What do people follow the most?
– It depends on the timing. They kind of go in and out of fashion. Sometimes there will be a focus on a certain medium, and then it just disappears, moves along…For a time, Icelanders were very book-oriented, which we really aren’t anymore… after that, we became a TV nation… it changes a lot, depending on the nature and situation of things. For example, the TV commercial scene now is completely different now than it was ten years ago.
/// Do you miss radio?
– That’s a touchy question, but yes, I miss radio… I find myself longing to go back there, and maybe I will go back one day, it’s not out of the question.
/// I can imagine that it’s a lot easier to get your opinion across than on TV, where you need all kinds of preparation, such as make-up, costumes, a script, whereas on radio, you just… do it.
– Yes… like I said, I’ve been listening a lot to Útvarp Saga, and I think that that’s a lot of fun. They’re brilliant, absolutely brilliant, the people working there. Arnþrúður Karlsdóttir, for example, she was on yesterday and she was very angry, very opposed to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and saying how disgusted she was that a Christian nation could do such a thing. (Laughs.) I thought that was interesting. (Útvarp Saga) also have fortune tellers on.
/// Don’t you think that humour is just like fashion, with different kinds of humour becoming popular at different times? Like when you guys were on top, everyone was laughing at Tvíhöfði, and today there’s something else that people are laughing at. I mean, people are actually laughing at the morning shows on FM 957.
– Exactly. People are laughing at things that I just… don’t find funny, and I don’t understand what they like… I mean, humour is a part of life, it’s part of being a human being. Humour is only found among higher primates, like chimpanzees and humans… and orangutans and people like that.
/// (Laughing) Chimpanzees have a sense of humour?
– Oh sure. It’s a sign of intelligence, humour is a sign of intelligence. To have a sense of humour is connected to the enlargement of the brain. It’s about being able to see life from an absurd standpoint, and be able to find something funny in one’s difficulties, and there’s a sense of empowerment to that. There’ll be something that happens to you, or you’ll have to cope with, and if you can make fun of that, then it’s not such a big deal. A sense of humour is vitally important to human beings. People without a sense of humour, they just wither away in some corner and die.
/// Maybe. So you have always been known as, and kind of still are, a rebel of sorts. You’ve been in the position of having fairly unpopular opinions on things, and even your name, Gnarr, isn’t really a name, it’s just something you’ve taken up yourself.
/// Is that just something that happened, that you had opinions like that, or did you just adopt them because they weren’t popular to begin with?
– No. No, I’ve just always had my opinions, my views, and have just been more inclined to pursue those opinions when they’re unpopular, you understand? It’s like punk. I’m punk, and I’ve always been punk… I’ve always been Jónsi Punk, and in a lot of ways, this whole (conversion to Catholicism), I find that very punk.
/// In what way?
– This has never been confirmed or anything, but I am retarded. I’m retarded, in the way that I find it very difficult to handle any kind of structure, you see. Any kind of organisation is just impossible for me, it’s just chaos. I’ve always been that way, since I was little. I’ve never been able to write in a straight line, for instance. Every time I try to write, the writing just starts to curve up or down. Even if it’s lined paper, it just goes everywhere.
I was pressed into a whole system… I wrote an article about it all, this phenomenon that I called drawerism. It’s like there’s this imperative to shove everything into a drawer. I’ve always found it cool to rebel against this drawerism, this obsession with classifying everything, you know, this sort of “If you do this, then you must be this.” Every time when there’s been something like that, something politically correct, I’ve rebelled against it, it just isn’t me, somehow. That’s just my opinion, it’s not really a calculated sensibility, I mean, I don’t just say “I’m going to be against this just because it’s fashionable,” it’s just my opinion. That may be due to my being retarded.
/// More of an instinctual thing?
– Yes, it’s just instinct. Nothing I’ve done has ever stirred up as much controversy as my conversion, or christening, or whatever you want to call it. I can’t remember getting such a harsh reaction since being in Hegðun, Atferli, Framkoma (an early, somewhat racy TV collaboration with Sigurjón Kjartansson). I mean people were calling in with death threats, they were going to kill me because they didn’t agree with things I said, and to take that position, to be pro-Christianity, it was impossible to be any more politically incorrect than that.
/// How did that happen? When did it become politically incorrect to be Christian?
– The position I was in at the time just made it very politically incorrect. Being Jón Gnarr, being in Tvíhöfði, being in Fóstbræður, all that, and then suddenly, oomph. I’m Christian, and writing opinion pieces and ponderings (in Fréttablaðið).
/// You mean that Christians that hadn’t agreed with (your work) were unwilling to accept you as one of their own?
– No, it was mostly those who weren’t Christian. Those who were against the religion, or the church. That’s what things are like today. There’s a lot of unrest in religious circles, mostly due to homosexuals, whether or not homosexuals can exist or get married or something, and very strong movements form against organised religion. (Organised religion) becomes some kind of regressive force that’s just singling out people to hate, and things like that… and I found it a lot of fun to go against that kind of drawerism, you know? Why can’t I be Christian, if that’s my belief? I don’t give a shit what people think about that, I’ll do as I please and I’ve gotten very mixed opinions about that.
When I started having a no-swearing policy on (Tvíhöfði)… you heard that, right?
/// Yeah, you had a swearjar, right? Strange that the only way you can be unacceptable today is to be very acceptable, taking up religion and becoming a stand-up citizen… people suddenly find that very offensive.
– Yes, you’re right. I supported Gísli Marteinn (Baldursson, an unpopular right-wing mayoral candidate and former TV show host) when he ran for office. I supported him, and that was very politically incorrect, and people were asking me if I was insane… and no, I’m not… I’m not certifiably insane. (Laughing.)
/// Good to get that cleared up.