When I first thought of writing about Norwegian humour, I asked my foreign friends living in Norway what they thought of the topic. They did not even understand the question: “You mean you want to find out whether Norwegians have humour at all? Whether they ever laugh?”. To be fair, it is true that Norwegians don’t have the reputation of being the clowns in the room, which is probably why many foreigners believe that Norwegians laugh only when they have a facial cramp. But it’s not because people here do not laugh out loud and crack your back open with a strong arm when they think something is funny. They might not laugh like HAHAHA but they could be laughing inside, finding something hilarious by showing a faint smile. It is just that like all feelings people have in this country, they are hidden inside of them.
Norwegian humour has evolved with time
I do believe Norwegians love to laugh, and there is a mix of different types of humours which hit a nerve with Norwegians since the 1980s such as irony and dry humour. Would anyone today laugh to tears at Leif Juster who came on stage saying “Mot normalt” like in the 1950s? I watched the video several times, still don’t understand why this is funny. Not sure whether it is because I am from another culture or from another generation. But although Norwegians love to laugh, I am not sure there is a typical Norwegian humour like the typical British humour.
In any case humour is very important in Norwegian society. If you think about it, to survive in a country where it is night time half of the year and raining the rest, you need minimum two things: alcohol and humour. And sex. And holidays in the South. Okay that makes four things.
One of the possible reasons that most foreigners do not see that Norwegians have humour is that many Norwegians have a very dry humour. They say things with a serious face, but it was actually a joke. It might be a word of play. Or something calling for your imagination. Once I was on the island of Røst and this fisherman who took me on a bird-safari started telling me why there were less and less puffins. He told me that they ate baby mackerel, but that because of overfishing there weren’t enough of those, so the puffins did not have enough to eat and died too young. Something like that. Then he added “The only hope is to genetically transform the baby mackerel for them to have big green eyes and transparent skin, so that environmentalists will make campaigns to protect them”. His face was so straight, but there was a glint in his eye. He was making a joke. A tip: if you wonder whether it was a joke or not, it probably was. Stay in this country 10 or 15 years and you will detect it every time. Or make friends with someone from Trøndelag and he will teach you in a week or two.
Word of play and absurd humour
Norwegian language has many opportunities for wordplay, but it is even more obvious when one takes into account the unbelievable amount of dialects, their different words and pronunciation. Most Norwegian dialects are much more illustrative and interesting for humour than dry bokmål which was inherited from Danish. Danish language seems much less prone to humour to me than Norwegian. How could people who don’t even understand each other on a daily basis have the ability to make jokes, let alone have a sense of humour?
Sverre Bjørstad Graff is the author and illustrator of the very popular and hilariously funny Absurdgalleriet. Considering his huge fan base, it seems fair to say absurd humour is hitting a nerve in the Norwegian public. This mixes absurd situations and word of play on Norwegian words with double meanings or misspelt to mean something else. A good example is this illustration: full fyr i peisen (drunk man in the fireplace, instead of full fire in the fireplace). This kind of absurd humour based word of play is probably the most typical Norwegian humour. Irony is used all over the world, but when one bases a joke on Norwegian cultural references, spelling differences or some obscure dialect word, nothing gets more Norwegian than that.
Another home run is the very bad English some Norwegians have, using Norwegian expressions as if they were translatable in English: “Honey, don’t forget to take the dekks with the pigs” (piggdekk is a spiked tire), is one of them. You can also listen to Nils Arne Eggen, who depsite his job as a football trainer is a born comedian, as he is funny without even trying, like here.
Disproportionate amount of comedians, humour shows and comic books
For such a small country there is a disproportionate amount of comedians in Norway such as Harald Eia, Bård Johansen, Espen Eckbo, the Ylvis brothers, Robert Stoltenberg; and surprisingly many women: Linn Skåber, Hege Schøyen, Tønne & Tusvik, Lene Kongsvik Johansen, Pernille Sørensen, etc. It looks like gender equality reaches even to humour in Norway. Norwegian television is packed with humoristic programmes, from Nytt på Nytt to Ylvis, all of them hiring some of the comedians above and making high audiences. Those are the most watched on television, with the Hurtigruten and knitting programmes but I mean those programmes are so awesome it is hard to compete with them right? Also people like Frode Øverli who makes the hilariously funny (and popular) comic book Pondus.
I recently met in a café a guy called Yousef Mourad Hallaoui. This guy and the show’s director Audun Selsjord Bartlie are very funny, making fun of Norwegians, immigrants, Jews, Muslims and even of Norwegian feminists. I mean you have to have some guts to go there: he plays with the tabous of Norwegian society and the irony in them. The show is called Svart Humor (meaning dark humour in Norwegian), and represents, I believe, the new generation of comedians in today’s multicultural Norway. Check out some of his videos about Norwegian expressions and its animals, and another one on sex and politics. His new show is coming up on NRK televison soon.
What Norwegians believe they have: self-irony
On the down side, I noticed Norwegians really believe they have self irony. I think there is a confusion here between irony and self-irony. Selvironi is the ability to laugh about oneself. Norwegians definitely have the ability to laugh about others (like everyone else), but laughing about oneself is a much more difficult exercise. I think the Britts have that ability more than Norwegians. For example this blog uses irony a lot. But strangely enough a lot of readers laugh only when I make fun of non-Norwegians,and become very sensitive when I use irony against Norwegians. The time I wrote about strange things Norwegians do during meetings or about unclear Norwegian women, my texts were criticized with packs of brunost thrown at my face for saying such bad things about this great country. In some domains in Norway irony is not welcome, neither is self-irony, such as criticism of the Norwegian way to raise children, gender equality and Norwegian feminism, and making fun of immigrants if you aren’t an immigrant yourself. It depends who you make fun of, and who the public is. Jokes about Østlendingers will be very much appreciated in the North of Norway, while jokes about Swedes are appreciated by everyone in Norway. Basically it depends if you want to make friends or enemies.
To the foreigners out there, do not give up on learning Norwegian languages and digging into this culture in order to reach the level that will allow you to make jokes and to understand jokes, even when they are said with a straight face. Humour is the most difficult part of understanding a foreign culture as there are so many references one must learn. But as my baker in France says, as long as there is life there is hope. I wish you good luck on that path, and stop saying Norwegians have no sense of humour!
This article was published in the national newspaper VG on 02.04.2016 under the title: En typisk norsk humor?