In Melbourne for the International Comedy Festival, Icelandic comedian Ari Eldjárn talks to Smith about quitting his day job to do comedy, and the universalities of humour. As told to Luke Ryan.
Even the concept of Icelandic stand-up only dates back to 2009, when a couple of my friends decided to give it a shot. It's hard to explain how much of an unknown stand-up comedy was in Iceland at the time. The only stand-up any of us had ever seen were Eddie Murphy and Eddie Izzard, and even then only on old VHS cassettes. My friends had to create and then perform in their own stand-up night. I saw this and I thought, ‘Wow, I could actually do this.’ A year later I dropped everything to do comedy full time. (Admittedly, I was working as a flight attendant, so this wasn't that much of a sacrifice.) The Icelandic comedy scene is very small. We are a country of 340 000, so there's really only space for a handful of people to do it – maybe half a dozen full-time.
In general, the Icelandic sense of humour is very sarcastic, very self-deprecating. It might seem like we're coming from a million miles away, but it's quite similar to the British and Australian sense of humour.
We're very dry, very wry and very aware of our own limitations. It is perhaps unsurprising that a core component of Icelandic comedy is how small we are. One of our favourite things to do as a people is claim that we're the best at things on a per capita basis. "Well, sure, we only got one goal in the match, but on a per capita basis, we scored like 59."
I have been surprised by how little I needed to change my material when I made the transition from Scandinavia to the rest of the world. I think Iceland is so popular these days that almost everyone has been there, or knows someone who has, so they already kind of know where you're coming from. Although, there are two routines that I have found to be universally successful. One, a bit about the noises my baby daughter makes. Two, a joke about trying to activate the sensor on those automatic hand drying machines. They seem to be the two things that really tie humanity together.
I hope I can be an example to other Icelandic comics that are thinking about making the jump. I was the first person from Iceland to do the Edinburgh Fringe in more than a decade. The guy before me was the first one ever, and he was already living in London. But now there's a couple of Icelanders already in Edinburgh, getting ready for this year's Festival. Three of us may not be much when you consider the 3000 shows at the Edinburgh Fringe. But on a per capita basis, it's a hell of an effort.
Video above: Ari Eldjárn at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival's Opening Night Comedy Allstars Supershow, March 2018.
Image on home page: Siggi Odds