This paper reviews the development of stand-up comedy in Finland, with its
focus on the origins of the art form, including its brief Finnish history.
It will also give insight into the particularities and recurrent themes of
Finnish stand-up comedy, and review the current state and the projected
future of the art form in Finland.
Stand-up comedy began to take form in the US towards the end of the
19th century, but — almost a hundred years later
— is only now becoming a well-known form of performing art to
Finns. How did stand-up comedy come into existence? Which performing
traditions could be considered its ancestors? What happened during the
hundred years the art form took to journey from the United States to
Finland? How, why and when has it developed in Finland? How does the
Finnish version of stand-up comedy compare to its American precursor?
Are there some distinctive particularities or themes that can be
distinguished in Finnish stand-up?
Stand-up Comedy: From Ascetics to 'Connections'
How is stand-up comedy different from other performing arts? Which
particularities make it different from (or similar to) plays, musical
acts, vaudeville shows or any number of other forms of stage activities?
In general, the stage of a performing stand-up comedian is extremely
plain, even ascetic. The basic equipment consists of a microphone and
possibly a microphone stand, a tall stool and a spotlight. That is all.
The wall behind the comedian is stereotypically built of red brick. The
room is usually dim and has no or very little decoration. There might be
a (grand) piano on the stage (Toikka and Vento 97).
There are exceptions, of course. For instance, almost all of the
episodes of the well-known American television series Comedy Central
Presents1 have some kind of elaborate
set behind the comedian, usually related to (one of) the theme(s) of the
routine.2 However, even these shows keep
the basic composition on the stage itself: the comedian, the microphone
and the spotlight.
The most important factor in stand-up comedy is the
‘connection’ between the individuals in the audience
as well as between the audience and the comedian. The lack of props or
'extra' equipment aims to bolster this connection, which is the
prerequisite, the main resource and the purpose of any stand-up show
(Toikka and Vento 97).
The success of the comic is always measured by the response of the
audience; in other words, a stand-up comedian is always at the mercy of
his/her audience. On the other hand, the audience can also be seen as a
resource: As André Wickström, one of the most successful
Finnish stand-up artists, points out, stand-up comedy should be based on a
dialogue between the performer and the audience. Stand-up comedy is not a
monologue by the performing artist; the reactions of the audience show the
comic where to go next. Wickström further explains that a comedian
should always have respect for the audience and understand that every
audience is different. In his opinion, taboo subjects as such do not
exist; any kind of subject can be ridiculed, but one should also remember
that there is no joke that everyone in any audience would find amusing
(Savola, TAUSTA: Stand up!).
Stand-up comedy as an art form owes much to show types such as the
minstrel show, vaudeville and burlesque.3 Each of these art forms generally included
musical acts and singing, dancing, sometimes elements from magical
shows, or the circus (see Toikka and Vento 79–84). In other words,
they were variety shows. Stand-up comedy was usually only one part of
these shows, but was eventually separated from them and recognized as an
art form in its own right.
Musical acts and music could be considered to have at least two
things in common with stand-up: First, according to Richard Fields, the
former part-owner of the Catch a Rising Star comedy club in New York,
since the 1980s, stand-up comedians have taken the role of
counterculture rock stars, as rock has become increasingly commercial
(in Toikka and Vento 95). Secondly, some comedians perform with
instruments or incorporate music in their routines, thus being part
musicians, part comedians. Examples include the popular New
Zealand-based guitar duo Flight of the Conchords, and the
Americans Stephen Lynch and Zack Galifianakis.4
The Origins of Stand-up Comedy
Laughing, being funny and making others laugh seem to be inherent
characteristics of human nature. André Wickström proposes
(17) that entertainers must have existed since the beginning of human
history simply because of mankind’s fundamental need for laughter.
The origins of stand-up comedy per se could be traced at least
back to the Middle Ages, to the Jewish badhan tradition5, which is still very much alive. A badhan is a
comedian of sorts whose job is to entertain people in Jewish events,
very often weddings, for instance by making fun of important guests,
such as the father of the bride (Wickström 18).
Some of the more recent influences can be found from the three
ancestors of stand-up comedy mentioned above, the minstrel show,
vaudeville and burlesque. Stand-up comedy thus does not stem from only
one performing tradition, but instead is a mixture of influences from
various cultural backgrounds. Its roots extend from the history of
American entertainment to the performing traditions of European comedy
(Toikka and Vento 76). The English satire of the 19th century
was based on brutal mockery and ruthless skepticism; this had a strong
influence on American humor, which, in turn, was vicious by nature and
usually included a lot of foul language. According to Toikka and Vento,
it constituted the opposing force to spirituality and intellect, and
reinforced dissenting views against the intolerance and the religious
puritanism of the small communities of the time (75).6
The Jewish roots may also be seen in the fact that in the 1980s eight
out of ten U.S. comedians had a Jewish background. For instance,
comedians such as the Marx Brothers, Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce and Jerry
Lewis were all of Jewish background.7
Jewish humor was considered fierce by nature, and it was not bound to
any specific nation; Jewish culture in the United States had
been in a state of perpetual change since colonial times.8 Due to its aggressive nature, and its marginal
status, it was perfectly suited for its function of protesting against the
prevailing social conditions. This underlines one of the most important
functions of stand-up: social, political and cultural criticism. Stand-up
comedy aims to disarm (false) prejudices, to bring the foreign closer to
the familiar, and to relieve tensions between groups of people from
different (cultural) backgrounds (Toikka and Vento 77–78); its
objective is to break fixed ways of thinking and established rules of
conduct, and to ridicule hypocrisy and double standards (Väre).
Before proceeding with the development of stand-up comedy during the
20th century, the three important ancestors of the art form
will be briefly discussed below.
Minstrelsies typically included cross-dressing and artificially colored
faces. Minstrel show performers
Rollin Howard (left) and George
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
The minstrel show (or minstrelsy) was made popular during the
19th century and reached the apogee of its popularity around
the middle part of the century (Minstrel). It was the first art form
that could genuinely be called "American", and the first to consciously
avoid elitist style, favoring an audience consisting of ordinary people.
The shows presented black people talking, singing, dancing and telling
jokes. The twist was, though, that the black people were performed by
whites. The performers would color their faces with burnt cork,
exaggerating the facial features of the black people they parodied, and
in this way, reflecting the racism of the 19th century
(Parker). The shows included stereotypes, word play, riddles and jokes,
including obscenities, and a lot of cross-dressing as well.9
The minstrel show tradition was of great importance to the development
of the other two ancestors, vaudeville and burlesque (Toikka and Vento
80). As an important downside though, according to Richard Zolten,
associate professor of Communication Arts & Sciences and American Studies
at Penn State Altoona, "minstrelsy was also a source for much of the
stereotype that still lingers today about African Americans, a group more
maligned in the name of entertainment than any other" (in Parker).
The vaudeville tradition (in Britain also known as 'Music
Hall'10) originally comes from the
Parisian streets and market places, where talented individuals exhibited
their skills in unique productions which included jokes, word play,
riddles, mockery (similar to a minstrel show) and so-called vaudeville
monologues11 — even elements from
the circus. The shows were aggressive and hard by nature. The content
was ethnic, sometimes sexual and usually sardonic, taunting the
'civilized' community (Toikka and Vento 80–81).
The beginning of the 20th century saw the zenith of
vaudeville, as the art form had become the most popular form of
entertainment in the United States during the 1890s. As technology
continued to develop rapidly towards the turn of the century, people had
more free time. In this context, vaudeville, instead of being considered
a mere form of entertainment, was seen as an instrument to affect
people's thoughts and beliefs: it was eventually harnessed to increase
people's faith in technology, industrialization and urbanization. The
idea that the shows incorporated a great opportunity to influence
people's moral views and opinions takes us to an important insight: the
vaudeville comedians can be regarded as the ancestors of stand-up
performers also because of the strong social criticism that the shows
included (Toikka and Vento 80–81).
Before the emergence of stand-up comedy per se, performances
similar to present-day stand-up routines were used as transitions in the
variety shows, because of the multitude of various acts such as circus
tricks, dancing and singing. Someone needed to keep the show alive
during these transitions, and that someone was usually a comedian, a
storyteller, a host of sorts, later known also as an MC (short
for Master of Ceremonies). Eventually, the ideas of an MC and a
badhan were merged to give rise to the early stand-up comedian
Lenny Bruce started in burlesque and was later a big name in
socially critical stand-up.
Image Source: Squidoo
The counterpart of vaudeville (which was targeted more to children
and families than uniquely to adults) was the burlesque theater,
a more fierce and indecent form of stage entertainment (Wickström
19). Burlesque was influenced by a number of earlier traditions, for
instance circuses, medicine shows, dime museums, minstrel shows, and
venues like concert saloons and beerhouses.12 In addition to musical acts, jokes and
stories, the shows contained a lot of slapstick comedy and striptease,
the atmosphere was extremely vulgar and the audience uneducated.
Burlesque took big steps towards stand-up comedy as the role of the
comedian in the shows became increasingly important during the first
thirty years of the 20th century. Burlesque theater was for
budding comedians a stepping-stone of sorts (Toikka and Vento 82). For
instance, one of the most well known socially critical stand-up
comedians, Lenny Bruce, started out in burlesque theaters (Biography).
The Birth of Stand-up Comedy in the United States
Following the historical division by Toikka and Vento (84), the
development of stand-up comedy as an art form in its own right can be
divided into four distinct periods during the 20th century:
(1) the beginning; (2) the concerts; (3) new wave comedy and amateur
experiments; and (4) professionalization and commercialization.
The Beginning (late 1800s to 1930)
In addition to vaudeville, burlesque and minstrelsies, satirical and
humorous lecturers of the late 19th century, notably by Mark
Twain have had a substantial influence on modern stand-up comedy.13 The aim of these entertaining, yet
informational lectures set around the United States was mainly to
criticize and ridicule prevailing customs and beliefs.
19th-century lectures by Mark Twain influenced the development of
modern stand-up performances.
Image Source: Sierra CP
It is important, however, to take note that humor and the light style
used by these lecturers was a mere instrument, not the objective of the
performance. They were operating completely outside the framework of the
entertainment business (Toikka and Vento 84–85). In any case, the
connection between the present-day stand-up — especially the
socially critical style — and these lectures can clearly be seen.
According to Toikka and Vento (85), the first performer who could
actually be compared to modern stand-up comedians was Charlie Case. Will
Rogers14 describes Case as "a famous
African American monologue comedian" who "wrote his own routines and was
known for [his] quiet and intimate style of delivery" (Rogers 256).
The Concerts (1930–1950)
With the vaudeville and burlesque traditions slowly fading to the
background15 and radio technology
developing rapidly during the early 20th century, performers
would now have new types of venues and new kinds of audiences at their
disposal. In addition to the radio, nightclubs became more and more
popular as venues for stand-up comedy. Clubs would normally only hire
professionals, who had gained experience already during the beginning of
the century in resorts of New York or Pennsylvania (e.g. The Adirondack
Mountains, Pocono Mountains, Borscht Belt).16 Since the comedian was the main event of the
night, however, young performers who managed to get themselves time on
stage gained crucial experience and visibility for the future. During
this era, stand-up comedians were not very highly esteemed; even the
pioneers performing on radio (Bob Hope, Jack Benny, George Burns,
etc.)17 had relatively low incomes at
the time (Toikka and Vento 85–86).
The nightclubs generally controlled the routines and did not accept
any kind of profound messages to be included in the material. The jokes
were meant to be shallow but funny, short gags and witty one-liners.
This underlined the importance of the performer's character and charisma
(Toikka and Vento 86).
New Wave Comedy and Amateur Experiments (1950–1970)
The period starting from the early 1950s and ending at the turn of the
1960s and 1970s was probably the most important period in the
development of the art form, as it could be regarded as the era of
emancipation of stand-up comedy. In the 1950s, the amateurs finally
found their home in the nightclubs of the bohemian districts of New York
(most importantly Greenwich Village18),
and those of the major entertainment capitals of the United States, such
as Las Vegas and Miami Beach. Coffee houses of the bohemian districts
offered the perfect place for the trailblazers, as the atmosphere was
very favorable to experimental styles and material (Toikka and Vento
86–87). Thus these venues quickly became the epicenters for
testing and spreading new artistic ideas and influences.
Vaudeville monologues were well thought out and prewritten. So were
most of the stand-up comedy routines until the so-called "new wave
comedy" of the 1950s. People were getting tired of the old ways of
expression and were open to completely new kinds of performances and
themes. The new wave comedy was more pitiless, more impudent and more
shocking than the traditional style. It was also more dialogic and
spontaneous. As stand-up comedy was finally really beginning to
stand on its own feet, the routines were considerably more
independent than during the 1930s and 1940s. The focus was heavily on
social criticism and relieving social tensions (Toikka and Vento 91).
One of pioneers of this era was the already mentioned Lenny Bruce.
Richard Zolten (in Parker) describes Bruce in a way that appositely
captures the essence of new wave comedy as well: "Lenny Bruce, in the
fifties, was one of the first to really push the envelope, addressing
head-on our prejudices and skewed views of things ... Bruce was a
catalyst for what would come in the '60s, a warrior on the frontline of
the free speech movement; a comedian who used humor to provoke thought
and hopefully change minds."
The beginnings of new wave comedy also coincided with the build-up of
the celebrity cult. The comedians were expected to reveal parts of their
personal life to the audience. These types of anecdotes were also meant
to boost the 'connection' between the performer and the audience (Toikka
and Vento 87).
Professor Maurice Charney from Rutgers University proposes that the
new wave comedians "revolutionized stand-up, not America" (581). By this
he is referring to their novel style and themes, which, however, did not
reach their full goal of social and political change. Charney also
points out that while new wave comedy left traditional stand-up comedy
in its shade for the most part, the one-liners and quips did not
The development of new wave comedy and the rise of the amateurs were
conveniently going on simultaneously with the rapid improvement of
distribution technology, including LPs, radio and TV. This meant that
the need for new material and new comedians was also increasing.
Professionalization and Commercialization (1970–1990)
The final period of the division presents three revolutionary elements
in the history of stand-up comedy: (1) the establishment of the comedy
rooms (early 1960s onwards), (2) the rapid rise of TV technology (late
1950s onwards), and (3) the Comedy Store strike of 1979.
The Improv later became a nation-wide chain of comedy clubs. Damon
Wayans at Houston Improv.
Image Source: iStopOver
The 1960s saw the establishment of the very first comedy rooms,
places reserved especially for stand-up performances. One of the first
comedy rooms was the famous Improvisation Café, or Improv, in New
York.19 The TV industry sent out their
headhunters to the comedy clubs in order to look for new talents to
perform on television — and the comedians knew this. The
possibility of getting nation-wide airtime was an opportunity they could
not afford to miss. Any comedian wishing to reach that objective,
however, needed to have material suited for TV distribution, i.e.
neutral and conservative routines, which were sometimes quite different
from the ones they were presenting in the clubs (Toikka and Vento 88).
The importance of TV to the diffusion of the art form cannot be
stressed enough. Via popular and nationwide late-night television shows
like Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show, the comedians had a
chance of becoming popular extremely quickly and getting a career in the
TV business, but the situation was not exactly balanced, financially at
least. It was very lucrative for the comedy club owners, who had a lot
of money coming in, but kept the checks going out to the comedians
relatively small. As for the audience, they would have the chance to a
live show from a number of potential stars of the (near) future for
little or no money at all (Toikka and Vento 88). The comedians, on the
other hand, were not doing very well financially and in March of 1979,
the time had come for the them to go on strike (Zoglin).
The labor movement started at the Comedy Store, the number one
comedy club in Los Angeles at the time. Mitzi Shore, the club's owner,
felt no need to pay the comedians anything; she considered the club
to be beneficial to the performers in other ways, notably as a means for
newcomers to get crucial experience and to "grow as artists" (in
Comedy Store West.|
Left to right: Mitzi Shore, Jay Leno, Billy Braver
and Ed Bluestone. 24 Jan. 1978.
Image Source: LA Weekly Blogs
In his Time Magazine article The First Comedy Strike from January
2008, Richard Zoglin explains that the comedians succumbed until Shore
"opened a second, larger showroom at her club, where she paid big-time
headliners — but not the younger comics who also appeared there".
The inequality of the situation was too much, regardless of the shaky
solidarity of the comics.
After a sudden and violent outburst of tension between the strikers
and the nonstrikers, a settlement was finally reached in May 1979. The
club agreed to pay $25 per set to the performers (Zoglin). More
importantly, however, the settlement had more far-reaching consequences.
With TV becoming more and more common in U.S. households20 and the working conditions of comics
improving nationwide, a quickly increasing number of new clubs were
opened, and hundreds — or even thousands — of new comics
gradually appeared on the scene. The comedy boom of the 1980s saw the
number of comedy clubs grow from a dozen to some three hundred, and the
group of professional stand-up comedians in the United States to
increase to about 2,000 members, or according to the wildest estimates,
up to 10,000 (Toikka and Vento 94).
The huge increase in the number of comedians naturally spurred the
founding of dozens of agencies and management businesses. As the working
conditions along with the fees paid to the performers were now at a
reasonable level, and stand-up comedy had actually become a paying
profession, the division between the professionals and the amateurs was
considerably easier to be made (Toikka and Vento 89).
The 1980s also changed the nature of stand-up comedy. Tom Shales, a
Pulitzer-winning TV critic, argues that "when baby boomers became
yuppies", they wanted to leave behind the "disillusion that had set in
when the Sixties fizzled and the Seventies congealed". They wanted to
see comedy that was about better and more balanced times, "not Vietnam
and Watergate and political assassinations" (in Reinelt and Roach 201).
The comedy of the 1980s has, as a matter of fact, been appositely called
"feel-good comedy". During the 1990s, however, the yuppie movement lost
its momentum as the recession of the early 1990s21 changed living conditions all over the world;
as a consequence stand-up was steered back towards social criticism.
Even though the art form is undeniably and intrinsically tied to the
capitalistic system, it has its foundations in the will to find an
antithesis to a cynical and commercialized popular culture (Toikka and
A Brief History of Finnish Stand-up Comedy
What about the Finnish side of things? When could Finnish stand-up be said
to have burst into existence? Or was it a slow and subtle process? The
history of stand-up in Finland is, for the most part, still to be written.
Yet how did it begin?
Esa Pakarinen (L), Reino Helismaa and Jorma Ikävalko were
among the most popular artists of the Finnish kupletti era.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Finnish performing tradition includes a number of groups and
individuals whose style could be considered as similar to stand-up comedy.
These include the revue theaters Iloinen Teatteri (Happy Theater)
and Punainen Mylly (Red Mill), which were active in the mid
20th century, and the kupletti tradition (humoristic and
satirical ditties) performed for instance by Esa Pakarinen and Reino
Helismaa22 (Toikka and Vento 104).
Training is not originally a concept intrinsically bound to stand-up
comedy, but some of the recognition for the present state of Finnish
comedy goes undoubtedly to Teatterikorkeakoulu (TeaK, Theater Academy
Helsinki) and to NÄTY (Department of Acting of the University of
Tampere). These institutions are mostly responsible for the diffusion of
knowledge related to stand-up comedy during the early stages of the
development of the art form in Finland. As early as in 1985, Pentti
Järvinen and Kari Franck from NÄTY organized a course in stage
performance focusing on a style of expression relative to stand-up
comedy. TeaK introduced stand-up studies during the 90s with three
courses led by people like Ron Roth, Neil Hardwick and Markku
Toikka.23 The courses were held in 1992,
1993 and 1997 (Toikka and Vento 108–112).
The American stand-up comedians' performances have been available to
the Finnish audience already since the 1980s through cable television,
but the beginnings of Finnish stand-up tradition can be traced back to
the early 1990s. According to André Wickström (25), Finnish
stand-up comedy was born on 5 November 1991 at Vanha
Ylioppilastalo24 in Helsinki, although
seemingly no one except the performer, Stan Saanila, understood the
historical value of the event.
Stan Saanila has a been a key figure
in the development of Finnish
Image Source: MTV3
Among the first and the most important regularly organized Finnish
stand up shows were the performances organized by Stan Saanila and Paul
Olin at the Åbo Nation25 in the
University of Helsinki. The shows, under the name Hus med skoj
(Swedish for The House of Fun), gained popularity very quickly
during 1992 and the group was almost immediately contacted by the Viirus
Theater26, which offered larger premises
(Toikka and Vento 105). The shows also piqued the interest of the
National Broadcasting Company (YLE), and Saanila eventually ended up
broadcasting hour-long round-ups of the shows on a national Swedish
speaking radio channel (Savola, TAUSTA: Stand-up kehittyi).
The early Finnish stand-up was heavily influenced by the Swedish comedy
tradition, and performed usually in Swedish by Finland-Swedes. This
included the performances at Åbo Nation and Viirus, although some of
the shows at the Viirus Theater were performed in Finnish (Toikka and
Vento 105; Wickström 26–27).
In 1994, two important stand-up groups were initiated, one in
Helsinki, the other in Tampere. The former was a group called
Huumoria ja nujakkaa (Humor and scuffles) at the Q-theater27, organized by Heikki
Kujanpää28; the latter was
organized by Tuomas Parkkinen29 and
called Liukas gägi (Slippery Gag). The main problem for both
of these enterprises was the scarcity of new material and new
performers, which is interestingly enough the opposite of the main
problem of early American stand-up comedy (Toikka and Vento 108, 110).
Liukas gägi also incorporated open mike nights, which
eventually helped bring out key persons in Finnish stand-up, such as Riku
Suokas30. He was the person responsible
for the next prominent stand-up initiative, Club Act!one,
established in Hämeenlinna in 1996 (Toikka and Vento 113).
In 2001, a group called Wettex & Latex set up shop in Åbo
Svenska Teater in Turku, and the following year, the once fallen Club
Viirus was resurrected by André Wickström (Wickström
The above-mentioned enterprises were the first of their kind, and in
this way, crucial to the development of the scene, even though the
recurrent story of virtually all of them seems to be that they were
active only for a few years and that they were relatively small and
marginal. On the other hand, when clubs died out, others were
established to continue the development of the art form; the Finnish
stand-up comedy scene was obstinately growing. According to Suokas, the
slow development of the 1990s could also be seen as a positive thing: it
has given the comics time to polish their routines and get ready for
bigger audiences (in Väre).
The influence of television for the diffusion of Finnish stand-up
comedy should also be acknowledged: since the early 2000s shows like
W-tyyli (W-Style), Get Up Stand Up, Komiikkatehdas
(Comedy Factory), Club Act!One and Hupiklubi (Fun Club)
have been an important part of Finnish stand-up history (Savola,
TAUSTA: Stand-up kehittyi).
The foundations of Finnish stand-up having been presented in this
section, the following will address the present status and situation of
stand-up comedy in Finland, as well as project the future of the field.
Looking at the Present and into the Future
Finland currently presents an increasing number of talented and
successful (male) stand-up comedians: Riku Suokas, André
Wickström, Ilari Johansson, Pekka Jalava, Stan Saanila, Niko
Kivelä, Sami Hedberg, Ismo Leikola, Arimo Mustonen, Mika
Eirtovaara, Riku Sottinen, Teemu Vesterinen, Tuomas Parkkinen and Markku
Toikka are some of the performers who could be regarded as the pioneers
of the steadily growing stand-up comedy scene of Finland. According to
André Wickström, there is a lot of talent "bubbling under"
as well (in Savola, TAUSTA: Stand-up kehittyi).
Heli Sutela representing the feminine side of Finnish stand-up.
Image Source: Club Act!one
Although the scene is still quite heavily dominated by men, there are
a lot of active female comics as well; these include well-known
performers like Heli Sutela, Pirjo Heikkilä, Krisse Salminen and
Anitta Ahonen. The number of non-native performers is quite low, but
there are also some foreign stand-up comedians actively performing in
Finland, such as the Americans Phil Schwarzmann and Rich Lyons.31 Ethnic minorities (other than
Swedish-speaking Finns) are currently not represented, or at least,
compared to the United States, are extremely rarely seen on a stand-up
stage in Finland.
It is difficult to say precisely how many active stand-up comedians
there are in Finland, but according to Antti Virtanen, CEO of the
Finnish Stand Up Club, roughly thirty stand-up comedians in Finland do
stand-up for a living (in Salminen). It is obvious, however, that the
actual number of people performing as stand-up artists is far greater.
The amount of stand-up offered in Finnish bars, restaurants, theaters,
night clubs, etc. is staggering and on the increase. The scene is
centered around Helsinki, but a lot of shows are offered in other cities
(Turku, Tampere, Jyväskylä, Kuopio, Hämeenlinna, etc.) as
André Wickström states (in Savola, TAUSTA: Stand-up
kehittyi) that for many Finnish comedians, stand-up is currently a
secondary source of livelihood. As the shows take place mainly during the
evenings, the comics have time to do other things during the day. Some
work for television, for radio, or as actors in theaters; some work as
directors, some write columns for newspapers and magazines, etc. The top
Finnish stage comedians have the opportunity to gain relatively good
profits. The average fee for a club gig is around €350; for a private
gig some €1,000–€1,500; and for a TV commercial
approximately €2,000–€3,000. Krisse Salminen, for example,
had an annual income (in 2009) of almost €200,000 (Salminen).
What about the audience's side of things? The entrance fees of
Finnish stand-up shows range from €0 to some €30, the average
being around €10–20. Especially in Helsinki and Tampere, free
shows are also organized almost every week. The shows are mainly
advertised on-line and by posters around the city and public bulletin
boards, but some of the publicity comes from radio, magazines and
classified ads in newspapers. TV advertising is, for the time being,
Even though the industry is developing slowly towards a more
established status, there are difficulties as well. As Toikka and Vento
adeptly describe (105), the scene is still so small that the development
and the popularity of the art form are heavily influenced by certain
individuals and by their level of commitment. They further explain that
the two main problems are (1) the shortage of venues that could
genuinely be called comedy clubs, and (2) the scarcity of entertainment
agencies that would focus solely on organizing stand-up events and
booking comics on stage.
Organizing a stand-up event in Finland is thus financially precarious
and more complicated than it perhaps should be. A stand-up event is fairly
difficult to orchestrate as there are no comedy clubs per se or
agencies that focus solely on stand-up comedy. The field is not exactly
unified either, but because the scene is still so small, people understand
the value of cooperation and solidarity (Toikka and Vento 113). There
seems to be no labor union for stand-up comedians in Finland. Thus
organizing professionally could be the key to significantly improving the
working conditions of the field.
Traditional Finnish comedy is based on people wearing silly
costumes. Still photo from a Finnish TV series from the early 1990s, Pulttibois. A. Kalliala (left) and Pirkka-Pekka
Image Source: Video-hned
Wickström suggests (29–30) a recent shift in the attitudes
of the Finnish audience. He argues that stand-up comedy is becoming
increasingly popular among the Finns because of the urbanization of the
nation, since stand-up essentially is a very urban form of
entertainment. He describes that Finnish audiences have for long been
accustomed to the rural form of entertainment, i.e. performers dressing in
silly costumes, wearing funny hats, having blackened teeth and, what is
pivotal here, essentially taking no risks on stage. Everything has been
premeditated and prewritten. Toikka and Vento also justify (109) the
conventional problems of presenting entertainment based on stand-up format
in Finland with the fact that the Finnish entertainment has for decades
been based on prewritten material.
Ilari Johansson, a successful Finnish stand-up comedian who started
his career in the 1990s, states that during the first decade of Finnish
stand-up comedy comics were employed by people who had never heard of
the art form and almost without exception had no knowledge of its nature
(in Oinaanvaara). Johansson further explains that people were usually
expecting a joke-teller or "some kind of a funny guy", and were very
often disappointed, because no actual (i.e. traditional) jokes were
told. Another well-known Finnish stand-up artist, Ismo Leikola, explains
that, instead of old jokes that the audience knows already, a stand-up
performance is actually based on totally new material written preferably
by the comedian himself/herself (in Oinaanvaara). Stand-up could thus be
considered to be opposing the conventional joke-telling tradition.
However, according to Ilari Johansson and Heli Sutela, most Finns are
currently up-to-date with the existence and the concept of stand-up
comedy. Johansson and Sutela confirm that a radical change in people's
attitudes has taken place (cf. the theory on Finnish urbanization by
Wickström). Sutela states that professional stand-up in Finland is
starting to be at a very high level, and that during the last half of
the 2000s Finnish stand-up has taken giant leaps. According to Sutela,
as many as several thousands of tickets can be expected to be sold for a
weekend event. She admits, however, that the majority of the audience is
still very often composed of first-timers (in Oinaanvaara). On the other
hand, according to Antti Virtanen, the risks are still enormous and
profits remain small for organizers of these types of events (in
Bill Burr, a well-known stand-up comedian from Canton, Massachusetts,
believes that the Internet, as a facilitator for spreading influence
(Youtube, Myspace, Vimeo, Facebook, etc.), is starting to affect the
international stand-up comedy scene as well. He performed in Finland for
the first time in October 2011, and was amazed at the turnout, as it
was a full house. He stated that there would have been little point
travelling to the Nordic countries a few years before, since nobody
would have known him, and thus probably would not have come see his show.
He believes that, due to the effects of the Internet, international
stand-up tours and sharing influences with an international audience and
colleagues from all around the world is becoming increasingly feasible all
This logically means that stand-up comedy is becoming more and more
popular in Finland as well, both from an international and a national
point of view. This way the Finnish performers are able to get valuable
information and influences from the (more) experienced foreign
comedians, and, as the popularity of stand-up in Finland grows, bigger
audiences become possible, more producers and venues become available,
and finally, the esteem of the performers should be expected to develop
Is Finnish stand-up going to develop further in the future, remain a
relatively marginal form of entertainment, or eventually die out? No one
will be able to answer this question with certainty, but according to
the pioneer of Finnish comedy, André Wickström, stand-up
comedy has come to Finland to stay. He presents a simple but watertight
argument (31) to support his claim: "if a comedian is able to make the
audience laugh, they will want to see him/her again." Stan
Saanila shares similar beliefs with Wickström by stating that
Finnish stand-up cannot die out, because the number of people actively
supporting the art form has surpassed the critical threshold.
Wickström admits, however, that the status of Finnish stand-up can
only be considered to be 'established' after there is a club (i.e.
venue) strictly for stand-up purposes in the center of Helsinki and also
in some other Finnish city (in Savola, TAUSTA: Stand-up
The Building Blocks of Finnish Comedy
What, then, makes Finns laugh and have fun? Is Finnish stand-up socially
conscious? Does it aim to change society? What kinds of themes and
approaches could be associated especially to the Finnish style of
performing on a stand-up stage? Does a Finnish comedian face the same
basic challenges as his American colleague? This chapter's objective is
to look at some of the characteristics that define Finnish stand-up
comedy especially, and also to describe possible differences between the
native forms of stand-up and their Finnish counterparts.
First of all, stand-up comedy can be roughly divided into two types:
(1) socially critical stand-up, and (2) feel-good comedy. Although any
stand-up performance will have other (latent) functions than simply
making people laugh, the socially critical stand-up is, out of these
two, the one that emphasizes these 'other functions' more clearly.
Whereas feel-good comedy aims to build a concensus with the audience by
reinforcing shared opinions and by dealing with familiar (everyday)
phenomena that most people would agree on, socially critical stand-up's
objective is to ridicule more controversial subjects by means of satire,
sarcasm and parody; it aims to expose, provoke, defy and mock people's
(bad) habits, established beliefs and social phenomena, or the state of
affairs in society.
George Carlin (1937–2008) was one of the most important
socially critical stand-up artists.
Image Source: Righteous Prick
In stand-up comedy, the form does not define the content: serious issues
can be discussed through comedy, and with criticism comes hope
for change (Toikka and Vento 74).
The first twenty years of Finnish stand-up has heavily centered
around feel-good comedy, which could be considered completely natural.
In comparison, social criticism clearly became an integral part of
American stand-up tradition only during the 1950s and 1960s as a part of
the new wave ideology; this was in fact several decades after stand-up
had taken its modern form. Riku Suokas states that some of the
guaranteed-to-work themes in Finland include such commonplace subjects
as the differences between men and women, sexuality, alcohol, cats and
dogs, national stereotypes, and scandals in politics and entertainment.
The challenge thus far has been finding new perspectives on these very
familiar themes. Suokas believes, however, that social criticism in
Finnish stand-up routines will become much more recurrent in the near
future (in Väre).
Connected to the possible increase of this type of material, one of
the few active foreign stand-up comedians in Finland, Phil Schwarzmann,
thinks that Finnish audiences are actually very receptive to any kinds
of subjects and are not afraid of any particular themes. In a recent TV
interview he stated that "Finns have such a great sense of humor. Finns
are dark; Finns don't take themselves too seriously. You can pretty much
say anything, and Finns never get offended ... You wouldn't find that in
maybe Sweden, or Great Britain, or parts of the United States ... So,
it's kind of free reign. We can kind of explore some very touchy
subjects, things that are taboo" (Schwartzmann).
Schwarzmann's American colleague, Rich Lyons, also performing actively
in Finland, approaches the matter with much more prudence. He thinks that
"Finns are clearly more sensitive than Americans, and one has to be very
cautious about how to approach certain issues". He adds that taboo
subjects include themes like racial issues and terrorism (Väre).
Riku Suokas is of like mind with Lyons: "I went to a [stand-up] club in
L.A. only a week after the attacks of September 11," he describes, "and
almost every one of the comics was discussing the tragedy on stage." He
continues that, for instance, mentioning the Estonia incident33 on stage causes, without fail, a long and cold
silence in a Finnish audience. Suokas concludes that Finnish people are
not accustomed to dealing with [these kind of] subjects by way of humor
One way to explain these conflicting assertions by Schwarzmann on one
hand, and by Lyons and Suokas on the other, is to assume that there has
been a fundamental change in the Finnish audiences' attitudes, not only in
the form of recognizing the art form, but also towards the themes and the
content of Finnish stand-up performances. Schwarzmann's observation is
from 2011, whereas the statements by Lyons and Suokas come from a 2003
news article. There is thus a gap of eight years between the assertions.
Harri Lagström believes Finnish audiences are ready for more
socially critical stand-up.
Image Source: W&T Comedy
Harri Lagström, an up-and-coming Finnish stand-up performer,
strongly believes that Finnish audiences are nevertheless ready to embrace
socially critical stand-up comedy, even though according to his
observations, people usually [and mistakenly] tend to think that there is
actually no need for social criticism in Finnish society. He adds
that, as the point of comparison is usually the United States, the flaws
of Finnish society seem more latent and more difficult to point out (in
Oinaanvaara). Social criticism in Finnish stand-up is thus a big
challenge, but not by any means an impossible feat.
One very important aspect to take into consideration at this point is
the fact that stand-up comedy, among other art, is intrinsically
connected to its cultural context. Compared to the United States,
Finland presents a far smaller population of ethnic minorities, which is
actually a very important factor related to the content prepared and
performed for the stand-up audiences of the two nations.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2010 reports, the percentage (of
total population) of people in the U.S. who identify themselves as 'white
alone or in combination' has actually decreased between 2000 and
2010 from 77.1 to 74.8 percent; simultaneously, the percentage of
'Hispanics' or 'Latinos' in the U.S. has increased by a tremendous 43
percent. In total, there is a non-white population of almost 78 million
people in the U.S., which represents over one quarter of the total
population of the nation (White; Hispanic). This minority is
also actively represented on the nation's stand-up scene.34
In Finland, on the other hand, there are some 168 thousand foreigners
plus approximately 55 thousand people with dual citizenship, which
together represent roughly four percent of total Finnish population
(Official). This, along with the brevity of Finnish stand-up tradition,
partly explains the scarcity of ethnic minorities on Finnish stand-up
stages — with the exception of Swedish-speaking Finns, of course.
Twenty Years of Feel-good Comedy: A New Era Ahead?
Stand-up comedy rose from the ashes of the variety shows (e.g.
minstrelsies, vaudeville and burlesque) during the first half of the
20th century. It presented influences from a variety of
performing traditions, including elements from both Europe and America,
but being essentially different from all of those and eventually being
established as an art form in its own right. One of the most important
attributes that distinguishes stand-up from other stage activities is
the ascetic setting of a stand-up stage, which aims to form a strong,
dialogical connection between the audience and the comedian — a
connection that is the prerequisite, the main resource and the purpose
of any stand-up performance. The art form grew in popularity throughout
the 20th century, gained independence from the new wave
comedy movement and the 1960s coffee houses, and substantial visibility
in the 1930s, and especially from the 1950s onwards as radio and
television became everyday technologies.
American stand-up comedy became available in Finland during the 1980s
via cable television, but the Finnish stand-up scene did not began
developing until the early 1990s. Training was provided by the Theater
Academy Helsinki (TeaK) and the Department of Acting of the University
of Tampere (NÄTY) from 1985 onwards, but mainly during the 1990s.
The first stand-up initiatives began to take form in 1992 and new groups
were steadily introduced during the 1990s, but the scene remained very
small, the conditions precarious, and the art form relatively marginal.
Stand-up in Finland has steadily become bigger and more mainstream,
but the lack of specialized stand-up entertainment agencies and the
scarcity of comedy clubs (i.e. stand-up focused venues) hinder the
professional organization of the field. Despite the growing number of
successful stage comics, the Finnish stand-up scene is still slowly
developing, and the majority of its history remains to be written.
The Internet, which obviously did not exist when the American
stand-up scene was at its beginning, has facilitated the promotion of
Finnish stand-up as well as the diffusion of influences, even
internationally. The Finnish scene is opening up to foreign influences
and international performers, and in this way, also becoming more
notable in Finnish culture.
Even though it is impossible to predict the future of the scene,
several Finnish professionals have genuine faith in the growth of the
industry. Finnish stand-up comedy has during its first 20 years centered
mostly around feel-good comedy, but as society changes — and as
people possibly become more aware of what is going on in the society
— the content performed on Finnish stand-up stages will most likely
diversify to also include more socially critical stand-up comedy.
- Comedy Central Presents is stand-up show on American cable TV
that showcases famous comics living in the U.S. For video examples,
visit their video section.
- See e.g. Pablo Francisco on techno clubs.
- These art forms will be discussed in further detail later in the
text. For more information on-line, see Encyclopædia Britannica on
minstrel show, vaudeville and burlesque.
- See e.g. The Humans Are Dead by The Flight of the
Conchords, Craig by Stephen Lynch and Zack Galifianakis
performing with a piano.
- For more information on-line, see the Jewish Encyclopedia
article on 'badhan'.
- This article by
Kenneth C. Davis on religious (in)tolerance in America reflects quite
well this idea. See especially page four for examples.
- See the Wikipedia articles for the Marx
Brothers and Woody Allen, and the condensed biographies of Lenny Bruce and Jerry Lewis.
- For more information and additional sources, see the Wikipedia
article on the history of the Jewish culture in the United
- Virtually no women nor black people were allowed on stage. See e.g.
was Jim Crow? by Dr. David Pilgrim and Women in
19th century America by Kathleen Steele and Jessica
- See the Wikipedia article on Music
Hall tradition for more information.
- Some examples on vaudeville monologues can be found here.
- See these linked articles for more information on the mentioned
events and venues: medicine show, dime
museum, concert saloons and beer
- See e.g. The Trouble Will Begin at Eight.
- Another well-known entertainer from the late 19th century
- For more information on these locations, see these Wikipedia
articles for the Adirondack Mountains, the Poconos and Borscht
- See biographies for Bob Hope, Jack Benny and George Burns.
- From the late 19th century onwards, Greenwich Village was
considered a sort of bohemian capital of the East Coast, a safe haven
for budding artists. For more information, see e.g. Greenwich Village Since the 1960s on
- As new inventions like microphones, records and radios "allowed for a
new fast-paced style that depended on words and timing", many vaudeville
performers transitioned into broadcast comedy before the start of the
Second World War. For more information on the decline of vaudeville and
burlesque, see this section of the Wikipedia article on Vaudeville
and The Decline of Burleque by The People Say
- More details on Improvisation Café can be found on their
- See television related statistics by TVhistory. This table shows the growth of TV households in
America from 1950 to 1978.
- For more information on the 1990s recession, see this Wikipedia article.
- Esa Pakarinen and Reino Helismaa were both famous Finnish musicians
of the kupletti era. See this recording for an example of a kupletti
style song (in Finnish).
- Ron Roth is an American actor and stand-up comedian;
Neil Hardwick is a well known British-born Finnish
theater and TV director and writer; and Markku
Toikka is a Finnish actor and stand-up performer who has been
involved in Finnish stand-up scene since its early years.
- The former student house of the Student Union of the University
Nation is one of the 15 — and one of the four Swedish speaking
— student nations of the University of Helsinki.
- Viirus Theater
is a Swedish speaking professional theater in Helsinki, Finland. The
theater was founded in 1987.
- For more information on the theater, see the brief
English history on Q-theater's web page.
- Heikki Kujanpää is a Finnish actor, director, writer and
- Tuomas Parkkinen is a Finnish stand-up performer, playwright and
- Riku Suokas is a Finnish actor, stand-up comedian and theater
- Schwarzmann recently published a humorous book about Finland and the
Finnish people. See the book's promotional website.
- See for instance the show
calendar of one of the most important stand-up comedy internet sites
of Finland. The calendar is in Finnish only, but nonetheless depicting
for English speakers as well. The site lists over
70 stand-up comedians already.
- M/S Estonia was an Estonian cruise ship that sank in 28 September
1994 en route from Tallinn to Stockholm with 989 people on board. The
tragic accident claimed 852 lives. For more details, see this
- For examples, see e.g. these YouTube clips of Dave
Chappelle, Russell Peters, Dean
Obeidallah and Carlos Mencia.
- Annual Review 2010, Review of the
population structure of Finland 2010. Official Statistics of
Finland (OSF): Population structure. Helsinki: Statistics Finland.
Consulted 23 November 2011.
- Biography of Lenny Bruce. ResearchOver.
Consulted 26 Oct. 2011.
- Burr, Bill. A Night With Bill Burr. Stand-up Comedy
Performance. Helsinki Music Centre, Black Box. 21 Oct. 2011.
- Charney, Maurice, ed. Comedy: A Geographic
and Historical Guide: Volume Two. Connecticut: Praeger
- The Hispanic Population: 2010. United
States Census 2010. U.S. Census Bureau. Consulted 23 November
- Minstrel Show. Encyclopædia Britannica
Online. Consulted 25 Oct. 2011.
- Oinaanvaara, Angelika. Stand-upin oppitunnit. Video documentary.
- Parker, Bethany. What
are the roots of stand-up comedy? Research/Penn State. Consulted
15 Novermber 2011.
- Reinelt, Janelle G., and Joseph R. Roach. Critical Theory and Performance. Ann Arbor:
University of Michigan Press, 1992.
- Rogers, Will. The papers of Will
Rogers. Volume 3, From vaudeville to Broadway, September 1908-August
1915. Eds. Arthur Frank Wertheim, and Barbara Bair. Oklahoma:
Oklahoma University Press, 2001.
- Salminen, Vesa. Huumori ei kuole taantumassa. Helsingin
Sanomat 31 October 2011: B3.
- Savola, Heli. TAUSTA: Stand-up kehittyi
pääosin Yhdysvalloissa. YLE24. Last updated 29
October 2008, 18:54 UTC. Consulted 15 November 2011.
- - - - . TAUSTA: Stand up!. YLE24. Last updated
29 October 2008, 18:54 UTC. Consulted 15 November 2011.
- Schwarzmann, Phil. Puoli seitsemän. YLE TV1, Helsinki.
10 November 2011.
- Toikka, Markku, and Maritta Vento. Ala Naurattaa! Stand Up
-komedian käsikirja. Helsinki: Like, 2000.
- Väre, Anna. Hah-hah-hah! City 19 (2003).
- The White Population: 2010. United States
Census 2010. U.S. Census Bureau. Consulted 23 November 2011.
- Wickström, André. Das humoristische Manifest: Kirja
stand up -komiikasta. Helsinki: WSOY, 2005.
- Zoglin, Richard. The First Comedy Strike. Time Magazine
31 Jan. 2008. Consulted 30 Oct. 2011.