How to joke like a Swede

By Danny Robins, writer of The Cold Swedish Winter

Sweden is a nation more famous for its safe cars than its jokes. It’s true Swedes don’t have the same comedy tradition Brits have – stand-up is a fairly recent phenomenon there – but they do enjoy a laugh, and, you could argue that any country that has inflicted flat pack furniture and ABBA on the world must have a good sense of humour.

For my series The Cold Swedish Winter, on BBC Radio 4, I’ve spent the last four series cracking jokes about the Swedes, largely based on my experience of being married to one of them. But what kind of thing makes the Swedes themselves laugh? Here are seven Scandi-tastic specimens of Swedish humour.

1. Annoy the Norweigans

As with most nations, Swedes like to joke about their neighbours. In this case, it’s the Norwegians – once part of Sweden’s empire but now the oil-rich sibling who’s perceived as being too big for its boots.

How do you spot a Norwegian prawn? He’s the one saying, “I’m a lobster!”

Don’t worry, the Norwegians get their own back, with jokes like this…

A Swede was admitted to hospital with both his ears burnt. When the doctor asked him what had happened, the Swede explained that he was ironing when the phone rang and he got confused, picking up the hot iron thinking it was the phone. “But, why are both your ears burnt? the doctor asks. “Well,” says the Swede, “I had to call an ambulance.”

2. Embrace being boring

When Swedes do take the micky (or should that be the Mikael) out of themselves, it’s often for their perceived boring, safe and sensible reputation. (They are after all the country that invented the car seat-belt).

How do you get one hundred Swedes out of a Swimming pool? Say “everybody get out of the pool.”

3. Worry that people are laughing at you

A small nation with big ambitions, Swedes are fascinated by how the rest of the world sees them; a national obsession manifested in this joke about an elephant.

A German, a Frenchman and a Swede are in Africa and they see an elephant.
The German says, “if I kill it and sell the ivory, how much money will I make?”
The Frenchman says “what an incredible beast, a beautiful creature.”
And the Swede says, “I wonder what the elephant thinks of Sweden?”

4. Learn the lingo

The Swedes are anglophiles. They love British comedy and they also love to show off their skills at our language – a fact which can make it hard to learn theirs… American stand up Kurt Lightner, who’s lived in Sweden for over a decade, cracks this joke…

“When I’m chatting to someone at a party and they find out I’ve been living in Sweden for ten years, I know the question coming next – “why aren’t you speaking Swedish?” To which I always reply, “why aren’t you speaking Swedish?”

5. Word-play

On that note, we’re up to Number 5 and I feel you’re ready for a joke actually in Swedish. The author Virginia Woolf once wrote, “humour is the first of the gifts to perish in a foreign tongue”, and it’s true that jokes – like EU negotiations – are one of those things that can get lost in translation, especially if it involves a play on words, but let’s all take a deep breath and give this one a try…

Vilket land har det billigaste köttet? (Which country has the cheapest meat?)
Ko-Rea.

Oh, by the way, for this you need to know that in Sweden ‘Ko’, means ‘cow’ and ‘Rea’ means ‘Sale’. Still not laughing? Jeez, you’re a tough audience…. ;-)

6. Embrace the joy of six

In Sweden, the number six is just funny in itself, as the Swedish word for six is ‘sex’ – always guaranteed to get a chuckle, eg when ordering in a shop –

“How many would you like?”
“I’d like sex, please.”

Cue childish snorts of laughter….

7. It's all in the pronunciation

As anyone who has ever watched the Swedish Chef on The Muppets will know, just the very twang of a Swedish accent can be funny. So, finally, it’d be impossible to do a round-up of Swedish jokes without including this one made famous by the old BBC sketch show, Not the Nine O’Clock News. Try doing this with a Swedish lilt…

A man walks into a Swedish chemist’s shop and asks for some deodorant. The Swedish chemist says 'ball or aerosol?' The man answers “neither, I want it for my armpits.”

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