Norwegians are a scream, if you like fish jokes

February 18, 1994|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Heard any good Norwegian jokes lately?

Probably not. Despite all the attention focused on the winter games in Lillehammer, Norway, most of the humor emerging from the Olympics so far has had to do with either Tonya Harding or the word "luge." Even the local salmon has attracted more comedic attention than the natives.

Granted, ethnic jokes aren't exactly in vogue these days, but it may also be that the Norwegians themselves are part of the problem. After all, any country whose cultural icons are the plays of Henrik Ibsen and Edvard Munch's "The Scream" isn't exactly going to come across as a laugh-riot.

Even the Norwegians seem to sense this. According to news reports, the Lillehammer Olympic Organizing Committee ordered 100,000 "smile machines" for Olympic workers and townspeople, in hopes of undercutting the nation's dour image. (Although the notion that thousands of appliance-induced smiles would be taken as proof of Norway's deep-seated jollity is pretty funny, if lTC you think about it).

It wasn't always this way. There was a time when Norwegian jokes were enormously popular in Sweden, to such an extent that almost every Swede knew at least a few. For instance, why is it that they never put ice in drinks in Norway? Because only one man knew the recipe -- and he died!

Then there was the one about the Norwegian who wandered into a music shop and began looking around. "Can I help you?" asked the Swedish clerk. "Why, yes," answered the Norwegian, "I'd like to buy the red trumpet and the blue accordion." The clerk frowned. "I'm sorry, sir," he told the Norwegian, "but the red fire extinguisher is not for sale, and I'm afraid the blue radiator is attached!"

(Rim shot!)

Needless to say, the Norwegians didn't take this lying down -- they told Swedish jokes, which often sounded like Norwegian jokes with the nationalities reversed. This "joke war" raged for nearly a decade before dying out in the early '80s.

Erik Hornfeldt, managing editor of the Swedish humor magazine Z, thinks there was probably "an element of jealousy" in the way Swedes made fun of their Norse neighbors. "The Norwegians were living fairly well on their oil in the '70s and early '80s," he says. "Then the Norwegian economy crashed in the middle of the '80s, and there was no reason to poke fun at them anymore.

"There have been some attempts to revive these Norwegian jokes. The largest daily -- a tabloid called Expressen, which is rather like the New York Post, not a 100% serious paper -- they've been running lots of Norwegian jokes lately. But it hasn't really caught on."

Consequently, the best place these days to hear Norwegian jokes (or Swedish jokes) is probably Minnesota, which has a high concentration of Nordic immigrants. Trouble is, many of those jokes are incomprehensible to outsiders, because the punch lines invariably have to do with lutefisk, a food most non-Scandinavians know nothing about and many Scandinavians wish they could forget.

Lutefisk is cod, which is traditionally made by first drying it on open racks in cold salt air, then curing it -- presumably of its edibility -- by soaking the stuff in lye. However, the health-conscious lutefisk industry of today has since switched from lye to caustic soda, which is no more palatable but does at least sound vaguely like food.

"Lutefisk's qualities are hard to describe in mere words," writes John Louis Anderson in "Scandinavian Humor & Other Myths." "At least in decent words. It's surprising that the word 'lutefisk' hasn't become an expletive itself . . . " Some have compared lutefisk to dish towels soaked in fish sweat, while others have suggested that it's more like lumpy, cod-liver-oil-flavored Jell-O. Nearly everyone agrees it stinks.

Yet every Christmas, people in Minnesota eat lutefisk, and oncethey stop gagging, tell jokes like this one: Ole had quite a reputation as a trapper, and his Swedish friend Sven was always teasing him. One day Sven suggested that Ole could trap a lot more fur-bearing animals if he used lutefisk for bait.

"Ya, sure, I tried that once," said Ole. "I got lots of fur-bearing animals -- three mink, four muskrat, two fox and one great big Swede!"

So far, though, there've been no lutefisk sightings at Lillehammer, and the closest anyone has come to finding funny Norwegian folk traditions has been Dave Barry's report that the train system actually has workers whose job is to sprinkle wolf urine around the rail beds to keep moose off the tracks.

Instead, Hornfeldt says, Swedish jokes are beginning to circulate through the Olympic Village. "The Norwegians are winning everything in the Winter Olympics, and Sweden is not doing well at all," he says. "The last I heard, we had scored just as many points as Fiji Islands.

"So on the TV news, a reporter went around in Lillehammer and saw maps of Scandinavia with no Sweden on it. They just expanded the Baltic Sea so it covers all of Sweden."

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