Can humor have a temperature? Does anyone like hot or cold comedy? A short survey of films from Norway and Brazil invites us to consider how climate and geography can influence a person’s sense of humor. Let’s start with a joke from the Nordic countries:
A Swedish and a Norwegian decide to have a drink. They sat across the table with more than a few bottles of aquavit between them, firing shot after shot without a word. After three hours, the Norwegian raised his glass and said, “Skol!” Where the Swede frowns in disapproval, saying, “Did we come here to talk or to drink?”
Like most bar jokes, this one relies on stereotypes, but cultural cliches can tell. Swedes and Norwegians laugh at the qualities they find funny in their behavior: drinking habits, for example, and prolonged uncommunicative silence punctuated by unexpected outbursts. There’s something oddly funny here, perhaps ironic, detached, understated, cool. We find a lot of this cool humor in comedy from Norway.
Annoying Man (Annoying Man, 2006) opens with a wide shot of a remote landscape under dark clouds. A man slowly climbs the stairs and hangs a sign over a rusty gas station. After a full minute and a half, we saw a bus in the distance. It took another minute to reach us, when a younger man – the only passenger – left. The bus departs, leaving him to observe the barren panorama until he sees a sign: “Welcome.” More time passes before the first person appears from behind the pump. “Hi,” he said, and, without a word, climbed the stairs to erase the sign. “Is the banner for me?” the young man asked. “Yes,” came the response. “I like to make a fuss.” Then the sign came down.
It takes more than four minutes to unroll the scene. Norway’s open spaces and bleak climate are part of the joke. So did the old man’s use of reluctant language, like the Norwegian joke at the bar. Her idea of a fuss is a one-word sign in the middle of nowhere.
Bent Hamer Kitchen Stories (Hymn from the kitchen, 2003) is a national identity comedy. The Swedes, known for their efficient studies, have come to analyze kitchen habits Norwegian men for the purpose of increasing their domestic product. Isak, a Norwegian, hates this arrangement, but he needs money. He makes statements about the oddity of Swedish words, such as “smörgåsbord,” and his observer’s unnatural silence (with a sour satire, perhaps, at Swedish neutrality during World War II). Meanwhile, Folke, the Swedish, found some oddities in the host Norway. When the phone rang, Isak failed to pick it up. “Why do not you answer?” Folke asked. Isaac knew a neighbor had called to say he was coming for coffee, but why pay the phone company for that information?
Unique behavior is a staple of Norwegian comedy. Watch this scene from Trollhunter (Troll hunter, 2010), an eccentric fantasy in which a normally mute Norwegian is interviewed about his odd job. The government has hired him to hunt trolls, which kill livestock and destroy tourism in the north. What makes the scene so amusing is its true description of these ludicrously dangerous creatures from Norse mythology. What hunters dislike the most about his job is filling out the “Killed Troll Form” every time he scores a goal.
Compare this short character and flat scene to the one in chanchada, a popular Brazilian film genre. Carmen Miranda portrays the carnival vitality of these films. With himher girl-girl-boom-chic Her loops and tutti-frutti cap, she embodies the Latina energy of the 1930s to the 1950s. During this “golden age”, and even later, the film industry in Brazil played a clever shadow play with Hollywood by taking turns copying and mocking films from the north of the border. Cod (Cod, 1975), a parody of Mouth, is a funny example.
In the seventies, as Brazilian cinema became more openly political, comedy took on a darker tone. In How Delicious My Little French is (How Good My French Is, 1971), the title character was finally cooked in a pot and eaten by the sixteenth century Tupinambá. The fantastical tale of cannibalism, a historical fact, becomes an ironic allusion to reverse colonial consumerism: Brazil’s natives devour their would-be predators. However, while such films clearly have a serious, even gruesome quality (variously dubbed Cinema Novo, Tropicalism, and even the “Trash Mouth film”), their humor is very manic, very heated, in contrast to their counterparts who flat in Norway.
Like most comedies, Brazilian films tend to feature characters from the lower classes, poor people trying to get ahead, often illegally. Guel Arraes set Dog’s Will (Auto da Campadecida, 2000) in the countryside of the northeast, where two clumsy low-life bandits, João and Chicó, trick their way through a crowd of ruffians and morons. Jorge Furtado The Man Copying (The Man Copying, 2003) occurred in urban Brazil at a slightly higher social rung. The man with the title is a convenience store employee named André, whose voice sounds like a how-to guide to getting rich. André began his rise to prosperity by photocopying his boss’s $ 50 bill, using it to buy winning lottery tickets. This takes him through the insane antics of bank theft, massive shopping, and layers of fraud and betrayal. Under a mix of cheerful genre conventions from Furtado – Hollywood screwball romance and film noir, Brazil chanchada and New Cinema—There are serious charges against a wealth culture based on greed and deceit.
If comedy is a matter of exaggeration, the actors in these Brazilian films propel “Latin passion” to a feverish peak while their Norwegian counterparts experience a kind of Nordic hypothermia. Both practice the art of exaggeration, a form of self-correction, showing that humor can be both a mirror and a drug. Or a culture thermometer.
Featured image by Jarosław Kwoczała