Can humor have a temperature? Do some like their comedy hot or cold? A quick survey of movies from Norway and Brazil invites us to consider how climate and geography can affect a people’s sense of humor. Let’s start with a joke from the Nordic countries:
A Swede and a Norwegian decide to drink. They sit across the table with more than a few bottles of aquavit between them, knocking off shot after shot without a word. After three hours, the Norwegian lifts a glass and says, “Skol!” to which the Swede frowns in disapproval, saying, “Did we come here to talk or to drink?”
Like most bar jokes, this one hinges on stereotypes, but cultural clichés can be revealing. Swedes and Norwegians laugh at qualities they find amusing in their own behavior: the drinking, for example, and the long stretches of uncommunicative silence punctuated by an unexpected outburst. There’s something oddly funny here, perhaps ironic, detached, understated, cool. We find a good deal of this icy humor in comedies from Norway.
The Bothersome Man (Den brysomme mannen, 2006) opens with a wide shot of a desolate landscape under dark clouds. A man slowly climbs a ladder and hangs a sign above a rusty gas pump. After a full minute and a half, we glimpse a bus in the distance. It takes another minute to reach us, when a younger man—its only passenger—steps out. The bus departs, leaving him to survey the barren panorama until he sees the sign: “Welcome.” More time passes before the first man appears from behind the pump. “Hi,” he says, and, without another word, ascends the ladder to remove the sign. “Was the banner for me?” the young man asks. “Yes,” comes the response. “I like making a bit of a fuss.” Then the sign comes down.
It takes more than four minutes for the scene to unroll. Norway’s open spaces and gloomy climate are part of the joke. So is the older man’s grudging use of language, like the Norwegian in the bar joke. His idea of a fuss is a one-word sign in the middle of nowhere.
Bent Hamer’s Kitchen Stories (Salmer fra kjøkkenet, 2003) is a comedy of national identities. The Swedes, famous for their efficient studies, have come to analyze the kitchen habits of Norwegian males for the purpose of improving their domestic products. Isak, a Norwegian, resents this arrangement, but he needs the money. He makes remarks about the oddity of Swedish words, like “smörgåsbord,” and the unnatural silence of his observer (with a wry allusion, perhaps, to Swedish neutrality during World War II). Meanwhile, Folke, the Swede, finds some peculiarities in his Norwegian host. When the phone rings, Isak fails to pick it up. “Why don’t you answer?” Folke asks. Isak knows a neighbor has called to say that he’ll be over for coffee, but why pay the phone company for that information?
Quirky behavior is a staple of Norwegian comedy. Watch this scene from Trollhunters (Trolljegeren, 2010), an oddball fantasy in which an ordinarily tight-lipped Norwegian is interviewed about his peculiar job. The government has hired him to hunt down trolls, which are killing livestock and ruining tourism in the north. What makes the scene so funny is his matter-of-fact description of these ludicrously dangerous creatures from Norse mythology. What the hunter likes least about his job is filling out a “Slayed Troll Form” every time he scores a hit.
Compare these laconic characters and deadpan scenes to those of the chanchada, a popular genre of Brazilian cinema. Carmen Miranda typifies the carnivalesque vitality of these films. With her chica-chica-boom-chic gyrations and her tutti-frutti hat, she embodied Latina energy from the 1930s through the 1950s. During this “golden age,” and even later, the film industry in Brazil played a canny shadow game with Hollywood by alternately mimicking and mocking movies from north of the border. Codfish (Bacalhao, 1975), a parody of Jaws, is a hilarious example.
By the seventies, when Brazilian cinema became more openly political, comedy acquired a darker tone. In How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman (Como Era Gostoso o Meu Francês, 1971), the title character ends up being cooked in a pot and eaten by a sixteenth-century Tupinambá tribe. This fanciful account of cannibalism, an historical fact, becomes an ironic trope for colonial consumerism in reverse: the indigenous Brazilians devour their would-be predators. Yet, while such films clearly have a serious, even grotesque quality (they were variously dubbed Cinema Novo, Tropicalism, and even “Mouth of Garbage films”), their humor is manic, hyper-heated, in contrast to their deadpan Norwegian counterparts.
Like much comedy, Brazilian movies tend to feature figures from the lower classes, poor people trying to get ahead, often by illegal means. Guel Arraes sets A Dog’s Will (O Auto da Campadecida, 2000) in the rural northeast, where two bumbling low-life bandits, João and Chicó, trick their way through a throng of scoundrels and fools. Jorge Furtado’s The Man Who Copied (O Homem Que Copiava, 2003) takes place in urban Brazil on a slightly higher rung on the social ladder. The man of the title is a convenience store employee named André, whose voice-over narration sounds like a how-to manual for getting rich. André begins his rise to prosperity by photocopying his boss’s $50 bill, using it to buy a winning lottery ticket. This takes him through the crazy antics of a bank heist, a shopping spree, and layers of deception and betrayal. Beneath Furtado’s playful mixture of genre conventions—Hollywood’s screwball romance and film noir, Brazil’s chanchada and Cinema Novo—lies a serious indictment of the culture of wealth based on greed and deceit.
If comedy is a matter of excess, the actors in these Brazilian films push “Latino passion” to a feverish pitch while their Norwegian counterparts endure a kind of Nordic hypothermia. Both practice the art of exaggeration, a form of self-correction, demonstrating that humor can be both a mirror and a medicine. Or a cultural thermometer.
Featured image by Jarosław Kwoczała