Swedish comedians stand up for Judaism

By Nathalie Rothschild, September 28, 2010
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While stand-up comedy has been common in Sweden since the late 1980s, Swedish-Jewish stand-up is a new phenomenon. Spearheaded by performers Aron Flam and Jonatan Unge, comedy by and about Jews is becoming an unexpected, and big, hit.

Mr Flam (pictured) and Mr Unge, both in their early 30s, met at a Jewish summer camp in the Stockholm archipelago and later co-authored a sardonic book of quotes and facts about death. Since their stand-up debuts in 2007, both have become regular guests in Swedish TV studios, asked to comment on everything from Jewish identity to Swedish politics.

Known for broaching taboo topics, tackling everything from genocide to paedophilia, Mr Flam and Mr Unge have gained reputations as controversialists for whom no subject is sacred. So what is Jewish about their comedy?

"We're both open about our Jewishness and we talk about it on stage," explains Mr Flam. Mr Unge adds: "We've both built our cultural identity into our on-stage characters, just like many comedians from minority groups."

Comedy is a platform for all kinds of minorities to be heard

There are nearly 20,000 Jews in Sweden, out of a population of 9 million. But the growing awareness of Jewish culture is largely thanks to the influence of American pop culture.

"Jokes about antisemitic caricatures as well as 'Seinfeld-style' humour work in Sweden. People know what that's about now," says Mr Unge.

"Still, this isn't America," adds Mr Flam. "Certain specific cultural references just won't wash. How many Swedes have heard of gefilte fish?"

The pair did not choose for themselves the epithet "Swedish-Jewish comedian". Still, Mr Flam acknowledges that when their shows are billed as "Swedish-Jewish standup" it draws crowds. He puts the appeal down to a blend of "exoticisation and philosemitism".

So how have their stand-up routines been received by the Swedish-Jewish community? They believe that the younger generations particularly appreciate how it is helping to make Jewish cultural references recognisable in mainstream Swedish society. Indeed, lately stand-up has become a platform for all kinds of minorities in Sweden to be seen and heard.

Mr Flam and Mr Unge's brand of shock humour may not be everyone's idea of fun, but comedy can be an effective vehicle for getting people to confront, discuss and re-think uncomfortable subjects - including antisemitism - while having a laugh.

Last updated: 12:55pm, October 12 2010