Comedian André Wickström is a well known face on Finnish television, on the stand-up circuit, and from his quirky character commercials for energy company HELEN.
This weekend for News Now Finland, André tells us in his own words about Finnish humour, the dangers of topical jokes, and how to handle hecklers.
What are you up to right now, what projects are you working on or preparing for?
We are doing the show ‘Detta om detta’ for [Swedish language channel] Yle Fem. It is shown on Yle Areena. We, are me and Stan Saanila. It is a news parody were we make fun of the week from Swedish media in Finland. Newspapers and news sites on the net. That will continue next year also. Otherwise it is stand-up comedy that I will be working with.
There’s this stereotype that Finns are humourless. And then spoiler alert, they’re actually pretty funny. Where does Finnish humour come from? Is there something in the characteristics of the people or the country?
Yeah there is this thing about Finland that we don’t have a sense of humour. Maybe it comes from the fact that Finns are quiet people. But if we feel comfortable we are a happy gang. And of course Finnish as a language is so different from all the other northern European languages so it is impossible to understand, and that has made us a bit isolated if you look back in history. Of course now with the internet opening doors people are realising that we are not humourless at all.
Your most famous character in English is hapless HELEN engineer Yrjö Uusivirta. Tell us how he came into being, what’s Yrjö’s origin story and how did you develop him?
Yrjö’s story is simple. The energy company HELEN wanted to do a commercial that would tell that they have the best energy solutions in the world, as the problem was that nobody knew this. I thought that this is true for every Finnish invention. We have great solutions to a lot of problems but we lack the basics for how to sell this. So I thought that what if I would be this engineer who created a lot of great things but just can’t sell them. That way we could sell these great inventions with the power of comedy. And that is basically how it started. We started just with five short commercial and they were only on YouTube and on Facebook and of course on HELEN’s website but we never aimed for TV. Then we just developed them into longer stories and almost like a mini sitcom. It was a risk taking, but they really got a lot of fans not only from Finland but from a lot of engineers around the world.
Comedy has to be topical. But sometimes it can be too topical. Recently, comedians have received criticism for making jokes about the Harvey Weinstein scandal. What’s the balance between good humour and bad taste?
You can and should make fun of everything but it is the timing. A Harvey Weinstein joke could be ‘too soon’ because some people would still feel that you are making fun of the victims instead of Harvey Weinstein. The other aspect is of course who tells the joke. A chauvanistic joke made by alpha male is not funny; but told by an underdog could be funny cause you understand that he doesn’t mean that. But there is place and time for every joke it is up to the comedian to know when and where you can tell it. A joke that is funny with the boys in sauna in the wilderness of Lapland is not funny told at your kids name-giving ceremony.
Finland has become quite a popular spot on the international comedy circuit from acts like Louis CK to Jimmy Carr, and Jim Gaffigan coming next year. What sort of comedy do you like to watch, on TV or live? What makes you laugh?
I like a lot of humor that is not close to what I do. I like comedy that surprises me and that is what comedy has to do somehow. Surprise you because that makes you laugh. So I like comedians who are honest even in a brutal way like Bill Burr, Louis CK or Patrice O’Neal. But it can also be comedy that surprises me of it’s absurdity like Norm Macdonald or Steve Martin’s stand-up comedy.
You must get asked if you are interested in different projects all the time. What’s the best pitch you’ve received; and what’s the worst or most ridiculous project that you’ve been asked to take part in?
When I got into TV in Finland it was a show called W-tyyli and the producer Saku Tuominen called me and asked what if we do a show that never airs? And that was such a good pitch I just fell for it. And it became a popular show that ran for four seasons. We did I think 46 episodes.
Some of the worst ideas are usually that someone wants to do a commercial with stand-up comedy in it. That you would do stand-up comedy about the product and then somehow get that to work on TV for 15 seconds. Usually done without any audience, and you talking into a camera. That is not going to work.
When you’re working on new material, what’s your process? How do you divide up your day between work and life? Take us through an average day of a comedian writing new material for a tour.
Well I work while the kids are in kindergarten and pre-school so usually between 08:00 and 15:00. I write, and then in the evenings I try them out on club gigs. I usually try them out on fellow comedians before the clubs. I have a couple of comedy buddies that will understand what I’m going after in the jokes. There are of course also clubs where everybody is trying out new stuff and they are really good. But it is a lot of writing if one out of ten jokes gets in the set, that is a really good percentage. So writing and killing your darlings.
And finally… stand-up audiences can be tough. Where do you get the best crowds for your brand of comedy, in Finland or overseas? And how do you deal with a tough audience?
Well they used to be tough when nobody knew what stand-up was. I think my jokes work everywhere in Finland. I even do them in Sweden, Iceland and even New York and they work there too. So I think my comedy is very universal, but if you are a one-liner comedian or a ‘odd’ comedian you will struggle more. My only struggle the last 15 years has been drunk people in the crowd. Drunk people do not have the patience to listen to long set-ups and punchlines that doesn’t include the genitals, so that kind of audience can be rough. But usually I try to tell the jokes to them and try to get them on board, and then throw in a couple of dick jokes and usually that works.