How did the stand up comedy scene in Iceland start? Is there comedy in English? What is the future looking like for comedy in Iceland? Read on to find out more about the saga of Icelandic stand up.
We are currently living in a sort of golden age of stand up comedy. With the advent of streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime, there has never been more variety available on a global scale when it comes to choosing something to make you laugh.
This might come as a surprise, but Iceland has quite a vibrant stand up comedy scene. We’ve yet to take over the streaming side of stand up but if you’re coming to these rocky shores, there are plenty of chances for you to take a seat, grab a beer and have a good old laugh.
Stand up comedy in Iceland is a relatively new phenomenon. It’s not that Icelanders don’t love to laugh, it’s more that stand up comedy in the form most of us know it - one person telling jokes on a stage - hasn’t really existed until recently.
In the past Icelanders have mostly experienced an abundant amount of sketch comedy. Theatre audiences had been used to seeing accomplished character actors like Þórhallur ‘Laddi’ Sigurðsson perform sketches for years.
One of the most watched television shows of the year is an annual program called ‘Áramótaskaup.’ It’s screened on New Year's Eve each year and takes a trip through the events of the past 365 days through sketches.
In the early to mid-2000s, the first official stand up comedy shows in Icelandic were performed by comedians Þorstein Guðmundsson, Jón Gnarr and Sigurjón Kjartansson, and a stand up revolution was born.
The 2018 New Year's Sketch show with English subtitles
In 2008, Icelandic actress Anna Svava Knútsdóttir had been working with the director of the new year’s show ‘Áramótaskaupið’. He suggested to her that she create a one-woman theatre show about her teenage years. The show was called ‘The Diary of Anna Knúts’ and was well received.
Audiences loved Anna’s show so much that she began receiving requests from Icelandic companies asking her to perform 10-minute sets for their annual parties, and she was suddenly Iceland’s first professional female comic.
On the younger end of the spectrum, desperation birthed another comedy scene.
In 2009, Icelandic rapper and the grandson of prized author Halldór Laxness, Halldór Halldórsson (commonly known as Dóri DNA), owed money to the downtown Reykjavík bar Prikið. In order to pay it back, he offered to perform a stand up show, which to his surprise was a success.
He later teamed up with other aspiring comedians including Ari Eldjárn, who is the grandson of former Icelandic President Kristján Eldjárn. Before long a ragtag team of five young, male comics formed a group called Mið-Ísland, Middle-Iceland (the name given to the barren highlands of Iceland).
Mið-Ísland started performing seasons of about 60 shows in the basement of the Reykjavík City Theatre, and today they are the most profitable group of comedians working in the country.
Comedy later entered politics in Reykjavík. In 2010, comedian Jón Gnarr, whose 1998 show ‘Ég var einu sinni nörd’ (I used to be a nerd) had a big part in bringing stand up to Icelanders’ attention, threw his political hat in the campaign to become mayor of Reykjavík. What initially began as a joke ended up with him landing the job of running the city from 2010 to 2014.
Icelandic stand up was well established from about 2008, but the only stand up in English was visiting acts. Big names like Eddie Izzard, Bill Burr and Jimmy Carr had all brought large shows to Iceland, but there were no local acts performing in English.
In the summer of 2015 that changed. Icelander and at the time, aspiring comedian, Gísli Jóhann decided he wanted to introduce the country to local comedy in English. He had been working in a factory, feeling depressed about how there was no place for him to try stand up in English.
Eventually, in 2015 it was the height of the tourism boom, and Gísli saw an opportunity.
With a continuous rotation of potential foreign audiences, he thought, why not take a chance to establish an English speaking open mic? It would be a great way to test out material and allow local up and comers to see if their stuff works in English.
He contacted a downtown bar called Gaukurinn to see if they would give him a spot to trial his experiment and a comedy night was born.
Gísli established what is now ‘Golden Gang Comedy,’ the first English speaking stand up comedy night in Icelandic history, called ‘Come Talk Funny.’ As with most new ventures in Iceland, the initial few shows had small audiences, but by show 10, Gísli and his comedy colleagues noticed that they had created a winning concept.
The summer months are often a time in Iceland where tourists aren’t really sure what to do in the evening. The northern lights have gone away, and traditionally there hadn’t been a lot of entertainment options available to non-Icelandic speakers besides music concerts.
This once a week comedy night quickly became a ‘must see’ in Reykjavík, for tourists and also locals.
Not long after it began, established comedians had also started flocking to the venue to see if their jokes could translate to English, turning the open mic into a bit of a showcase. Within a year, foreign comedians caught wind of the Icelandic comedy scene and started travelling to the country to see how their sets worked for Icelandic crowds.
Many comedians in Iceland had long dreamed of having a dedicated comedy venue. In the early days, it seemed like that would forever remain a dream.
Establishing a venue in downtown Reykjavík can be incredibly expensive, and comedians typically aren’t the most likely people to have access to the immense funding needed to get a project like this off the ground.
Unnar had mentioned he was about to open a bar 2 doors down from Icelandic Street Food that had a basement he wasn’t sure what to do with. He asked Bjarni if he was interested in helping find ideas of what to do with the place. Bjarni suggested making it a comedy club and the wheels started turning.
They then spent hours converting what was a dark, filthy basement into an ideal comedy club, the first of its kind in Icelandic history. The Secret Cellar would become a hub for comedy.
They worked tirelessly using the walking tours and the street food business to create buzz. In the early days, they didn’t have that many shows lined up, and Bjarni had to provide entertainment in the form of live music.
It didn’t take long for The Secret Cellar to start having audiences at maximum capacity. Audiences were made up of both tourists and locals alike.
In 2018 The Secret Cellar became one of the main venues for the very first Reykjavík Fringe Festival, a celebration of art and culture which brings international acts as well as showcasing local artists.
The owners and management of The Secret Cellar aim to bring the feeling of the traditional comedy cellars of abroad into the heart of Reykjavík. They also aim to showcase local talent and give space to foreign comedians to test their jokes out on Icelandic audiences.
International acts have even done surprise gigs there. American comedian Jackie Kashian (as seen on Conan O’Brien) performed there in 2018, and in 2019 Bill Burr surprised audiences by showing up for a set in the middle of his world tour.
Bjarni says that when he started his career 20 years ago, there was no such platform for comedians in Iceland, and he would have done things differently if he had access to a space like The Secret Cellar to hone his skills as a comedian. He’s very proud of what they have been able to provide to comedians at all levels in Iceland.
The official trailer for 'My Voices Have Tourette's'
The Secret Cellar now has a show on every night of the week. These shows range from open mic; showcases; game shows; and even a very special show that breaks down the stigma of mental health issues and disorders. ‘My Voices Have Tourettes’ is a showcase of comedians who have all struggled with things like anxiety, Tourette's syndrome, schizophrenia, autism and other issues that often have been underrepresented in comedy.
As the English speaking comedy scene has grown in Iceland, so has its reach abroad. A 2017 piece in the New York Times further piqued international interest in the on-stage antics of the northernmost capital in the world.
In 2017, two Icelandic comedians did something no Icelanders had done before them.
Helgi Steinar Gunnlaugsson and Ari Eldárn took English speaking stand up comedy shows to the largest Fringe Festival in the world, Edinburgh Fringe.
Helgi Steinar Gunnlaugsson performing in Scotland
Helgi is an Iceland native who grew up in America and has lived and studied in China. He performs in three languages (English, Icelandic and Mandarin).
Ari Eldjárn is one of the most in-demand Icelandic comedians and has been working solidly in the country for over a decade. He’s arguably the most popular and most famous comedian in the country.
Someone like Ari going to Edinburgh may not sound like a special feat, but it’s not very usual that someone who is already successful in Iceland decides to take on the rest of the world. There can be a fear of getting out there and realising that you are just a big fish in a small pond. Not every Icelander can be Björk, and few would ever have imagined that an Icelandic comedian could succeed in the UK.
Ari Eldjárn on Mock the Week
Ari’s debut English show, ‘Pardon My Icelandic’ was received with critical acclaim which then lead to him booking famous venues in the UK, including a run at Soho Theatre, and a stint at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in Australia.
His comedic skills landed him television appearances on Mock the Week in the UK as well as The Project on network 10 in Australia, and a live broadcast during the Opening Night Gala of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival on the ABC network.
Ari Eldjárn performing at the opening gala of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival
In Iceland, when someone succeeds internationally, it’s a win for the whole country, and this prompted other comedians to seek out gigs in the wider world.
Icelandic journalist turned comedy promoter Ingibjörg Rósa created a cross country comedy event in 2018. The mini-festival, called ‘Scotch on Ice,’ brought comedians from Edinburgh in Scotland to Iceland, performing with local acts to sold-out crowds.
Scotch on Ice created a kind of sisterhood between the two cities with plans for a future festival to be held in Edinburgh with Icelandic comedians visiting.
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Anneli Salo
Another name not to be missed when discussing comedy in Iceland is Hugleikur Dagsson. Hugleikur was originally a cartoonist. His crude stick figure cartoons, which are often a darkly satirical look at life, are to Icelandic comedy, what Halldór Laxness’ novels are to Icelandic literature.
His collections of joke cartoons have amassed a strong international following, earning him an Instagram following most could only dream of. His cartoons were even featured in the 2011 Judd Apatow book ‘I found this funny.’
Judd Apatow explaining why he finds Hugleikur Dagsson's cartoons funny
In the last decade, Dagsson made the transition to stand up comedian, paving the way for other alternative comics in a landscape that was mostly dominated by family-friendly humour.
Hugleikur Dagsson performing stand up at 'Come Talk Funny'
In 2019, Hugleikur did the first ever European comedy tour by an Icelander. ‘Son of the Day’ began in Reykjavík and visited 20 cities throughout mainland Europe.
The Icelandic comedy scene is booming, and with all of this in mind, it seems like it’s only a matter of time till we see some of these names popping up in our Netflix cue.
If you're coming to Iceland and would like to see some comedy there are some names you can look out for. Below is a list of the comedians currently performing in Iceland in the English language. Some of the comedians were born here, others are incredible imports, all of them are worth a look if you would like to sample the booming comedy scene in the land of fire and ice.
Ari Eldjárn (Icelandic)
Hugleikur Dagsson (Icelandic)
Nick Jameson (American/British)
Snjólaug Ludvíksdóttir aka Sola Ludviks (Icelandic, also performs in French)
Jóhannes Ingi Torfasson (Icelandic)
Helgi Steinar (Icelandic also performs in Mandarin)
Bylgja Babylons (Icelandic, based in Edinburgh Scotland)
Rebecca Lord (American)
Kimi Tayler (British)
Gísli Jóhann (Icelandic)
York Underwood (Canadian)
Jono Duffy (Australian)
Aaron Zarabi (American)
Laufey Haralds (Icelandic)
Huw Coverdale-Jones (British)
Arnor Daði (Icelandic)
Bjarni Thomas (Icelandic)
Dan Zerin (American)
Elva Dögg (Icelandic)
Þórhallur Þórhallsson (Icelandic)
Stefnir Benediktsson (Icelandic)
Carmela Torrini (Icelandic)
Steindór Haraldsson (Icelandic)
Hannah Proppé Bailey (British/Icelandic)
Tjarnarbio (selected shows, check their program)
Kaffi Laugalækur The venue does occasional stand up shows in English, check their Facebook page for events
The Reykjavik Fringe Festival is now a yearly event that brings stand up comedy shows to audiences from local acts and visiting comedians. You can see their website here.
Have you seen some stand up comedy in Iceland? Do you have a favourite comedian who lives here? Let us know in the Facebook comments box below.