Writer E.B. White—well known for his children’s books and co-authoring one of the most famous English language style guides, ‘The Elements of Style’—once wrote the following: “Analysing humour is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies.” E.B. White died a couple of decades too early to visit the annual ICEF Humour Symposium in Hólmavík, a small town in the northwest of Iceland. But the room was full of interested people, and the humour survived dissection; when people were better aware of the context of the joke, they laughed even harder.
The biggest name at the festival was probably Þorsteinn Guðmundsson, a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to Icelandic comedy. While his stand-up was funny, his lecture was even funnier—the true highlight of the festival. He dissected a single joke, told by former Prime Minister and current Morgunblaðið editor, Davíð Oddsson. Davíð is arguably the most powerful politician of the last twenty years and the power he still holds over the populace was evident in the recent trial of former Prime Minister Geir H. Haarde, who was charged with negligence over the financial crisis. The day Davíð testified, the headlines of the many of the leading news sites read: “Davíð Oddson told a joke.”
The joke in question went like this: “When I was told that Björgólfur Thor and Björgólfur Guðmundsson were not related parties I asked if that wasn’t hard on Þóra—who was the mother of one and the wife of the other.” The point being how absurd it was to try to say that the father and son—both connected to Landsbanki bank—were not related parties. Þorsteinn’s lecture was considerably funnier than this so-called joke, as it is a myth that Davíð Oddsson is funny. He hasn’t been truly funny since his radio days in the ’70s, and the bar isn’t set very high for Icelandic politicians in this regard.
WHAT THE JOKE SAYS ABOUT ICELANDIC SOCIETY
In any case, Þorsteinn used the joke—all the players in it, including Davíð himself—to analyse their status in Icelandic society and their relations to each other. In addition to Björgólfur Senior and Junior, another father-and-son pair has dominated the landscape of Icelandic business, namely Jóhannes Jónsson and Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson. Many have thought that Davíð has been siding with the Björgólfurs, so in a way the joke was a canny way of distancing himself from them, as they have now both fallen from grace.
Þóra’s role in the joke is also noteworthy. What does Davíð mean by saying it’s hard on her? Does he mean that perhaps Björgólfur Thor is not Björgólfur Guðmundsson’s son after all—and if so, why is that hard on her, rather than her husband? The tycoon’s wife usually stays out of the media spotlight, yet she is the one who gives the family its historical clout, being the grandchild of Thor Jensen, one of Iceland’s most famous businessmen of the early twentieth century. The one time that she was in the news was due to the publication of the book ´Thorsararnir´ (The Thors family) where her previous marriage to George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi Party, was mentioned. Björgólfur senior used his influence to buy and destroy all copies of the book, which was eventually published without this chapter. Then he even tried to buy DV, the newspaper that eventually told the story about how he censored it.
These kinds of relations are remarkably common in the higher echelons of Icelandic society, even considering its small population of 320.000. If it’s not through a family connection, power structures can be traced to old cliques in high school or university or the youth organizations of political parties. By highlighting this and other aspects of Davíð’s joke, Þorsteinn illustrated how Iceland’s recent political and economic history often resembles a really bad joke. And when all the major news sites ran the headline “Davíð Oddson told a joke,” the media felt like the most terrible joke of all. But as is often the case with jokes, the joke is ultimately on you.
Ásgeir H Ingólfsson
Originally published in The Reykjavík Grapevine on April 20th 2012.