Stand-Up Comedian Ismo Leikola Brings Finnish Perspective To U.S.11:05
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Finnish stand-up comedian Ismo. (Courtesy Arsonhouse Entertainment)
Finnish stand-up comedian Ismo. (Courtesy Arsonhouse Entertainment)
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Editor's Note: This post contains language some readers might find offensive.


Named in 2014 as "The World's Funniest Person" in a contest sponsored by the Los Angeles comedy club The Laugh Factory, comedian Ismo Leikola, or Ismo, has made a career out of mining his Finnish outsider status for comedic gold.

Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson talks with Ismo (@ISMOcomedy) about his particular brand of stand-up — and going by one name.

"I don't think there's many Ismos in America, or maybe in the world of comedy in general," he says. "I thought that it's easier to just have my first name. It's nice, four letters, like Cher."

Interview Highlights

On what made him want to take his comedy around the world

"At first it was just, I really wanted to see, can I translate and does it work in English? It was just like, I had nothing to lose. More than 10 years ago I went to London actually to do my first English gigs, and I just wanted to try it out, and then it was so promising and I kept going back and then suddenly now I'm doing way more English than Finnish. So it's kind of, it paid off.

"Like some jokes, or some things I tell are completely ... it doesn't matter which language, if it's a story or something like an observation. But then I do play a lot with the language, and that's mostly untranslatable. But actually I think when I try to translate something untranslatable, I come up with new jokes. So it's good to think in two languages."

On the American greeting "what's up?"

"I heard it a lot after moving to America. It's weird because in Finland, if we ask a question, it's almost always like, you have to answer something. Like when we just walk by somebody, we'd just say hi, but if we ask something, then we actually are expecting an answer. But 'what's up' is completely the opposite. 'What's up' is just like, I remember the old commercials where people were just shouting that 'what's up,' and nobody was answering.

"That has been the most difficult part, actually, about moving to America is the small-talk rules, because my theory is that when somebody says 'how are you,' you have to say, 'Good, how are you?' Like you have to kind of answer a little bit. But with 'what's up,' it's just, 'what's up?' So that's my theory. But people do it differently. So it's those small-talk things, like, 'How are you doing?' That's even like, you never answer anything to that."

On another English word that's fascinated him: "ass"

"It's like a four- or five-minute routine about just the word 'ass.' Now, sometimes people even stop me on the street and say, 'Hey, it's the ass guy.' The whole thing started when I kind of tried to figure out what 'ass' means, and I realized that there are some times it doesn't mean anything. It's just like, optional. Like a 'long-ass flight.' It's the same flight without the ass. It's just the long flight. And my favorite, 'a grown-ass man' — it's a grown man. To me it sounded like, it's just the ass that has grown, but it's the whole man."

On other stand-ups like George Carlin who've focused their comedy on the English language

"I've heard the comparison to George Carlin a few times. It's been great, because I really love his stuff. I have listened to all his stuff years ago. And I definitely like the style of like, analyzing the language and doing long lists. I remember when I read a book about how to do comedy, and the first rule was 'don't do lists,' and then I said, 'Screw that, I'm doing lists,' and Carlin also does lists, so I love that. But yeah definitely I've got inspiration I think from him like, I listened to him years and years ago, but lately ... sometimes I go back to it also. I do listen to a lot of comedy, and now it's all over Netflix and everything, so you can get comedy anywhere."

This segment aired on July 30, 2018.

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