A German, an Italian and a Turk go to a comedy club to see a Finn. It almost sounds like the setup of a joke. But the only punchlines here were those delivered by the man on stage: Finnish comedian Ismo Leikola.
Ismo Leikola is the greatest entertainment to come out of Finland since Lordi cleaned up at the 2006 Eurovision competition. He knew early on in life that he wanted to be a comedian. After completing his mandatory military service in Finland in 1999, he almost finished his university degree. But the draw of the comedy stage was stronger than the desire to finish school. Probably not good advice for anyone other than a man as talented as Ismo Leikola. His routines bring down the houses in Finland as much as the U.S., and many other English-speaking countries in between.
In Finland, he’s known as the comic who not only fills large venues for his stand-up, but also had his own sitcom. The show, simply named ‘Ismo’, ran for two years. It was halted only by his decision to up-end his life and move to America. His plan: to be the first Fin to conquer the U.S. comedy scene.
The Jump-Start to Ismo’s US Career
Until 2016, the famous Laugh Factory in Los Angeles hosted an annual competition to find the World’s Funniest Person. Audiences voted online, and in 2014, Ismo won with close to 160,000 votes. Seeing that his comedy resonated with the American audience, Ismo decided to pack up his wife and dog, and become an Alien with Extraordinary Abilities. Says Ismo: “I got encouraged that in America, it’s possible, too. It was a no-brainer. And I can always come back to Finland”. (A very different farewell than the one given to Dutch comedian Samba Schutte.)
Ismo Leikola still tours in Finland, filling large venues with comedy routines in Finnish as well as English. There, he also performs parodies of Finnish songs with his band. Asked if he’ll eventually add music to his repertoire in America, Ismo says he’s been working on a few parodies, but if he were to eventually perform those, it’d be separate from his stand-up.
After winning the Laugh Factory competition, Ismo appeared on the Conan O’Brien show. The post-show video on Youtube garnered close to 3 million views – not bad for a newcomer.
U.S. vs Europe
One would think Netflix would be knocking on his door, begging for a special by now. Ismo explains that even for a seasoned performer who can bring down the house worldwide, the long-standing and well-established comedy scene in the U.S. means there are scores of stand-up comedians competing for the audiences, venues, and television specials. “It’s harder to succeed in America” he says, “but the rewards are bigger.”
Probably one reason why Ismo’s decision to try a comedy career in Finland went so well was that, when he started in 2002, Finland’s comedy scene was also just getting started. There was a demand for comedians who, over time, built out the Finnish comedy scene themselves. While still not as big or rewarding as what Ismo calls the ‘well-oiled machine’ that is the U.S. comedy scene, Finland is slowly catching up. Major differences remain: In Finland, there’s no need for agents, managers and publicists. “In Finland, I have a great team who do my tour. I could say they’re my managers, but I think of them as producers rather than managers.”
A Finnish Observer
Ismo’s topics on-stage center mostly around a foreigner’s discovery of the nuances of the English language. Although, he also offers insights about anything ranging from relationships to vegans, dolphins and earthworms.
Ismo’s routines are free of offensive material. When asked about whether there’s a difference in political correctness between Europe and America, Ismo feels that there really are few limits in either country. “I think comedians are free to talk about most anything, as long as it’s funny.”
We all know that not everything translates from any European language to English. For Ismo, that’s an advantage. Not only are his jokes about the various uses of the words ‘ass’ or ‘shit’ in English a hit wit global audiences. He also performs a similar routine in Finnish regarding the many uses of the phrase ‘No Niin’ (Well). Whatever topic Ismo chooses, audiences of any cultural background have a great time watching this ‘everyman’ on stage just innocently pondering everyday things.
The Dutch are associated with wooden shoes and cheese, Germans with beer and sausages. What stereotypes does a Fin get in the U.S.? Not a whole lot. “[People] know nothing about Finland”, Ismo says. “Lots of people know where Finland is, but there’s no real stereotype.” (Let us help you with that … check the gallery at the bottom of the page)
And what does he miss most about Finland? Ismo’s first response covers the people he left behind, followed by “real Finnish rye bread”. As for typical American things he appreciates: being able to make a right turn on a red light. He also enjoys typically American conveniences such as readily chopped vegetables at the store, or remote control garage door openers.
Ismo Leikola has made few plans for the future. But he does plan to be in America and tour as much as possible, “getting better and better and better”. If you’re lucky enough to catch one of his performances, you might wonder how that’s even possible. But Ismo is determined to work his way up to that Netflix special or his own television show. Still, he says, “those are kind of side things. Standup is still my main thing all the time.” Lucky for stand-up comedy club audiences.
For a list of upcoming performance locations and dates, visit Ismo’s website at www.ismo.fun. And for a sneak preview of Ismo’s materials, check out his Youtube channel or subscribe to his Twitter feed.
And here a primer on what Finland is famous for – other than Ismo Leikola.