Caro Meets Comedy Interview

Ari Eldjárn: Pardon My Icelandic

By | Published on Wednesday 27 September 2017

One of the stand-up comedy acts that really came to the fore at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe was newcomer Ari Eldjárn, who garnered much critical acclaim for his witty and astute debut hour. Of course, he’s only a newcomer from our British perspective, being a very well established performer in his native Iceland.
I spoke to Ari to find out more about his upcoming Soho Theatre show, how he got into comedy, and his hopes for the future.

CM: Firstly, can we talk about what’s in the show? What topics do you address? Does it have an overarching theme?
AE: The show is mainly built around observational comedy about the Nordic countries and the differences between them. A sizeable chunk also comes from my experiences of living in Iceland and in the UK which is the only foreign country I’ve lived in for any length of time. In selecting the material I tend to mainly go by laughs but an overall theme usually emerges nonetheless and for lack of a better description I’d say the theme is that, although I am able to blend quite comfortably in and conform to the culture of the United Kingdom I am always going be someone who has always lived in a very small country originally and it will always show.

CM: This is the show you performed in Edinburgh in August, isn’t it? What made you decide to take a show to edfringe?
AE: Yes, this show was my first hour at the Fringe. I had bumped into various comics all over the Nordic scene for years and they all have in common that they’ve done Edinburgh or were going to do it so it was just always at the back of my mind like a qualifier that I felt I had to go through to become a legitimate international act. But nothing happened until I met Bob Slayer (who runs Heroes of Fringe) in Copenhagen a few years ago and he started to ask me about it and eventually I just said “I’m doing it”. After that things just happened really fast and I can’t thank Bob enough for his huge contribution.

CM: How was the Fringe experience for you? Can you see yourself returning?
AE: I came with very modest ambitions and was just going to polish my set, get adjusted and try to sleep well. What I found was a wonderful comedy club called Monkey Barrel Comedy which was always full and run by very clever and funny people. Beforehand I had mainly dreaded the flyering as I have zero skills in that department but thankfully I got a great team to take care of that. The whole experience was enormously rewarding and the best thing was how many great people I met, because I must have shaken hands with about 1500 people. So now I feel like a seasoned politician (minus the scandals). I am definitely returning next ’year.

CM: Did the show develop or change during the run in Edinburgh?
AE: Most of the material existed before and the oldest parts of the UK material came from a short trip to London in 2010 when I did a handful of open-mic gigs at Laughing Horse venues. But once I started the Fringe run it changed very fast. My friend Ala came up from London to help me with rewrites, primarily on the UK material and in the end the set changed quite significantly. Ironically most of the changes were edits meant to tighten and speed up the set but the overall length increased. Hopefully that just means that the laughter has increased as well!

CM: What’s it like performing in a second language? Do you find it easy, or a challenge?
AE: I lived for a year in Canterbury when I was seven years old so I’ve always spoken pretty decent english and hugely enjoy being able to deliver jokes in two languages. Most of the challenges come from finding material that is relevant to an English speaking audience and not immediately getting laughs in certain spots where I have become reliant on them. But all of this can be patched up with some explanations and foot-notes and it is a real thrill to “get away with” saying something in English that was never conceived as something that would translate.

CM: How do British audiences compare to live audiences in your home land?
AE: Reaction-wise I find them just as warm and they laugh just as loud as the Icelandic audiences I’ve become used to. But a key difference is the fact that I will always know a lot of the people in the Icelandic audience personally whereas people in UK audiences will likely be seeing me live for the first (and in many cases the only) time – and that is an enormous rush. It also means that I have a larger catalogue of material to fall back on because the material in Iceland has to be generated much faster. The circuit is so small and many people will have seen me several times in one year, whether they want to or not!

CM: How does the Icelandic comedy scene compare to those in other countries?
AE: Very small and very vibrant. There are no purpose built comedy clubs so the scene is still fairly homemade and do it yourself. As a result everybody knows everybody and there is a very active open mic scene that began for real around 2015. There is also a free English comedy night at a bar called Gaukurinn that’s been running for two years now and it’s always full. A lot of that audience are tourists because Iceland has been experiencing a boom in tourism after the banking crash of 2008 and the volcanic eruption of 2010. The bulk of my work is my own theatre shows and company gigs – which are in their own way sort of homemade as well.

CM: How did you get into doing stand up? What attracted you to this kind of career?
AE: When I started in 2009 there was hardly any stand-up around and my group Mið-Ísland was founded by two of my friends who wanted to try comedy after having been active in music scene. I asked my friends if I could join them on stage, they gave me a break and our first show ever together was at a bar called Karamba with about 80 people stuffed in there. After that the phone started ringing more and more and I left my job as a copywriter half a year later to do comedy full time.

CM: What do you expect from the future? Do you have any grand ambitions?
AE: I live in Iceland with my family and plan to keep living there in the future but I want to perform more in the UK and commute between the two countries. I would like to meet more of my comedy heroes in the UK as I have been raised on a steady diet of British stand-up and sketch comedy. I do have very grand ambitions, almost delusional in fact, but I have always tried to manage my expectations via under-promising and over-delivering.

CM: What’s coming up next for you?
AE: I’ve started working with Mick Perrin Worldwide Management and the Soho Theatre shows mark our first collaboration together. After that there are more international gigs and festivals coming, and on the home front I’m currently preparing my yearly New Year’s stand up show which covers current events of the year. Next year I will also perform a long run with my group Mið-Ísland for a few months and a short concert run with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra where we mix comedy with classical music for three nights. So there’s a lot of action ahead!

Ari Eldjárn: performs ‘Pardon My Icelandic’ at Soho Theatre from 5-7 Oct. See this page here for info and to book.