Monday, April 12, 2010

The Swedish Chef

Jim Henson was truly a genius of entertainment – bringing us beloved characters from Cookie Monster, to Kermit, to Miss Piggy. One of the ones that always made me laugh was the Swedish Chef: He looked absurd and spoke some vaguely Swedish sounding gibberish. You can see him here in his finest form.

Did you ever wonder why Jim Henson decided that the Chef would be Swedish? He could have been almost any nationality: Turkish, Italian, Chinese, Mongolian,… but would he have been as funny? Somehow I think not. Something is inherently funny about the Swedish language – even if when you are not actually speaking Swedish.

Last week I was in Stockholm for Maria Hermanns’ thesis defense. (More on this later –-- maybe). At dinner the night of her defense, her proud research advisor Hans Hansson said “I am going to tell a joke now, and I apologize that I cannot translate it into English. It is only funny if it is told in a silly sounding language.” When the joke was told (with great gusto) all those who spoke Swedish laughed uproariously.

For the record here is the joke in translation:

There is a fishing vessel – a shrimp boat – off the coast of Sweden, and it has a full load of Swedish shrimp. But somewhere in the huge pile of Swedish shrimp there is a single Norwegian shrimp that had somehow wandered across the border and was caught in Swedish territory.

Q: How do you know, of all these shrimp, which one is the Norwegian shrimp.

A: The Norwegian shrimp is the one jumping up and down screaming “I’m a lobster, I’m a lobster!”.

Like I said. It isn’t very funny in English (And apparently you have to know something about the relationship between Swedes and Norwegians). But in a silly sounding language, apparently it is hysterical – just like the Swedish chef.

Note 1: The reason Hans was reminded about this joke was probably because a few of the people at dinner were eating giant shrimp sandwiches for dinner. (Here, “giant” modifies “sandwich” not “shrimp”). This sandwich consisted of a heap of shrimp about the size of my head on a small slab of bread – the dream sandwich!

Note 2: You might want to try out the “Swedish Cheferizer” which turns any English into Swedish Chef Gibberish.


Susanne said...

Hmm. Remember the NORDITA party last summer when Hans and his colleague Anders Karlhede explained the Swedish rules for eating crayfish, and introduced us to the corresponding Swedish drinking songs? Must have been the ultimate real life Swedish chef experience for you.. :-)

Coming to think of it: Hans looked remarkably like the Swedish chef, back in the days when he still had his trademark moustache. And his accent isn't all too different either....

Note: The key to appreciating the shrimp joke is to know about the Norwegians' deep-lying inferiority complex vis-a-vis big brother Sweden (which never quite went away despite the oil), combined with their strong patriotism and often ridiculous overestimation of this country's importance. But I guess you have to live here to really appreciate that :-)

Peter Armitage said...

It sounds like a Russian anekdoty to me ('cept substitute Russians for Swedes and Estonians or Finns for Norwegians). Most of which I never quite get. And so I just shared the shrimp joke with my wife who is Russian and she laughed.... so I think it is at least partly a cultural thing ...