Most people are familiar with that old cliché: “It’s not the joke, it’s the way (s)he tells it.” Like most clichés, there is truth to it, a truth  admirably embodied by the extraordinary Finnish stand-up comedian, Ismo.

Despite his status as the first Finnish comedian to ever perform on American television in a memorable appearance on Conan, he offers a scarce amount of English-speaking material. Only 13 of the videos on Ismo’s YouTube page are in English. A few of his videos are spent talking about the confusing nature of the English language. Two of his most clever bits detail the inconsistencies of the words “ass” and “shit.”

“How can it be, if something is bad, it’s shit. If something is really good, it’s the shit,” the bit begins.

While English is clearly Ismo’s second language, he has a mastery of it that is essential to his stand-up. His word choice and speech patterns are too precise in their humor. This is why Ismo’s material is impossible for anyone else to repeat or imitate. (And yet I keep trying.)

My favorite bits from Ismo, however, are his simpler videos, that rely almost entirely on delivery. This is best exemplified in the minute-and-a-half-long video called “The EARTHworm.”

(Warning: In the next paragraph I reveal the first 30 seconds or so of the joke. I would personally recommend watching the video first. You won’t be sorry.)

“My favorite animal of all the animals has to be the… the earthworm. The earthworm. That’s so good. It’s so accurately named. Although, I don’t know any worm from any other planet. But that one…. From the earth…. That’s our worm.”

The rest of the video is more or less an elaboration on that one joke. On its own, the earthworm joke is simply not all that funny. It’s not that the joke isn’t clear — its logic is perfectly obvious — it’s just that it doesn’t feel clever enough, really. It feels too simple to be a joke.

But the detail that Ismo delivers it with brings it to hysterical life. The gravelly way that he says “earthworm,” the slight hesitation between “accurately” and “named,” the way he uses his hands to signify the earth, all of it is instrumental in creating the joke. If the material itself isn’t entirely intricate, Ismo’s delivery is. And it pays off.

Another thing I appreciate about Ismo is his purity. His comedy comes with no social or political message. I am not personally opposed to political or social commentary in comedy, but I do believe a comedian’s first job is to make the audience laugh. In today’s social and political climate, we all seem to be looking for brief pockets of escapism.

When I watch Ismo, I feel more than a momentary reprieve. I feel emotionally rejuvenated — like I’ve been given a newer, funnier outlook on things. When I watch Ismo — with all of his simplicity and complexity — I feel like I’m learning to laugh again.

Tagged: stand-up comedy


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