Why you should care

Because it’s clean-cut cracks about beer guts or sexual escapades? You choose. 

With eager eyes, padded cheeks and a sandy, David Spade–like mop top, Ismo Leikola takes the stage. His left hand rests on a respectable beer gut, while his right grips a microphone. Through a thick, gurgling Nordic accent the comedian riffs about how growing up his mom would coax him into eating with the tired “children in Africa are starving” line. “If I go to Africa and they look at my belly, I will say that I did this for you,” he says, leaning back on his heels. The crowd chuckles. After all, he is kind of cute, in a roly-poly, dad-joke sorta way. But hardly the funniest guy alive. Except last year that’s exactly the title Laugh Factory, a storied American comedy institution, bestowed upon him.

Whether that label is a reflection of the Finn’s comedic prowess or America’s current infatuation with foreign funnymen remains to be seen. But either way, it signals a sharp detour from the Amy Schumers and Louis C.K.s we’re used to, who turn to confession and sex to amuse crowds. Instead, this 36-year-old is getting laughs the way so many global crossovers seem to be: using their outsider’s vantage to take a dig at American culture — without being too critical, of course. Like when Leikola says of American politeness, First day here, I went straight to the toilet, took a pee, walked out of the restaurant, and the doorman said, ‘Thanks.” The question is will this current affinity for exotic accents and political correctness last long enough for Leikola to ascend the stand-up ranks? Or will we just as quickly return to the raunchy, expletive-woven commentary of guys like Dave Chappelle?

For what it’s worth, since being named the country’s best newcomer comedian in 2003, Leikola’s been an established figure on Finland’s stand-up circuit. And more recently, he’s been catching laughs everywhere from Singapore to Australia, with several stints at the legendary Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where HBO’s John Oliver also got his start. Then, last year, he tried out for Laugh Factory’s Funniest Person in the World. After dominating the competition, Leikola tells OZY, he decided to make the leap and move across the pond to Los Angeles, from where he will attempt to join the echelons of other foreign-born comics, including South Africa’s Trevor Noah, who recently took over The Daily Show, and Oliver, the wisecracking Englishman of Last Week Tonight.

“We’re getting more and more afraid of what we’re saying.”

—Finnish comedian André Wickström

While it’s hard to imagine boorish Americans remaining captivated by the Puritan act, Jamie Masada, the owner of the Laugh Factory, seems to think Leikola’s likable and skilled joke-telling style will stick. There are some indications he may be right. In an age when you’re always on camera, comics have been ridiculed for offhand comments. Meanwhile, social media allows an increasingly sensitive public to skewer anyone who says something they find “offensive.” Gone are the nobody’s-off-limits days. Earlier this year, there was outrage when some of Noah’s old tweets were dug up that people decried as sexist and anti-Semitic. “We’re getting more and more afraid of what we’re saying,” Finnish comedian André Wickström says.

In Finland, a country with a population the size of Minnesota, it’s somewhat of a different story. There, Leikola says, you have to have mass appeal to make it. Irreverent or inappropriate material just doesn’t attract big enough audiences. Indeed, Leikola fits the Finnish mold to a T: He’s clean, upbeat and, most of all, an everyman, right down to his flannel shirts. Leikola also appeals because he gives Americans insight into another way of life. “We’re not good at small talk,” he says during a phone conversation. “I was caught in an elevator with my neighbor for the whole day — after three hours, I thought I have to say something.”

His rise to fame began in 2002, when the science student turned comedy darling performed a set at a newly opened comedy club in his hometown of Jyväskylä. Unlike most green comics, who blush and stutter through their first time on stage, the college thespian nailed it. In front of 200 people, he maintained his trademark ease while joking about the truly asinine — such as, what it’d be like to be raised by wolves. Leikola began performing at local comedy clubs, festivals and corporate gigs, which led to organizing his own tours and playing larger venues by 2009.

Louis Zezeran, founder of the European stand-up troupe Comedy Estonia, says the thick accent and innocent pandering are part of the act. He’s billed himself as some “weirdo from some country you’ve never heard of.” But Leikola and these other imported personalities have to be careful not to box themselves into just cultural comedy. Noam Dworman of New York City’s Comedy Cellar calls Leikola a novelty comic and says foreign funnymen whose acts are built on their exoticness have a short shelf life. Sure enough, Noah’s Daily Show has been called “safe” and has hardly made headlines since airing in September, and Englishman James Corden, host of The Late Late Show, has disappeared in the shadow of Stephen Colbert.

Dworman concedes that Leikola is funny. Maybe just not funniest-man-alive funny. But in today’s culture it seems a Finnish accent can make up for what a comedian might lack in balls.

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