As someone who really enjoys using words and appreciates the craziness that is English, I’ve always liked seeing people who have learned English as a second language discuss the parts of it that they find confusing or funny. As a native speaker, you can lose sight of how absurd some of our homonyms, spellings, and idioms are.
So, when a YouTube clip popped up on my Facebook feed with a Finnish comedian discussing the word ‘ass’, or ‘arse’ since it was in America, and its many uses in colloquial English, of course I was going to click on it.
Billed as ‘The funniest man in Finland’, Ismo Leikola’s Conan spot was five solid minutes of hilarious observation on ‘ass’ and other ‘ass-adjacent’ words.
“I think it is a good representation,” Leikola tells me over the phone from Los Angeles, prior to his Words Apart tour arriving at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. “A do a lot of playing with language, although not just that. I talk about Relationships, America, and I have a dog and a wife, who both feature. My material is very observational.”
Ismo’s career began in Finland in 2002, including picking up the ‘Best Newcomer’ award at Finland’s largest stand-up festival in 2003. “I did one show in English in Finland before I went to London,” he says. “I had no idea if it would work and about half of it did.”
Leikola continued to build his career in Finland and the UK, performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival as well as the occasional side trip to London. In Finland, he produced three comedy special DVDs and starred in ‘Ismo’, a sitcom which ran for two seasons. However, even with the success he was experiencing in Europe, Ismo didn’t make the jump to the United States until 2014. “I had been to America on holiday,” Leikola explains, “but taking my comedy there was a distant dream land. I thought I needed to break in England before I did that, but then the opportunity to go to America to perform came up.”
Appearing at the Laugh Factory in Hollywood, Ismo took the title ‘Funniest Person in the World’ and, after performing sold out shows at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe, he moved to LA in 2016. “At first, I was working in Finland and occasionally doing English shows, but now it’s the other way around – I only sometimes go back to Finland and do shows in Finnish.”
“I write all my ideas in English now,” Leikola explains. “It’s rare for me to think of an idea in Finnish first, but sometimes I will write a joke and realise that it works better in Finnish and change it.” Ismo also finds that the change from Finnish to English has breathed new life into some of his older material. “Translating humor is very strange,” he tells me. “Some idioms work unexpectedly well, but sometimes I will find new jokes when I’m translating old ones into English.”
Of course, not everything will translate across and the differences between English and Finnish as languages can sometimes get in the way. “It can cause major issues when writing,” Ismo explains. “In Finnish, fat, grease and lotion are all the same word, so jokes about that don’t work, but Finnish has separate words for cheating at a game, cheating on a test and cheating on a romantic partner, while English just uses ‘cheating’.”
Asked about bringing his Words Apart show to Australia, Ismo is very excited. “I’ve not been to Australia before. It’s the farthest place from Finland – except for the Moon.”