This is part one of my interview with Klown stars Frank Hvam (center, with glasses) and Casper Christensen (top, chin clefting). Klown (read Laremy’s review) opens in New York, Austin, and Los Angeles, and on VOD everywhere, Friday, July 27th. Check back next week for part two. Subscribe to the Frotcast to hear the audio.
Every (Comedy) Scene Has a Story
As my Danish sources tell me, Casper Christensen was part of the original group that introduced stand-up comedy to Denmark in the late eighties, a small and somewhat insular crowd surrounding one bar in Copenhagen. Hvam formed part of a second wave in the mid nineties, at least partly as a reaction to the original group. They’ve been working together since around the late nineties, and you wouldn’t think there’d be any of that initial friction left, having been worn down by success and the passage of almost a decade and a half. Surprisingly, as I found out, you’d be wrong.
I didn’t know any of this going in, but being a stand-up comedian in a second-tier city myself (i.e., any city other than New York or LA, in my case San Francisco), I was curious as to how one gets his start as a comic in a place with an even smaller scene (or in this case, no scene). I figured Frank and Casper might have an interesting angle, and I got all of that, plus a fairly contentious discussion of “kicking up.” Basically, it refers to whose balls you can bust. Most of us are probably familiar (whether we’re aware of it or not) with the concept that it’s better (or for the comedian’s purpose, funnier) to tear down those above you, status/position in society-wise, than it is to hold down those below you. A particular event in Frank and Casper’s past had “kicking up” implications, and as I found out, they’d interpreted it quite differently.
The occasion for the interview was the US release of their film, Klown, based on the TV show of the same name, which ran for six seasons (the movie itself was completed two years ago). While the setting wasn’t much different than from a usual studio-thrown junket (apart from the fact that we were sitting in a karaoke room above a bowling alley in Austin and that FilmDrunk was invited), I don’t think it’s going too far to say that I not only got a really intense interview, I’m pretty sure I witnessed, like, an actual moment. Real life rarely has sign posts like fiction, marking epiphanies and milestones with symbolic events where people suddenly learn a lesson or evolve, but I could swear I actually watched Frank and Casper discover something about themselves before my very eyes. And you know I wouldn’t lie to you about something like that because I’m too lazy. It’s possible they could’ve been putting me on, but I doubt it, because I’ve been told Scandinavians turn into gnomes if they lie.
Vince: Is it hard? Have you gotten better at English since you’ve been doing these [screenings and junkets]?
Casper: There are some sayings and some words that you kind of learn doing this… so we keep on saying them.
Vince: Like what?
Frank: “Pushing the envelope.”
Casper: Never really heard of that before but…
Vince: Yeah, I guess it doesn’t really make sense.
Casper: It doesn’t make sense at all.
Frank: I heard Casper saying it, and then I’m now repeating it. And then I asked him, how do you… push? An envelope? [he says while pushing an imaginary envelope across the table]
Casper: I didn’t know. I didn’t know if I was saying it right, I just heard someone else saying it.
Vince: What other English idioms do you hear that people throw around that don’t make sense?
Frank: [drawing a blank] They’ll probably come out through the interview, they’ll pop up.
Casper: I can’t think of any right now. But we say so many that I know are wrong, it’s so wrong when we say it. And we know we are saying it wrong, but we can’t correct each other and then we forget about it.
Vince: What are some Danish ones that don’t translate?
Vince: Sorry, I didn’t mean to put you on the spot.
Frank: You know, here we thought this would be such an easy interview, the same answers once more…
Casper: Well, can you come up with any English ones? American ones that are hard to translate?
Casper: See, it’s kind of hard, because it seems so natural to you.
Vince: Hmm, well this isn’t really an American one, but an English one is “taking the piss.”
Casper: Yeah, you say that in Danish too, you say that are you taking a piss on–
Frank: –I think we’ve stolen that from the English.
Casper: –with me?
Vince: You’re taking a piss with me? Okay.
Casper: On me? I don’t know, it’s somewhere between there.
Vince: That just sounds like you tried to make sense of “taking the piss.”
Casper: Piss on my ball? “Piss in my eyes,” is something you can say if you don’t agree. It’s pretty stupid I guess.
Vince: [changing subjects] And how many shows have you guys done now?
Casper: Together? Three.
Vince: And separately?
Frank: Ugh, a lot. I did a home video show before I met Casper. Actually, I had only been in the business a couple of years doing stand up before I met Casper. I was doing stand-up, before I met Casper, and since then we’ve been doing stuff together. [to Casper] But you’ve have had a whole life before.
Casper: Ah, I had two very big game shows. I had Deal or No Deal, I did Don’t Forget Your Tooth Brush, I did a couple of sketch shows, I did a talk show for like 45 episodes. I did radio. I did, like, Howard Stern stuff. Yeah, so I’d done a lot, yeah.
Vince: And how did you guys meet? I heard there’s a story behind that. [Specifically, someone from Drafthouse had suggested, “ask them how they met, it’s a really funny story.”†]
Frank: We hated each other.
[I laugh somewhat nervously, reflexively, thinking he’s joking.]
Casper: Yeah, we didn’t like each other at all. I’d been in the business for ten years, and Frank was just starting. And… then he did a show, he and two other comedians, they did a show called uh..
Frank: Backwash. That’s a Danish word that you can’t translate.
Casper: Oh-vesk [?]
Frank: Oh-vesk. [My Danish friend says the word is almost certainly ‘bagvaskelse’, i.e. ‘slander’ or ‘defamation’.]
Frank: It’s called back, er, backstabbing.
Casper: And the whole idea of it was really just to, really be rude and hateful – and I didn’t find it that funny – against, respected comedians of the Danish society.
[It was at this point in the story, based on their demeanor, that my growing suspicion that this story wasn’t just Frank and Casper playfully busting each others’ balls, and was actually genuine animosity, was confirmed.]
Frank: Yeah, and Casper would have preferred that we kick down instead, you know? Some poor, new coming comedian. But we actually went for the top, and I think that was a quite sympathetic thing to do. We kicked up.
Casper: [turning to Frank] But, in retrospect, Frank–
Frank: [to me] Do you use that phrase, ‘kicked up?’ We talk about kicking down, or kicking up. It’s acceptable to kick up, because then you are kicking on a person who is above you, status-wise–
Vince: I understand it as a general rule of comedy, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard that phrase.
Frank: What would you call it?
Vince: I don’t know. I don’t think we have a shorthand.
Casper: You’re making fun of somebody who is higher status than yourself, rather than somebody who is not as high. You can understand it, but we’ve been talking about it a couple times today, but… Back then, there was no stand-up comedy before I started. It was a very small community even when Frank got into it. So in the beginning, I think I worked five or six years without getting paid. Just to build up a scene for stand up. And then of course it was hurting me that someone came in, and just started calling me an asshole.
(to Frank) I mean, can you… You still can’t see that it was wrong, can you?
Frank: No. Because you were one of the most rude, and insulting comedians yourself. (turning from Casper to me) He had a kind of Howard Stern show at the time. He insulted the whole country every day for a year. And then I said one thing about him, and he EXPLODED.
Casper: Yeah, but we were in the same business, we were colleagues–
Frank: We’re not brothers.
Casper: –I was fighting for your right to be on that stage for so long.
Frank: (scoffing) Oh right.
Casper: He still doesn’t get it–
Casper: –the effort I put in, man!
Frank: He is still crazy.
Casper: It’s not crazy!
Frank: But he’s good enough. He’s a good guy, you know.
Vince: So but then what happened? What did he do– [here I was hoping to hear specific details of whatever happened on the prank show that Frank did to Casper that he’s still so angry just thinking about, as Casper cuts me off.]
Casper: I build a house, and Frank comes in and sh*ts on the floor! Because I was yelling out the window.
Vince: I don’t know the whole story though.
Casper: That’s the whole f*cking story!
Frank: We made fun of him, publicly.
Casper: No, then I was doing this game show, and I got tired of it. And I wanted to get back to my comedy roots, and do nothing about ratings and just think about doing good comedy. And if you want to make that transaction [“transition,” probably], you gotta work with the best. And Frank is funny. He’s the funniest guy around. So I call him up. I say let’s forget about all the shit. Let’s work together instead. You are a genius, and I want to work with you.
Frank: And I said you’re a genius too.
Casper: And the rest is all puuuuure love. And then we started working, and it really hit me right there, what Frank was trying to do when he was kicking up. Because I thought that we were equal, but Frank came in with his head in his hand, looking up to me [probably ‘hat in his hand’]. And that surprised me. I thought we were same level.
Frank: Ah sh*t, man.
Casper: This is true! He won’t admit–
Frank: I respected you as a hand crafts… man. What do you call it? Er–
Vince: A craftsman?
Frank: A craftsman, yeah. And as a comedian. But of course, since he’s a guy you respect–
Casper: Yeah, but- I thought we were on the same level. But… we’ve got to end this on a good note. We immediately clicked. He was the funniest guy I’ve ever worked with, the ambitions were the same, we’re so different, and it just worked out really good right away. So we haven’t talked about this story since.
Vince: I’m interested in you talking about building a comedy scene. Because, I mean, even in the US, in different cities it works completely differently, and we argue about what’s the best way. How did you start? Where did you go, and what did you do?
Casper: I was an exchange student back in 1985, 86 in Las Vegas, and that’s where I saw stand-up comedy for the first time. So when I got back home, I wanted to try it out. So we had to find a small bar. I had to talk to the owner. And we got it on every Tuesday. Well, about every Tuesday in the beginning. One Tuesday a month.
Vince: One Tuesday a month, wow. [I say “wow” because it seems incredibly hard to develop your material and presence while only getting stage time once a month]
Casper: One Tuesday a month, and that was it in the whole country. So there was a small audience, of about 40, 50 people, not knowing what was going on. They’ve never seen it. That’s how it was. And you started the same stage, the same small place.
Casper: And that’s what it all generated out of.
Vince: And then how many people would go up? And how long would they do? And… was it pure stand up, or was there sketch mixed in?
Frank: It was pure stand up.
Comedy is a Gang
Casper: Pure stand up, that was the difference, not about comedy styles, but pure stand up. In the beginning, there was three comedians. I was one of them, and the guy who plays the doctor, Andreas, he was another one. And one more guy. And, we could do as much time as we wanted. We were the only comedians in the country. So, like, an open mic, you could have as long as you wanted. You just went up there. First time I did stand up, I did thirty minutes.
Vince: Oh wow. [Collective head shaking about how nuts this is. To put this in perspective, at the Comedy Store in La Jolla where I did my first ever set of real stand up, I got three minutes. In San Francisco, you get five or six, but not at a real comedy club, usually a dive or a laundromat. Denver has one comedy club, and it’s two minutes. Once you prove you can be funny in two minutes, you get more, etc. etc. 30 minutes for a first-timer is insane.]
Casper: It was crazy.
Vince: And did it go over… well?
Casper: Yeah… [giving the international sign language for “sort of”] I think they would feel that, this might be good in a couple years.
Frank: “This is the new stuff.”
Casper: It could be the new stuff. That’s what they thought. It got its own followers pretty quick, but,… small crowd. I mean, if the room was packed, it was 50 people.
Vince: And how old were you guys when you were first starting out?
Frank: I was 24, 25.
Casper: I was 19.
Vince: And still in school?
Casper: I had just finished school.
Frank: I was studying to become a veterinarian. I’m only half veterinarian today. But, actually, I wanted to get into one of the theater schools to start with. It was mad. Mad mad mad mad. But, they didn’t want me. And that was my pure luck. Because stand up, you know, it’s much closer to my heart. Because you can get away with your own thoughts, your own frustrations, you’re just playing yourself all the time. That’s the best therapy in the world.
Vince: And when you were doing stand up, was there any persona involved? Was it all just talking straight, or were you doing voices or characters or anything like that?
Frank: In the beginning I thought I had a bit of a character. I had this acting background, I thought I should act a little bit. And then step by step, I found out how to be myself. You are never completely yourself onstage, but the goal is to be as close as possible.
Casper: But none of us did characters or voices or impersonations, we did, it was pure stand up. Go out, talk about yourself, your own life…
Frank: Yeah, because stand up should be, was in opposite to the rest of the entertainment business, where people were doing voices and–
Casper: –That’s kind of a new thing.
Frank: –carrying stupid masks and things, and…
Casper: –There was a lot of variety shows, and we kind of wanted to fight against it. It was a fight against people wearing a stupid hat and being funny, and then us.
Frank: When we started, it was actually not allowed to–
Casper: –It was not allowed to have props on stage.
Casper: No singing, no hat, no nothing. [For stand-ups, having to wear a hat is apparently somehow shorthand for sketch comedy, like wearing a tie is for the corporate world.]
Frank: No stupid voices. And then, you know it’s of course…
Casper: I like it that it’s mixed now.
Frank: But it was more like a gang to start with.
Vince: So then there was that split. [Between stand-up and sketch/improv/variety]
Casper: Oh man, that split was one thing that you could use to get stand up known. Because, if you go out and you say, “hey, f*ck all this stuff that these other guys are doing, this is the new stuff,” the others start writing that. And that was how we got a crowd to come in. So there was a big separation at that point.
Vince: So at what point did it become–
Frank: [to Casper, seizing on the opportunity to illustrate his point, which had totally slid right by me] –See, it was the same thing, you know. You started off, you were… kicking up. You have to start that way. Kicking up.
Casper: Yeah, but I’m not- If I put on a stupid hat and a guitar, and went on a variety show, talking about the guy who built the f*ckin theater, going, “What a f*ckin idiot to build a theater. Now here’s my song, wump bump budda dudda bum…”
Casper: That’s what you did!
Frank: Yeah! It’s a good thing!
Casper: It’s not the same!
Frank: You’re not part of a tribe–
Casper: It’s not the same!
Frank: You’re not part of a tribe, you’re an individual when you’re a stand-up comedian. You’re fighting for your own–
Casper: You did it with two other guys.
Frank: Aw, come on. That’s a joke.
Casper: You did! There were two other guys there. You did. I couldn’t stand it.
Vince: So what did you do? I mean, was it a practical joke, or… I don’t know what the exact event you guys are describing–
Casper: You know, we haven’t talked about it in 14 years. We gotta try to find our feelings in it.
Frank: We’re trying to figure it out.
Casper: You know what the funny thing is? I never saw the show. I don’t even know what you said.
Casper: It was just people talking about it.
Vince: Yeah, that always seems to make it worse [when it’s second hand].
Frank: Yeah. Definitely. [While Casper is still laughing about the “funny thing,” Frank looks at me with raised eyebrows as he says this, with a look on his face that says we’ve gotten to the heart of the issue].
Casper: Yeah! “This guy’s talkin’ sh*t about you.” And it was like, well alright.
Frank: It’s good.
I asked my Danish correspondent for some clarification about the specific incident, and this is what he said:
The Danish word Hvam and Christensen couldn’t translate is almost certainly ‘bagvaskelse’, i.e. ‘slander’ or ‘defamation’. Now, this’ll have been some time in the mid nineties – I think Hvam had his first breakthrough in 95 – but Danish stand-up didn’t really penetrate the mainstream until the late nineties, 98 or thereabouts, so I doubt there’ll be video available – at least I don’t know of any, and cursory googling didn’t turn up anything.
However, I think I can guess the theme, as Christensen used to be rather infamous as a plagiarist – he had an old stand up routine that was essentially a word for word translation of some of Bill Hicks’ material, most of his TV shows over the years have, to put it mildly, not been striking in their originality, and Klovn started out as, basically, a rip-off of Curb Your Enthusiasm, although it developed in another direction over the years, due to differences partly in our senses of humour, partly in our celebrity culture.
For an instance of the latter, one of the pictures on the Drafthouse site features some of the most prominent and distinguished figures in the Danish public sphere [from left to right: a radio executive, a jazz composer, a talk show host, a former Foreign Minister, Lars Hjortshøj, Frank Hvam, Casper Christensen, an author, poet, and director, an author, a film critic (father of soft core model Trine Michelsen), and another radio executive], and all of them are proudly serving the greater purpose of stupid dick jokes. I think it’s safe to say that, for a Dane, there could be no higher calling.
†In retrospect, this person was the same guy who, in a previous position, had bought the rights to Birdemic. An argument could be made that his idea of “really funny” often involves serious discomfort and dysfunction, deep-seated emotional issues.