Several years ago and just before the club’s CEO banned me for life, I headlined Stockholm Comedy Club. I told the crowd that my daughter had discovered my snus addiction and demanded I quit. “Ok,” I told her, “but do you really want Daddy to start smoking crack again?”

It got the desired laugh, although two girls in the back row howled louder and longer than everyone else. So much so that they were still laughing over the setup to my next joke and now that the crowd was more aware of them than what I was saying, I had no choice but to pause and address them. As distractions go, people laughing too hard is a good problem to have.

Once one of them had calmed down enough to answer me, I told her I appreciated them laughing so hard but wondered why. “When you said ‘snus’,” she stammered, wiping tears from her eyes, “we thought you said ‘snooze’!”

I sighed. “Why do I bother?” I said, not trying to hide the bitterness in my voice. “I should just be up here saying ‘utfart!’ and ‘Masterkock!’” I just moved on from there.

Some might say that the whole point of standup is make people laugh. If that were true, at least for me, I would just include lots of Swedish words in my act, especially the ones that sound like naughty English words. My “career” would certainly benefit from it; there’s no shortage of expat comics here who don’t let snobbery get in the way of a laugh.

In fact, during my first year when I’d reached the point I thought it was more fun to make the crowd uncomfortable and groan than to laugh, after a particularly nasty bit I said, “Oh right, you don’t want to hear this from me! I’m an English comic, you want to hear…” and then did purposefully awful jokes about utfart and slutstation. I wanted the crowd to laugh at how terrible they were, only to one day realize they were actually laughing at the jokes. They were laughing the wrong way and that made me want to strangle them, so I stopped doing those jokes.

Only to resurrect them years later, when hosting shows. They were meant to warm up the crowd and I still wanted them to laugh ironically, even though I knew that most people were legitimately laughing. I know it hurt my reputation with a few comics who didn’t even realize the whole thing was tongue-in-cheek – I was just yet another, typical expat comic. Nowadays, if you ever hear me do that routine at the start of the show, it tells you that I think the audience is shit and needs a kick in the ass. It’s a rare event, fortunately.


In the years after Dave Chappelle infamously walked away from filming the third season of his show on Comedy Central, he gave several different explanations. One of them was that he’d had an epiphany in the middle of filming a sketch. It was based on the idea of man having to make a choice, with an angel on one shoulder telling him to do the right thing while a devil on the other tempted him to be selfish. In the sketch, the angel was a “good” Black man, representing the best aspects of Black culture, while the devil was the embodiment of every bad, stereotypical depiction of Black men. He said that, during filming, he heard a white crew member laugh the wrong way, and he began to suspect his intention for the show to challenge people’s beliefs was instead doing the opposite.

Generally, when the crowd reacts in a way not anticipated by the comic, it isn’t a bad thing. You might write a setup-punchline joke, try it on stage, and the crowd laughs during the setup. That laugh might take away from the punchline. Maybe it’s a sign the punchline is too obvious or even unnecessary. It’s just another reason working out material on stage is so important, because writing at home is only going to take you so far.

Maybe for some comics, crowds can never laugh the wrong way, but not for me. I’ve performed in Swedish several times, but that was years ago. Other than not being as comfortable doing it, I don’t want the crowd to laugh at my dialect or when I mispronounce words. I want them to laugh at my jokes. If I didn’t care why they laugh, as long as they laugh, I’d be a Swedish act all the time.

So while I personally can’t say I’ve had an experience that compares to Chappelle’s, I did witness it happen to someone else. I once did a gig during a special event at a Business college in Stockholm. The students where all quite posh and quite white. After my set, I went to the back of the room to watch the others. A Black comic took the stage and his routine included act-outs of some of his Black friends back in the ‘hood. I noticed a group of white kids howling and looking at each other in a way that said, “Everything we think about those people is true!” They were laughing the wrong way.

I’m not going to moan (or even whinge) about it not being socially acceptable for white comics to do exaggerated, stereotypical characters of people of color anymore. But whenever I see a Black comic do a stereotypical Black character, or an Indian do an Indian, or Hispanic do a Hispanic, etc etc, I can’t help but wonder if the crowd is laughing the wrong way. After all, whites aren’t allowed to do it anymore because it keeps those stereotypes alive and we should let them die. You get a pass for mocking people in a protected group if you yourself belong to that group, but, again, I can’t help but wonder if that just keeps the stereotypes alive.

In any case, it’s not for me to decide what comics should or should not say. I can’t even make everyone believe that there is ever a wrong way for people to laugh. It’s just another limit for me to add to my already overburdened self.