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, but, 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. Apparently in Danish, this concept is known as “kicking up.” 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 f**king 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.